Born in LA's Chinatown in 1905 to a family that ran a laundry service, Anna May Wong was Hollywood's first Chinese-American movie star.
Starting as a teenager in silent films like The Toll of the Sea and The Thief of Baghdad to much critical acclaim, Hollywood nonetheless ran out of leading lady parts for Wong pretty quickly. (You know, because they refused to hire an Asian American woman when a white woman in yellowface would do.) Not only was she often hired to play Dragon Lady caricatures (the term "Dragon Lady" was inspired by Wong's onscreen roles) but the anti-miscegenation laws of the time prevented her from kissing any non-Asian men on film. Since there was only one Asian American actor with leading-man status working in silent films at the time (holler Sessue Hayakawa), Wong was relegated to mostly supporting roles.
Like any good feministorical icon, Wong got fed up with the racist and sexist bullshit the US was dumping on her and she took off for Europe in 1928. "There seems little for me in Hollywood, because, rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles," she told Film Weekly. Ironically, two years later Paramount Studio "discovered" Wong while looking for fresh talent and she returned to Hollywood.
Wong's reputation was a complicated one, due mainly to the racism and limitations of the time period in which she worked. Though she refused to play certain roles because of their stereotypical nature and tried to work with directors to bring more cultural authenticity to her characters, the very fact that she was Chinese put her in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don't bind. She spoke out against films she was cast in, saying this about Daughter of the Dragon: "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?" But when she was allowed to be play romantic roles, Chinese press declared her "a disgrace" to Chinese women. Wong played so many characters that were killed off due to Hollywood's inherent racism that she once joked that her tombstone should read, "She died a thousand deaths." Smart, talented, and hilarious!
When she was deemed "too Chinese to play Chinese" and rejected for the part of O-Lan in Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth, Wong once again left the US, this time on a highly publicized trip to China. In a stopover in Tokyo, a reporter asked if she had plans to marry, to which Wong replied, "No, I am wedded to my art." The following day, however, in a LOL-worthy move, Japanese newspapers reported that Wong was married to a wealthy Cantonese man named Art. She couldn't win!
Here's a "Sexy Shanghai" episode devoted to Wong that includes video footage of her Chinese voyage. Though the focus on her marriage status is a little bizarre, the interview with biographer Graham Russel Gao Hodges is really interesting:
Anna May Wong remains the most important Asian-American actor ever to grace the silver screen.
When she returned to Hollywood, Wong fulfilled her contract with Paramount by starring in mostly B-movies. In one, The Daughter of Shanghai, she was actually allowed to help create her character. She said, "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." Though the role would sadly prove to be an exception to a racist rule, Wong spoke up for equality and positive representations of Asian Americans in films at a time when few were willing to do the same.
After taking a break due to family issues (and probably due to exhaustion from all of the bogus sexism and racism she encountered on a daily basis at work), Wong returned to acting once more in a detective series that was written specifically for her, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, in which she played the title role which used her birth name. Though short-lived, the show made her the first Asian American to host a television series.
Wong died in 1960 at the age of 56, but her legacy lives on. Many people still enjoy her body of work and count her as one of the most influential actors to grace the silver screen, but perhaps packing even more of a punch (not really) is the Paranormal Anna page of the Anna May Wong Society's website, which allows users to ask questions of a flash-animated crystal ball that apparently contains Wong's spirit (it's bizarre). She was also the subject of the song "These Foolish Things," which was written by her lover Eric Maschwitz and has been covered by many musicians since, most notably Rod Stewart:
Several books have been written on Wong's legacy as well. If you're interested in reading more about her, check out Anna May Wong: from laundryman's daughter to Hollywood legend by Graham Russel Gao Hodges (featured in the video above), Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong by Anthony Chan, or Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story by Paula Yoo.