Anna May Wong is posing in a tight long sleeve black dress and gold jewelry against a white curtain for a picture

Anna May Wong: The First Asian American Movie Star and Her Struggle in Hollywood

Who is Anna May Wong?

Anna May Wong is wearing an off the shoulder fur dress and is shot in a 3/4 profile with her hair pinned back and with dark makeup
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Anna May Wong is the first Asian American movie star to gain recognition in the Hollywood scene as well as attain global fame. Although she was an icon in the entertainment industry, she was plagued by typecasting in racist Asian caricatures and was regularly snubbed by directors who chose American actors in yellowface over Asians. In the face of discrimination, her pure talent won over many people’s hearts, despite her potential being constricted by the anti-Asian sentiment of the time. 


A black and white photo of a movie set in Los Angeles in the early 1900s with camera equipment and actors in the foreground
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In 1905, she was born in the Chinatown enclave of Los Angeles. Her family ran a laundry business and she grew up amongst 6 siblings. She would frequently skip Chinese school to go to movie theaters, fascinated with the screen from a young age. Wong used to show up and wander around movie sets around Los Angeles, where directors would look at her in confusion that a Chinese girl was walking around in awe. She recalled that she “would worm my way through the crowd and get close to the cameras. I’d stare at these glamorous individuals, and then I would rush home and do the scenes I’d witnessed before a mirror”. Her obsession with movies and acting snowballed until she dropped out of Los Angeles High School to become an actress full time, against the wishes of her parents. “I was so young when I began that I knew I still had youth if I failed, so I was determined to give myself 10 years to succeed as an actress,” she said. 

Anti-Asian Racism in America

An anti-Chinese propaganda advertisement for a detergent that features Uncle Sam kicking out a racist caricature of an Asian man with the caption, "The Chinese Must Go"
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In this monumental moment, her decision was dangerous due to the historical context she lived in. She found herself in a vulnerable position as an Asian American woman in a white-centered society, especially during a time when racist sentiment against Chinese and nativism was normalized. Wong had already experienced bullying because of her race in school, where on the playground and in the classroom, “the great game was to gather around my sister and myself and torment us”.  This was likely exacerbated and influenced by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. In history, it was the only law about immigration that explicitly vilifies and ostracizes a specific race. Americans scapegoated Chinese immigrants for flooding the market and diminishing wages and job opportunities with their labor, even though 0.002% of the population were Chinese. Their complaints clamored for the government to make lives harder for the Chinese. Before the Exclusion Act, the Foreign Miners Tax of 1852 attacked Chinese immigrant workers and enforced a $3 tax. Furthermore, the 1854 People v Hall case disenfranchised the Chinese; they were prevented from testifying and defending themselves in court when infighting broke out between white miners and Chinese miners. The Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited Chinese from ever gaining citizenship and banned Chinese immigration for a decade. All of the repercussions continued into the 1900s, where racism was intense and became the standard. Since Wong was ethnically Chinese, she immediately turned into a target, whether in daily life, in childhood, or in casting calls. 

History of Yellowface

In the cinema industry, all Chinese people were played by white people with yellow face. Yellowface, similar to black face, is an overtly racist practice using makeup and other alterations to make one look more Asian. Yellowface commonly features taped eyes to make the eyes look smaller and wider. It also implemented gaudy, over-exaggerated costumes that were egregiously disrespectful. Yellowface was a direct product of racist stereotypes and reduced Asian people into a gross, inhuman caricature. Instead of casting real Asians and giving them opportunities, yellowface was used as the preferred method to place white people into Asian characters. 

Anna May Wong’s First Film

Anna May Wong playing the Mongol Slave in The Thief of Bagdadin which her hair is done up into two loops on opposite sides of her head and she is wearing an ornate halter top
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Anna May Wong’s first film with a significant lead role was The Toll of the Sea, a silent film released in 1922. It was one of the first Technicolor films and consequently, was an important milestone in film history. In the plot, Wong’s character is named Lotus Flower and marries a white American man. Though she is in love with him, he leaves her to return to America and comes back to China with a white wife. Lotus Flower gives her child to the white couple so that they can take him back to America. The movie ends with her committing suicide. It is clear that this film is appallingly problematic, from the unoriginal name to her essential function as a victim. She is the object of exotification, as well as a tool to place the white man on a pedestal. Lotus Flower does not stand up for herself and is always at the whim of the white man, especially in a romantic context. She gives up her life for him while he does nothing to apologize or give her what she deserves. While the film was applauded in the early 1900s, many would interpret it today as a ghastly example of racism. It seemed to be solely conceived to portray the subservience of Asian women to white men as a normal occurrence. Despite being constrained by exoticism, her acting range of emotions was gorgeously displayed and she was widely praised for her acting skills. “I hoped to represent my people worthily,” she said, although her character only served to turn Chinese people into a mockery. It is necessary to note that this is not her fault, because these were the only roles that were offered to her. It was already challenging and tiring for an Asian American woman to be accepted into a movie, much less a progressive or central role. In fact, most of her roles did not have the slightest room to breathe under an oppressive and stereotypical boundary the director set on her. 

Repercussions of Film Career

After The Toll of the Sea Douglas, Fairbanks was subsequently enamored with her talents and cast her in The Thief of Baghdad as a Mongol Slave. Her role again denigrated her culture and made her into a racially distorted and foreign seductress at the servitude of the white man. Her presence in the movie was mostly memorable among audiences for her revealing costume. She was not even playing a race that was her own, and inadvertently contributed to the sexualization of Asians.  Her movies catapulted her into international fame, but clearly the characters she played were not depicting Chinese, or East Asians for that matter, in a positive light. This was the cost of her worldwide popularity and the success of the career she’s always longed for.

