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The Life and Times of Anna May Wong

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Anna May Wong is considered to be the first Chinese actress to find success in Hollywood at a time when people, considered to be minorities were confined to the roles of non-speaking extras that were highly stereotyped. She rejected many of the restrictions of Chinese culture to follow her career, whilst supporting and fighting for the rights of Chinese people at home and abroad.

Birth of an Icon

Anna May Wong was born Wong Liu Tsong to a third generation Chinese-American couple, Wong Sam Sing and Lee Gon Toy, who owned a Chinese laundry in Chinatown, Los Angeles.

Anna May’s paternal grandparents arrived in the USA sometime around 1855, during the California Gold Rush and had a son, who they named Sam. Sam worked in the gold mines and accepted odd jobs before eventually departing to China to find a wife. Sam soon settled down and married his first wife, with whom he had a son in 1890. Sam returned to the USA to find work, so that he could eventually pay for his wife and son to join him in LA.

At this time, there were many laws in place to control the population of Chinese and other immigrants living in America. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed which meant only 100 Chinese were allowed to come to the USA every year. By the time Sam had saved enough money for his family to take a boat to the USA, the Exclusion Act had been extended, now preventing the wives of Chinese workers passage to America. Sam’s wife and son were unable to join him in Los Angeles and his family arranged a marriage between him and an American born Chinese woman from San Francisco, Lee Gon Toy who was only 15 years old.

At this point there are different accounts of what happened to his first wife and son back in China, some say that they died, others that he continued to support them financially even after remarrying.

In 1905 on January 3rd, Toy gave birth to their second daughter, 黃柳霜 (huáng liǔ shuāng) Wong Liu Tsong. Her name translates into English as ‘Yellow Willows Frost’, but it has since been changed to the more romantic sounding ‘Frosted Yellow Willows’.

Sam and Toy had eight children altogether, although only 7 survived. All the children would help out in the laundry during their spare time. When Wong Liu Tsong went to school, she took her English name, Anna May.

As a young girl, Anna would skip school and go to the Nickelodeon where she watched silent movies, known as ‘flikkers’. By the time she was 9, she was convinced that she was going to join her favourite players on the big screen. She often visited studios and begged to be an extra. Her father was extremely against Anna’s dream of being an actress, and without his knowledge, his friend James Wang helped Anna get her first uncredited role in The Red Lantern (1919).

Anna was bitten by the acting bug, and frequently hung around studios, including MGM, to ask for extra work instead of going to school. Eventually, her persistence paid off and after several uncredited extra roles, she landed a part in Bits of Life (1921) as Lon Chaney’s wife, which is sadly now considered a ‘lost’ movie.

Anna May gave any salary she earned from her movie parts to her parents, and also modeled furs for an LA furrier company. Her next role was a technicolor movie based on Madam Butterfly, titled Toll of the Sea (1922). Anna played Lotus Flower, a woman who meets an American man visiting China. They fall in love, but he later reconsiders their relationship.

At this point, Anna moved into her own apartment to relieve herself of her parent’s disapproval for her love of cinema, as well as the fact that many of the movies she was in vilified the Chinese. Anna often played roles of minorities, not just Chinese women. She played an hispanic woman in ‘Thundering Dawn’ (1923), a ‘Mongol’ slave in ‘The Thief of Bagdad’ (1924), an Inuit in ‘The Alaskan’ (1924), and a native American in ‘Peter Pan’ (1924).

Anna in the Limelight

In 1924, she was cast along side Douglas Fairbanks, who had seen her in Bits of Life, in ‘Thief of Bagdad’. This role gave her an opportunity to mature as an actress and was soon playing more developed, sensual female characters, however she was still not really receiving the roles she wanted.

By the time she was 20, Anna had become part of the Hollywood elite, and was asked to drill the first rivet into the foundations of the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. Her fans referred to her as the ‘Yellow Wonder’, and admired for her modern flapper style.

Anna May was at the height of fashion, and wore the 1920s flapper fashions of the west, just as impressively as she wore a Chinese qipao or the famous ‘dragon’ dress made by Travis Banton and worn by Wong in the movie, Limehouse Blues (1934).

In 1927, Anna was considered for the part of Nang Ping in Mr. Wu, but the role was given to non-Chinese actress, Renee Adoree. Anna May took yet another part playing the servant, instead of the lead Chinese role. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first, or the last time Anna May was passed over for a part that was eventually given to a European actress, ‘made-up’ to look Chinese.

It has been said, that even though she was somewhat accepted into the Hollywood social scene, she was too ‘different’ to be cast as a leading lady alongside a white man. She continued to take on the roles of women who epitomised the ‘other’; the cultures and minorities that the white man found ‘exotic’ without completely understanding them.

Success in Europe

Anna was a talented actress, and since Hollywood studios had failed to cast her in the roles she deserved, she was finally convinced to try her hand in Europe, and accepted a role in Richard Eichberg’s movie, Song (1928). During her time in Germany she became firm friends with Marlene Dietrich, who she would later work with on Shanghai Express (1932). Afterwards, she went to London, and tried her hand at acting on the stage.

She played alongside Laurence Olivier in ‘A Circle of Chalk’, but was criticised for her Californian accent, and quickly took up elocution lessons. This is supposedly when her voice developed into the low sultry tone that reflected her sensual and exotic appearance.

Movie makers and fans in Europe were not fazed by Anna’s ethnicity, if nothing else, this made her more interesting and unlike in Hollywood, her talent’s were allowed to flourish as she was given more challenging roles. Many of the movies she made and the shows she performed in during her time in Europe achieved great critical approval, but her most impressive challenge was yet to come.

