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How Anna May Wong Became the First Chinese American Movie Star

Aug 13, 2023

By Mayukh Sen

In March, 1929, when the twenty-four-year-old Chinese American actress Anna May Wong made her London stage début on the city’s West End, in a play called “The Circle of Chalk,” critics took issue with one aspect of her performance: her voice. Up to this point, Wong, five foot seven with dreamy eyes, had appeared primarily in American silent films that pandered to stereotypes of docile Asian women. Her live audience may have expected a dulcet trill. What she gave them instead was, to the ears of reviewers, “squeaky” and “uncultivated.” Wong was reared around Los Angeles’s Chinatown and had grown up speaking both Cantonese and English; she had an accent that was pure California. After the eight-week run of “The Circle of Chalk” concluded, Wong lunched with some journalists who probed her about her bad reviews. At first, she answered their questions in English. Then, catching them by surprise, she switched to Cantonese.

This episode arrives about halfway through the academic Yunte Huang’s searching new biography of the star, “Daughter of the Dragon: Anna May Wong’s Rendezvous with American History,” as evidence of what Huang calls Wong’s “defiance and playfulness.” In slipping into her ancestral tongue, Wong wasn’t just toying with public expectations. In one of the only ways available to her, she was boldly refusing legibility to the white audience who gazed upon her. Wong was the first Chinese American movie star in global cinema. Her four-decade career across film, stage, and television in the early and mid-twentieth century involved a series of complex negotiations. She had to genuflect to the cardboard caricatures that the industry often asked her to play while maintaining self-respect, protecting herself against the indignities meted out to her by dint of her racial background.

Huang’s book arrives at an unusually opportune moment for Wong’s legacy. Public idolization of Wong has rarely been higher: the reassessment of her body of work corresponds to a broader reclamation of Asian American history in recent years. In 2022, the United States featured her face on quarters, making her the first Asian American woman on the country’s currency; earlier this year, Mattel put out a Barbie in her likeness through its “Inspiring Women” collection. The Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh’s historic victory at this year’s Academy Awards, for her kaleidoscopic performance in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” too, thrust Wong back into the cultural conversation. In June, the novelist Gail Tsukiyama’s historical novel “The Brightest Star” was released, trying to slide under Wong’s skin through fiction; another biography of her, Katie Gee Salisbury’s “Not Your China Doll,” is slated for release next March.

“Daughter of the Dragon” is the final installment of Huang’s triptych focussed on Asian American history. Like the first two, “Charlie Chan” and “Inseparable,” it uses its subject as a proxy for the broader story of Asian American exclusion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The actress, born as Wong Liu Tsong in 1905 in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, grew up during a period of intense hostility toward Chinese Americans. The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, had barred almost all Chinese immigrants—namely Chinese laborers—from entering the United States. Wong’s paternal grandfather came to America in the eighteen-fifties. Both of her parents were born in the United States, but they were not immune to the antagonism such laws codified. Families like the Wongs, who ran a laundry shop, were often targets of racial animus in Los Angeles. Wong’s classmates taunted her with chants of “Chink, Chink, Chinaman” while tugging at her hair; some would stick pins in her, as if she were a doll.

Wong found refuge in film, becoming “movie-crazy,” in her words, at age ten. Soon she was hanging around movie sets that were shooting outdoors in Chinatown. So stubborn was her presence that one crew dubbed her “C.C.C.”—Curious Chinese Child. She resolved to become an actress and began to practice stretching her facial muscles by standing before a mirror and forcing herself to cry. To enhance the dramatic effect, she sometimes held a handkerchief to her chest before ripping it in a spasm of simulated emotion.

This was a time that films capitalizing on “yellow peril” were being churned out in American cinema, playing to a fascination with Chinese-origin characters portrayed as opium addicts, enslavers, and criminals. Yellowface, the practice of white performers pretending to be East Asian, was common; actors of Chinese descent struggled to gain a foothold in this hierarchy, particularly in leading roles. In her early teens, Wong was cast as an extra in 1919’s “The Red Lantern.” The film, which was set during China’s Boxer Rebellion, charted the divergent fates of two half sisters, one white and the other of mixed Chinese and white descent. Both sisters were played by Alla Nazimova, an actress born in Yalta, one of them in yellowface, her eyes made artificially amygdaloid through makeup. Wong, who played a girl carrying a light, corralled friends to the screening excitedly, only to find that she was barely in the film.

