Anna May Wong: The Hollywood Star You Might Not Know

How much do you know about the first great Asian-American movie star?

By Google Arts & Culture

Anna May Wong in Top Hat with Cocktail by Carl Van VechtenCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Asian-Americans are being increasingly represented on the big screen, but it wasn't always the case. Very few Asian-American actors became household names during the early years of cinema. However, there were exceptions. And perhaps the most notable was Anna May Wong.

By Carl MydansLIFE Photo Collection

A true movie legend

Born Wong Liu Tsong in 1905, Anna May became the first Chinese-American film star, with a career spanning silent movies, sound film, TV, radio, and the stage.

Anna May Wong with Metallic Flower by Carl Van VechtenCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Hollywood beginnings

Born in Los Angeles, the home of the movies, Anna May took to acting from an early age, starring in The Toll of the Sea (1922) at just 17. She also appeared in one of the first color pictures, Douglas Fairbanks' The Thief of Baghdad (1924), bringing her international acclaim.

Anna May Wong Certificate of IdentityCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

The move to Europe

However, it wasn't all plain sailing. Frustrated by being typecast into stereotypical supporting parts, she went to Europe to look for leading roles, starring in Piccadilly (1929), Daughter of the Dragon (1931), and with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932).

Anna May Wong (1937/1937)Museum of Chinese in America

Facing challenges

Although remarkable, Anna May's rise was not without its challenges, especially the spectre of racism. In 1935 she was turned down for the role of Chinese character O-Lan in The Good Earth, with the part going to a white actor, possibly due to Hays Code anti-miscegenation laws.

By Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

Bouncing back

After spending some time in China visiting her ancestral home and even documenting the experience on film, she returned to the US. In the 1930s she starred in several movies that portrayed Asian characters in a positive light, which was a welcome break from the norm at the time.

Anna May Wong on White BackdropCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

The move to TV

During the war, Annie May took a step back from acting but in 1951 she made history again with her TV show The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. It was the first ever US TV show featuring an Asian-American lead. However, she sadly died ten years later in 1961, at the age of just 56.

Anna May Wong with FlowersCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Find out more

Annie May Wong is a true Hollywood legend but one that perhaps doesn't get the credit she deserves. Discover more stories of overlooked women in arts and culture.

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