Anna May Wong: The First Female Chinese-American Movie Star

When I was in fourth grade, I had to choose a famous historical figure and play a “wax statue” version of him/her for a project. I was given a long list of names to choose from that had two Asian people on it: Bruce Lee and Anna May Wong. Everyone knew who Bruce Lee was, but that was the first time I had ever heard about a famous Asian female who wasn’t Lucy Liu or Ming-Na Wen.

Anna May Wong is considered the first Chinese-American movie star. She was born in Los Angeles in 1905 to second-generation Chinese Americans. In her early career days, she starred as an extra in several films and played her first lead role at age 17 in The Toll of the Sea.

At age 19, she had a stereotypical “Dragon-Lady” role as a Mongol slave in The Thief of Bagdad. Throughout her career, she was a victim of films casting white actors or actresses for Asian characters. The most severe experience was in 1935 when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer would not even consider her for the leading role of a Chinese character in the film The Good Earth. Instead, they chose to cast Luise Rainer, a white actress, and used yellow-face to East-ernize her Western features. Anna May Wong continued to be stereotyped and discriminated against throughout the entirety of her acting career ─ all the way up to her last movie in 1960, Portrait in Black

Despite her overall success and earning a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, her ethnicity was consistently seen as an obstacle to filmmakers. She was denied leading roles, or roles in general, because she was Chinese. Sound familiar? The very same thing still happens today.

Michelle Villemaire, an Asian DIY blogger, created a post in 2016 titled “My Adventures Correcting Yellowface”. She took famous instances in film history where a white actor or actress was cast instead of an Asian one and inserted herself in side-by-side comparison photos. Her first scene of choice: Anna May Wong’s lead role that was granted to Luise Rainer.

Anna May Wong paved the way for legendary Asian actresses like Nancy Kwan, Ming-Na Wen, Michelle Yeoh, Lucy Liu, Constance Wu, and many more to come, to make it on the big-screen. Her persistence to never give up despite the racial discrimination is why historic movies like Joy Luck Club and Crazy Rich Asians exist today.