L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Sunday, March 18, 2018

An excluded light - Anna May Wong in Hollywood

Anna May Wong (3 January 1905, Los Angeles – 3 February 1961, Santa Monica), American actress. Considered to be the first Chinese American movie star, as well as the first Chinese American actress to gain international recognition. Known for her beauty and personal style, she had a career that included silent film, sound film, television, stage, and radio. But her film career was severely handicapped because of her race - the parts that were offered to her were usually little more than crudely stated Asian stereotypes - and by the miscegenation laws of the time that effectively kept her from taking leading roles.

Born Wong Liu Tsong one block north of Los Angeles' Chinatown, in an integrated community of Chinese, Irish, German, and Japanese residents, she was the second of seven children of a laundry owner and his second wife; both her parents were second-generation Chinese Americans. In the years before WWI, the burgeoning U. S. film industry had begun its relocation from the East Coast to the Los Angeles area, and she decided early on a career in film; at eleven she'd already chosen her stage name.

Photograph by Cecil Beaton.

Her first film work - as an extra in a Nazimova picture - came at the age of fourteen. She spent the next two years working as an extra - along the way dropping out of school - with her first screen credit coming in 1921. The following year, when she was only seventeen, she played her first leading role, in the early Metro two-color Technicolor movie The Toll of the Sea, the plot being a Chinese variation on Madame Butterfly. Her performance was universally praised by the likes of Variety and the New York Times, and she seemed set for film stardom.

Photograph by Paul Tanqueray.

Although she had a few more high-profile roles during the Silent era, was much publicized and admired for her beauty and fashion sense, it became more and more obvious that her career would be hampered by her race. In an effort to remind the public that she was in fact American born and raised, she affected a "flapper" style.

But due to the miscegenation laws that prevented her from performing love scenes with non-Asian actors, she was effectively also kept from taking lead roles; Hollywood didn't know what to do with her. She was relegated to supporting roles, locked into the alternating stereotypes of the naïve and self-sacrificing "Butterfly" type and the sly and deceitful "Dragon Lady"; she would fight this severely limiting and demeaning casting for the rest of her Hollywood career, but with little success.

In 1928, at the age of twenty-three, already worn down by the racist typecasting, she left the United States for Europe. She became a sensation, lauded for her beauty and talent, with leading roles in film and on stage, her talents as a linguist opening up many opportunities. She was a social success as well; no doubt much of her celebrity was due to her "exoticism", similar in some way to that which had propelled her fellow American Joséphine Baker to stardom in Europe.

In 1930 she was offered a contract with Paramount Studios in 1930 and, enticed by the promise of lead roles and top billing, she returned to the United States. The prestige and training she had gained during her years in Europe led - on her way back to Hollywood - to a starring role on Broadway in On the Spot, a drama that ran for 167 performances. In the years following her return to Hollywood, and once again faced with the racist stereotyping that hobbled her film career, Wong repeatedly turned to the stage and cabaret for a creative outlet.

Photograph by George Hurrell.

In 1932 Wong appeared alongside Marlene Dietrich - they had become friends while Wong was in Germany - as the self-sacrificing courtesan Hui Fei in Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express, the film and role for which she is - by far - best known today. After this high point, her Hollywood career resumed its old pattern, and she returned to Britain, where she remained for nearly three years. The greatest disappointment of her career was still ahead of her, though.

In 1935 she returned to the States hoping to secure the role of the Chinese character O-Lan in the film version of Pearl S. Buck's wildly popular novel The Good Earth, a role that for some time many assumed would naturally be hers. But MGM apparently never seriously considered Wong for the role because Paul Muni, an actor of European descent, was to play O-lan's husband. The studio chose instead the white actress Luise Rainer to play the leading role; Rainer went on to win an Oscar for her performance.

In January of the following year, she left on a year long trip to China, during which time she wrote articles for American newspapers chronicling her tour. Her reception in the country was very mixed, and the government and the Chinese film industry were often very critical of her, particularly for the way in which the roles she had had to take in Hollywood portrayed Chinese women. Just as in America she was seen as unacceptably Chinese, in China many regarded her as too American. The trip's stresses no doubt exacerbated her emotional and health issues; she suffered increasing bouts of depression and had problems with anger management. Also, by this point in her life she'd become a very heavy smoker and drinker.

Two photographs by Carl Van Vechten.
Photograph by Man Ray.

To complete her Paramount contract, she made a string of B movies in the late 1930s, their saving grace being that she was given less stereotypical roles. In addition to her waning film career, she performed on radio and formed a cabaret act, an act which included songs in Cantonese, French, English, German, Danish, Swedish, and other languages, and which she took from the States to Europe and Australia through the late 1930s and 1940s. During this same time - the period of Japanese aggression in East Asia that would eventually lead to world war in the Pacific - she donated and raised money in support of Chinese refugees.

She had invested in real estate and owned a number of properties in Hollywood, and after the war she converted her home in Santa Monica into four apartments which she called the "Moongate Apartments". In the fall of 1951, she starred in a detective series that had been written specifically for her, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. (The title character's name was Wong's birth name.) Plans had been made for a second season, but the television network cancelled the series. Then, in late 1953, she suffered an internal hemorrhage, thought to be caused by the onset of menopause, her continued heavy drinking, and the stress of financial worries.

During the remainder of the decade she appeared as a guest star in a handful of television series. In 1960 she finally returned to the big screen in a supporting role in a Lana Turner film, Portrait in Black. Wong was reportedly scheduled to play the role of Madame Liang in the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, but had to give up the role due to failing health. She died in her sleep a few months later of a heart attack - some sources say as a result of cirrhosis - at the age of fifty-six. Her cremated remains, along with those of her sister Mary, are interred in their mother's grave at Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Two photographs by Edward Steichen for Vanity Fair.


  1. It is interesting that she adopted the flapper style to remind the public that she was in fact American. Actually it suited her beautifully. She had the bobbed hair, energy, sex appeal, flat body, smart clothes and cloche, makeup and self confidence.

  2. Thank you for the beautiful images, many of which I had never seen before. A very sad story.

  3. Thank you so much. I've posted a link to this incredible feature on Facebook. More people need to see and appreciate Ms. Wong. Seems at times that the only people who could recognize her beauty were still photographers.

  4. An American tragedy. In several ways, she was born sixty years before her time. She would have been another Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung or Gong Li today.