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Anna May Wong: The First Asian-American Movie Star Who Changed Hollywood

/ September 20, 2022

Movies are powerful, aren’t they?

When we step into a movie theater, we’re not just entertained, we’re transported. Movies — and the people who make them — have the power to take us to fantasy worlds or faraway countries. The stories we see on the big screen make us laugh and cry… they can instill fear, joy, and hope.

Sadly, sometimes the true behind-the-scenes stories aren’t quite as fantastical. Hollywood has been plagued by systemic prejudice from its very earliest days, and for every glamorous movie star, there are dozens of hard-working, talented professionals whose stories remain forgotten.

But their stories are powerful, too. The actors and actresses who have struggled, persevered, and fought tooth-and-nail for each and every role, scene, and line in the movies have incredible tales to tell, and their legacies should not be forgotten. 

That’s why, here at Greatness.com, we’ve chosen one such actress to spotlight in today’s post: the great Wong Liu Tsong, or, as you may have heard her called, Anna May Wong. 

Anna May is a true Hollywood legend, but as an Asian-American actress working in an age when interracial relationships were absolutely prohibited on screen, she faced countless obstacles in her career. Nevertheless, Anna May built an astounding career and became one of the first truly global Chinese movie stars. 

Her story is powerful, and we’re excited to share it with you today.

From Launderer to Flapper: Anna May Wong’s Early Life

Wong Liu Tsong, or Anna May Wong as she was re-monikered by her parents to give her a more easily accessible “English” or “Christian” name, was born the second of seven children on January 3, 1905. Her parents, Wong Sam Sing and Lee Gon Toy, owned and operated a laundromat in LA’s Chinatown. As a child, Anna May helped her parents in the shop for tips …

… which she promptly spent at the local nickelodeon theaters! 

From a very early age, Anna May loved the cinema. She would wander the streets of Chinatown, poking into a theater to enjoy whatever movie was playing at every opportunity. 

From a very early age, Anna May loved the cinema. She would wander the streets of Chinatown, poking into a theater to enjoy whatever movie was playing at every opportunity.

Then, when the film production industry moved from New York to Hollywood in the early 1910s, she began visiting movie sets, hoping and dreaming of the day when she could be part of this fascinating new world. Her parents may not have completely approved — in Chinese culture, acting was considered highly improper employment for a woman — but Anna May’s passion would not be stifled. 

She was determined to make a go of it in Hollywood.

In 1921, when she was just 17 years old, Anna May dropped out of high school to make acting her full-time focus. Later that year, she landed her first credited movie role — a supporting part in the film Bits of Life. Shortly thereafter, she landed her first leading role in The Toll of the Sea, one of the very first movies shot in Technicolor. 

Anna May quickly found herself in the throes of stardom. She came to be known as one of the world’s best-dressed women — a true style icon. Her beauty and exoticism were unparalleled by her contemporaries, particularly because there were so few Asian women working in the film industry. Anna May rubbed elbows with some of the great movie stars of her day — including Mary Pickford and Marlene Dietrich — and reveled in the flapper lifestyle. A bit of a party girl, she enjoyed the company and extravagance of the Roaring 20s, but she never lost her focus or passion for acting.

Unfortunately, however, Anna May’s career wasn’t always smooth sailing. She faced incredible prejudice in the industry, and she had to fight — and eventually leave the country — to continue working in the industry she loved so dearly.

Racism, Discrimination, and Anti-Miscegenation

Despite the glitz and glamor of the flapper lifestyle, Anna May faced rampant discrimination. At the time, Hollywood — and the United States in general — held tightly to particularly anti-Asian prejudice. 

Anna May lost countless roles to white actresses who performed in yellowface. It sounds ridiculous, but the sad truth is that casting directors and producers in Hollywood at the time felt that Anna May just didn’t measure up to the beauty standards they held for Asian people. In other words, she looked “too Chinese,” and the filmmakers of the day feared audiences wouldn’t want to see an Asian woman on screen.