Undeterred, Wong rechristened herself Anna May Wong, making her name more palatable to her audiences. This was a routine gesture of Americanization that many of the stars of that era underwent. But it marked Wong’s realization that, to make it in the industry, she would have to walk a tightrope between the foreign and the familiar, packaging herself for white American audiences without compromising the mystique that her racial identity carried for moviegoers.

In 1922, she landed her first lead role, in “The Toll of the Sea.” She played a Hong Kong girl who falls in love with a white man who impregnates and abandons her; the film ends with her suicide. The character was the spiritual descendant of Madame Butterfly, a stereotypically submissive Asian woman who is tragically deserted by a domineering white man. The role demanded that Wong cry constantly. “Somebody throw Anna May Wong a raft,” a crew member yelled. Her performance received glowing reviews, but she struggled to find leading roles—at least in America. In a stroke of luck, she was offered a five-film contract in 1927 by the German director Richard Eichberg, who admired her work. Despite not knowing a lick of German and never having crossed the Atlantic, Wong said yes.

The change of place gave Wong the freedom to experiment with her identity: having come to Germany sporting the clothes of an American flapper, she began to feel more connected to what she called her “Chinese soul,” signing dedications with “Orientally yours, Anna May Wong,” in a cheeky wink at the image projected onto her. Her subsequent films with Eichberg broke her out of the typecasting that she’d faced in Hollywood. In 1929’s “Pavement Butterfly,” she played a Chinese dancer who, despite the title’s suggestion, was more of a self-possessed vamp than a passive wallflower.

Wong shed her flapper costume and assumed a new air of European sophistication. She learned German and French. Elocution lessons expunged all trace of her American accent. Her début in the talkies came with Eichberg, who directed three versions of the same film, known as “The Flame of Love” (1930) in the United States, in English, French, and German, all of them starring Wong as a dancer in tsarist Russia. Though critical response was mixed, Wong, unlike many stars of the silent era, survived the transition to sound.

But, after she spent two and a half years abroad, the Nazis were ascending to power, and the Weimar Republic was becoming increasingly hostile to foreigners. Homesickness drove her back to America. When Wong returned, she found that success abroad had increased her purchase in Hollywood. In 1931, she was cast in a major role in her first American talkie, “The Daughter of the Dragon.” She played an exotic dancer who slowly becomes a murderous vixen, breaking out of one stereotype only to find herself trapped in another. She underwent, in Huang’s words, “a radical transformation that turns Madame Butterfly into Dragon Lady,” a sticky, irredeemably evil stereotype that would become synonymous with Wong’s name in the popular imagination. The critical and popular approbation that she received for the role and for her performance alongside Marlene Dietrich in “Shanghai Express” the following year was not enough to secure a studio contract. Wong had proven again and again her ability to bring spiritual dimension to the stock roles she was given, but Hollywood was hesitant to acknowledge her gifts.

Though Huang sets Wong’s rising career against the backdrop of pervasive anti-Asian sentiment in America, he mostly avoids simplifying her into an easy icon of empowerment or an object of pity. Nor does he judge her for the concessions that she made in her choice of roles. Many Asian Americans at the time chided Wong for perpetuating stereotypes. Huang intelligently draws a parallel to similar criticisms levelled against inheritors of Wong’s legacy—such as Michelle Yeoh and the Asian American actresses Nancy Kwan and Lucy Liu—to show the enduring tension between a community clamoring to be seen and the artists like Wong who have to shoulder the burdens of representation. Wong was clear about why she needed to accept the parts that she did: she wasn’t in a position to decline roles. “When a person is trying to get established in a profession, he can’t choose parts. He has to take what is offered,” the reader hears Wong say to a Hollywood reporter.

It’s a great sound bite, revealing Wong’s psychology and the trap that she found herself in. Huang likes it, too. A version of that choice quote appears again eight chapters later, at a banquet with Chinese officials, to less potent effect. Here, as elsewhere, Huang seems so concerned with meticulously building the world around Wong that his picture of Wong herself starts to dim. As a consequence, Wong feels sometimes less like a flesh-and-blood figure and more like a prop through which Huang conducts his survey of Asian American history.

