For my parents and their generation, Anna May Wong was always an integral part of the family. Since she was the only female Chinese American film actress in Hollywood who actually became world famous, she eventually became an icon to the people of Chinese North America.
– Anthony B. Chan, author of Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905–1961).
Wong Liu Tsong was born on January 3, 1905 in Los Angeles, California. Years later, as the first Chinese American film star, the world would know her as Anna May Wong.
Anna’s family came from Taishan, China. Her grandfather, Leung Chew Wong, emigrated to the United States during the 1850s, as many did at that time to escape social unrest, famine and economic uncertainty. He opened a store in Michigan Bluffs, California — near John Sutter’s Mill, where gold was discovered in 1848. It was also here where Anna’s father, Sam Sing Wong, was born in 1858.
Tragically, Leung Chew died attempting to rescue a woman who had fallen into a well. Fatherless, Sam Sing was forced to begin earning a living while still quite young. After years of hard work in the United States and a first marriage in China, Sam Sing married for a second time to Oakland-born Gon Toy Lee. The couple opened a laundry on North Figueroa Street in Los Angeles.
Anna May Wong was born the second of eight children. The family lived and worked in an ethnically-mixed neighborhood just outside of LA Chinatown, which was becoming a hub of Chinese and Chinese American culture, commerce, and politics.
Anna and her older sister, Lulu, attended California Street public elementary school, but the racial bullying they endured was too much to bear. Anna recalled,
We tried to walk unconcernedly home from school, always with a larger and larger crowd of our tormentors around us shouting, “Chink, Chink, Chinaman. Chink, Chink, Chinaman.” Yanking our “pigtails” as they called our straight black braids of hair. Pushing us off the sidewalk into the street. Pinching us. Slapping us…. Every day was one of torture for us.
-Anna May Wong
Anna’s parents transferred them to the Chinese Mission School in Chinatown, where their classmates were Chinese and they were tormented no longer. After school each day, they went to Chinese school so as to not lose touch with their Chinese heritage. While Americans were surprised by Anna’s perfect English, her parents were dismayed by her American-accented Chinese.
By the 1910’s, motion picture production was moving from the east coast to Los Angeles. Many movies were shot in and around Chinatown, thus thrilling Anna, who often skipped school to get as close as possible to the action.
Making up her mind to become a movie star, she taught herself the craft by studying films playing at local movie theaters. When a casting call for Chinese extras arose, her father’s friend introduced her to the assistant director on Alla Nazimova’s film, The Red Lantern (1919). Anna got an uncredited role as an extra, carrying a lantern, but she said looking back on that day, “I felt sure that I’d see my name in electric lights before long.”
When Anna turned seventeen, she landed a role in The Toll of the Sea (1922), a silent version of Madame Butterfly. Over time, she developed a fan-base. On-screen, she was the mysterious, wicked, exotic dragon lady or Mongol slave. Off-screen, she was the model of a young American modern flapper. As recounted by historian Graham Russell Gao Hodges, journalist Myrtle Gebhart interviewed Anna for Screenland in 1922, and recalled Anna’s greeting as she emerged from her family’s laundry, “My, that’s a nifty car. It’s the kitty’s eyebrows, what?”
But her increasing fame was not enough to convince American filmmakers to give her a romantic leading role. At the time, many states adopted anti-miscegenation laws, and racial conventions prevented her from sharing an on-screen kiss with an actor of another race. For another six years, Anna pursued her Hollywood dreams but discovered, “rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.” In 1928, Anna left Hollywood for Europe explaining, “I think I left America because I died so often.” In Europe, she starred in several notable plays and films, among them Piccadilly (1929).
She worked in the US and Europe during the 1930s, notably in Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich (1932). However, she was severely disappointed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s refusal to consider her for the leading role of O-Lan in the film version of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. MGM chose instead the German actress Luise Rainer.
Devastated, Anna spent the next year touring China and visiting her father who had retired to his home village. For her, the trip was like traveling to a “strange country, and yet, in a way, I am going home.” Yet, to her dismay, she was criticized in China for performing Hollywood’s stereotypical portrayals of Chinese women.
Anna responded to her critics by publicly expressing her appreciation and longing for a closer connection to her Chinese heritage. When WWII broke out, she devoted most of her time and energies to China war relief. Anna returned briefly into the public eye in the 1950s, most notably with The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, in which she became the first Asian American to play a lead in a US television series. She had been planning to return to film in Flower Drum Song when she died in 1961, at the age of 56.