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Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong (1907-1961) is chiefly remembered as the first actress of Asian extraction to achieve stardom as the epitome of the "Oriental temptress," so much a fixture of melodramas in the late 1920s and 1930s.

Anna May Wong became America's first Asian American movie star before films could even talk. In fact, with more than 80 film credits to her name, Wong is the all-time leading Asian American presence on film. She maintained her popularity for more than a quarter of a century, and she remained one of the highest-salaried stars of her time. She built a career around being the mysterious evil villainess, repeatedly playing stereotypical Oriental roles. She was the exotic slave girl, the powerful dragon lady, the mysterious woman of the Orient with deadly charms.

However, despite her success, Wong was torn between her two cultures. Twice, at the height of her fame, she moved to Europe to protest the limited, stereotypical roles she and other Asians were offered in Hollywood. Yet during a later trip to China to learn more about her native culture, Wong was heavily criticized for her degrading portrayals of Chinese women and was told that many of her films were banned in China.

Born on Flower Street in Los Angeles, California, in 1907, Anna May Wong was named Wong Liu Tsong, which in Cantonese means "frosted yellow willow." Wong was third-generation Chinese American; her father was born in Sacramento and his father had immigrated to California during the Gold Rush.

Growing up, Wong and her six brothers and sisters lived in an apartment over the family's run-down laundry. Her first memories were of constant steam and the strong odor of hot-ironed linen. As a young child, Wong became fascinated with the brand-new world of movies. She began skipping Chinese school in the evenings to watch such movies as The Perils of Pauline (1914) at the local theater. By the time she was 11, Wong decided she was going to be a movie actress. Against all odds, she got her first part at age 12 when an agent hired three hundred Chinese girls as extras in the 1919 film The Red Lantern. Hardly visible in the film, she went on to get a few more minor roles.

For two years, Wong worked after school as an extra without telling her parents, who, she knew, would not approve. At age 14, her father found her a job as a secretary, but Wong was fired as unqualified one week later. When she returned home, fearing her father's anger, she found a letter from a director's office offering her a role in the film Bits of Life (1921). It would bring Wong her first screen credit. Although Wong's father strongly objected to his daughter's chosen career, he eventually gave in on the condition that an adult escort, often he himself, would chaperon the young Wong on the film sets at all times. When she was not in front of the cameras, her father locked her into her room on the set.

At age 17, Wong had one of the few romantic lead roles she would ever play in Toll of the Sea (1923), the first Technicolor feature ever made. As a young village girl who marries an American sailor, Wong captured the media's attention for the first time. Reporters began to appear at the laundry in the hopes of catching Wong for an interview or a photo.

International fame came in 1924 with The Thief of Bagdad, in which Wong played an exotic Mongol slave girl opposite star Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Wong's role embarrassed her family. Although Wong would continue to support her family for many years, she remained close only to her brother, Richard.

The success of Bagdad led to countless new offers. She appeared as an Eskimo in The Alaskan and a Native American girl in Peter Pan. In addition to film roles, Wong also worked as a model. She made a few more films, but soon became disillusioned with the roles and with Hollywood's practice of casting non-Asians in the few leading Asian roles. Wong finally fled to Europe where, in London, she costarred with Charles Laughton in Piccadilly. After the film, director Basil Dean produced a Chinese play, A Circle of Chalk, specifically for Wong. She successfully played opposite the rising new talent, Laurence Olivier, in London's New Theater.

Wong remained in Europe for three years, where she was hailed for her film and stage appearances. In Germany and France, she made foreign versions of her British films, including Germany's first sound picture. She spoke both German and French so fluently that critics could hardly believe they were hearing her voice instead of a native actress. During her career, Wong taught herself to speak English, Chinese, French, German, and Italian.

In 1931 a leading role on Broadway lured Wong back to the United States. The play, On the Spot, ran for 30 weeks, until Wong was called back to Los Angeles when her mother died in an automobile accident.

Wong's next screen role, Daughter of the Dragon, cast her in yet another stereotypical role as the daughter of the infamous Dr. Fu Manchu. Wong then appeared in the thriller Shanghai Express, starring Marlene Dietrich. Wong's portrayal of the bad-girl-turned-good inspired better reviews than Dietrich received. Years later, the star would complain that Wong had upstaged her.

Wong then made one independent Sherlock Holmes picture and returned to England, where she felt her true audiences were. Like many minority artists at the time, Wong felt Europe was a less racist place to work. There she enjoyed the company of royalty and the wealthy. Wong remained in England for almost three years, appearing in more films and traveling in a variety show.

