The United States is obsessed with its film and television stars, and has been since the early days of Hollywood, when black and white silent films rolled out of Southern California and across the nation to captivate audiences. While many countries have film industries, and every nation’s residents have a deep connection with their film industry (as for example with the legendary BBC in the United Kingdom, or Bollywood in India), the United States has been making films for a very long time, and the history of film in the US is rich and fascinating.
However, many parts of US film history have been forgotten over time, not occupying nearly as much room as they should. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the contributions of people of colour to early film have not been part of the traditional stories told about Hollywood, presumed to be less interesting than the history of white producers, studio owners, and directors. Yet, Asian-Americans played an important role in the early days of film, as did Latinos, members of the Black community, and many others. One such example was Anna May Wong, a silent film star who enjoyed a high profile status at the peak of her career…and was almost entirely forgotten when she stopped performing.
Born in 1905, Anna May Wong ended up becoming the first Chinese-American movie star, and the first Chinese-American woman to achieve an international profile in film and radio. She became a fashion icon, an advocate for Chinese human rights, and an opponent of stereotyped, hackneyed roles for Chinese women in film. She also faced tremendous discrimination: she was passed over for Chinese roles in favour of white actresses in yellowface, she was effectively barred from leading lady status as a result of anti-miscegenation laws (more on that in a moment), and she struggled with typecasting throughout her career.
Her legacy has been mixed, and at various points during the 20th century, she’s been condemned for perpetuating stereotypes about Chinese-Americans, celebrated for breaking through barriers, and acknowledged as a woman who fought very hard within the strictures of a system that was extremely unforgiving. Much of this discussion has taken place within the Chinese-American community, with little conversation about what she brought to film and television in the larger world, and this is both a great shame and an illustration of how quickly certain aspects of Hollywood’s history have been forgotten.
Wong was born to second-generation parents in Los Angeles, and her career started extremely early with a role as an extra. She gradually grew into larger roles on film, but she faced a huge barrier that white actresses didn’t encounter: Because of the Hayes Act and censorship in film, she wasn’t allowed to kiss white actors. Since almost all leading men of the time were white (including those playing Asian characters), she was limited to roles that put her in the role of daughter, extra, or similar supporting positions.
These roles were often deeply stereotyped. Wong was a fragile China doll or meek butterfly or dragon lady, depending on how the film had been crafted, rather than an actual human being. She ultimately became so frustrated by her repeated stereotyping that she relocated to Europe, taking on stage roles and making films in Berlin in the hopes that she could break out of the box Hollywood had created for her. The Second World War interrupted her career, and when she returned to Hollywood as a more mature, established actress, she fought typecasting and tried to insist on being placed in real roles.
She didn’t just face typecasting in Hollywood. Audiences assumed that she was foreign and other, and must have been born in China — one reason why she took on a flapper persona and aggressively pursued her status as a fashion icon. By assimilating and modeling herself as a fashion ideal, she hoped for greater acceptance, which she received, up to a point: ‘On her tender and youthful body, expressing every moment with the indescribable grace of the Oriental woman, towers her head which, although completely Mongolian, is beautiful by European standards. Her eyes, for a Chinese unusually large, deep and dark like a Tibetan mountain lake, gaze with enormous expressiveness.’
All right, I guess, for an Asian girl.
Rejected by conservative Chinese-Americans and Chinese people at home for being ‘too American,’ she was still ‘too exotic’ to be considered a ‘real American,’ and was reminded of this throughout her life and career. Like many Chinese-Americans as well as other Asian-Americans living in the US today, she was constantly confronted with reminders that she must not really be ‘American’ because she wasn’t white, in both casual interactions and her own career. As an actress who was active during a period when anti-Asian racism was especially present in the US, Wong played a key role in presenting China to US audiences (one reason why she loathed typecasting), and she put herself out there for a nation that was often extremely hostile.
Like many of the female stars of her time, Wong was glamorous, determined, gritty, and talented, and she was stymied constantly by executives, directors, and sometimes her own audiences. She left a critical legacy to US film history, yet, her name isn’t bandied about nearly as often as those of her compatriots. This isn’t just because Wong was forced into humiliating typecast and supporting roles — it’s partially because as a Chinese-American, her contributions to film have historically not been considered as important as those of white actors and actresses.
Only in recent years have we seen a push to bring Anna May Wong’s story to light, through documentaries and other media. These are critical for understanding the history of a talented actress who spent her whole life fighting the system — and shouldn’t be forgotten.