hollywood history long read

The true story of Anna May Wong

Meet the pioneering actress, Hollywood deemed 'Too Chinese to play Chinese'

If (like me) you’ve been binging Netflix’s new show, Hollywood, then you’ll have met Anna May Wong. The show introduces us to her as the ‘great ghost’. An early victim of ‘yellow face’ she lives alone in her lush complex, waiting for a studio call that will never come. But, Hollywood is an alternative look at history. So without to many spoilers, there is a happy ending for this Anna.

But real Anna? She didn’t get a cut print sunny ending and her story that Hollywood shows – well it’s not even half of it.  Because although Hollywood does an amazing job of giving the broad strokes of who Anna May Wong was, it also takes away a lot of her autonomy and grit. This is a woman who wasn’t only a glamorous film icon turned walking lesson in racisim, but a hero whose story should be shouted about.

So, lets chat the real Anna May Wong.   

Anna May Wong gif
Oh and prepare to become OBSSESED

Born Wong Liu Tsong (黄柳霜) in January 1905, in LA. She had the pretty standard ‘early life’ narrative for a budding starlet. One of seven kids to a pair of hardworking parents, the family lived above her dad’s laundry business, where she and her siblings were all expected to work when they weren’t at school. But a life of laundry wasn’t what she dreamed of.

As a kid she’d fallen in love with movies and decided she wanted to be an actress. By 11 she’d picked out a stage name, Anna May Wong, and was cutting class to either hang out on location shoots in China Town or spend her lunch money on Nickelodeon Movie Theatres.  Going home afterwards to practice the scenes she’d just seen in the mirror for hours on end.

So far, so standard. Anna had even started to make a name for herself. After all, she was constantly hanging around film sets and begging the crews to let her take part – that’s going to get you noticed! Soon enough film crew’s soon dubbing her ‘Curious Chinese Child’. And that there is where Anna’s story becomes markedly different from every other starry-eyed starlet wannabe – she was Chinese. And in early 1900’s Hollywood that was a big deal.

This wasn’t a great time to be Chinese and living in America. Even if, like Anna May Wong, you were born into a second-generation Chinese American family. Racism was prevalent and Anna knew this all too well. At school Anna was called a ‘chink’, a classmate regularly stuck her with needles and she was jeered at in the street.

But racism doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere. To understand why this was happening to Anna, we need to do a little bit of background digging.

Back in 1882 The Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law. This law aimed to stopped Chinese people from immigrating to the US and was the first (but not the last!) time America put a significant ban on people of certain ethnicities immigrated to the country. Many (mainly white) Americans believed that Chinese workers were taking their jobs, even though these workers made up just 00.2% of the population (Sorry Greg, I think you might be the problem here.)

Still, when people decide on a scape goat for their problems, they tend to stick with it, no matter the obvious facts. And when this happens, things escalate in the worst possible ways.

In 1885, white miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming, rioted against Chinese miners, who they believed had not only taken their jobs, but under the new Chinese Exclusion Act, had no right to be in America. What happened next was a massacre – at least 28 Chinese miners were murdered and over 70 homes burnt down. This wasn’t an isolated incident. Two years later in Oregon, the Hell Canyons Massacre took place. Thirty-four Chinese goldminers were murdered.

It wasn’t just out and out murder either. Around the time Anna May Wong was born, San Francisco’s China Town was in the midst of a bubonic plague outbreak. That’s right…a plague outbreak in America in the early 1900’s. Obviously the San Francisco government did everything they could to stop this…nah of course not! They denied it was happening, before eventually quarantining the neighbourhood.

Rock springs massacre
Depiction of The Rock Springs Massacre

All of this gives us a picture of the world Anna May Wong was born into. But it also explains why she had such an uphill battle ahead of her when it came to being a film star.

Racism was rampant and people were not going to accept a Chinese woman as a leading lady. AND YET there was a demand for ‘oriental’ films. Despite the inherent racism of The Chinese Exclusion Act, throughout the 1800’s America had developed a love for the ‘oriental’; an overly exoticized fantasy of Asian culture. These stories turned women into sex objects and played up stereotypes of opium addicts and gangsters. It was a weird juxtaposition of

‘we don’t want you here but we would like to bastardize your culture for entertainment’.

