The Artist : Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong was the first Chinese-American movie star, and the first Asian-American actress to gain international fame. A trailblazer at a time when Hollywood didn’t even try to pretend not to be racist, Anna May’s career paved the way for other non-white actors.

Anna, whose real name was Wong Liu Tsong, was born in Los Angeles in 1905. When Anna was a child, the film industry was in the process of moving from the east coast to the west. Since they often filmed in Los Angeles’ Chinatown neighborhood, Anna was surrounded by the trappings of filmmaking and she began to dream of becoming an actress. Her interest led to her skipping the Chinese school she attended after her American school, and instead she took the five cents her parents gave her for lunch money and spent it on going to the movies. At the age of 11, she even came up with her stage name.

Her first role came early – Anna was just 14 when she was asked to play an extra in The Red Lantern. After that, new roles kept on coming, so she decided to drop out of high school and dedicate all her time to her career. She landed her first leading role at 17 – she played the role of Lotus Flower in The Toll of the Sea. The movie was extraordinary for technical reasons, but also because Anna’s heroine was in a relationship with a white American and even gave birth to his son. Because of anti-miscegenation laws, most filmmakers avoided interracial relationships on screen, which greatly affected the roles available to Anna.

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Anna May Wong

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After agreeing to play many stereotypical roles for which she was praised by critics, Anna decided her career was too confined by narrow thinking in the United States, and she moved to Europe in 1928 to develop her career.

Just as her contemporary, Josephine Baker, found more freedom, success, and respect in Paris, Anna May Wong also discovered she had far more freedom and opportunity working in Europe at the time.

Anna was offered more complex and challenging roles in Austrian and German films, and she also worked on plays in the UK. Although Anna was offered more leading roles, the freedom she experienced was simply an “improvement” and certainly no perfection – even in Europe, she still could not kiss white males on screen.

Approval and praise made Anna brave enough to start speaking out and fighting against discrimination. For the rest of her life, she refused to play stereotypical roles and preferred low-budget movies in which she could play strong characters. She was vocal on the issues within Hollywood, and she also helped people in China by auctioning off her costumes and raising money for numerous causes.

Even though the filmmaking industry is still rife with discrimination, Anna’s efforts to build a successful career as an actress helped to open many doors for actors of color after her. She also provided an opportunity for Chinese-Americans to see themselves represented accurately (in person, if not in plot), at a time when white actors were usually cast as Asian-Americans in blatant “yellowface”.

Sadly, Hollywood is still casting white actors in Asian roles (see the recent casting of Emma Stone and Scarlett Johansson for examples), proving that there is still a long way to go – but also proving how groundbreaking Anna May Wong’s life and career were, for a woman who lived a century ago.

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