Anna May Wong was a pioneer. And that was the problem.
Although it was a triumph to be Hollywood’s first Chinese-American star, it was a trap to be the only one. No studio had seen an actress like her before. A pretty young Asian woman who loved flapper fashions and Jazz Age parties?
Modern, liberated, and multicultural, she didn’t fit the moguls’ racial stereotypes.
“Born into the steam and starch of her father’s laundry, Wong rose to global stardom,” Yunte Huang writes in “Daughter of the Dragon: Anna May Wong’s Rendezvous With American History.” “Such a rags-to-riches ascension may sound like an American cliché, but here’s a spoiler alert: Wong had to go to Europe to be recognized as American.”
Yet Wong never quite escaped the cliched parts. And as her stardom faded, even those began to disappear. “Facing ‘the triple jeopardy’ of race, gender, and age in Hollywood, ‘The World’s Most Beautiful Chinese Girl’ spent her twilight years nursing a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other,” Huang writes. “Hers is not another Horatio Alger saga.”
It is, though, a very American story of immigration and assimilation, prejudice and persistence.
Persistence was crucial. Even after over 50 years in America, Wong’s family faced discrimination. Just to step outside her parents’ Los Angeles laundry was to risk insults, even violence. By 1915, though, 10-year-old Anna had found an escape: The movies.
“Anna was enthralled by the flickering images,” Huang writes. “She often played hooky from school, and used her lunch money to subsidize her new addiction. When her father caught her, he would beat her with a bamboo stick.”
Then, when she was 13, a Hollywood epic, “The Red Lantern,” came to Los Angeles’ Chinatown, looking for 600 extras. Over her parents’ opposition, Anna slipped out of the house and reported for work. It would be her screen debut.
It would also provide a fast introduction to celebrity. Somehow, out of hundreds of extras, Anna caught the eye of star Alla Nazimova. The older woman – glamorous, mysterious, and openly bisexual – invited the teen to her mansion, where she held Sunday afternoon pool parties. Attendance was limited to young girls.
“It would be foolish, or perhaps distasteful, to speculate on the nature of young Anna’s relationship to Nazimova,” Huang writes.
Whatever Nazimova’s interest, her mentorship introduced Anna to important people. In 1920, Anna landed her first real part in a picture called “Dinty.” She also got her first splash of publicity, a profile in the Los Angeles Times. “Her face is not made of cheeks, ears, eyes and lips, but of petals,” the reporter gushed.
Equally besotted was the director of “Dinty,” Marshall Neilan, who had already seduced the 15-year-old. It was a crime twice over — not just statutory rape but interracial sex, then still illegal. Yet Neilan didn’t try to hide it. He talked about giving Wong a bigger part in his next film. He even talked about marrying her in Mexico.
He kept only the first promise. After their second film together, “Bits of Life,” Neilan moved on.
But so did Wong. By 1924, she was playing a sexy Mongol spy in Douglas Fairbanks’ lavish swashbuckler “The Thief of Baghdad.” “It was as close to superstardom as one could possibly get, the equivalent of playing a supporting role in a ‘Star Wars’ sequel today,” Huang writes.
The film was a smash. The money bought the teenager a house.
Yet her roles remained limited. Censorship prohibited the actress from playing a love scene with a white actor – and America’s sole male Asian star, Sessue Hayakawa, already had quit Hollywood. In movies, Wong remained alone, in the background, beautiful but untouchable.
So, she looked beyond Hollywood. She sang with a vaudeville troupe. She spent a few years in Europe. In Berlin, she learned German and became close friends – and the author hints maybe more – with Marlene Dietrich. In London, she made “Piccadilly,” her best film, playing the sexy third part of a tragic love triangle.
It led to a few other opportunities. Back in America, Paramount gave her the lead in “Daughter of the Dragon,” a Fu Manchu film. She also teamed with Dietrich for “Shanghai Express,” a glamour-drenched melodrama.
But the role she really wanted – the lead in 1936’s “The Good Earth” – went to a white actress, Luise Rainer. The epic film was based on a best-selling novel about Chinese peasants, but MGM reserved the leads for Caucasians in makeup. Asian actors, one producer explained, didn’t look like “what Chinese people look like.”
Offered a small part as consolation, Wong coldly turned it down. “I do not see why I, at this stage of my career, should take a step backward and accept a minor role in a Chinese (story) that will surround me entirely by a Caucasian cast,” she told a reporter.
Soon, though, she had other things to worry about. Japan had invaded China.
Leaping into action, Wong donated money to the United China Relief Fund, a consortium of charities. She raised more by auctioning off some of her glamorous costumes and attending fundraisers across the country. After Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into the fight against Japan, she went on USO tours.
Wong’s humanitarian efforts kept her busier than Hollywood did. By the early ’40s, Wong was working at PRC, the cheapest of the studios. The actress didn’t complain. She not only quickly made two pro-China war films – “Bombs Over Burma” and “Lady From Chungking” – she donated her salary to the Relief Fund.
By the end of the decade, though, things had changed. The world war was over. The civil one that had raged in China had concluded as well – and the Communists had won. Wong’s movie career also seemed to be at an end. But Wong had invested her money. She lived quietly, too, skipping the gossipy galas she once attended.
“Anna May, in her forties, was essentially all partied out,” Huang writes. “‘I know that when I used to go to many big parties I found that I was talking too much,’ she once confessed to a journalist. ‘There is an atmosphere at many big affairs that is almost malicious… I do not go to many big parties now.’”
Instead, she stayed home, drinking and smoking cigarettes and waiting for offers.
Occasionally, one came in. She had a good part in a TV adaptation of “The Letter.” She played small roles in several series. She even had her own, “The Gallery Of Mme. Liu-Tong.” It lasted 12 episodes. A bigger chance loomed when she got a call that Hollywood was preparing a version of Broadway’s “Flower Drum Song.”
That script was lying next to Wong in 1961 when she was found dead of a heart attack.
More than 60 years later, Wong is receiving an overdue appreciation. A novel based on her life, “The Brightest Star,” came out this year. Another biography, “Not Your China Doll,” is due in 2024. And you can see the fruits of her struggles in Michelle Yeoh’s historic best-actress Oscar for 2023’s “Everything Everywhere All at Once.”
And it all began with a movie-mad child from Chinatown, spending her pennies on pictures and dreaming of stars.