Episode 32: Anna May Wong
Quarter American Women Series
Anna May Wong is on the U.S. Mint Women Series quarter.
In the early 1920’s acting roles for Asian Americans were limited. Hollywood was yet to have roles with leading ladies who looked like Anna May Wong.
But, that didn’t stop her….. There is a story of a courages woman, who advocated for representation for multi-dimensional roles for Asian Americans.
Anna May Wong would not stop… it would be her life’s journey and it is also her story…. And today I share her story with you.
Anna May Wong was an American actress, the first Chinese American movie star, and the first Asian American to become an international star. Her long and varied career spanned both silent and sound film, television, stage, and radio.
Her life and love of film began early…. She always loved film.
Anna May Wong was a third generation immigrant, born on January 3rd, 1905. Her grandfather emigrated to the US in the 1850s to find work and raise his family. It was at Anna May’s parent’s laundromat where she learned Chinese after school …. but even at an early age, learning a language wasn’t what was mostly on her mind. She felt her time was best spent skipping school for film.
As early as nine years old, she was fascinated with movies and film. Visiting sets often to look and take it all in, she dreamed of her day as a movie star as the actors, producers and directors would go about their routines.
Anna May once said “I would worm my way through the crowd and get close to the cameras.” Wong said. “I’d stare at these glamorous individuals and then I would rush home and do the scenes I had witnessed before a mirror.”
The curiosity and learning from being close up to the action, gave the young 14 year old Anna May, the opportunity for her first role in 1919 as an extra in Red Lantern, a story of family drama, of loss and deceit, the film gave her a chance to share her talent and experience working in film.
Her early films were silent, but her talent would shine through for all to see. Her style, elegance and expression of emotions showed her acting and performance strengths and skills. Wanting to put all of her efforts into an acting career, Anna May left high school in 1921 at the age of 16 to pursue a career in film. She would devote her time and effort full time to becoming an actress.
She was successful in finding a role in Bits of Life where she played Toy Ling’s wife and when she was 17 she was the leading lady in the silent film The Toll of the Sea in 1922.
Sadly, even with all of this success, America and Hollywood was not
Her drive to become a recognizable and successful leading actress Wong auditioned for countless lead roles but found herself landing only supporting character or the typical Asian character many times in a stereotypical character.
Times were very racially segregated in more areas than just film and theatre. During this time in America there was discrimination and lack of opportunities in many parts of everyday life. And, The mindset toward Asian migration at the time was negative in every way. Seeking of leading roles in a field so highly sought after by all races, it was no wonder she had difficulty finding leading roles. Laws at the time not only prevented interracial marriages, but it also forbade the kissing of interracial actors on screen. Because the majority of actors, especially leading ones, were white, Wong could never get into a leading romantic role either.
“There seems little for me in Hollywood,” Wong once said l. “because rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians for Chinese roles. Pathetic dying seemed to be the best thing I did.”
Her will and dedication to achieving her dream and goal was not stopped by lack of opportunities. She decided to move to Europe and try her chances there. Prior to moving there she created her own production company.
She left for Europe in the late 1920s, and gained success starring in several notable plays and films. Europe was much more welcoming for an young Asia woman, talented and driven to be successful and make a name for her self. She starred in films around Europe – Paris, Berlin, London…. Evening going so far as to learn French and German . She starred in Piccadilly. She spent the first half of the 1930s traveling between the United States and Europe for film and stage work. Wong was featured in films of the early sound era, such as Daughter of the Dragon and Daughter of Shanghai, and with Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express when she returned to the states.
Wow… she was definitely finding great roles to show her love of acting and bringing her characters to life. But, what she didn’t forget were the struggles she faced in America to become an actress.
She wanted to be a role model and leader in bringing awareness to other Asian – American in a positive light and also to be given the opportunity to pursue their dreams too. Wong was a very courageous advocate who Asian American actors. She would gladly put forth her influence to championed for increased representation and more multi-dimensional roles for Asian American actors.
She herself would refuse roles which where harmful to her identify and that of Asian Americans. Her persistence and defiance to stand up to those who wanted her to play roles that would deminish Asian American helped pave the way for others to break into film and be accepted for who they were and not a characturture or sterotype.
Wong created her own film after that hiring a cinematographer and filmed a documentary of her travels in China in 1936.
She went on to become the first Asian American to lead a US television show on The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong in the 1950s. Wong is most well-known for her leading role in “The Toll of the Sea” in 1922.
She also raised money for Chinese refugees during World War II.
In 1960, Wong was awarded her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame the first Asian American to receive this honor
She was slated to appear in Flower Drum Song by Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1961.
However, the phenomenal actress suffered a heart attack and died on February 3rd, 1961.
She did receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, one year before she died. It is heartwarming to know she was able to see the recognition honoring her accomplishments.
It take fortatude and tenacity to stand up for what you believe in the face of those who want to diminish you. Anna May Wong, never wavered…. She took monumental step in standing up for not only herself but for other Asians and Asian Americans by carefully choosing her roles and filming her documentary created not only a path for actors in the future, but for people to look past differences and try to respect if not try to understand someone different from themselves.
Anna May Wong… an american legend.
She is featured on the four quarter of the U.S. Mint American Women Series.
And, this is her story.
For more information about the U.S. Mint Commemorative Quarters click here.