It was these ‘oriental’ films that Anna May Wong watched on location in LA’s China Town. Understandably, when she told her parents she was trying to get a gig as an extra in one of these films, they weren’t thrilled. But she was determined and when she was determined to do something…she’d do it.

At 14, Anna landed her first job, as an extra in 1919’s The Red Lantern. Her dad knew he couldn’t stop her, so instead he made sure there were male extra’s around to keep an eye on his daughter.Anna stood out in the sea of lantern holding extra’s, soon landing more work and by 1921 she was having roles written for her, with her first credited debut in Bit’s of Life.

Then at just 17 she scored a leading role, in 1922’s The Toll Of The Sea. It was a loose retelling of Madame Butterfly (but set in China) and Anna played Lotus Flower, who falls in love with an America man. The pair marry and he promises to take her to America -he doesn’t- he leaves and she gives birth to their son. Like any good fuck boy, he returns to Lotus Flower, but with his new wholesome American wife in tow. She decides to give her son to this new woman, so he can have a ‘better’ life in America and the film ends with Lotus Flower walking into the sea.

It was a typical ‘oriental’ fantasy film, but Anna stood out and was praised for her acting. She got the kind of rave reviews that normally launched a starlet to a full-fledged leading lady. But, of course, this didn’t happen for Anna.

Anna May Wong as Lotus Flower in 1922's The Toll oF The Sea
Anna May Wong in 1922’s Toll of the Sea. Note the American wife actually doing a full on ‘give me your baby’ gesture – subtlety I do not know thee.

Her next major role was as a stereotypical ‘Dragon Lady’ in 1924’s The Thief of Baghdad. Once more, Anna shone in a hit film, but again she was playing up to these oriental fantasy types. She’d now played both the naïve victim who understands that they are beneath the western ideal and the vamped up ‘exotic’ villain.

Nobody knew what to do with her next. She was a great actress and audiences liked her, but no studio was going to put her in a film that wasn’t ‘oriental’. Plus, Californian law meant that she would never be able to kiss a western actor on screen. Which effectively nixed any chances she might have had at scoring a ground-breaking lead – after all what’s a big blockbuster without that final happy ending kiss? All of this meant that for the next few years, Anna was doomed to ping back and forth between the victim and villain roles.

And it wasn’t only the studios that didn’t know what to do with Anna, the press didn’t either. Anna was now a certified name, so fan magazines and newspapers needed to write about her. But they had no idea how. Anna was a paradox – both American and Chinese at the same time, a fact that flummoxed the press. So much so that it was almost always what they ended up leading with in their articles on her.

Anna May Wong, New Movie Magazine 1932
Anna May Wong in a 1932 edition of New Movie Magazine

The write ups weren’t much better. For example, one fan magazine wrote:

‘Anna May Wong symbolizes the eternal paradox of her ancient race…she reminds us of cruel and intricate intrigues, and, at the same time, of crooned Chinese lullabies. She brings to the screen the rare comprehension and the mysterious colors of her ivory-skinned race.”

Here’s another:

‘Anna May Wong has never even been to China, and you might just as well know it right now. Moreover, she has seen NY’s Chinatown only from a taxi-cab, and she doesn’t wear a mandarin coat … her English is faultless. Her conversation consists of scintillating chatter that any flapper might envy. Her sense of humor is thoroughly American. She didn’t eat rice when she and I lunched together, and she distinctly impressed it upon the waiter to bring her coffee, not tea.’

Anna May Wong side eye
Why yes Anna, that BS does deserve some serious side eye

Anna’s ethnicity was always the main talking point, never her acting; despite her being arguably one of the strongest actors of her day. And Anna didn’t let this slide. She regularly spoke out about how shitty casting was, saying

“Rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.”

