Wong, Anna May (1907–1961)

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Wong, Anna May (1907–1961)

Actress who was the first Chinese-American to succeed in the movie industry . Name variations: Wong Liu Tsong. Born Wong Liu Tsong on January 3, 1907 (some sources cite 1905), in Los Angeles, California; died of a heart attack on February 3, 1961, in Santa Monica, California; daughter of Sam Wong and Lee Gon Toy; educated in Los Angeles public schools.

Appeared in more than 80 films, including The Thief of Bagdad (1924), with Douglas Fairbanks, and Shanghai Express (1932), with Marlene Dietrich.

Born Wong Liu Tsong in 1907 in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles, Anna May Wong was the first successful Chinese-American film actor, popular in both the United States and Europe. Still, the prejudices of her times prevented Wong from ever reaching true stardom, and she struggled throughout her career against racial stereotyping in American movies.

One of eight children of second-generation Chinese laundry owners, she went to public schools but, inspired by American movies, decided at age 12 that she wanted to be an actress. Her parents saw acting as dishonorable and strongly disapproved of her untraditional career goal, but Wong defied them and made her first film appearance, as an extra, in The Red Lantern in 1919. Still a high school student, she appeared as an extra in two more films, then had her first screen credit playing the wife of Lon Chaney, Sr., in Bits of Life (1921). After her graduation later that year, Wong's dramatic talent and striking beauty—she was 5'7", with black hair and pale skin—led to the leading role of Lotus Flower in one of the first Technicolor films, The Toll of the Sea (1922).

Two years later, Wong became a Hollywood celebrity when she was cast in Douglas Fairbanks' lavish production of The Thief of Bagdad (1924). She played a supporting role as a Mongol slave, but her exotic performance captured the attention of critics and audiences. Until 1928, Wong appeared regularly in new movies, almost always cast as an "oriental villainess" as movie studios made many films set in China and Chinatown.

By 1928, she was frustrated with the lack of significant roles offered to her and with the stereo-typing of Asian characters in movies as evil or mysterious. Hoping to find more substantial film roles in Europe, she went to Germany, where her performance in the silent film Song brought her praise from German critics. Over the next two years, Wong appeared in several movies made in Germany, France, and England, and enjoyed a considerably expanded range of roles and appreciation by European audiences. She appeared frequently on stage, including a long run in a Vienna musical. As talking pictures became popular, Wong learned fluent German and French in order to remain competitive for new roles; she was so successful that some critics accused the studio of dubbing her voice. In England her most notable work was in E.A. Dupont's Piccadilly, released in 1929. While in London, Wong's European successes made her a celebrity, an icon of style and sophistication who moved within high society.

However, her London stage debut in March 1929 was less successful. Appearing opposite Laurence Olivier, Wong opened in A Circle of Chalk, based on a Chinese legend and adapted specifically for her by the English director Basil Dean. Neither the actors nor the play received good reviews, and critics were especially harsh about Wong's American accent. When Circle closed in 1930, she returned to the United States. Her success in Europe brought her to the attention of casting directors again, and throughout the 1930s she accepted many leading roles in melodramas, although she was still often playing Chinese stereotypes. She performed in her first Broadway play in late 1930 as a "half-Chinese gangster's moll" in On the Spot. The following year she accepted a multi-film contract with Paramount Studios, and was given the lead in Daughter of the Dragon, released in 1932. Wong remained in the spotlight through 1932 when she was critically acclaimed for her supporting role as a prostitute in the Marlene Dietrich film Shanghai Express. She then made two movies in England in 1934, returned to the U.S. to make Paramount's Limehouse Blues, then once again sailed for Europe. There she toured extensively across Western Europe in a one-woman show.

Despite positive reviews of her work, in 1935 Wong was bitterly disappointed when she was passed over for the leading role of O-lan in Pearl S. Buck 's The Good Earth. (The part went to the Austrian Luise Rainer , who won an Oscar for her performance.) Instead, Wong was offered a minor role in the movie, which she turned down. In January 1936, she and her sister traveled to China for a ten-month stay. Wong was surprised and saddened when Chinese officials publicly denounced her for playing stereo-typical evil Chinese roles, even though she herself had been an outspoken critic of racism in Hollywood in her interviews and had mourned the lack of serious roles for Asian actors.

Wong returned to the United States in 1937 to star as a detective in Paramount's Daughter of Shanghai, her first positive portrayal of a Chinese woman in an American film. However, this success was followed by a string of low-budget mysteries. When her Paramount contract expired, Wong traveled to Australia and toured again in her one-woman show. During World War II, she performed in two American war films, Bombs Over Burma and The Lady from Chungking. She also worked as a scene coach—ironically teaching Caucasian actors how to be more believable as Asians—and entertained American troops. Offered little in the way of good film roles in the late 1940s and 1950s, Wong lived quietly with her brother Richard in her Santa Monica home.

She made her television debut in 1951, playing an art gallery owner and amateur detective in a series created for her, The Gallery of Madame Liu Tsong. The series was soon canceled, and she appeared only in bit roles on television and in live theater after that. In 1960, she made her final film, Portrait in Black, with Lana Turner . Wong had to quit production on another film, Flower Drum Song, in late 1960 because of failing health due to cirrhosis of the liver caused by heavy drinking. After being bedridden for several months, she died of a heart attack in February 1961, at age 54. Anna May Wong was buried at Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles. Although she had supported her widowed father, despite their estrangement, and most of her siblings throughout her career, Wong left her small fortune entirely to her brother Richard Wong.


Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1998.

Roberts, Barrie. "Anna May Wong: Daughter of the Orient," in Classic Images. No. 270. December 1997, pp. 20–24.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green, eds. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California