Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong

Infobox Chinese-language singer and actor
name = Anna May Wong

imagesize = 185px
caption = Passport-style photograph required for U.S. Department of Labor in 1935
chinesename = 黃柳霜
pinyinchinesename = Huáng Liǔshuāng
jyutpingchinesename = Wong4 Lau5 Soeng1
birthname = Wong Liu Tsong
birthdate = birth date|mf=yes|1905|1|3
birthplace = Los Angeles, California
deathdate = death date and age|mf=yes|1961|2|2|1905|1|3
deathplace = Santa Monica, California
occupation = Actress, Television presenter, Singer, Author
yearsactive = 1919 – 1961
parents = Wong Sam Sing
Lee Gon Toy
awards = Hollywood Walk of Fame - Motion Picture
1700 Vine Street

Anna May Wong (or Wong Liu Tsong, zh-tp|t=黃柳霜|p=Huáng Liǔshuāng, January 3, 1905 – February 2, 1961) was an American actress, the first Chinese American movie star, [Chan 2003, p. xi.] and the first Asian American to become an international star. [Gan 1995, p. 83.] Her long and varied career spanned film, television, stage, and radio.

Born near the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles to second-generation Chinese-American parents, Wong became infatuated with the movies and began acting in films at an early age. During the silent film era, she acted in "The Toll of the Sea" (1922), one of the first movies made in color; Douglas Fairbanks' "The Thief of Bagdad" (1924) and "Piccadilly" (1929). Frustrated by the stereotypical supporting roles she reluctantly played in Hollywood, she left for Europe in the late 1920s, where she starred in several notable films and plays. Wong solidified her image as an international fashion icon, and by 1924 had achieved international stardom. She spent the first half of the 1930s traveling between the United States and Europe for film and stage work. Wong was featured in films of the early sound era, such as "Daughter of the Dragon" (1931) and "Daughter of Shanghai" (1937), and with Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's "Shanghai Express" (1932). [Zia 1995, p. 415.]

In 1935 Wong was dealt the most severe disappointment of her career, when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer refused to consider her for the leading role in its film version of Pearl S. Buck's "The Good Earth", choosing instead the German actress Luise Rainer to play the leading role in "yellowface". Wong spent the next year touring China, visiting her family's ancestral village and studying Chinese culture. In the late 1930s, she starred in several B movies for Paramount Pictures, portraying Chinese-Americans in a positive light. She paid less attention to her film career during World War II, when she devoted her time and money to helping the Chinese cause against Japan. Wong returned to the public eye in the 1950s in several television appearances as well as her own series in 1951, "The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong", the first U.S. television show starring an Asian-American. ["Film reveals real-life struggles of an onscreen 'Dragon Lady'." (2008).] She had been planning to return to film in "Flower Drum Song" when she died in 1961, at the age of 56.

For decades after her death, Wong was remembered principally for the stereotypical "Dragon Lady" and demure "Butterfly" roles that she was often given. Her life and career were re-evaluated in the years around the centennial of her birth, in three major literary works and film retrospectives. Interest in her life story continues and another biography is due out in Spring 2009. [Maughan, Shannon. [ "Spring 2009 Sneak Previews: Shining Star by Paula Yoo, illus. by Lin Wang, a biography of Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong."] "Publishers Weekly" Volume 255, Issue 29, July 2008, p. 125. Retrieved: August 1, 2008.]

Early life

Anna May Wong was born Wong Liu Tsong (meaning "frosted yellow willows") on January 3, 1905, on Flower Street, Los Angeles, one block north of Chinatown, in an integrated community of Chinese, Irish, German, and Japanese residents. [Hodges 2004, pp. 2, 5.] [Corliss January 29, 2005, p. 2.] She was the second of seven children born to Wong Sam Sing, owner of the Sam Kee Laundry in Los Angeles, and his second wife Lee Gon Toy.Finch and Rosenkrantz 1979, p. 231.]

Anna May Wong's parents were second-generation Chinese-Americans; her maternal and paternal grandparents had been resident in the U.S. since at least 1855. [Hodges 2004, p. 1.] Her paternal grandfather, A Wong Wong, was a merchant who owned two stores in Michigan Hills, a gold-mining area in Placer County. He had come from Chang On, a village near Taishan, Guangdong Province, China in 1853. [Hodges 2004, p. 6.] Anna May's father spent his youth traveling between the U.S. and China, where he married his first wife and fathered a son in 1890. [Chan 2003, p. 13.] He returned to the U.S. in the late 1890s, and in 1901, while continuing to support his family in China, he married a second wife, Anna May's mother. [Hodges 2004, pp. 1, 7–8, 10.] Anna May's older sister Lew Ying (Lulu) was born in late 1902, [Hodges 2004, p. 2.] and Anna May was born in 1905, followed by five more children.

In 1910, the family moved to a neighborhood on Figueroa Street where they were the only Chinese on their block, living alongside mostly Mexican and Eastern European families. The two hills separating their new home from Chinatown helped Wong to assimilate into American culture. [Hodges 2004, p. 5.] At first she attended public school with her older sister, but when the girls were the target of racist taunts from other students, their parents moved them to a Presbyterian Chinese school. Classes were taught in English, but Wong attended a Chinese language school on afternoons and Saturdays. [Hodges 2004, pp. 13–15.]

About that same time, U.S. motion picture production began to relocate from the east coast to the Los Angeles area. Movies were shot constantly in and around Wong's neighborhood. She began going to Nickelodeon movie theaters and quickly became obsessed with the "flickers", missing school and using lunch money to attend the cinema. Her father was not happy with her interest in films, feeling that it interfered with her studies, but Wong decided to pursue a career in film regardless. At nine years of age, she begged filmmakers for parts, earning herself the nickname "C.C.C." or "Curious Chinese Child". [Hodges 2004, p. 21.] By the age of 11, Wong had come up with her stage name of Anna May Wong, formed by joining both her English and family names.Wollstein 1999, p. 248.]