But she wasn’t going to just complain. In 1924, Anna started her own production company. She planned to cash in on the public’s interest in her ethnicity, by creating films about Chinese culture and traditional myths. However, by making these films herself, she hoped she could break some of those ‘oriental fantasy’ stereotypes. It was a canny plan and it could have been truly pioneering…if Anna’s business partner hadn’t turned out to be corrupt. Her company was sunk before it had even begun.

Anna was officially over Hollywood. In 1926 she’d had to watch on at the opening of Graumans Chinese Theatre (ironic name right there) where she’d been invited to help put in the buildings first rivet, but was barred from putting her hands and feet in the theatre’s famous walk. It didn’t matter how hard she worked or how good she was, she’d never get a fair shake in Hollywood. She was firmly pigeon holed as the ‘exotic other’ and as she put it, the actress who:

‘Died a thousand times’

Because interesting though Hollywood found her characters, the ‘exotic other’ was never allowed to live to see the end credits.

Anna wanted more. So in 1928 she packed up and set off for Europe.

Anna May Wong in 1929's Picadilly
Anna May Wong in 1929’s British film, Picadilly. She played a supporting role, but famously stole the entire film

European cinema was much more open to casting Anna as more than just a villain. She could get meatier roles and finally show off her acting to its true poteintial. Yes, many of her parts were at least somewhat rooted in Anna’s ethnicity, but that wasn’t all they were. In one 1933 interview, she highlighted why she felt her move away from Hollywood was so important:

“I was so tired of the parts I had to play. Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain—murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass. We are not like that.’

Anna didn’t just want better acting roles; she didn’t want to personify racist stereotypes anymore. By doing that, she was only feeding the narrative and making it more toxic. So she went somewhere where she could make movies that would help change people’s perceptions. It’s a ballsy move and one that’s often overlooked. And Anna did the work to ensure these films were widely viewed.

In her first talkie (1930’s, The Flame of Love), she recorded her lines in fluent French, German and English. Anna also took to the stage, appearing opposite Laurence Olivier in The Circle of Chalk, and once more showed off her German skills when she sang the title role in operetta, Tschun Tsch.

Things were going great for Anna. She might not have had the Hollywood dream she’d once hoped for, but she was making incredible work and helping break barriers whilst doing so.

It kind of makes sense then, when in 1930 Paramount called Anna, she didn’t tell them to stick it.

Paramount promised Anna that if she returned to Hollywood, they would finally give her leading roles. And, considering her success in Europe, you can see why she said yes. After all, Hollywood would have noticed how well Anna’s new pictures had performed at the box office, so maybe they were starting to rethink the kind of roles they could offer a Chinese American actress.

They were not.

Anna arrived back in Hollywood to find nothing had changed. Her first film role back was in ‘The Dragons Daughter’ where she played ‘The Dragon Lady’ type again. She co-starred with one of the only other high-profile Asian actors in Hollywood, Sessue Hayakawa. Sessue was also coming back to the studio system after a break (where like Anna he’d worked in other fields of acting so he could play less stereotypical roles) and despite being the films leads, both Sessue and Anna were paid substantially less than their white co-star, Warner Oland who appears for just over 25 minutes and is in yellow face the whole time (btw, Warner Oland basically made his entire career off of doing yellow face, so the latter isn’t really a surpirse) 

duaghter of the dragon 1931
Poster for The Daughter of The Dragon, complete with Warner Oland in full yellow face standing next to Anna…apprently this wasn’t in any way awkward for him,

What made Anna’s return even worse, was that now she was being passed over for roles, which demanded a Chinese actress, because she was

‘Too Chinese to play Chinese’

Just let that sit with you.

Can you even imagine?! Not only that, but because (apparently) all Chinese actresses were to Chinese to portray Chinese people, these roles went to white actresses who were given yellow face. To top it all, magazines like Photoplay even ran features praising the actresses and the make up artists for pulling off the look:

helen hayes, movie play
Examples from Movie Play Magazine. Helen Hayes (piece to the left) actually was cast over Anna, for this role in The Son-Daughter.