Later on, Anna May Wong grew quickly exasperated with the insulting typecasting, in which her roles only presented East Asians and Chinese people in a mediation of objectification and exotification. Accuracy and cross-cultural respect was thrown to the wind and directors depended on prejudiced bastardizations to carry their film. She commented that “There seems little for me in Hollywood, because rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles. Pathetic dying seems to be the best thing I did.” Her parts were confined to the “Butterfly”, or “Dragon Lady” archetype. Anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S. at the time prevented interracial marriages and sometimes interracial sexual affairs. Only in 1967 were these laws considered unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Therefore, due to that hostile atmosphere, she was suppressed from exploring valid romantic interest roles because she could not kiss a non-Asian man onstage. 

Anna May Wong as a Model

Anna May Wong is staring directly into the camera with a beaded headpiece that flows over her shoulders, which highlights the trends of the 1920's
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Anna May Wong additionally became a model and a beauty icon in the 1920’s for her flapper persona. She was one of the first to step in such a revolutionary direction in fashion. Feminine trends were drastically shifting to shorter hair and shorter skirt hemlines. Makeup advertised thin, penciled brows and a dark red lip that emphasized the Cupid’s bow, meant to make the face more youthful. Accessories included more practical shoes, pearls, fans, feathers, and stylish cigarettes. Flapper styles embodied a massive sexual empowerment movement among American women. A large component of Flapper attitudes was to push forth the boyish appearance, which played down the look of breasts and favored straight silhouettes over hourglass ones. Anna May Wong pursued a modeling career alongside her ambitions in Hollywood, which metastasized her fame for her beauty and elegance. The Mayfair Mannequin Society of New York titled her as the “best dressed woman” in 1934. Throughout the 20’s and 30’s she forged her own path as a fashion symbol with her bold style choices. 

Career in Europe

A movie poster promoting a famous German movie shows Anna May Wong with her costar
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As a result of facing anti-Asian racism and discrimination, she moved her work to Europe to open up her profile to more advanced gigs. Wong mainly was employed in London, Berlin, and Paris. She starred in Song in 1928 and in Piccadilly in 1928. Both films finally cast her as a “normal” person and did not appeal to bigoted views or exotification. They also allowed her to boast her acting strengths and reach the heights of fame abroad. Germans observed her without her American background and only described her as Chinese. One of the best cultural adaptations was The Circle of Chalk, Wong’s first experience in theatrical art and working alongside young Laurence Olivier. The play was designed to let Wong have the spotlight of a protagonist. Its story was originally written by Li Qianfu in 13th or 14th century China, highlighting the honor to Wong. While in Europe and entering the new era of sound films, or “talkies”, Anna May Wong developed fluency in both German and French. Critics reported that they could not tell her apart from a native speaker, speaking to her ingenuity. 

Returning to America

When Wong made a comeback in American movies, she was once again saddled with unsatisfying roles in her contract with Paramount Entertainment. She enterprised a role in Broadway in On the Spot, where she was asked to demonstrate traits seen in Japanese culture but she adopted Chinese traits for her Chinese character. Her last villain role was in Daughter of the Dragon, which placed her next to an Asian counterpart, Sessue Hayakawa. He was a striking Japanese actor known for his heartthrob status among white women. This was the only time they were coworkers. In Shanghai Express, Wong was scrutinized for her scenes of sexual tension with her costar, Marlene Dietrich. The stigma against different sexualities was the main culprit, and passed overseas to China where she was lambasted by the press. She grew infamous in China for bringing shame to her country through her representations. 

Later Life

After being rejected for a major female lead in Good Earth, an Asian-concentrated movie that was her dream to play in, Wong became discouraged with not receiving the credit she was due. She embarked on a Chinese tour, in which she saw her mixed reputation in person because Chinese people thought her too American to be taken seriously. In the late 1930’s, she undertook several Chinese non-stereotypical roles in smaller films, of which she was pleased to play. The most noteworthy was her film “Daughter of Shanghai” that transformed her into a hero. In the 1940’s her rate of movie production decreased as she ventured into other occupations. She guest starred on many television shows and performed songs on radio stations. At last Hollywood acknowledged her work by constructing her a star on the Walk of Fame in 1960. Just a year later, she died of a heart attack. 

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Henry Golding and Constance Wu are being photographed for the Crazy Rich Asians premiere
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Anna May Wong’s journey is one of racial adversity and courage, and holds a legacy in Hollywood as the first Asian American to achieve a celebrity position and stardom. In modern Hollywood, there has been prominent progress, but there is still evolution ahead. Many other Asian actors have succeeded the era of Anna May Wong. Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li became insanely popular around the world for their martial arts skills, and are acknowledged as movie legends. Joy Luck Club as well as the Disney animation Mulan were cardinal landmarks in the promotion of Asian cultures in media. Highly coveted actors include Lucy Liu, George Takei, John Cho, Sandra Oh, and many others. Recently, the 2018 hit movie Crazy Rich Asians was applauded for its all-Asian cast with Henry Golding and Constance Wu as the leads. This was acclaimed for its celebration of Asian culture combined with a typical rom-com plot. In 2021, the first Asian American superhero, played by Simu Liu, was pushed forward in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Contextualized by Marvel, the largest franchise in the world producing this movie, it was deemed as a huge accomplishment for the Asian American community. 


The advancements that Asian Americans have made in Hollywood since Anna May Wong are fundamental to increasing Asian American acceptance. Especially with anti-Asian hate crimes rising again in response to the pandemic, it is all the more crucial to remember Asian icons in history and spearhead Asian actors at the front of the film industry. Anna May Wong made a staggering impact in proving Asian excellence in public media for her time. Though she was forced to sacrifice her pride in stereotypical antagonistic parts, she should be commemorated as a hero. 


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