Early career

Wong was working at Hollywood's Ville de Paris department store when Metro Pictures needed 300 girl extras to appear in Alla Nazimova's film "The Red Lantern" (1919). Without her father's knowledge, a friend of his with movie connections helped Anna May land an uncredited role as an extra carrying a lantern. [Chan 2003, p. 31.]

She worked steadily for the next two years as an extra in various movies, including Priscilla Dean and Colleen Moore pictures. While still a student, Wong came down with an illness identified as St. Vitus's Dance which caused her to miss months of school. She was on the verge of emotional collapse when her father took her to a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine. The treatments proved successful, though Wong later claimed this had more to do with her dislike of the methods. [Hodges 2004, pp. 26–27.] Other Chinese thought such as Confucianism and particularly Taoism and the teachings of Laozi had a strong influence on Wong's personal philosophy throughout her life. [Chan 2003, pp. 145–146.] The family's religious life also included Christian thought, in the form of Presbyterianism, and as an adult she was a Christian Scientist for some time. [Hodges 2004, p. 225.]

Finding it difficult to keep up with both her schoolwork and her passion, she dropped out of Los Angeles High School in 1921 to pursue a full-time acting career. [Lim 2005, p. 51.] [Hodges 2004, p. 41.] Reflecting on her decision, Wong told "Motion Picture Magazine" in 1931: "I was so young when I began that I knew I still had youth if I failed, so I determined to give myself 10 years to succeed as an actress."Wollstein 1999, p. 249.]

In 1921, Wong received her first screen credit for "Bits of Life", the first anthology film, in which she played the wife of Lon Chaney's character, Toy Ling, in a segment entitled "Hop".Gan 1995, p. 84.] She later recalled it fondly as the only time she played the role of a mother; [Hodges 2004, p. 35.] her appearance earned her a cover photo in the British magazine "Picture Show".

At the age of 17 she played her first leading role, in the early Metro two-strip Technicolor movie "The Toll of the Sea". Written by Frances Marion, the story was based loosely on "Madama Butterfly". "Variety" magazine singled Wong out for praise, noting her "extraordinarily fine" acting. ["The Toll of the Sea" (film review) December 1, 1922.] "The New York Times" commented, "Miss Wong stirs in the spectator all the sympathy her part calls for, and she never repels one by an excess of theatrical 'feeling'. She has a difficult role, a role that is botched nine times out of ten, but hers is the tenth performance. Completely unconscious of the camera, with a fine sense of proportion and remarkable pantomimic accuracy ... She should be seen again and often on the screen." ["The Toll of the Sea" (film review) November 27, 1922.]

Despite such reviews, Hollywood proved reluctant to create starring roles for Wong; her ethnicity prevented U.S. filmmakers from seeing her as a leading lady. David Schwartz, the chief curator of the Museum of the Moving Image, notes, "She built up a level of stardom in Hollywood, but Hollywood didn’t know what to do with her."Anderson, Melissa. [ "The Wong Show."] "Time Out: New York", Issue 544: March 2–8, 2006, TimeOut. Retrieved: March 24, 2008.] She spent the next few years in supporting roles providing "exotic atmosphere", [Parish 1976, pp. 532–533.] for instance playing a concubine in Tod Browning's "Drifting" (1923). Film producers capitalized on Wong's growing fame by using her brief appearances in these supporting roles to promote their films . [Hodges 2004, p. 58.] Still optimistic about a film career, in 1923 Wong said: "Pictures are fine, and I'm getting along all right, but it's not so bad to have the laundry back of you, so you can wait and take good parts and be independent when you're climbing."


At the age of 19, Anna May Wong was cast in a supporting role as a Mongol slave in the Douglas Fairbanks picture "The Thief of Bagdad". Playing a stereotypical "Dragon Lady" role, her brief appearances on-screen caught the attention of audiences and critics alike. [Hodges 2004, p. 49.] The film grossed more than $2 million and helped introduce Wong to the public.

After this second prominent role, Wong moved out of the family home into her own apartment. Conscious that Americans viewed her as "foreign born" even though she was born and raised in California, Wong began cultivating a flapper image. [Chan 2003, pp. 37, 139.] In March 1924, planning to make films about Chinese myths, she signed a deal creating Anna May Wong Productions; when her business partner was found to be engaging in dishonest practices, Wong brought a lawsuit against him and the company was dissolved. [Chan 2003, pp. 37–38.]

It soon became evident that Wong's career would continue to be limited by American anti-miscegenation laws, which prevented her from sharing an on-screen kiss with any European-American actor in "yellowface". [Leong 2005, pp. 181–182.] The only leading Asian man in U.S. films in the silent era was Sessue Hayakawa. White actors would usually play in yellowface even if all of the characters in the movie were Asian. Consequently, unless Asian leading men could be found, Wong could not be a leading lady. [Hodges 2004, p. 64.]

Wong continued to be offered supporting roles in minor films, in which she was often singled out for critical praise. ["Forty Winks" (film review). February 3, 1925.] Despite such favorable reviews, she became increasingly disappointed with her casting and began to seek other roads to success. In early 1925 she joined a group of serial stars on a tour of the vaudeville circuits; when the tour proved to be a failure, Wong and the rest of the group returned to Hollywood.Wollstein 1999, p. 250.]