After failing to win the lead role in The Good Earth, which was given to a non-Asian German actress, a furious and frustrated Wong traveled to China, the home of her ancestors. In spite of those who criticized her for playing degrading Asian roles, Wong remained in China for ten months, studied Mandarin Chinese, purchased costumes for films and plays, and wrote articles on her travels. Unfortunately, she learned that she was too westernized for the Chinese stage. At the same time, she knew she never would be considered American enough for Hollywood's racist views.

After returning to the United States, Wong starred in one sympathetic role before World War II. In Daughter of Shanghai, she played a detective. She then appeared in two war epics, Bombs over Burma and The Lady from Chungking. The war brought another difficult situation for Wong. As more war movies were being cast, she was not hired as an actress, but as a coach to teach Caucasian actors how to be more believable as Asians.

In 1942, finally fed up with the Hollywood system, Wong retired from films at the age of 35. "I had to go into retirement for the sake of my soul. I suddenly found no more pleasure in acting. My screen work became a weary and meaningless chore—and Hollywood life a bore!" Wong told New York Enquirer in 1957. Throughout the war, she contributed to the war efforts by working for the United China Relief Fund and touring with the USO. During the 1940s and 1950s, Wong took occasional small parts on television, even starring in her own series, Mme. Liu Tsong, in which she played the owner of an international chain of art galleries who was also a sleuth.

Seventeen years after retirement, Wong attempted a film comeback. She returned as Lana Turner's mysterious housekeeper in the 1950 film, Portrait in Black. In 1961, while she was preparing for the role of the mother in Flower Drum Song, Wong died of a heart attack in her sleep.

Further Reading

Parish, James Robert, and William T. Leonard, Hollywood Players: The Thirties, New Rochelle, New York, 1976.

Pictures, August 1926 and September 1926. □

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Wong, Anna May

WONG, Anna May



Nationality: American. Born: Wong Liu Tsong in Los Angeles, California, 3 January 1905. Education: Attended California Street School, Chinese Mission School, a Chinese school, and Los Angeles High School. Career: 1919—film debut at age 14 in The Red Lantern; 1921—first credited role in Bits of Life; 1922—first starring role in The Toll of the Sea; 1928—made her first film in Germany, Song; 1929—stage debut in The Circle of Chalk with Laurence Olivier in London; made first film in England, Piccadilly; 1930—New York stage debut in On the Spot; on tour in Brooklyn, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles; on stage in Vienna in Tschun Tschi (Springtime), which she also produced; 1933—special one-week appearance in Blackpool, England, on stage in Variety Fair; 1934—on stage in Italy, Switzerland, and the British Isles; 1935—on stage in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden; 1937—stars in Princess Turandot at the Westchester Playhouse, Mount Kisco, NY, and Westport, Connecticut; 1939—on stage in Melbourne, Australia; 1951—TV debut starring in The Gallery of Mme. Liu-Tsong. Died: In Santa Monica, California, 3 February 1961.


Films as Actress:

1919

The Red Lantern (Capellani) (uncredited bit as lantern bearer)

1920

Dinty (Neilan and MacDermott) (uncredited bit)

1921

The First Born (Campbell) (uncredited bit as servant); Outside the Law (Browning) (uncredited bit as Chinese girl); Bits of Life (Neilan) (as Toy Sing); Shame (Flynn) (as Lotus Blossom)

1922

The Toll of the Sea (Franklin) (as Lotus Flower)

1923

Mary of the Movies (McDermott) (as herself); Drifting (Browning) (as Rose Li); Thundering Dawn (Garson) (as honky-tonk girl)

1924

The Alaskan (Brenon) (as Keok); The Thief of Bagdad (Walsh) (as the Mongol slave); The Fortieth Door (Seitz—serial) (as Zira); Peter Pan (Brenon) (as Tiger Lily)

1925

Forty Winks (Urson and Iribe) (as Annabelle Wu); His Supreme Moment (Fitzmaurice) (as harem girl in play); Screen Snapshots No. 3 (short) (as herself)

1926

Fifth Avenue (Vignola) (as Nan Lo); A Trip to Chinatown (Kerr) (as Ohtai); The Silk Bouquet (as Dragon Horse); The Desert's Toll (Smith) (as Oneta)

1927

Driven from Home (Young); Mr. Wu (Nigh) (as Loo Song); The Honorable Mr. Buggs (Jackman—short) (as Baroness Stoloff); Old San Francisco (Crosland) (as Chinese girl); The Chinese Parrot (Leni) (as Nautch dancer); The Devil Dancer (Niblo and Rebich Shores) (as Sada); Streets of Shanghai (Gasnier) (as Su Quan)

1928

Across to Singapore (Nigh) (as Bailarina); The Crimson City (Mayo) (as Su); Chinatown Charlie (Hines) (as the Manda-rin's sweetheart); Song (Eichberg) (title role)