Since her arrival in Europe, she had become fluent in both French and German and in 1930 she was given the part of Hai Tang in ‘Flame of Love’ (1930). She made three versions of the film in English, French and German, playing the role of Hai Tang in all three movies, alongside different actors. She spoke all the lines herself, and finally performed the role in German on the stage.

Although Anna had been given more fruitful opportunities in Europe than she ever had in Hollywood, she began to miss home and her family, and she returned to America. Soon after returning to the USA, she took a job in New York in the Broadway Play, ‘On the Spot’. Sadly, while the show was running, her mother was hit by a car and died shortly afterwards. Anna returned to California to take care of her family.

On her return to Hollywood, Paramount offered her a three picture deal, although without a salary increase. She made what is today considered one of her most memorable roles in Shanghai Express (1932) as Hui Fei.

Anna, once again felt disappointed by the roles that were on offer to her, and returned to Europe for a one-woman tour. As her three year stint in Britain came to a close, she awaited news on a role she really wanted to take. The role was the part of O-Lan in the adaption of Pearl S Buck’s novel, ‘The Good Earth’. Wong thought that this role would establish her as a serious actress, but she lost the role to German actress, Luise Rainer. Although she was offered the role of the maid, Lotus, she refused and embarked on a new adventure to visit her family in China.

Journey to the East

Anna May’s grandfather had come from a town in Guangdong Province in the south of China. Her family, including her father had already made the journey to China, so in 1936, Anna joined them for a tour around the country.

Wong was met by Chinese dignitaries and movie stars of the day and treated like royalty. Although she was welcomed by many, the Chinese press criticised her for having played roles considered to be derogatory towards her fellow people and asked her why she took such roles. At the time, Anna said it was because these were the only roles offered to her, although she would later admit that because of her more western upbringing, she knew very little about authentic Chinese culture, and assumed the stereotypes of philosophical, tea drinkers were correct.

Finally, however, she began to win over the press and the Chinese people. Anna May Wong understood how to market herself, and was even filming her travels around China to be shown back in America. Her journal was also printed in a weekly slot in the LA times recounting her experiences in a foreign land.

On her return to America, she made ‘Daughter of Shanghai’ (1937) which was financially successful and earned her another 3 movies with Paramount Studios.

In August 1937, Japan invaded Shanghai. Mary, Anna’s younger sister who was living there at the time managed to escape, but the family were unable to leave China.

In 1938, Anna finally managed to get her family to safety back in USA and worked with Chinatown communities to get rid of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which would not be repealed till 1943.

She continued to make low budget, yet successful movies for Paramount Studios as well as raising awareness about China, especially in Australia, where she spoke directly to Chinese communities about China relief funds. In 1941, she worked on war relief and in GI camps, as well as rallying troops over the radio.

Sadly, around this time, her younger sister Mary who had previously escaped the invasion of Shanghai, committed suicide after years of struggling to accept her role as a Chinese woman in America.

Anna May returned to Hollywood and made two significant movies that demonstrated her feelings and sympathy towards China. One was the ‘Lady from Chungking’ (1943), about a woman who rallies together villagers to resist occupying Japanese troops, the other was ‘Bombs over Burma’ (1942) in which Wong played a spy.

As the end of the war approached, Anna’s roles became fewer. This was a common occurrence for older women in Hollywood, and many were passed over for roles that went to younger women. However, it was made significantly worse than since the war, Asian themed movies had fallen massively out of fashion and so Anna turned to TV.

Following the 1948 presidential election, TV had had a huge impact on American culture. TV ownership went from 3 million in 1950 to over 55 million by the end of the decade. Shows such as the sitcom ‘I Love Lucy’ and variety shows like ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ hit screens and in 1951, Anna tried her hand at her own TV series, ‘The Gallery of Madame Liu Tsong’ (1951), but unfortunately, it only ran for 1 season.

03 Jan 1933, Los Angeles, California, USA — Original caption: Anna May Wong, beautiful Chinese movie star, is seen here on her arrival at the Music Box Theater in Hollywood for the premiere of The Old Woman. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

‘Portrait in Black’ (1960) would be Anna May’s final role, and shortly afterwards she fell ill and retired to her secluded home in Santa Monica, LA.

Anna May Wong passed away on February 2nd 1961 at the age of 56.

Final Thoughts

There were rumours that during her time in Germany, she was having an affair with Marlene Dietrich. It also struck me, whilst researching for this article that there was very little mentioned about her romantic life, and that she never married.

I found this extremely surprising considering the pressures Chinese women were, and still are under to marry and have children. Part of me felt admiration; she didn’t give in to the pressure (and I bet there was plenty) and marry a Chinese man that her parents chose for her, giving up her career in the process. However, deep down I have to accept perhaps the real reason why she she didn’t settle down. She was a beautiful, sensual woman who exuded exotic sex appeal, she was talented, intelligent and independent; there must have been men throwing themselves at her feet. But, until 1948, it was illegal for a Chinese woman to marry a white man.

During some further reading, I did come across some information that suggested she had relationships with caucasian men, and an almost marriage to one – who scarpered as soon as his acting career was threatened following his connection to her.

Wong Liu Tsong was a pioneer who tried to throw off the stereotype-shackles that prevented her from taking the lead roles she deserved. Anna May has remained an important figure in American culture, and led the way for other non-caucasian women to fight against the typecasting and racism of Hollywood.