Sadly, the racism didn’t end there, either. At the time, the United States had strict anti-miscegenation laws. They meant that it was literally illegal for interracial couples to marry or even be seen kissing in the movies. 

For Anna May, these laws were devastating. They made her totally ineligible for romantic leads in films — those roles went almost exclusively to her white contemporaries. Instead, Anna May was left with only a very narrow category of roles to play — Asian stereotypes.

In those days, characters from other parts of the world who looked different (read: weren’t white) were almost always villainized. As a result, in almost all her major Hollywood roles, Anna May played the Asian woman as a negative figure — as a conniving, scheming, evil person. Though she lamented the misrepresentation of her people and her gender, Anna May had few other options.

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Anna May’s Move to Europe

Ultimately, however, she had to try something new. For a time, she performed on the stage in London, and she found the theater marginally more welcoming than Hollywood. She even made her debut alongside Laurence Olivier, who would go on to perform in some of cinema’s greatest Shakespeare adaptations in the 1940s. 

Later, Anna May made the move to European cinema. It was in this phase of her career that she became friendly with numerous other movie stars of the day, and that she gave some of her finest performances, including her starring role in Ewald André Dupont’s silent film Piccadilly in 1929. In Piccadilly, Anna May played a young Chinese woman fired from her job in a London club and then rehired as an exotic dancer.

Anna May went on to give Hollywood another try, but again she was met with constant discrimination. American filmmakers and audiences alike were unable or simply unwilling to allow a Chinese actress the same level of stardom as her white counterparts despite the overwhelming evidence of her talent, and Anna May was once again forced from the screen. She played in a few more stage and European screen roles before her passing in 1961 without ever attaining the level of stardom she deserved.

The Lives and Legacies of Legends

Anna May Wong is one of the great Hollywood legends. 

In the earliest days of cinema — before synchronized sound had fully taken flight and when Technicolor was brand new — she made her way through an industry that vilified and ostracized her with drama and panache. Anna May was brilliant, bright, and beautiful, and although she is too often forgotten by film history, her legacy is worth remembering. She certainly inspires us!

In fact, her ability to overcome adversity reminds us of a few others we’ve considered here at Greatness.com. 

Remember the story of Jesse Owens? 

As a black man in the 1930s, he certainly knew the kind of discrination and racism Anna May faced. But even amidst such prejudice and in the context of Nazi Germany no less, Jesse Owens set not one, not two, not even three, but four Olympic records in track and field events. As an athlete, he was outstanding, but as a person, he was inspiring.

And remember Malala Yousafzai? 

As a young girl, Malala was gravely injured in a horrible, violent assault on her community. But instead of becoming angry, bitter, or vengeful, Malala stood up and became one of the most powerful voices in the world. Her influence has improved the lives of thousands of young girls who, just like Malala, are striving for their education in a part of the world that wants to deny them that right. Malala’s legacy will live on for generations.

Finally, do you remember the story of Dr. Joe Dispenza? 

Dr. Joe was seriously injured in a major accident, and doctors told him he would never walk again. But Dr. Joe didn’t accept that. He chose to believe he could heal and carefully visualized the injuries to his spine reconstructing themselves, and today, he’s walking, running, and soaring. His life and legacy are all about creating healing experiences for others, and he’s truly making the world a better place.

All of these unique and outstanding individuals have lived lives of incredible adversity. They’ve faced discrimination and industries fighting hard to keep them down. They’ve felt great pain — both physical and emotional. They’ve dealt with far more than their shares of adversity, but you know what? They didn’t let it defeat them. (That’s why we think it’s appropriate to call them “legends!”) 

They kept striving for greatness, and their legacies remind us that maybe — just maybe — we can do the same.

How Will You Change the World?

Anna May Wong changed the world. She faced great challenges, but as she did so, she paved the way for countless other talented individuals of color to make their mark on American cinema. She made the movies better, and we’re grateful for it.

She also encourages us to question — how will we change the world? How will you? What legacy do you want to leave? How can you make an impact today, tomorrow, next year, and beyond? 

The truth is, by continually striving forward — just like Anna May — you have the opportunity to make a difference. How will you be great today?

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