Anna May Wong (January 3, 1905 – February 3, 1961) is an overlooked and, sometimes, forgotten gem. Although often seen as a mysterious beauty from the East, those that knew her personally remember Anna May for her generosity and passion. She was friendly, down to earth and had an enthusiastic sense of humor.
Let’s get to know her a little better, shall we? Anna May is revered as the first Chinese American movie star and also the first to become an international superstar. Her career was wide-ranging, with her sharing her acting talents on movies, television shows, stages and even radio. Much like Joan Crawford, Wong made a successful transition from silent films to ‘the talkies’, as the new phenomenon of movies with talking actors were known.
But it wasn’t all easy going for the Asian actress. The culture back in her day was, in many ways, a lot more bigoted than we are today and those prejudices had a major impact on Anna’s chosen career. At times things were very hard for her but she didn’t have a choice but to set her jaw and soldier on ahead. She wasn’t the kind to sit at home and sulk about how unfair the big bad world was to her as an Asian in the film industry. She had been bitten by the acting bug and bitten hard, so she was determined to forge a way to pursue her dream.
Anna May Wong as a Child
Right from the get-go, Anna had a tough time of it. She was still young when she came down with a disorder known as St. Vitus’ Dance or Sydenham’s Chorea. This malady was characterized by rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements affecting the face, hands and feet, giving rise to it’s popular name as a dance. The disorder took a heavy emotional toll on her but she was eventually able to overcome the illness with the help of a a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine, that her father took her to.
During her childhood, movies were constantly being shot in and around Wong’s neighborhood as motion picture production moved to L.A from the west coast of the United States. She became captivated by this new art form and would regularly play hooky from school so that she could go watch movies at her local theater.
Anna fell in love with the “flickers” so deeply that she used her lunch money to pay for movie tickets at the cinema. And she was bitten by the acting bug. She desperately longed to be one of the actors she so enjoyed watching on the big screen. Obsessed with the idea of being a silver screen star, at the tender age of just nine, Wong used to skip her classes to go line up at the film studios sets in hopes of being cast as an extra. She begged the filmmakers so earnestly and so regularly that she earned herself the nickname “C.C.C” or “Curious Chinese Child.”
It was this kind of dogged determination that would define both Anna’s character and her career as she marched her way to becoming a beloved starlet.
Racism and Anna May Wong
A lot can and has been said about the unfair way that Anna was treated both in her personal life and in Hollywood. As a child, Anna and her sister had to change schools and move from public school to the Presbyterian Chinese School after becoming targets for racial taunts. This was not just a simple case of children being mean on the playground and it is worth remembering that, at this time in the USA, some states still practiced segregation laws that prohibited interracial relationships. That gives you a pretty good idea of what the accepted attitude was towards ethnic groups.
It is fair and true to say that Ann May Wong’s career was adversely effected and seriously hampered by the prevailing attitudes towards Asian stars. Hollywood censorship prevented any actor from sharing an on-screen kiss with a person of another race. So, with the lack of Asian leading men in the 1920’s, Anna had almost no chance of playing a leading lady, meaning that she was relegated largely to the supporting cast roles such as the prostitute she played in the excellent 1932 film Shanghai Express.
Compensation was another barrier that Wong had to navigate. For example, Anna was paid significantly less for doing much more work than her Caucasian counterparts. To be fair, we are not exactly comparing apples to apples here, as the old saying goes. No, as a matter of fact, it is a matter of record that Anna was paid less for doing significantly more work than her Caucasian costars. In the 1931 Josef von Sternberg film, Daughter Of The Dragon, Wong was paid $6,000 for her part in a starring role while an actor who only appeared for twenty-three minutes was paid double that. This kind of lack of appreciation must have been demoralizing for her but Anna was one tough cookie and she kept marching ahead.
In The Shadow Of The Dragon – Anna May Wong’s Career in Hollywood
It must be understood that Anna May Wong was a fine actress whom audiences, of all races, responded to favorably and we are left wondering what heights of fame she could have risen to had attitudes of the time been a little more accepting of Asian stars.