1929

Großtadtschmetterling (The City Butterfly) (Eichberg) (as Mah); Piccadilly (Dupont) (as Sho-Sho)

1930

The Road to Dishonour (Eichberg) (as Hai-Tang); Hai-Tang (German version of The Road to Dishonour) (title role); L'Amour Maître Des Choses (French version of The Road to Dishonour) (Kemm) (as Hai-Tang); Elstree Calling(Brunel and Hitchcock) (as herself); The Flame of Love (Eichberg) (as Hai-Tang); Wasted Love (Eichberg)

1931

Daughter of the Dragon (Corrigan) (as Princess Ling Moy)

1932

Shanghai Express (von Sternberg) (as Hue Fei)

1933

A Study in Scarlet (Marin) (as Mrs. Pyke); Tiger Bay (Wills) (as Liu Chang)

1934

Chu Chin Chow (Forde) (as Zahrat); Limehouse Blues (Hall) (as Tu Tuan)

1935

Java Head (Ruben) (as Taou Yen)

1937

Daughter of Shanghai (Florey) (as Lan Ying Lin); Hollywood Party (Rowland—short) (as herself)

1938

Dangerous to Know (Florey) (as Mme. Lan Ying); When Were You Born? (McGann) (as Mei Lee Ling)

1939

Island of Lost Men (Neumann) (as Kim Ling); King of Chinatown (Grinde) (as Dr. Mary Ling)

1940

Chinese Garden Festival (short) (as herself)

1941

Ellery Queen's Penthouse Mystery (Hogan) (as Lois Ling)

1942

Bombs over Burma (Lewis) (as Lin Ying); Lady from Chung-king (Nigh) (as Mme. Kwan Mei)

1949

Impact (Lubin) (as Su Lin)

1960

Portrait in Black (Gordon) (as Tani)



Publications


By WONG: article—

"The True Life Story of a Chinese Girl," in Pictures, August 1926 and September 1926.

On WONG: book—

Parish, James Robert, and William T. Leonard, Hollywood Players: The Thirties, New Rochelle, New York, 1976.


On WONG: articles—

"Anna May Wong: Combination of East and West," in New York Herald Tribune, 9 November 1930.

Davis, Mac, "Fled from Fame for 5 Years," in New York Enquirer, 18 February 1957.

Obituary in New York Times, 4 February 1961.

Leibfried, Philip, "Anna May Wong," in Films in Review (New York), March 1987 and November 1987; see also issues for

October 1987, and January, February, and April 1988.

Sakamoto, Edward, "Anna May Wong and the Dragon-Lady Syndrome," in Los Angeles Times, calendar section, 12 July 1987.

Okrent, Neil, "Right Place, Wong Time: Why Hollywood's First Asian Star, Anna May Wong, Died a Thousand Movie Deaths," in Los Angeles Magazine, May 1990.

Leibfried, Philip, "Anna May Wong's Silent Film Career," in Silent Film Monthly (New York), February 1995.

Roberts, B., "Anna May Wong: Daughter of the Orient," in Classic Images (Muscatine), December 1997.


* * *

Anna May Wong is chiefly remembered as the first actress of Asian extraction to achieve stardom and as the epitome of the "Oriental temptress," so much a fixture of melodramas in the late 1920s and 1930s. She began at Metro in 1919 at the age of 14 with a bit part in a Nazimova vehicle, The Red Lantern, and continued in such roles until receiving her initial screen credit in the first anthology film, Bits of Life. Although she starred in the first true Technicolor feature made in Hollywood, Toll of the Sea, and had an important role in Douglas Fairbanks's classic fantasy, The Thief of Bagdad, most of the remainder of her Hollywood films in the 1920s saw her as either an exotic dancer or a temptress.

Fed up with that stereotype, she fled to more tolerant Europe in 1928, where she became a true star in German and British films. She also appeared on stage in London, Vienna, Oslo, Copenhagen, Goteborg, Switzerland, Italy, and throughout the British Isles, with periodic returns to New York and Hollywood up until 1935. In 1936 she visited China for the only time, where she purchased costumes that she later used in films and on stage. The following year she was back in Hollywood under contract at Paramount, for whom she made four thrillers in three years, as well as a loan-out to Warner Brothers, none of which aided her flagging film career. She traveled to Australia in 1939, where she appeared on stage in Melbourne to raise funds for Chinese War Relief, to which she devoted her energies up until the end of World War II, appearing only in two Poverty Row productions during the war, after which she was in virtual retirement form the screen. She appeared in one film in 1949, and two years later tackled television in her own series on the Dumont network, which lasted only 11 episodes. She appeared on a number of television programs throughout the 1950s before her final film appearance in Portrait in Black in 1960.


