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Anna May Wong, born Wong Liu Tsong on January 3, 1905, in Los Angeles, California, is widely recognized as the first Chinese American Hollywood movie star, and also the first Asian American actress to gain international recognition. Her career spanned silent film, sound film, television, stage, and radio.
Early Life and Career
Wong was born to second-generation Chinese-American parents. Her family owned a laundry service in Los Angeles' Chinatown, where she developed an early interest in the movies. As a child, she would often visit film sets in Los Angeles and decided to pursue acting.
Breaking Barriers in Hollywood
She started her acting career at an early age, securing her first film role at the age of 14 in "The Red Lantern" (1919), and gained attention with her role in "The Toll of the Sea" (1922), one of the earliest films made in two-tone Technicolor. Her performance as the tragic heroine in "The Toll of the Sea" was critically acclaimed.
Despite her talents, Wong frequently encountered racism and discrimination in Hollywood. She was often cast in stereotypical roles and passed over for leading Asian character roles that were given to white actors in yellowface. Notably, she was passed over for the leading role of O-Lan in "The Good Earth" (1937), which went to Luise Rainer, who won an Academy Award for her portrayal.
International Work and Return to Hollywood
Disillusioned with Hollywood's treatment, Wong moved to Europe in the late 1920s, where she starred in several notable films including "Piccadilly" (1929) and "Shanghai Express" (1932), the latter alongside Marlene Dietrich. In Europe, she found more opportunities and was celebrated for her work by filmmakers and the artistic community.
Upon her return to the United States, Wong continued to confront the same prejudices and limitations in Hollywood. Nevertheless, she remained a popular figure and took roles that she considered as positive representations of Chinese characters, becoming a style icon and a symbol of Chinese American culture and dignity.
Television and Later Years
Wong made history again as the first Asian American to lead a U.S. television show for her role in "The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong," where she played a detective, in 1951. However, the series was short-lived.
Throughout her career, Wong fought for increased diversity and against the negative stereotyping of Chinese characters in American films. Unfortunately, this battle was one that continued long after her death.
Anna May Wong's impact on cinema is considerable. She left behind a legacy of breaking racial barriers and paving the way for future generations of Asian American actors and actresses. She advocated against typecasting and tried to craft a better understanding of Chinese culture through her roles.
Wong passed away on February 3, 1961, at the age of 56 from a heart attack. In recognition of her contributions to the film industry, Anna May Wong received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, posthumously, in 1960.
In recent years, her life and legacy have been revisited, highlighting her pioneering role in film history. The U.S. Treasury announced that Wong would be featured on the "American Women quarters" series, to be issued in 2022.
For more detailed information on Anna May Wong's life and contributions to cinema, you may consult:
"Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961)" by Anthony B. Chan, which delves into her career and the challenges she faced as a Chinese American in Hollywood.
The official Anna May Wong website, which provides a comprehensive overview of her life, career, and legacy.
Please note that this overview is not exhaustive and there may be additional resources that offer further insights into Anna May Wong's personal life, career, and the historical context in which she worked.