In 1922 Anna received her first leading role in The Toll of the Sea, a tragic love story about interracial relationships between a young, Asian woman (played by Anna) and an American man. Variety magazine praised Anna’s performance, specifically noting her “extraordinarily fine acting.”
Shortly after that, in the 1924 American swashbuckler The Thief of Bagdad, Anna played a treacherous, scheming, Mongol slave and the movie was a success, grossing over $2 million.
Yet, despite impressive praise and performances like these, Hollywood producers were still nervously reluctant to gamble their money and cast her in a leading role due to her ethnicity. But they were happy to capitalize on her ever growing fame and continued to cast Wong in roles typical for female, Asian actresses at that time, such as the part of concubine in the movie Drifting, 1923. The stereotypical roles at that time were the broadly brushed demure “Butterfly” and the manipulative “Dragon Lady.” And, while Anna could play both of these parts effectively, she found them distasteful, repetitive and a waste of her talent. In short, she had outgrown Hollywood and the limited opportunities that it offered her. Discouraged with what the land of opportunity could offer her, Anna May Wong left for Europe. We all regret the entertainment that we were denied by losing her.
Europe Gained A Star
In 1928 Anna May Wong left Hollywood to go make movies in Europe. She very quickly became a sensation in Berlin, starring in multiple films of note. Her mixed heritage was ignored as the European audience focused more on appreciating her prodigious talent and striking beauty.
Anna rapidly learned to speak fluent French and German in just a few years which helped her to make movies in Germany, France and England. She sometimes even go to make the same movie in three different languages like Flame of Love in 1930 which she filmed in English, French and German. Anna got to play the same part in all of these productions because she was one of the few actors that could speak all of the languages.
While Europe was much kinder to Wong, she wasn’t entirely spared intrigue and the sharp barbs of gossip. She became close friends with the iconic German actress Marlene Dietrich, with whom she would co-star alongside in the classic Shanghai Express (1932). Scandalous rumors that the two powerful actresses were intimately involved in a lesbian relationship.
Nevertheless, Europe was the stage that allowed Anna May Wong to showcase her talent and made Hollywood realize the great star that had fallen from their sky. They had to have her back.
Anna’s Rise To Hollywood Fame
Wong was seduced back to the treacherous waters of Hollywood in 1930 by an enticing contract from Paramount Studios that promised her top billing. Not bad for a poor girl who was once overlooked, typecast and passed over for leading Asian roles that were instead given to non-Asian actresses.
With steadfast determination Anna never let go of her dream and is a proven role-model for all people by showing how much can be achieved with hard work, despite the size of the obstacles in your path. Anna May Wong should be celebrated not only for her talents and abilities but also for her character as a human being. We are all lucky to have been graced with the beautiful entertainment graciously given us by this poignant Chinese American star.
A Personal Note
Anna May Wong impresses me profoundly. She strikes me as a strong woman who forged towards her goals, undaunted by the hurdles thrown up in front of her. She seems to have seen these many obstacles as challenges that must be overcome more than any true barrier that could stop her. She overcame poverty, childhood illness, racism, personal attacks concerning her friendships and the very nature of her own sexuality and she did it all without giving up or letting it sap her will to keep trying. For that, I can say without any reservation, that I admire her.
Besides my respect, Amy May Wong has also earned my condolences. Not pity, she was far too admirable a person for that. But I regret the sadness that she must have endured and how much more appreciation she deserved. I can’t help but think what must it have been like for poor Anna. She fought so hard to overcome so many racial barriers and obstacles so that she could chase her dream and then she had to do it while portraying her own kind in a demeaning manner.
And yet she did it with dignity. Even though she was never fully accepted in her homeland of the United States where she was born. She was too Chinese for American audiences to ever fully accept, whatever that means. And yet, when she went to China, she was met with even less warmth. She was called a disgrace to the Chinese people and mocked as being too American for the Chinese. Truly a Chinese puzzle where East meets West with no happy outcome.
Remembering Anna May Wong
In reverence of Anna May Wong, Harem Cinema will be dedicating February 2018 to her inspirational memory by playing a schedule of her movies. To make sure that you see all of her films that we are showcasing here, check out the NOW SHOWING and the COMING SOON billboards.