But there was hope on the horizon. In 1935 It was announced that MGM would be making a film of best selling book, The Good Earth. The book is based in northern china and tells the story of a young farmer, Wang Lung, and his wife, O-Lan. The couple are living on the brink of famine, on land that they only have through O-Lan’s hard work and smarts. Yet things keep getting worse. Their older daughter is disabled thanks to poor nutrition and O-Lan kills their newborn daughter, unable to feed another mouth. And that’s just the first act! It’s an incredibly tragic drama and any adaptation would need the best actress possible to play the multifaceted O-Lan.

Anna knew this was her part. She’d been publicly campaigning for the role since the book came out in 1931 and not only was she the most prominent Chinese actress working in Hollywood, but she’d shown time and time again that she had the acting chops to pull this off.

So obviously MGM cast white German actress, Luise Rainer. Instead offering Anna the role of Lotus, a courtesan who breaks up the marriage of O-Lan and Wang Lung. Disgusted, Anna refused the part, which instead went to white Austrian actress, Tilly Losch. Luise won the 1937 best actress Oscar for her role as O-Lan and Anna was left with the words ‘Too Chinese’ swirling round and round her head.

Louise Rainer in makeup for The Good Eart, Talking Pictures magazine
Luise Rainer in make up for the Good Earth, from Talking Pictures Magazine

In 1936 Anna decided to go on a tour of China. For years she’d been called ‘too chinese’ but she’d never actually been to the country. Now she wanted to change that.

It’s often reported that Anna’s trip to China was a rousing success. It wasn’t. The Chinese press had never been kind to Anna’s acting in overly exoticized pictures and taking parts that emphasised western stereotypes of Chinese women as sex objects. Headlining pieces:

‘Paramount Utilizes Anna May Wong to Produce Picture to Disgrace China’

And going on to say, ‘Although she is deficient in artistic portrayal, she has done more than enough to disgrace the Chinese race’. It was another blow, but this is Anna May Wong we’re talking about. She didn’t give up. Whilst in China she arranged newsrell footage of her travels, putting them together in a documentary, My China. This was both a way to showcase what China was actually like and a middle finger up at MGM and The Good Earth.

Still, Anna was under contract with Paramount, so she had to go back to Hollywood. There she made her way through a succession of B Movies, playing the same characters she always had. Though the films didn’t get good reviews, Anna consistently did. However, of course, that didn’t mean she’d ever get any better roles offered to her.

Yet again, Anna was stuck doing the same stereotypical BS. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t use her voice.

During the Second World War Anna spoke out and asked for America to do more to help China. She took part in two Anti Japense propaganda films (donating her salaries to the United China war relief effort) before retiring from films in 1942, so she could dedicate herself full time to raising money and support.

She’d run Chinese war bond rallies, sign autographs in return for donations and auctioned off her enviable wardrobe. In 1943, The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed (to an extent) a move which many credited Anna for helping with. Time magazine writing:

‘Her speaking was so effective in US congress that some credit her with the repeal of Chinese exclusion laws’

Anna eventually went back to acting, though to a lesser extent. There were less jobs for her now, although in 1951 she became the first Asian-American actor to lead a TV show, with detective drama, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong.

After the show wrapped, Anna’s health started to fail. She still worked, but was getting progressively sicker. In 1961 Anna died in her sleep of a heart attack, aged just 56.

Anna May Wong 1

Over the years Our understanding of Anna May Wong has changed, in the past she was often dubbed a puppet of the Hollywood system who demeaned her heritage, she is now seen as a pioneer (ironically, the opposite has happened to actors like Hattie McDaniel…)

Still though, the most frequent way Anna’s story is told, is as a cautionary tale. With ‘Yellow Face’ still way to prevalent (in the past few years Emma Stone and Scarlett Johansson have both taken on parts originally written as characters of Asian heritage). And although the message of – dear white actors, stop being dicks- is important, it shouldn’t be the only thing we remember her for.

Anna May Wong was an incredible woman, who worked within an abhorrently shitty system. Yet, she still came up with ways to do what she loved – act. All while breaking down barriers and opening doors for those that came after her. Now that’s a true Hollywood legend.

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