Our Red Auditorium is dedicated to the inspiring memory of
Anna May Wong appeared in over 50 American, English and German films in her career, making her the first global Chinese-American movie star. She was forced to fight against racism and stereotyping all her professional life, while simultaneously being criticized by Chinese at home and abroad for perpetuating stereotypes in the media. Despite this tremendous burden, the beautiful woman assayed an elegance and sophistication on-screen that made her the paradigm of Asian women for a generation of movie audiences.
Her name, Wong Liu Tsong translates literally as "Second-Daughter Yellow Butterfly" and has also been interpreted as "Frosted Yellow Willow." Her family gave her the English-language name Anna Mae. Born near the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles to second-generation Chinese-American parents, Wong became infatuated with the movies. She made tip money from delivering laundry for her father, which she spent on going to nickelodeons and later the cinemas. Her father, if he discovered she had gone to the movies during school hours, would spank her with a bamboo stick. Around the time she was nine years old, she began begging early Hollywood filmmakers for parts, behavior that got her dubbed "C.C.C." for "curious Chinese child." She attended Hollywood High School, where she became a photographer's model and spoke fluent French and German along with her native English and Chinese.
Liu Tsong's first film role was as an uncredited extra in Metro Pictures' "The Red Lantern" in 1919 starring silent screen great Alla Nazimova as a Eurasian woman who falls in love with an American missionary. The film included scenes shot in Chinatown. The part was obtained for her by a friend of her father's (without his knowledge) who worked in the movie industry. She started getting regular work and played Toy Ling, the abused wife of Lon Chaney's character Chin Gow, which 'The Man of a Thousand Faces' played in Chinese drag. She next appeared in support of John Gilbert in Fox's "Shame" before being cast in her breakthrough role at the age of 17, starring in "The Toll of the Sea" in 1922 which was the first feature film shot entirely in Technicolor's two-strip color process. She played Lotus Flower in this adaptation of the opera "Madame Butterfly," which moved the story from Japan to China.
She then hit the big time as a Mongol slave girl starring with Douglas Fairbanks in "The Thief of Baghdad" in 1924 and gained international stardom as well as becoming a fashion icon at the age of 19. The $2 million blockbuster production made her known to critics and the movie-going public. For better or worse, a star, albeit of the stereotypical "Dragon Lady" type, was born. The 5'7" beauty was known as the world's best-dressed woman and widely considered to have the loveliest hands in the cinema.
Frustrated by the stereotypical supporting roles she reluctantly played in the 1920's, she later left for Europe to escape the typecasting of Hollywood, she told journalist Doris Mackie, "I was so tired of the parts I had to play. Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain--murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass."
Traveling between the United States and Europe in the late 1920's for film,stage work and her own one-woman show where she was a widely praised as a singer,dancer and entertainer in nightclub engagements. Wong hobnobbed with "an intellectual elite that included princes, playwrights, artists and photographers who clamored to work with her." She was featured in magazines all over the world, much more than actresses of a similar level ofaccomplishment. She became a media superstar, and her coiffure and complexion were copied while coolie coats became a fashion rage.
With the advent of talking pictures, Paramount Pictures offered Wong a Hollywood contract with the promise of lead roles in major productions. She was featured in films of the early sound era, such as "Daughter of the Dragon" in 1931 and "Daughter of Shanghai" in 1937, and with Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's "Shanghai Express" however leading roles in major productions continued to elude her.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer once refused to cast her in its 1932 production of "The Son-Daughter," for which she did a screen-test, as she was "too Chinese to play a Chinese." Again in 1935 Wong was dealt the most severe disappointment of her career by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer when they refused to consider her for the leading role in its film version of Pearl S. Buck's "The Good Earth" a novel set entirely in China, choosing instead the European Louise Rainer to play the leading role in "yellowface." Wongs' screen test failed to live up to a white man's idea of what looked Chinese. Ironically, the year "The Good Earth" came out, Wong appeared on the cover of Look Magazine's second issue, which labeled her "The World's Most Beautiful Chinese Girl." Stereotyped in America as a dragon lady, the cover photo had her holding a dagger. Luise Rainer would win the Best Actress Oscar for her performance of O-Lan in Chinese drag.
