Anna May Wong Biography
Anna May Wong was a star of early silent films and “talkies,” and is regarded as the first prominent Chinese-American actor in Hollywood movies.
She was born Wong Liu-tsong in Los Angeles to American parents of Chinese descent, taking on the name Anna May as a child. Fascinated by moviemaking, she landed her first job as an extra in the 1919 film The Red Lantern. She dropped out of high school in 1921, the year she turned 16, to pursue acting full-time. She got her first leading role the next year, in the short silent film The Toll of the Sea.
Wong really broke through when she played an exotic enslaved woman opposite Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in The Thief of Baghdad (1924). Despite her early success, the casual racism of the era prevented her from getting leading roles, in part because whites weren’t allowed to kiss a person of color onscreen. Instead, she made her mark in supporting roles, though often in the sterotypical Asian “vamp” and “dragon lady” roles that were popular then.
Tiring of being underused, she moved to Europe in 1928 and was a big success right away in films and on stage. Her films there included the German film Schmutziges Geld (“Dirty Money,” 1928) and the British film Piccadilly (1929). As sound arrived in the movies, she began to do films both in Europe and the United States; most notably, she starred with Marlene Dietrich in the 1932 thriller Shanghai Express.
Despite her popularity, MGM refused to cast Wong in its high-profile 1937 film of Pearl S. Buck’s book about China, The Good Earth. The German actress Luise Rainier was cast as the Chinese lead instead (and won an Oscar for the role).
In later years, Wong continued to take supporting roles on film and in radio, and was a staunch supporter of China during World War II. She starred in the TV detective series The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (using her birth name), which ran for one 10-episode season in 1951. She was only 56 when she died of a heart attack in 1961.
Anna May Wong was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. In 2022, she was one of five women featured on the first issue of the American Women Quarters by the U.S. Mint.
Anna May Wong never married and had no children. Asked by a reporter in 1937 if she had plans to marry, Wong replied, “No, I am wedded to my art.”
Something in Common with Anna May Wong
- Capricorn Actors (97)
4 Good Links
- Wikipedia has a typically thorough list of all her performances
- 2022 feature from the U.S. Mint
- Great, detailed 2015 profile from Asia House
- 2020 report from The Center for Asian American Media