“Success is not a jewel that you can purchase and keep for your entire life. On the contrary, the brightest star can fall down at any time and fade away into dust.”

– Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong’s Story

Anna May Wong was born in 1905 near Los Angeles’ Chinatown to Chinese American parents. She became interested in silent film at an early age, and would often skip school to go to the movies – and to watch them being made. At 14, Wong had her first break when she was cast as an extra in the 1919 film The Red Lantern. Soon after, despite the disapproval of her family, Wong quit school to pursue acting full time.

In an era, during the Chinese Exclusion Act, when Chinese characters in Hollywood films were typically played by white actors in yellowface, Wong was the first woman to buck this trend. She starred in classics like The Toll of the Sea (1922) and Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Despite her popularity, however, Wong continued to be cast in supporting roles as anti-miscegenation laws, prevented her from sharing an on-screen kiss with any person of another race. Moreover, because of pervasive racism, these roles tended to depict Chinese Americans in a stereotypical and discriminatory light, as either tragic or evil characters.

Fed up with the typecasting, in 1928 Wong left for Europe, where she acted in English, German, and French films, including the highly popular British film Piccadilly (1929). After returning to the United States, Wong was widely lauded for her supporting role as Hui Fei in the film Shanghai Express (1932), where she performed alongside film superstar Marlene Dietrich. Wong’s successful career earned her widespread celebrity, and she became known not just for her acting but also for her impeccable fashion sense and her blunt bangs. Her style and haircut were emulated by women in both the United States and Europe.

Despite Wong’s status as the premier Chinese American actress, she was passed over for the lead role in an adaption of Pearl Buck’s novel, The Good Earth (1936). The director opted instead for a white actress in yellowface. In response to this slight, Wong spent 1936 traveling China and filming a documentary about her experience. In the 1950s and 60s, she acted in various television series such as The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, as well as episodes of Adventures In Paradise (1959), The Life And Legend Of Wyatt Earp (1960), and The Barbara Stanwyck Show (1961).

Wong was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. She suffered from depression and alcoholism and died on February 3, 1961, at the age of 56 of a heart attack. 

Featured in the Film

Shirley J. Lim

Shirley Jennifer Lim is an Associate Professor of History and affiliate faculty in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Asian and Asian American Studies, and Africana Studies at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The author of A Feeling of Belonging: Asian American Women’s Public Culture, 1930-1960 (NYU 2006), her second book, Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern (Temple University Press 2019), was a finalist for the Organization of American Historians’ Nickliss Prize. 

Jenna Ushkowitz

Jenna Ushkowitz is known for her role as Tina Cohen-Chang on the FOX TV series, Glee. Jenna made her producing debut on Broadway with the revival Once on This Island, winning her a Tony Award, and is also a co-producer of the West End production The Jungle and Broadway’s Be More Chill and The Inheritance. Her Broadway acting credits include The King And I, Spring Awakening and Waitress. She also starred in the musical movie, Hello, Again and served as the executive producer of the documentary film Twinsters. Ushkowitz released her first memoir, Choosing Glee, in May 2013. She currently co-hosts a podcast on PodcastOne titled Showmance. 

Her Life & Times

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Archival Photographs

Van Vechten, Carl, 1880-1964 Collection, Yale University Library Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library.https://brbl-dl.library.yale.edu/vufind/Search/Results?lookfor=Anna+May+Wong&type=AllFields

“Anna May Wong (1905-1961), Actress.” National Portrait Gallery. https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp59693/anna-may-wong

Billy Rose Theatre Collection, The New York Public Library.https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/collections/billy-rose-theatre-collection-photograph-file#/?tab=navigation&roots=2:26457100-c52c-012f-5a3a-58d385a7bc34/22:b4e0f3e0-ff94-012f-3c9b-58d385a7bc34/539:8c031fe0-ff97-012f-2c9c-58d385a7bc34 


“The Thief of Bagdad” (1924), Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/vidtb

“The Toll of the Sea” (1922), Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/TheTollOfTheSeanovember261922

Secondary sources

Lim, Shirley Jennifer. Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern By. Temple University Press, 2019. https://books.google.com/booksid=dGMDwAAQBAJ&dq=anna+may+wong&hl=en&newbks=1&newbks_redir=0&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi89srovL3nAhVfFTQIHXRcCOgQ6AEwAnoECAIQAg 

Gao Hodges, Graham Russell. Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend. Hong Kong University Press, 2012. https://books.google.com/books/about/Anna_May_Wong.html?id=3ld9_F6aQlYC

Chan, Anthony. Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong. The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2007. https://books.google.com/books/about/Perpetually_Cool.html?id=14B9HS4kjYoC 

Hong, Yunah. Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words, 2011. https://www.wmm.com/catalog/film/anna-may-wong-in-her-own-words/

Corliss, Richard, “Anna May Wong Did It Right”, Time Magazine, Jan. 29,2005. http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1022536,00.html 

Sakamoto, Edward, “Anna May Wong And The Dragon-lady Syndrome.” LA Times, July 12, 1987. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1987-07-12-ca-3279-story.html

Alexander, Kerri Lee, “Anna May Wong (1905-1961).”  National Women’s History Museum. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/anna-may-wong

“Anna May Wong (1905-1961).” Chinese American Exclusion/Inclusion, New York Historical Society. http://chineseamerican.nyhistory.org/anna-may-wong-1905-1961/

Saxena, Jaya. “Behind the Scenes: Anna May Wong: Chinese-American Star.” New York Historical Society, August 21, 2014. http://behindthescenes.nyhistory.org/anna-may-wong-americas-first-chinese-american-star/

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