Wong spent the next year touring China, visiting her family's ancestral village and studying Chinese culture. While Anna was initially welcomed by the country's cultural elite in cosmopolitan Beijing and Shanghai, but she had to abandon a trip to her parents' ancestral village when her progress was blocked by a crowd of protesters. She was considered socially suspect by her own people for being an American. The roles she was forced to accept in order to have an acting career, as well as her status as a single woman, disgusted many Chinese, both in America and in her ancestral homeland, where actresses were equated with prostitutes and where women were still played by men in classical opera.
Chinese nationalists, concerned about the portrayal of Chinese people as evil incarnate in American popular culture, were offended by Wong's portrayals of Asians and exotics. Though she would spend the World War II years working for Chinese charities and relief agencies, she was snubbed by Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, the daughter of Sun Yat-Sen and wife of the generalissimo who led the Nationalist Chinese, during Madame Chiang's 1942-43 propaganda tour of the U.S. Her biographer Hodges claims this was the beginning of a consensus among Chinese
and Chinese-Americans that Wong was an embarrassment. Chinese and Chinese-Americans chose to blame her rather than Hollywood for the demeaning stereotypes she had to play in order to work. The result of this new consensus, according to Hodges, was that "her memory has been washed away." Her career in motion pictures was virtually finished after the war.
Anna May Wong did not appear in the movies from 1939 until 1941, when she was cast as a supporting player in "Ellery Queen's Penthouse Mystery (1941), an entry in the B-movie series. Her last two starring roles in the movies were in a pair of anti-Japanese propaganda films, "Bombs over Burma" (1942) and "The Lady from Chunking" (1943), both of which were made by Producers Releasing Corp., the lowest of the Poverty Row studios. The major studios, when shooting propaganda films requiring a sympathetic Asian lead, reverted to the old practice of casting Caucasians in yellow-face, no matter how absurd the result, such as the ludicrous-looking Katherine Hepburn in heavy Oriental drag in MGM's 1944 adaptation of Pearl Buck's novel "The Dragon Seed."
She paid less attention to her film career during World War II, when she devoted her time and money to helping the Chinese cause in the war against Japan. Wong returned to the public eye in the 1950s in several television appearances as well as her own series in 1951, "The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong", the first U.S. television show starring an Asian-American. She had been planning to return to film in "Flower Drum Song" when she died in 1961 of a heart attack, at the age of just 56. For decades after her death, Wong was remembered principally for the stereotypical "Dragon Lady" and demure "Butterfly" roles that she was often given.
Wong's personal relationships typically were with older Caucasian men, but California law forbade marriage between Asians and Caucasians until 1948. Wong mused about marrying a Chinese man at times, but again the Chinese culture held actresses to be on a par with prostitutes, which made her suspect marriage material. She was afraid that the mores of her culture likely meant that marrying a Chinese would force her to quit her career and be an obedient wife. For this reason, her father disapproved of Anna's acting career which caused a severe strain in their relationship. Following Anna's mother's death in a car accident in 1931, they grew even further apart. Anna's will disinherited her father. One of her white lovers offered to marry her in Mexico, but the couple's intentions became known and he backed off when his Hollywood career was jeopardized. Anna also once had an affair with noted silent film director Marshall Neilan.
A lecture & film series, "Rediscovering Anna May Wong," was held at UCLA in 2004, sponsored by Chicago's own "Playboy" publisher Hugh M. Hefner. That same year, New York City's Museum of Modern Art held its own tribute to Wong, "Retrospective of a Chinese American Screen Actress." Finally, she was getting the respect in her own country that eluded her during her career.
After being derided for perpetuating stereotypes during her lifetime, Anna May Wong is now being appreciated by the Asian-American community and the American culture at large for her pioneering attempt to bring dignity to screen portrayals of an ethnic group that faced terrible discrimination. Bucking the system, even going into exile, she tried to broaden the portrayal of ethnic Asians from the stereotype ghetto of the Asian as "foreign" or "exotic" or "inscrutable" or "treacherous" into real human beings with real emotions the same as the audience. Thus her acting can be seen as a pioneering effort to broaden the diversity of American culture as portrayed on the screen.