Anna May Wong made history during Hollywood’s Golden Age by becoming the first notable Asian-American actress in the industry. She broke into Hollywood at the age of only 14, though true stardom eluded her over the course of her career as a result of racism that she experience professionally. Nowadays, Anna is properly venerated as the groundbreaking icon. Though it’s hard not to think that she could’ve accomplished so much more if it wasn’t for the backwards practices of the industry at the time that she came into it. Prior to her death, Anna set to star in the first Hollywood production to feature a predominantly Asian-American cast. Join Facts Verse as we explore how Anna May Wong died before her final movie role.
The actress that would come to be known professionally as Anna May Wong born on January 3, 1905. It is in the Chinatown district of Los Angeles, California. At the time of her birth, Anna known as Wong Liu Tsong; and it wouldn’t be until her early teen years that she would come up with her more memorable stage name. Anna’s parents owned a laundromat. Although this didn’t afford the family a life of luxury, it allowed them to take care of themselves.
Despite her parents’ wishes, young Anna found herself less interested in her education while she was coming of age and more interested in the movies. Anna was growing up at a time when moving pictures were a relatively new thing. Given that she was growing up on the outskirts of Hollywood. She afforded the opportunity to become somewhat of a fly on the wall during many memorable film shoots.
Anna May Wong School Year
During Anna’s early school years, her parents enrolled her in a mostly white school that didn’t prove a very positive environment for the young girl. According to Anna May Wong, she experienced a good deal of racism from both her peers and authority figures from an early age. Prompting her to convince her parents to have her transferred to a Chinese school. Although Anna was born in America, she was third-generation Chinese. It means that her grandparents had been born in China before making the movie over to America.
When young Anna found herself disenchanted with the racism that she was experiencing in her realty. The burgeoning world of film proved her escape. Even after the movie to her Chinese school, Anna found playing hooky in order to show up at film shoots as a gawker. It got to the point where Anna was showing up to so many film shoots that she began to catch the attention of producers herself. Anna would always struggle through the crowd in order to get as close to the filming as possible. And the film crews were quick to take notice of this small Chinese girl desperately clamoring to get a taste of the industry.
Anna May Wong First Film at the age of 17
As young Anna May Wong continued ditching school and hanging out around film sets. She eventually caught the attention of a prominent casting director who went on to cast the young woman in her very first film. Anna casted in her first film, named The Red Lantern, at the age of only 14. By this time, Anna had already come up with her stage name.
Following her first film role, she went on to receive her first leading role in a film at the age of 17. This came in the film The Toll of the Sea, which became notable for several reasons. For one thing, The Toll of the Sea first widely available release to filmed in Technicolor. Although the film format would later become more popularized with such features as The Wizard of Oz. For another thing, with Anna’s role in the film, The Toll of the Sea became the first notable Hollywood production to feature an Asian-American actress in the lead. The film inspired by the opera Madame Butterfly; which previously adapted into a feature film of the same name with a white woman in the lead role. Given that the lead role was that of a geisha, the Asian-American Anna proved much more fitting.
Anna’s Own Production Company
In 1924, when Anna was only 19 years old. And set to make a greater history with the creation of her own production company. Which dubbed Anna May Wong Productions. Sadly, the deal for the production company fell through. Anna’s vision was to produce her own features. Allowing herself to create her own Asian-American roles without the racist restrictions of Hollywood executives. When Anna’s deal for the production company fell through. She continue trying to find work within the established Hollywood system.
Although Anna May Wong had made history as the first Asian-American actress to appear in a notable Hollywood film. The Hollywood industry remained considerably racist towards the actress over the course of her remaining career. After Anna’s deal for her own production company fell through in 1924. She went on to appear in the film The Thief of Bagdad later that same year. Many consider Anna’s role in the film to be her breakout role, but it wasn’t an especially progressive one. While Anna had been hoping to continue making history in Hollywood with Asian-American features created by Anna May Wong Productions. She instead forced to play the role of the barely clothed Asian seductress in The Thief of Bagdad. Although Anna found success with the part, she also became pigeonholed because of it.
Anna May Wong Hollywood Roles as a Seductress
According to Anna May Wong, after her breakout turn in The Thief of Bagdad. The majority of her remaining Hollywood roles would either see her playing a similar seductress. Or an even more superficial oriental villainess. Anna felt that all of these roles were disrespectful of her heritage. But she continued performing them in hopes that something better would come down the line. In some respects, Anna did eventually get the respect she deserve during her lifetime. However, many feel that it was too little, and too late!
Anna May Wong found herself ostracized in Hollywood as a result of her Chinese heritage. And ostracized in China as a result of her willingness to seemingly sell her culture out in Hollywood productions that viewed her orientalism as something to be either fetishized or feared. Having been born in America, Anna didn’t first travel to China until 1936. Upon her visit, she found that she’s not entirely welcomed by her own people. While Anna May Wong certainly made history and broke ground in a lot of ways. She never quite achieved the success that she deserved, and she never quite felt that she belonged wherever she happened to be.
Anna May Wong First Notable Asian American Actress
Despite Anna May Wong making history as the first notable Asian-American actress in Hollywood. She is forcing to watch in horror over the course of much of her career as prominent Asian-American roles went to white actresses in “yellowface”. Anna find herself campaigning for these roles only to be given side roles in an effort to provide said production at least some modicum of Asian-American authenticity. One such production this occurred on was 1928’s The Crimson City. Anna had campaigned for the lead Asian-American role in the feature, which ended up going to white actress Myrna Loy. Instead, Anna casted in a side role, with many believing this only occurred so that she could be on set to teach Myrna how to use chopsticks.
Over the course of her lifetime, Anna appeared in over 50 films. The actress’s most notable feature arguably remains 1932. Where the Asian-American actress was forced to play second fiddle to Marlene Dietrich. 1937’s The Good Earth proved another production in which Anna May Wong campaigned for the lead Asian-American role; Only to be turned down for a white actress. This time, Anna had no desire to take a side role just so that she could be deemed worthy enough to take part in the production. It was Luise Rainer who ended up getting the lead part in the film, and she won an Academy Award as a result of her performance. Nowadays, an actress appearing in the amount of yellowface that the role required would be cause for cancellation!
Anna May Wong Minor Victory
While Anna May Wong lost out on the lead role in 1937’s The Good Earth. She had a minor victory the same year alongside Korean-American actor Philip Ahn when they became the first Asian-American couple ever to appear in Hollywood cinema with 1937’s Daughter of Shanghai. In 1947, Anna retired from the entertainment industry for a few years before being talked back into performing the lead role in a television series by the name of The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. The series came on the air in 1951. With it, Anna made history once again by becoming the first Asian-American actress to take on the lead on a television series. The series revolved around it’s titular character, played by Anna, who was a gallery owner moonlighting as a detective.
With a lifetime’s worth of big struggles and small victories behind her. Anna May Wong set to have her biggest Hollywood victory yet when tragedy struck in 1961. She set to take on a role in the first Hollywood production to feature a predominantly Asian-American cast, with that production being Flower Drum Song. Sadly, Anna passed away before she could film the role. The cause of death was a heart attack, and the actress was only 55 years old.
Despite Anna May Wong making history in many ways as the first Asian-American actress of note in Hollywood. She still never received the recognition that she deserved in the industry as a result of racist practices. Now it’s time to hear from you: did you know that Anna May Wong made history by becoming the first Asian-American actress to take on a lead role in a Hollywood feature film. And that she was very nearly given her own production company at age 19?