She shone (according to some even, more than Marlene Dietrich) and sizzled on silver screen. Sadly she is the greatest star of Hollywood’s golden age that you have never heard of. Anna May Wong.
Born Wong Liu Tsong on 3rd January 1905 in Los Angeles, near Chinatown. Since early childhood Wong was enamoured by the new exciting industry close to her home. Hollywood. Her father did not approve of her interest in acting, preferring she to focus on more scholastic pursuits.
Wong’s debut came 1919, in ‘The Red Latern’. As an extra, which her father only approved of when he was sure that there were plenty of ‘honourable’ Chinese extras. Her next film was ‘The Toll of the Sea’ in 1922, followed by ‘Drifting’ in 1923 by Tod Browning (more on him later). but her big break came in 1924. After being courted by Douglas Fairbanks, one of the biggest stars of the silent era. Wong secured a part in the first ever colour film, ‘The Thief of Baghdad’. Though the film bought Wong to the attention of audiences and critics alike, the part she played was hardly worthy. Portraying a scheming Mongol slave, this would lay the foundation for the roles she would be forced to play. Yet reviewers saw Wong’s effortless grace, piercing abilities and talent in creating sympathy when needed. What did not help Wong’s cause was that she was having an affair. Nothing new in Hollywood circles, but she was underage and an interracial relationship was just not acceptable. Since we are in the roaring 20’s, Wong began to cultivate a more trendy flapper image. In an attempt to take control of her career and maybe be cast in roles that showed her as more then just a stereotype. Wong created her own production company ‘Anna May Wong Production’. What should have been a trailblazing endeavour dissolved before it even beginning.
Like so many actresses from ethnic minorities, Wong was stuck playing stereotypes such as the dragon lady or a suitably submissive women. What choice did Wong have? The presence of Asian actors was basically non existent. No one would have given Wong a starring role that challenged and showcased her true potential. What I find especially awful were the anti-miscegenation laws. Basically actors were not allowed to kiss anyone who was not of their own race. Where this is most obviously offensive is in the film ‘Piccadilly’ in 1929. She was forbidden from kissing her white co-star. How horrific must it be, to be told that the idea of you (a Chinese-American) having an amourous encounter with a Caucasian is so disgusting that it cannot be filmed. Wong placed the first rivet in the iconic Chinese Theatre, she was never allowed to place her hands and feet in cement. In 1928 Wong was unsurprisingly fed up with Hollywood holding her back. The final straw came when she had to play opposite Myrna Loy, nothing new about Wong being second billing. What was especially insulting was that Loy was playing an Asian woman (yellow face, as pathetic and racist as black face). So now a white woman was excelling as an Asian woman, when Wong an Asian-American was pushed to the back. Aged 23, Wong could no longer stomach the bigotry and left Hollywood.
Like Josephine Baker, Wong found some accolade in Europe. Appearing in German films like ‘City Butterfly’ and ‘Song and Show Life). In Austria, she won acclaim with in ‘Tschun Tschi’. Amidst the praise in Germany, she became close friends with Leni Riefenstahl, rumoured affairs with Cecil Cunningham and Marlene Dietrich. Wong featured in two German films; ‘Show Song’ in 1928 and ‘City Bufferfly’ 1929. Lesbian affairs in Hollywood are again not new, however they did damage her reputation (no doubt her alleged mixed race affair would have more offensive then if people had stayed with ethnicity sadly). Plus her family, who were never happy with her less then standard career choice were upset by the rumours. So terrible that even her own family did not support her. Unlike Josephine Baker, Wong did not find lasting success. She returned to U.S in 1930.
Wong did appear on Broadway that Autumn in ‘On The Spot’ by Edgar Wallace. Reunited with former flame Dietrich in 1932, she appeared in ‘Shanghai Express’. A wonderful film that is sumptuous treat for the eyes. Many would struggle to share the screen with Dietrich, a hurricane of force and charisma. But Wong holds her own beautifully, sadly she does get enough screen time. Wong’s greatest professional dissapointment came when she was lost the role of O-Lan from ‘The Good Earth’ to Luise Rainer. Yet again, yellow face had robbed Wong of what should have been the high point of her career (Rainer would win an Oscar for the role). Wong’s rejection of a Chinese role to a white woman in a high profiled role became one of the biggest cases of discrimination in the 1930’s. She appeared in a few films; ‘Lady from Chungking’ 1942, ‘Bombs Over Burma’ 1943. Wong elected to get in touch with her ancestry, touring China and learning more about her roots. She lend support to China against Japan using her celebrity to help were she could.
1943 saw Wong take a semi retirement for acting, appearing on the fringes of Hollywood appearing in B-movie ‘Impact’ in 1949. She appeared in a few TV shows and even starred in ‘The Gallery of Madame Liu Tsong’. Playing an art dealer who dabbles in detective work. A bit like ‘Murder She Wrote’ replaying books with art. Sadly in was cancelled after one series. Finally Wong’s contribution to films were acknowledged in 1960, with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Her curtain call on film was that same year, playing a maid to Lana Turner in ‘Portrait in Black’.
Wong died on 3rd February 1961 of a heart attack aged only 56. From Although Wong’s legacy in the history on Pan Asian actors is secured, it is so sad that she does not the pantheon of Hollywood legends. That she saw so little reward for her ground breaking, taboo testing work. That she suffered for being Asian at the wrong time. However it would be inaccurate to imply that Wong was totally tragic, that she was just another sad lotus flower. She was incredibly brave, it would have easier to give up long ago. So we would not have even heard of her at all and who know what would have happened to pan Asian actors? She was clever and fearless, proving that she had backbone. Even though her production company proved a failure, at the very least she tried to take charge of the (relative) influence that she had. No know better than she that the odd were stacked against her. What I admire about her and all the other ethnic minority’s in Hollywood is that they never gave in. Never allowed the small minds of the ignorance dictate what they could and could not do.
Whilst Hollywood likes to think that today they are more accepting of non Caucasian actors, sure you can be a star regardless of ethnicity. Problem is; if you are Chinese you MUST appear in at least one martial art film. Even if you are don’t like them, or even relish the thought of such a physical role. Of all the famed Chinese actors, of which there are many. How many have never featured in a Kung Fu style film? Exactly. To be a Chinese actor who enjoys martial arts/action is one thing. But to be told that you have to partake in roles because of your ethnicity alone is still a racist assumption. More work to be done.