“I was so young when I began that I knew I still had youth if I failed, so I determined to give myself ten years to succeed as an actress.”
- Anna May Wong, interview with Motion Picture Magazine 1931
On January 3, 1905 on the outskirts of the Chinatown district in Los Angeles, California, on Flower Street, Anna May Wong, whose birthname was Wong Liu Tsong, was born. She was the second of eight children of Wong Sam Sing, an owner of a laundry business, and his wife, Lee Gon Toy.
Being raised in a diverse neighborhood, Wong attended the California Street Public Elementary school. Unfortunately, Wong and her older sister, Lulu, often suffered from racial bullying and teasing by other students at the school. They were later moved to the Chinese Mission School by their parents, where they were more welcomed.
As a young child, Wong was taken in by the world of Cinema. So much so, that she began to skip school to spend time watching “flickers” at the local movie theater. In the 1910s, the US motion picture production relocated from the East Coast to California, settling in the Los Angeles area. At nine years old, Wong decided she wanted to become a movie actress. She began visiting sets, begging filmmakers to give her a role. In time, this earned her the nickname of C.C.C, Curious Chinese Child. By age eleven, she had created her stage name, Anna May Wong, joining together her family and English names.
In 1919, Metro Pictures Corporation put out a casting call for Chinese women for the new film, “The Red Lantern”. Without her father’s knowledge, knowing of his disapproval of her interest in the industry, the young Wong asked her father’s friend to introduce her to the assistant director of the film. She got cast as an extra, carrying a lantern in one of the films scenes. For the next two years, while attending school, Wong got steady work as an extra in various films until she came down with St. Vitus dance, a neurological disorder in which rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements occur, primarily affecting the face and limbs. On the verge of an emotional breakdown, Wong’s father took her to a practitioner of Chinese traditional medicine. The treatments proved successful.
Struggling to keep up with her schoolwork and her passion, in 1921, Wong dropped out of Los Angeles High school, to pursue her chosen profession of acting full time. Within the same year, she landed a role as Toy Sing in “Bits of Life”, in which she played the abused wife to Lon Chaney’s character, Chin Chow. Wong received her first screen credit for this part. In 1922, at 17, she got her first leading role in “The Toll of The Sea”, a story loosely based on Madame Butterfly. It was one of the first films produced in Technicolor. Though Wong received raving reviews for her portrayal of Lotus Flower, filmmakers offered her supporting roles in lieu of leading roles due to her ethnicity and the anti-miscegention law, which prevented interracial marriages and interracial actors to kiss on screen in the US.
In 1924, Wong was cast as a cunning Mongol slave in Douglas Fairbank’s film, “The Thief of Bagdad.” Though her appearance was brief, she gained widespread attention, catching both the awareness of audience and critics. She went on to create her own production company, Anna May Wong Productions, in hopes of producing films about her culture. However, due to the misdeeds of her business partner, the company came to an end.
After years of being typecast in roles as either a native, self-sacrificing maiden or a sly, deceitful “Dragon Lady” and passed over for lead Asian roles in favor of non- Asian actresses, Wong left Hollywood for Europe. Overseas, she would become a sensation, starring in many plays and films, including “Schmutziges Geld (Song and Show Life)” (1928), “A Circle of Chalk”, (a play in which she would appear in with the young and upcoming Laurence Olivier) (1928), “Piccadilly” (1929), her last silent film, and her first talking film in 1930, “The Flames of Love”.
During the 1930s, Paramount Studios contacted Wong , promising her lead roles upon her return to the United States. When she returned to the states, she starred in a Broadway production of “On the Spot”, a drama that would run 167 performances. The play’s director asked Wong to use Japanese mannerisms while playing a Chinese character. She refused. Instead, she used Chinese gestures to bring authenticity to the character. Later, “On the Spot” would be made into the film titled “Dangerous to Know”, in which Wong would appear.
In November of 1930, Wong’s mother was hit and killed by a car in front of the family home. The remaining family stayed in the home until 1934 when Wong’s father, along with her younger siblings, returned to China.
With the promise of an appearance in Josef von Sternberg film “Shanghai Express”, Wong accepted the role of Fu Manchu’s callous, vengeful daughter in “Daughter of The Dragon”. This would be her last stereotypical role she played. Though “Shanghai Express’ would become one of Wong’s most famous films, she received less than favorable reviews from the Chinese press. Due to the sexually charge scenes between she and her co-star and good friend, Marlene Dietrich, they felt she disgraced the Chinese race, representing the Chinese women in a negative stereotype.
After the filming “Shanghai Express” and losing the key role in “The Good Earth” as O-Lan, a Chinese slave of the House of Hwang, to Luise Rainer, a German American British actress, who played the character in yellowface, Wong left the US once more, spending the next year touring China. In the 1950s, Wong would return, soon becoming the first Asian American to lead a US television show, “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong”. In the ten half hour episodes, which aired in primetime, she portrayed a dealer of Chinese art, who gets into detective work. Wong was also planning her return to film, scheduled to play the role of Madame Liang in Rogers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song. She was unable to take the role due to her growing health issues.
On February 3, 1961, Anna died of a massive heart attack, after a long battle with Laennec’s cirrhosis, a liver disease cause by excessive alcohol consumption. She was 56. Her remains were buried at the Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles, CA.
For this amazingly talented actresses, I wavered between two wonderful films – “The Toll of the Sea” (1922), Wong’s first leading role as Lotus Flower, and “Piccadilly” (1929), her final silent film as Shosho, a former dishwasher turned dancer at the nightclub. After much consideration, I recommend the watching of both pictures. Each is an outstanding example of Wong’s mastery of her craft. With her mesmerizing doe like eyes and her natural abilities to convey emotions through her essence, it is no wonder why audiences and critics alike were taken in by her performances. The latter giving her great praises for many of her appearances, even stating her portrayals “outshined” that of her leading performers.
It is a shame that Hollywood fell short in allowing this exceptional treasure to radiantly shine to its fullest, beyond that of the supporting roles they often gave her. In my opinion, this world, this industry of entertainment missed out on sincere brilliance.
Ladies and gentlemen, make yourself comfortable with your favorite beverage. Both “The Toll of the Sea” (54 minute run time) and “Piccadilly” (1hour 49 minute run time) can be seen on YouTube for free.