Four years after "The Thief of Bagdad", Wong was still being cast in supporting roles: alternately the stereotypes of the naive and self-sacrificing "Butterfly", and the deceitful, sly "Dragon Lady". For "In Old San Francisco" (1927), she was cast in another "Dragon Lady" role as a gangster's daughter. [Liu 2000, p. 24.]

In 1926, Wong put the first rivet into the structure of Grauman's Chinese Theatre when she joined Norma Talmadge for its groundbreaking ceremony, although she was not invited to leave her hand- and foot-prints in cement.Sweet 2008.] [Hodges 2004, p. 66.] Her only notable roles during this time were in "Mr. Wu" (1927), in which the yellowface practice cost her the lead, and "The Silk Bouquet" (1926). The latter, re-titled "The Dragon Horse" in 1927, was a starring role for Wong and one of the first U.S. films to be produced with Chinese backing, provided by San Francisco's Chinese Six Companies. The story was set in China during the Ming Dynasty, and featured Asian actors playing the Asian roles. [Chan 2003, p. 185.]

Move to Europe

Tired of being typecast and passed over for significant Chinese character roles in favor of non-Asian actresses, in 1928 Wong left Hollywood for Europe. [Chan 2003, p. 42.] Interviewed by Doris Mackie for "Film Weekly" in 1933, Wong complained about her Hollywood roles: "I was so tired of the parts I had to play."Leong 2005, pp. 83, 187.] Wollstein 1999, p. 252.] Referring to yellowface, she commented: "There seems little for me in Hollywood, because, rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles." [Parish 1976, p. 533.]

In Europe, Wong became a sensation, starring in notable films such as "Schmutziges Geld" (aka "Song" and "Show Life", 1928), and "Großstadtschmetterling" ("City Butterfly"). Of the German critics' response to "Song", "The New York Times" reported that Wong was "acclaimed not only as an actress of transcendent talent but as a great beauty". The article noted that Germans passed over Wong's American background: "Berlin critics, who were unanimous in praise of both the star and the production, neglect to mention that Anna May is of American birth. They mention only her Chinese origins." ["Song" (film review). August 22, 1928.] In Vienna, she played the title role in the operetta "Tschun Tschi" in fluent German. An Austrian critic wrote, "Fräulein Wong had the audience perfectly in her power and the unobtrusive tragedy of her acting was deeply moving, carrying off the difficult German-speaking part very successfully." [Parish 1976, p. 534.]

While in Germany, Wong became an inseparable friend of the controversial director Leni Riefenstahl. Her close friendships with several women throughout her life, including Marlene Dietrich and Cecil Cunningham, led to rumors of lesbianism which damaged her public reputation. [Wollstein 1999, pp. 252, 253, 256.] These rumors, in particular of her supposed relationship with Dietrich, embarrassed Wong's family who in any case had long been opposed to her acting career, at that time not considered to be an entirely respectable profession. [Hodges 2004, p. 87.]

London producer Basil Dean bought the play "A Circle of Chalk" for Wong to appear in with the young Laurence Olivier, her first stage performance in the UK. Criticism of her Californian accent, described by one critic as a "Yankee squeak", led to Wong seeking vocal tutoring at Cambridge University, where she acquired a British accent. [Hodges 2004, p. 97.] Composer Constant Lambert, infatuated with the actress after having seen her in films, attended the play on its opening night and subsequently composed "Eight Poems of Li Po", dedicated to her. [Motion 1986, p. 161.]

Wong made her last silent film, "Piccadilly", in 1929, the first of five English films in which she had a starring role. The film caused a sensation in the UK. [Hodges 2004, p. 92.] Gilda Gray was the top-billed actress, but "Variety" commented that Wong "outshines the star", and that "from the moment Miss Wong dances in the kitchen's rear, she steals 'Piccadilly' from Miss Gray". ["Piccadilly" (film review) July 24, 1929.] Though the film presented Wong in her most sensual role in a British film, once again she was not permitted to kiss her Caucasian love interest, and a controversial planned scene involving a kiss was cut before the film was released. [Chan 2003, pp. xiii, 213, 215, 219.] Forgotten for decades after its release, "Piccadilly" was later restored by the British Film Institute.Hsu 2004.] "Time" magazine's Richard Corliss calls "Piccadilly" Wong's best film, [Corliss January 29, 2005, pp. 1, 3.] and "The Guardian" reports that the rediscovery of this film and Wong's performance in it has been responsible for a restoration of the actress' reputation.

While in London, Wong was romantically linked with writer and broadcasting executive Eric Maschwitz, who wrote the lyrics to "These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You)" as an evocation of his longing for her after they parted. [Hodges 2004, p. 178.] Wong's first talkie was "The Flame of Love" (1930), which she recorded in French, English, and German. Though Wong's performance – particularly her handling of the three languages – was lauded, all three versions of the film received negative reviews. [Chan 2003, pp. 51–53.]

Return to Hollywood

During the 1930s, American studios were looking for fresh European talent. Ironically, Wong caught their eye and she was offered a contract with Paramount Studios in 1930. 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 to a starring role on Broadway in "On the Spot", [Lim 2005, p. 56.] a drama that ran for 167 performances and which she would later film as "Dangerous to Know". [Hodges 2004, p. 187.] When the play's director wanted Wong to use stereotypical Japanese mannerisms, derived from "Madame Butterfly", in her performance of a Chinese character, Wong refused. She instead used her knowledge of Chinese style and gestures to imbue the character with a greater degree of authenticity. [Lim 2005, p. 57.] Following her return to Hollywood in 1930, Wong repeatedly turned to the stage and cabaret for a creative outlet.