—Philip Leibfried

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Wong, Anna May

Anna May Wong

Born: January 3, 1905
Los Angeles, California
Died: February 3, 1961
Santa Monica, California

Asian American actress

Anna May Wong is chiefly remembered as the first actress of Asian descent to achieve stardom as the "Oriental temptress," so much a fixture of melodramas in the late 1920s and 1930s.

Childhood

Born on Flower Street in Los Angeles, California, in 1907, Anna May Wong was named Wong Liu Tsong, which in Cantonese means "frosted yellow willow." Wong was third-generation Chinese American; her father was born in Sacramento, California, and his father had moved to California during the Gold Rush, where thousands flocked to the state in hopes of striking it rich with gold.

Growing up, Wong and her six brothers and sisters lived in an apartment over the family's run-down laundry. Her first memories were of constant steam and the strong odor of hot-ironed linen. As a young child, Wong became fascinated with the brand new world of movies. She began skipping Chinese school in the evenings to watch such movies as The Perils of Pauline (1914) at the local theater. By the time she was eleven, Wong decided she was going to be a movie actress. Against all odds, she got her first part at age fourteen when an agent hired three hundred Chinese girls as extras in the 1919 film The Red Lantern. Hardly visible in the film, she went on to get a few more minor roles.

Hollywood calls

For two years, Wong worked after school as an extra without telling her parents, who, she knew, would not approve. At age sixteen, her father found her a job as a secretary, but Wong was fired as unqualified one week later. When she returned home, fearing her father's anger, she found a letter from a director's office offering her a role in the film Bits of Life (1921). It would bring Wong her first screen credit. Although Wong's father strongly objected to his daughter's chosen career, he eventually gave in on the condition that an adult escort, often he himself, would accompany the young Wong on the film sets at all times. When she was not in front of the cameras, her father locked her into her room on the set.

At age seventeen, Wong had one of the few romantic lead roles she would ever play in Toll of the Sea (1923), the first Technicolor (an early color film) feature ever made. As a young village girl who marries an American sailor, Wong captured the media's attention for the first time. Reporters began to appear at the laundry in the hopes of catching Wong for an interview or a photo.

International fame came in 1924 with The Thief of Bagdad, in which Wong played an exotic Mongol slave girl opposite star Douglas Fairbanks Sr. (18831939). Wong's role embarrassed her family. Although Wong would continue to support her family for many years, she remained close only to her brother, Richard.

The movie star's life

The success of Bagdad led to countless new offers. She appeared as an Eskimo in The Alaskan and a Native American girl in Peter Pan. In addition to film roles, Wong also worked as a model. She made a few more films, but soon became aggravated with the roles and with Hollywood's practice of casting non-Asians in the few leading Asian roles. Wong finally fled to Europe where, in London, she costarred with Charles Laughton (18991962) in Piccadilly. After the film, director Basil Dean produced a Chinese play, A Circle of Chalk, specifically for Wong. She successfully played opposite the rising new talent, Laurence Olivier (19071989), in London's New Theater.

Wong remained in Europe for three years, where she was hailed for her film and stage appearances. In Germany and France, she made foreign versions of her British films, including Germany's first sound picture. She spoke both German and French so fluently that critics could hardly believe they were hearing her voice instead of a native actress. During her career, Wong taught herself to speak English, Chinese, French, German, and Italian.

Wong's next screen role, Daughter of the Dragon, cast her in yet another stereotypical (having to do with opinions based on generalizations) role as the daughter of the infamous Dr. Fu Manchu. Wong then appeared in the thriller Shanghai Express, starring Marlene Dietrich (19011992). Wong's portrayal of the bad-girl-turned-good inspired better reviews than Dietrich received. Years later, the star would complain that Wong had upstaged her.

An early retirement

In 1942, finally fed up with the Hollywood system, Wong retired from films at the age of thirty-five. Throughout the war, she contributed to the war efforts by working for the United China Relief Fund and touring with the United Service Organizations, Inc. (USO; a group that provided entertainment and other services for the U.S. military). During the 1940s and 1950s, Wong took occasional small parts on television, even starring in her own series, Mme. Liu Tsong, in which she played the owner of an international chain of art galleries who was also a sleuth.

Seventeen years after retirement, Wong attempted a film comeback. She returned as Lana Turner's (19201995) mysterious housekeeper in the 1950 film, Portrait in Black. In 1961, while she was preparing for the role of the mother in Flower Drum Song, Wong died of a heart attack in her sleep.

For More Information

"Anna May Wong." In Notable Asian Americans. Edited by Helen Zia and Susan B. Gall. Detroit: Gale, 1995.

Parish, James Robert, and William T. Leonard. Hollywood Players: The Thirties. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1976.

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"Wong, Anna May." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Wong, Anna May." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/wong-anna-may

"Wong, Anna May." UXL Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved August 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/wong-anna-may