Huang does right by his subject, accessing her emotional core, when documenting the great heartbreak of Wong’s career, three years after “Shanghai Express.” She’d been eying the lead role in an adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s novel “The Good Earth,” a story of two Chinese farmers, Wang Lung and O-lan, who waver between poverty and affluence while juggling the tribulations of their marriage in the nineteen-twenties. The star Paul Muni, a Jewish actor born in what is now Ukraine, got the lead male role of Wang Lung and agreed to perform the role in yellowface. In 1934, the Production Code, colloquially known as the Hays Code, was adopted by the industry, officially disallowing onscreen miscegenation and interracial romance. The Hays Code’s mandate against interracial romance—and, more crucially, the fragile sensibilities of American moviegoers, who Huang suggests would have preferred a white actress in yellowface as a white actor’s counterpart—meant that Muni’s casting effectively precluded the possibility of Wong getting the role opposite him. Her predicament was intensified when a Chinese technical adviser hired to consult on the film claimed that Wong’s bowing to clichéd roles damaged her reputation in China and that casting her would be anathema to the film’s financial success there.

With O-lan out of reach, Wong put herself through screen tests for the supporting role of Lotus, a concubine. An associate producer was harsh in his assessments of Wong in casting memos: “A little disappointing as to looks. Does not seem beautiful enough to make Wang’s infatuation convincing; however, deserves consideration.” Soon, Wong recused herself from consideration for the part. “I do not see why I, at this stage of my career, should take a step backward and accept a minor role in a Chinese play that will surround me entirely by a Caucasian cast,” she stated to a journalist. The role of Lotus went to an Austrian performer named Tilly Losch, who, like the other white actors cast in the movie, would play the part in yellowface. (The eventual female lead, the white European actress Luise Rainer, won an Academy Award for her performance.) The account of Wong’s lobbying for the role of O-lan, and her quest to retain her pride in the face of humiliating rejection, is one of the book’s strongest. It possesses what other passages sometimes lack: an involving sense of our subject’s fears, her hopes—her humanity, in a word.

This story leads to another one of the book’s most vividly etched segments. Shaken by this slight, Wong decided to visit her ancestral homeland for the first time, in 1936. She considered that the trip to China was a way of determining “whether I am really Anna May Wong or Wong Liu Tsong.” But the answer did not come easily to her; upon her return to China, she found herself questioning where she belonged. Here, again, Huang allows the reader to feel how hard Wong had to fight for acceptance, this time among her own people. Most reporters in Shanghai spoke to her in Mandarin or their city’s dialect, to which her Cantonese tongue could not easily adjust, so she interacted with them through an interpreter. One Chinese film critic wanted her expelled from the country because of the stereotyped roles that she played. Another called for her to be shot. When she sought entry into American country clubs, she was turned away at the door because she was of Chinese descent. She stayed there nine months—it was always meant to be a sojourn—before returning once again to Hollywood.

Wong’s film career tailed off by the nineteen-forties, and she moved into the new medium of television. In 1951, she played the title character in the twelve-episode series “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong,” becoming the first Asian American to lead a television series. But the show wasn’t a success, enduring such a critical thrashing that it failed to usher her career in a new direction; like much of that era’s television, no footage survives today. Wong began to drink heavily and had to check into a hospital followed by convalescence at a sanatorium, selling off her jewelry to foot the bills. Her final film role, in 1960’s “Portrait in Black” as a housekeeper, relegated her to the background, as if she were an extra. She died of a heart attack in her sleep, in Santa Monica, in early February of 1961; she was just fifty-six. A script for another film role, a lead in 1961’s “Flower Drum Song,” reportedly sat next to her as she died.

“Daughter of the Dragon” has its lapses. But it soars when Huang resists treating Wong as a hapless victim of American history and digs deeper to reveal the shrewd, resilient soul beneath. “It is hard to get into the pictures,” she once said. “But it is harder to keep in them.” During her lifetime, Wong’s stardom was, for reasons beyond her control, eclipsed by that of her white peers. Thanks in part to scholars like Huang, her legacy won’t suffer the same fate. ♦