In November 1930, Anna May's mother was run over and killed by an automobile in front of the Figueroa Street house. [Hodges 2004, p. 112.] The family remained at the house until 1934, when Wong's father returned to his hometown in China with Anna May's younger brothers and sister.Chan 2003, p. 90.] Anna May had been paying for the education of her younger siblings, who put their education to work after they relocated to China. [Hodges 2004, p. 155.] Before the family left, Wong's father wrote a brief article for "Xinning", a magazine for overseas Taishanese, in which he expressed his pride in his famous daughter. [Hodges 2004, p. 148.]

With the promise of appearing in a Josef von Sternberg film, Wong accepted another stereotypical role – the title character of Fu Manchu's vengeful daughter in "Daughter of the Dragon" (1931).Wollstein 1999, p. 253.] This was the last stereotypically "evil Chinese" role Wong played, [Lim 2005, p. 59.] and also her one starring appearance alongside the only other well-known Asian actor of the era, Sessue Hayakawa. Though she was given the starring role, this status was not reflected in her paycheck: she was paid $6,000, while Hayakawa received $10,000 and Warner Oland, who is only in the film for 23 minutes, was paid $12,000.Corliss February 3, 2005, p. 4.]

Wong began using her newfound celebrity to make political statements: late in 1931, for example, she wrote a harsh criticism of the Mukden Incident and Japan's subsequent invasion of Manchuria. [Hodges 2004, p. 118.] [Chan 2003, pp. 95–96.] She also became more outspoken in her advocacy for Chinese-American causes and for better film roles. In a 1933 interview for "Film Weekly" entitled "I Protest", Wong criticized the negative stereotyping in "Daughter of the Dragon", saying, "Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain – murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass! We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization that is so many times older than the West?" [Lim 2005, p. 58.]

Wong appeared alongside Marlene Dietrich as a self-sacrificing courtesan in Sternberg's "Shanghai Express". Her sexually-charged scenes with Dietrich have been noted by many commentators, and fed rumors about the relationship between the two stars. [Chan 2003, p. 232.] Though contemporary reviews focused on Dietrich's acting and Sternberg's direction, film historians today judge that Wong's performance upstaged that of Dietrich. [Lim 2005, p. 60.]

The Chinese press had long given Wong's career very mixed reviews, and were less than favorable to her performance in "Shanghai Express". A Chinese newspaper ran the headline: "Paramount Utilizes Anna May Wong to Produce Picture to Disgrace China", and continued, "Although she is deficient in artistic portrayal, she has done more than enough to disgrace the Chinese race." [Leong 2005, p. 74.] Critics in China believed that Wong's on-screen sexuality spread negative stereotypes of Chinese women. [Leong 2005, p. 75.] The most virulent criticism came from the Nationalist government, but China's intellectuals and liberals were not always so opposed to Wong, as demonstrated when Peking University awarded the actress an honorary doctorate in 1932. Contemporary sources reported that this was probably the only time that an actor had been so honored. ["Mein Film" 1932, p. 333. Cited in Hodges 2004, p. 125.]

In both America and Europe, Wong had been seen as a fashion icon for over a decade. In 1934, the Mayfair Mannequin Society of New York voted her "The World's best-dressed woman", and in 1938 "Look" magazine named her "The World's most beautiful Chinese girl". [Chan 2003, p. 33.]

Atlantic crossings

After her success in Europe and prominent role in "Shanghai Express", Wong's Hollywood career returned to its old pattern. Because of the Hays Office's anti-miscegenation rules, she was passed over for the leading female role in "The Son-Daughter" in favor of Helen Hayes in yellowface. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer deemed her "too Chinese to play a Chinese" in the film, [Hodges 2004, p. 128.] and the Hays Office would not have allowed her to perform romantic scenes with the film's male lead, Ramon Navarro in yellowface. Wong was scheduled to play the role of a mistress to a corrupt Chinese general in Frank Capra's "The Bitter Tea of General Yen" (1933), but the role went instead to Toshia Mori. [Hodges 2004, pp. 127–128.]

Again disappointed with Hollywood, Wong returned to Britain, where she stayed for nearly three years. In addition to appearing in four films she toured Scotland, Ireland, and outlying British provinces as part of a vaudeville show. She also appeared in the King George Silver Jubilee program in 1935.Gan 1995, p. 89.] Her film "Java Head" (1934), though generally considered a minor effort, was the only film in which Wong kissed the lead male character, her white husband in the film. Wong's biographer, Graham Russell Hodges, commented that this may be why the film remained one of Wong's personal favorites. [Hodges 2004, pp. 144, 217.] While in London, Wong met Méi Lánfāng, one of the most famous stars of the Beijing Opera. She had long been interested in Chinese opera and Méi offered to instruct Wong if she ever visited China. [Hodges 2004, pp. 150, 155.]

In the 1930s, the popularity of Pearl Buck's novels, especially "The Good Earth", as well as growing American sympathy for China in its struggles with Japanese Imperialism, opened up opportunities for more positive Chinese roles in U.S. films. [Leong 2005, pp. 75, 94.] Wong returned to the U.S. in June 1935 with the goal of obtaining the role of O-lan, the lead female character in MGM's film version of "The Good Earth". Since its publication in 1931, Wong had made known her desire to play O-lan in a film version of the book; [Hodges 2004, pp. 150–151.] and as early as 1933, Los Angeles newspapers were touting Wong as the best choice for the part.Hodges 2004, p. 152.] Nevertheless, the studio apparently never seriously considered Wong for the role because Paul Muni, an actor of European descent, was to employ yellowface to play O-lan's husband, Wang Lung. The Chinese government also advised the studio against casting Wong in the role. The Chinese advisor to MGM commented: "whenever she appears in a movie, the newspapers print her picture with the caption 'Anna May again loses face for China' ". [Hodges 2004, p. 151.]

