WONG, ANNA MAY (1907–1961) Actress
Most often cast as an “Oriental villainess,” Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong was born in Los Angeles’s Chinatown on January 3, 1907. Her parents ran a laundry where Anna May worked after school, though she much preferred spending her time at early movie theaters known as nickelodeons. Unbeknownst to her conservative parents, at 12 she first appeared as a film extra in The Red Lantern (1914). She continued her work in secret for two more years. She finally confessed about her new career to her father when she obtained her first real role in Bits of Life (1921). Wong’s high cheekbones and straight black bangs made her a striking presence on screen. But it was not until she compellingly played a Mongol slave girl in the 1924 extravaganza The Thief of Bagdad that she earned international fame. In the late 1920s, she was widely sought for roles in mystery films, many of which were then set in urban Chinatown districts. Although appreciating the work, Wong resented that these films generally presented Asians only as villains, employing the crudest of stereotypes.
By 1928, she was so disgusted by the roles she was offered that she abandoned Hollywood for Europe. As Wong later told a London interviewer, “Why should [Asian characters] always scheme, rob, killfi I got so weary of it all.” In Europe, she found more satisfying parts in the German film Song (1928) and the English movie Piccadilly (1930). Wong also made her stage debut opposite Laurence Olivier in The Circle of Chalk, a play based on a Chinese legend that was written specifically for Wong. As talkies replaced silents, Wong also learned to speak French and German fiuently in order to keep her film career alive. Wong’s return to the United States in late 1930 ushered in the height of her film career. Although she had no problem finding film roles, the negative portrayals of Asian women continued to disturb her. Her greatest disappointment came with the casting of the film adaptation of Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth (1937). Wong lobbied hard for the lead role as the selfiess, stoic O-Lan. The part, however, was given to Luise Rainer, a German actress who won an Academy Award for her performance. Instead of the lead, Wong was offered the part of a scheming concubine. Insulted, she refused to appear in the film at all.
With the Good Earth fiasco fresh in her mind, Wong happily left the United States to visit China for the first time. Half hoping she could restart her career there, she was surprised to find herself vilified by Chinese officials for the stereotyped Chinese characters she had played. When she explained these were the only parts available to her, she was able to fend off further criticisms. Yet, disheartened by the experience, Wong returned home after 10 months. In Hollywood, she resumed her movie career, most notably playing a high-minded detective in the action film Daughter of Shanghai (1937). As the United States entered World War II, however, she found herself less in demand as an actress than as a consultant. As war movies came in vogue, producers were eager to hire her to teach Caucasian actors to act more convincingly Asian. Disgusted by this new indignity, Wong largely retired from film work. She only appeared in one more film and a few undistinguished television programs before her death of a heart attack on February 3, 1961.
“Anna May Wong.” In Notable Asian Americans. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.
Gee, Emma. “Wong, Anna May.” In Notable American Women: The Modern Period, 744–745. Edited by Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd Green. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1980.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Shanghai Express (1932). Universal, VHS, 1993.
The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Image Entertainment, DVD, 1998.