Picture this: It’s the 1910s in Los Angeles, and the motion picture industry has just relocated from New York to its new home: Hollywood. A young Chinese American girl, enamored by the glitz and glamor of the big screen, starts skipping school to sneak onto film sets.
It’s been said that movie executives, upon noticing her, gave her the alliterative nickname “the curious Chinese child.” While still young, she came up with another name for herself — Anna May Wong — and she would go on to become Hollywood’s first Chinese American film star.
Wong fought the ever-present obstacle of institutional racism in the film industry to forge a remarkable career that spanned 40 years. She contended with limited lead roles, stereotypical casting and vast pay inequities between her and her white counterparts.
While Wong was often relegated to clichéd roles in Hollywood, she also broke innumerable barriers for Asian American actors at the time, due to the longevity of her career. She would go on to appear in over 60 films throughout her life, and her career successfully weathered the transition from silent films to “talkies.”
Anna May Wong poses with a cut rose. (General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)
Sixty years after her death, Wong’s legacy lives on in film and fashion — her iconic looks helped popularize the flapper style of the 1920s. Now her contributions will be honored by one of the most quintessentially American symbols: the quarter.
This fall, the U.S. Mint is paying tribute to Anna May Wong by releasing a coin with her image. She’s one of five American women being recognized posthumously with the honor. Already released are quarters honoring author Maya Angelou, astronaut Sally Ride, Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller and suffragette and author Nina Otero-Warren.
Anna May Wong was born Wong Liu Tsong in Chinatown, Los Angeles, in 1905. A third-generation Chinese American, she grew up helping out at her father’s laundromat on North Figueroa Street. In 1922 she appeared in one of the first Technicolor films, “The Toll of the Sea,” a silent film in which she played a character named Lotus Flower who falls in love with an American man only to be abandoned by him. At the end of the film, Lotus Flower takes her own life.
The term “lotus flower” would go on to represent the stereotype of a disposable female Asian love interest. Another stereotype, “the dragon lady,” also stemmed from one of Wong’s most prominent roles, 1931’s “Daughter of the Dragon.”
“The idea of the ‘lotus blossom,’ the very meek yet still sexualized Asian woman, alongside the ‘dragon lady,’ the kind of very barbarous and villainous kind of seductress — that was pretty much started by Anna May Wong,’” said Nancy Wang Yuen, sociologist and author of the book “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.”
“Because of her unique status as one of the first and only ethnically Chinese actresses to play Chinese characters,” Yuen said, “she personified these stereotypes though she was bothered by them.”
Wong was also vocal about her frustrations with Hollywood. Constantly cast as a villain or an ill-fated love interest who would die before the end of the film, she worked against these limitations. In 1924, she started her own production company, Anna May Wong Productions, but it succumbed to financial woes.
“I was so tired of the parts I had to play,” she said in an interview with Film Weekly. “Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain — murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass. We are not like that.”
In 1928, Wong went to Europe and starred in English, French and German roles on film and stage, playing the title role in a German operetta and impressing reviewers with her command of the language.
“She said publicly that she left America because she died so often,” Yuen said. “And so she went to Europe because there she was able to star in films where she didn’t die.”
Wong maintained her ties to the U.S., and starred in Broadway productions between films. Her disappointment with Hollywood came to a head in 1936 when MGM passed over her for the Chinese lead role in the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth.” The studio cast German actress Luise Rainer instead and offered Wong the role of the villain.
She rejected the role and is quoted as saying, “You’re asking me — with Chinese blood — to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture, featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters?”
Wong decided to visit China for the first time, creating a documentary of her travels entitled “My China Film.” In the film, she visits her father at their ancestral home and is surrounded by crowds of people who seem thrilled to be in her company. “We go to the village and people are curious and come from miles around to see what a movie star looks like,” she says in the film.
“She became an independent filmmaker and a memoirist of her own life,” said Yuen. “All this is pretty revolutionary.”
In recent years, AAPI actors have made significant strides in Hollywood, but there remains a long way to go. Asian women especially are still vastly underrepresented as leads.
Yuen found this in her research analyzing the top films from 2007 to 2019. “In the top 100 films, there were only six leads or co-leads that were played by Asian women,” she says.
Still, the success of actresses like Gemma Chan, who will play Wong in an upcoming biopic and who recently played a superhero in Marvel’s “Eternals,” is a reminder of the trailblazing impact of Anna May Wong.
“I think Anna May Wong would be very proud to see an Asian woman superhero, because I am sure that she would love to play one,” said Yuen. “She saw herself that way, as able to play anything.”