According to Wong, she was instead offered the part of Lotus, a deceitful song girl who helps to destroy the family and seduces the family's oldest son. [Leong 2005, p. 76.] Wong refused the role, telling MGM head of production Irving Thalberg, "If you let me play O-lan, I will be very glad. But you're asking me – with Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters." The role Wong hoped for went to Luise Rainer, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance. Wong's sister, Mary Liu Heung Wong, appeared in the film in the role of the Little Bride.Chan 2003, p. 261.] MGM's refusal to consider Wong for this most high-profile of Chinese characters in U.S. film is remembered today as "one of the most notorious cases of casting discrimination in the 1930s". [Berry 2000, p. 111.]

Tour of China

After the major disappointment of losing the role in "The Good Earth", Wong announced plans for a year-long tour of China, to visit her father and his family in Taishan.Parish 1976, p. 536.] Wong's father had returned to his hometown in China with her younger brothers and sister in 1934. Aside from Méi Lánfang's offer to teach her, she wanted to learn more about the Chinese theater, and through English translations to better perform some Chinese plays before international audiences.Liu 2000, p. 29.] [Hodges 2004, p. 155.] She told the "San Francisco Chronicle" on her departure, "... for a year, I shall study the land of my fathers. Perhaps upon my arrival, I shall feel like an outsider. Perhaps instead, I shall find my past life assuming a dreamlike quality of unreality."

Embarking in January 1936, she chronicled her experiences in a series of articles printed in U.S. newspapers such as the "New York Herald Tribune", the "Los Angeles Examiner", the "Los Angeles Times", and "Photoplay". [Liu 2000, pp. 28–29.] In a stopover in Tokyo on the way to Shanghai, local reporters, ever curious about her romantic life, asked if she had marriage plans, to which Wong replied, "No, I am wedded to my art." The following day, however, Japanese newspapers reported that Wong was married to a wealthy Cantonese man named Art. [Chan 2003, p. 97.]

During her travels in China, Wong continued to be strongly criticized by the Nationalist government and the film community. [Hodges 2004, pp. 159–160.] She had difficulty communicating in many areas of China because she was raised with the Taishan dialect rather than Standard Mandarin. She later commented that some of the Chinese dialects sounded "as strange to me as Gaelic. I thus had the strange experience of talking to my own people through an interpreter." [Chan 2003, p. 99.]

The toll of international celebrity on Wong's personal life manifested itself in bouts of depression and sudden anger, as well as excessive smoking and drinking. [Hodges 2004, p. 134.] Feeling irritable when she disembarked in Hong Kong, Wong was uncharacteristically rude to the awaiting crowd, which then quickly turned hostile. One person shouted: "Down with Huang Liu Tsong – the stooge that disgraces China. Don't let her go ashore." Wong began crying, and a stampede ensued. [Hodges 2004, pp. 165–167.] After she left for a short trip to the Philippines, the situation cooled and Wong joined her family in Hong Kong. With her father and her siblings, Wong visited his family and his first wife at the family's ancestral home near Taishan. [Chan 2003, pp. 122–123.] Conflicting reports claim that she was either warmly welcomed or met with hostility by the villagers. She spent over 10 days in the family's village, and some time in neighboring villages before continuing her tour of China. [Hodges 2004, p. 168.] After returning to Hollywood, Wong reflected on her year in China and her career in Hollywood: "I am convinced that I could never play in the Chinese Theatre. I have no feeling for it. It's a pretty sad situation to be rejected by Chinese because I'm 'too American' and by American producers because they prefer other races to act Chinese parts." Wong's father returned to Los Angeles in 1938.Chan 2003, p. 280.]

Late 1930s

To complete her contract with Paramount Pictures, Wong made a string of B movies in the late 1930s. Often dismissed by critics, the films gave Wong non-stereotypical roles which were publicized in the Chinese-American press for their positive images. These smaller-budgeted films could be bolder than the higher-profile releases, and Wong used this to her advantage to portray successful, professional, Chinese-American characters. Competent and proud of their Chinese heritage, these roles worked against the prevailing U.S. film portrayals of Chinese-Americans. [Lim 2005, pp. 47, 63, 67.] In contrast to the usual official Chinese condemnation of Wong's film roles, the Chinese consul to Los Angeles gave his approval to the final scripts of two of these films, "Daughter of Shanghai" (1937) and "King of Chinatown" (1939). [Leong 2005, p. 94.]

In "Daughter of Shanghai", Wong played the Asian-American female lead in a role that was rewritten for her as the heroine of the story, actively setting the plot into motion rather than the more passive character originally planned. [Lim 2005, p. 66.] The script was so carefully tailored for Wong that at one point it was titled, "Anna May Wong Story". Of this film, Wong told "Hollywood Magazine", "I like my part in this picture better than any I've had before ... because this picture gives Chinese a break – we have sympathetic parts for a change! To me that means a great deal." [Leung, Louise. "East Meets West", "Hollywood Magazine", June 1938, pp. 40, 55. Quoted in Leong 2005, p. 94.] "The New York Times" gave the film a generally positive review, commenting of its B-movie origins, "An unusually competent cast saves the film from the worst consequences of certain inevitable banalities. [The cast] ... combine with effective sets to reduce the natural odds against any pictures in the "Daughter of Shanghai" tradition." [Crisler 1937.] In October 1937, the press carried rumors that Wong had plans to marry her male co-star in this film, childhood friend and Korean-American actor Philip Ahn. Wong replied, "It would be like marrying my brother."Wollstein 1999, p. 256.]

Bosley Crowther was not so kind to "Dangerous to Know" (1938), which he called a "second-rate melodrama, hardly worthy of the talents of its generally capable cast". [Crowther 1938.] In "King of Chinatown" Wong played a surgeon who sacrifices a high-paying promotion in order to devote her energies to helping the Chinese fight the Japanese invasion. [Lim 2005, p. 47.] "The New York Times"' Frank Nugent gave the film a negative review. Though he commented positively on its advocacy of the Chinese in their fight against Japan, he wrote, "... Paramount should have spared us and its cast ... the necessity of being bothered with such folderol". [Nugent 1939.]

Paramount also employed Wong as a tutor to other actors, such as Dorothy Lamour in her role as a Eurasian in "Disputed Passage". Wong performed on radio several times, including a 1939 role as "Peony" in Pearl Buck's "The Patriot" on Orson Welles' "The Campbell Playhouse". [Hodges 2004, p. 191.] Wong's cabaret act, which included songs in Cantonese, French, English, German, Danish, Swedish, and other languages, took her from the U.S. to Europe and Australia through the 1930s and 1940s.Corliss January 29, 2005, p. 1.]

In 1938, having auctioned off her movie costumes and donated the money to Chinese aid, the Chinese Benevolent Association of California honored Wong for her work in support of Chinese refugees. [Leong 2005, p. 95.] The proceeds from the preface that she wrote in 1942 to a cookbook titled "New Chinese Recipes", one of the first Chinese cookbooks, were also dedicated to United China Relief. [Hodges 2004, p. 203.] Between 1939 and 1942, she made few films, instead engaging in events and appearances in support of the Chinese struggle against Japan.

Later years

Wong starred in "Lady from Chungking" (1942) and "Bombs over Burma" (1943), both anti-Japanese propaganda made by the poverty row studio Producers Releasing Corp. She donated her salary for both films to United China Relief.Leong 2005, p. 101.] "The Lady from Chungking" differed from the usual Hollywood war film in that the Chinese were portrayed as heroes rather than as victims rescued by Americans. Even after American characters are captured by the Japanese, the primary goal of the heroes is not to free the Americans, but to prevent the Japanese from entering the city of Chongqing (Chungking). Also, in an interesting twist on yellowface, the Chinese characters are portrayed by Chinese-American actors, while the Japanese villains – normally played by Chinese-American actors – are acted by European-Americans. The film ends with Wong making a speech for the birth of a "new China". "The Hollywood Reporter" and "Variety" both gave Wong's performance in "The Lady from Chungking" positive reviews, but commented negatively on the film's plot.

Later in life, Wong invested in real estate and owned a number of properties in Hollywood.Finch and Rosenkrantz 1979, p. 156.] She converted her home on San Vincente Boulevard in Santa Monica into four apartments which she called "Moongate Apartments".Parish 1976, p. 538.] She served as the apartment house manager from the late 1940s until 1956, when she moved in with her brother Richard on 21st Place in Santa Monica. [Wollstein 1999, pp. 257–258.]

In 1949, Wong's father died in Los Angeles at the age of 91. After a six-year absence, Wong returned to film the same year with a small role in a B movie called "Impact".Chan 2003, p. 78.] From August 27 to November 21, 1951, Wong starred in a detective series that was written specifically for her: DuMont Television Network's "The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong", in which she played the title role which used her birth name. Wong's character was a dealer in Chinese art whose career involved her in detective work and international intrigue. [Camhi 2004.] The ten half-hour episodes aired during prime time, from 9:00 to 9:30 p.m. [Chan 2003, p. 80.] Though there were plans for a second season, DuMont canceled the show in 1952. No copies of the show or its scripts are known to exist. [Hodges 2004, pp. 216–217.] After the completion of the series, Wong's health began to deteriorate. In late 1953 she suffered an internal hemorrhage, which her brother attributed to the onset of menopause, her continued heavy drinking and financial worries. [Hodges 2004, pp. 217–218.]

In 1956, Wong hosted one of the first U.S. documentaries on China narrated entirely by a Chinese-American. Broadcast on the ABC travel series "Bold Journey", the program consisted of film footage from her 1936 trip to China. [Chan 2003, p. 124.] Wong also did guest spots on television series such as "Adventures in Paradise", "The Barbara Stanwyck Show", and "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp". [Chan 2003, pp. 81, 268.]

For her contribution to the film industry, Anna May Wong received a star at 1708 Vine Street on the inauguration of the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. [Chung 2006, p. 26.] She is also depicted larger-than-life as one of the four supporting pillars of the "Gateway to Hollywood" sculpture located on the southeast corner of Hollywood Boulevard and La Brea Avenue. [Negra 2001, p. 1.]

In 1960 Wong returned to film in "Portrait in Black", starring Lana Turner. She still found herself stereotyped, with one press release explaining her long absence from films with a supposed proverb, which was claimed to have been passed down to Wong by her father: "Don't be photographed too much or you'll lose your soul", a quote that would be inserted into many of her obituaries.

She was scheduled to play the role of Madame Liang in the film production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song", [Chan 2003, pp. 80–81.] but on February 3, 1961, at the age of 56, Wong died of a heart attack at home in Santa Monica, two days after her final screen performance on the television show "Danger Man". [ [ "Anna May Wong Is Dead at 54. Actress Won Movie Fame in '24. Appeared With Fairbanks in 'Thief of Bagdad'. Made Several Films Abroad."] "The New York Times", February 4, 1961. Retrieved: August 3, 2008.] [Chan 2003, pp. xvii, 81, 269.] [Hodges 2004, p. 227. "She announced that... an episode of "Danger Man", entitled "The Journey Ends Halfway," would appear on May 24.", also p. 244.] Her cremated remains were interred in her mother's grave at Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles, frequently reported to be only marked by her mother's name on the tombstone. [Hodges 2004, p. 228.] In 2008, a fan campaign started to raise funds to create and purchase a headstone for Wong. [ [ "Film Buffs Hope to Buy Headstone for Anna May Wong."] Goldsea Asians, 2008.] However, in their research they found that Wong's headstone was indeed marked with her Chinese name, something several biographers had overlooked. []


Wong's image and career have left a lasting legacy. Through her films, public appearances, and prominent magazine features, she helped to "humanize" Asian-Americans to white audiences during a period of overt racism and discrimination. Asian-Americans, especially the Chinese, had been viewed as perpetually foreign in U.S. society, but Wong's films and public image established her firmly as an Asian-American citizen at a time when laws specifically discriminated against Asian immigration and citizenship. Wong's hybrid image dispelled contemporary notions that the East and West were inherently different. [Lim 2005, pp. 49–51.]

Among Wong's films, only "Shanghai Express" retained critical attention in the U.S. in the decades after her death. In Europe, and especially England, her films appeared occasionally at festivals. Wong remained popular with the gay community who often claimed her as one of their own, and for whom her marginalization by the mainstream became a symbol.Hodges 2004, p. 232.] Although the Chinese Nationalist criticism of her portrayals of the "Dragon Lady" and "Butterfly" stereotypes lingered, Wong herself was forgotten in China. [Hodges 2004, pp. 231–232.] Nevertheless, the importance of Wong's legacy within the Asian-American film community can be seen in the Anna May Wong Award of Excellence which is given out yearly at the Asian-American Arts Awards; [Chan 2003, p. 276.] the annual award given out by the Asian Fashion Designers was also named after Wong in 1973.

For decades following her death, Wong's image remained as a symbol in literature, as well as in film. In the 1971 poem "The Death of Anna May Wong", Jessica Hagedorn saw Wong's career as one of "tragic glamour", and portrayed the actress as a "fragile maternal presence, an Asian-American woman who managed to 'birth,' however ambivalently, Asian-American screen women in the jazz age". [Liu 2000, p. 35.] Wong's character in "Shanghai Express" was the subject of John Yau's 1989 poem "No One Ever Tried to Kiss Anna May Wong", which interprets the actress' career as a series of tragic romances. [Liu 2000, pp. 31–33.] In David Cronenberg's 1993 film version of David Henry Hwang's 1986 play, "M. Butterfly", Wong's image was used briefly as a symbol of a "tragic diva". [Liu 2000, pp. 34–35.] Her life was the subject of "China Doll, The Imagined Life of an American Actress", an award-winning fictional play written by Elizabeth Wong in 2005. [Wong 2005.]

As the centennial of Wong's birth approached, a re-examination of her life and career took shape; three major works on the actress appeared, and comprehensive retrospectives of her films were held at both the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. ["Performing Race on Screen".] Anthony Chan's 2003 biography, "Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905–1961)", was the first major work on Wong, and was written, Chan says, "from a uniquely Asian-American perspective and sensibility". [Chan 2003, p. xvii.] In 2004, Philip Leibfried and Chei Mi Lane's exhaustive examination of Wong's career, "Anna May Wong: A Complete Guide to Her Film, Stage, Radio and Television Work" was published, as well as a second full-length biography, "Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend" by Graham Russell Hodges. Though Anna May Wong's life, career, and legacy reflect many complex issues which remain decades after her death, Anthony Chan points out that her place in Asian-American cinematic history, as its first female star, is permanent. [Chan 2003, p. 275.]

Popular culture

Anna May Wong is referred to in the song "Drop That Name" from the 1956 Broadway musical "Bells Are Ringing". Ella Peterson, the female lead, who can only think of the name Rin Tin Tin to drop throughout the song, tries to rhyme the dog's name off Anna May Wong, resulting in "Rong Tong Tong." [ [ Bells Are Ringing] Musical Heaven, November 15, 2006. Retrieved: August 3, 2008.]

Anna May Wong is also mentioned in the "M*A*S*H" episode "Identity Crisis" (Season 10). A soldier impersonating a dead comrade who was scheduled for discharge is given the dead soldier's mail by Father Mulcahy; the letter mentions that the kimono Josh Levin had sent home made his mother look like "a regular Anna May Wong."Fact|date=May 2008

elected filmography

*main|Anna May Wong filmography (includes her television work)
* "The Red Lantern" (1919) debut – uncredited
* "Bits of Life" (1921)
* "The Toll of the Sea" (1922) as Lotus Flower
* "The Thief of Bagdad" (1924) as a Mongol Slave
* "Piccadilly" (1929) as Shosho
* "Daughter of the Dragon" (1931) as Princess Ling Moy
* "Shanghai Express" (1932) as Hui Fei
* "Dangerous to Know" (1938) as Lan Ying
* "Lady from Chungking" (1942) as Kwan Mei
* "Bombs Over Burma" (1943) as Lin Ying
* "Impact" (1949) as Su Lin
* "Portrait in Black" (1960) as Tawny



* Berry, Sarah. "Screen Style: Fashion and Femininity in 1930s Hollywood". Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. ISBN 0-81663-312-6.
* Camhi, Leslie. "Film: A Dragon Lady and a Quiet Cultural Warrior". "The New York Times", January 11, 2004.
* Chan, Anthony B. "Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905–1961)". Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8108-4789-2.
* Chung, Hye-seung. "Hollywood Asian: Philip Ahn and the Politics of Cross-ethnic Performance". Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006. ISBN 1-5921-3516-1.
* Corliss, Richard. [,9565,1022536,00.html "Anna May Wong Did It Right."] "Time", January 29, 2005. Retrieved: March 20, 2008.
* Corliss, Richard. [,9565,1024222,00.html "That Old Feeling: Anna May Win."] "Time", February 3, 2005. Retrieved: March 24, 2008.
* Crisler, B.R. "Daughter of Shanghai" (film review). "The New York Times", December 24, 1937.
* Crowther, Bosley. "Dangerous to Know" (film review). "The New York Times", March 11, 1938.
* [ "Film reveals real-life struggles of an onscreen 'Dragon Lady'] ." [ UCLA Today Online] , January 3, 2008. Retrieved: May 27, 2008.
* Finch, Christopher and Linda Rosenkrantz. "Gone Hollywood: The Movie Colony in the Golden Age". Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979. ISBN 978-0385128087.
* "Forty Winks" (film review). "The New York Times", February 3, 1925.
* Gan, Geraldine. "Anna May Wong." "Lives of Notable Asian Americans: Arts, Entertainment, Sports". New York: Chelsea House, 1995, pp. 83–91. ISBN 978-0791021880.
* Hodges, Graham Russell. "Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend". Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. ISBN 0-312-29319-4.
* Hsu, Shirley. " [ "Nobody's Lotus Flower: Rediscovering Anna May Wong" Film Retrospective] ." [ Asia Pacific Arts Online Magazine] . UCLA Asia Institute. January 23, 2004. Retrieved: May 12, 2008.
* Leibfried, Philip and Chei Mi Lane. "Anna May Wong: A Complete Guide to her Film, Stage, Radio and Television Work". Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004. ISBN 0-7864-1633-5.
* Leong, Karen J. "The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism". Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005. ISBN 0-5202-4422-2.
* Lim, Shirley Jennifer. "I Protest: Anna May Wong and the Performance of Modernity, (Chapter title)"A Feeling of Belonging: Asian American Women's Public Culture, 1930–1960". New York: New York University Press, 2005, pp. 104–175. ISBN 0-8147-5193-8.
* Liu, Cynthia W. "When Dragon Ladies Die, Do They Come Back as Butterflies? Re-imagining Anna May Wong." "Countervisions: Asian American Film Criticism". Hamamoto, Darrel and Sandra Liu, (editors). Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000, pp. 23–39. ISBN 1-56639-776-6.
* Motion, Andrew. "The Lamberts: George, Constant and Kit". New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986. ISBN 0-37418-283-3.
* Negra, Diane. "Off-White Hollywood: American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom". London: Routledge, 2001. ISBN 0-415-21678-8.
* Nugent, Frank. "King of Chinatown" (film review). "The New York Times", March 16, 1939.
* Parish, James and William Leonard. "Anna May Wong." "Hollywood Players: The Thirties". New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House Publishers, 1976, pp. 532–538. ISBN 0-87000-365-8.
* [ "Performing Race on Screen"] . [] . Retrieved: May 12, 2008.
* "Piccadilly" (film review). "Variety", July 24, 1929.
* Rollins, Peter C., ed. "The Columbia Companion to American History on Film: How the Movies Have Portrayed the American Past". New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-23111-223-8.
* "Song" (film review). "The New York Times", August 22, 1928.
* Sweet, Matthew. [,,2253167,00.html "Snakes, Slaves and Seduction; Anna May Wong."] "The Guardian", February 6, 2008. Retrieved: March 20, 2008.
* "The Toll of the Sea" (film review). "The New York Times", November 27, 1922.
* "The Toll of the Sea" (film review). "Variety", December 1, 1922.
* Wang, Yiman and Catherine Russell, ed.. "The Art of Screen Passing: Anna May Wong's Yellow Yellowface Performance in the Art Deco Era." "Camera Obscura 60: New Women of the Silent Screen: China, Japan, Hollywood". Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005, pp. 159–191. ISBN 0-8223-6624-X.
* Wollstein, Hans J. "Anna May Wong." "Vixens, Floozies, and Molls: 28 Actresses of late 1920s and 1930s Hollywood". Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999. ISBN 0-7864-0565-1.
* Wong, Elizabeth: "China Doll, The Imagined Life of an American Actress". Woodstock, Ill: Dramatic Publishing, 2005. ISBN 1-58342-315-X.
* Wood, Ean. "The Josephine Baker Story". London: Sanctuary, 2000. ISBN 1-86074-286-6.
* Zia, Helen and Susan B. Gall. "Notable Asian Americans". New York: Gale Research, 1995. ISBN 978-0810396234.

Further reading

* Doerr, Conrad. "Reminiscences of Anna May Wong." "Films in Review." New York, December 1968. ISSN 015-1688.
* Griffith, Richard and Richard Mayer. "The Movies". New York: Fireside, 1970. ISBN 0-60036-044-X.
* Schneider, Steven Jay, ed. "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die". Hauppauge, NY: Barron's Educational Series, 2005. ISBN 0-76415-907-0.

External links

* [ The Anna May Wong Society]
*imdb name|id=0938923|name=Anna May Wong
* [ Anna May Wong] at the [ Internet Broadway Database]
* [ Anna May Wong Documentary Home]
* [ Anna May Wong Photo Galleries at Silent Ladies & Gents]
* [ Anna May Wong Tobacco Cards at Virtual History]

NAME=Wong, Anna May
SHORT DESCRIPTION=American actress
DATE OF BIRTH=January 3, 1905
PLACE OF BIRTH=Los Angeles, California
DATE OF DEATH=February 2, 1961
PLACE OF DEATH=Santa Monica, California, U.S.

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