Anna May Wong - the name means little to young people of the twenty-first century, and yet she was a ground-breaking Asian woman whose sad grandeur passed, leaving her in the obscurity from which her new biographer seeks now to rescue her.
Daughter of Chinese immigrants who frowned on her desire for film stardom, worrying that she might be considered a prostitute, Anna May longed for the limelight from earliest adolescence. Not only did she skip school and spend her lunch money to go to films, but she spent hours at home in front of the mirror practicing the wrenching emotions so necessary to that genre before the era of sound. Tall, an unusual characteristic for an Oriental girl, and remarkably pretty, she got work by the age of ten modeling fur coats, a job which naturally made her reluctant to seek employment as a stenographer. She did, however, remain very loyal to her family - she was the second oldest of eight children - by continuing to do the accounts for her father's laundry once she successfully launched her lifelong film career.
Her first break came with a bit part in the film Red Lantern. Arguably her greatest role was as an Asian mistress scorned in The Toll of the Sea, starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as her white lover. A Madame Butterfly knock-off, the script allowed Anna May (her stage name) to emote most charmingly, garbed in rich brocades and sporting traditional hairdos which alluded to her virginity and, later, her state of feigned marriage. In the end she throws herself off a cliff. In fact, Anna May died a lot in films, because that was the fate assigned to most foreigners and non-whites who had the temerity to work as Hollywood actors. They were often a side-plot, cast as criminals and low-lifes, whose violent demise was expected and acceptable.
One of Wong's great disappointments was not landing the leading role of O-Lan in The Good Earth. Instead, Buck's novel of peasant struggle was Hollywood-ized and all the actors in it were good old Americans. In fact, having cast Paul Muni in "yellow face" as the male lead, it was guaranteed that Wong would not get the coveted part, since that would have involved depicting a cross-racial relationship on the screen, something that never happened during the entire time that she was living and acting.
So Anna May went to Europe, where she found, as most people of color did, more freedom to act as she wanted both publicly and privately. Rumors persist that she and Marlene Dietrich were lovers briefly. It is certain that the great Dietrich liked this beautiful Chinese icon, and was sufficiently jealous of her charms to keep her out of all but one of her films.
Anna May was admired and treated with all due respect in the hotbed of Hollywood filmmaking, and when times altered somewhat she was offered a role in Flower Drum Song. The producers had come around to realizing that a Chinese or Asian person could play a Chinese or Asian character without endangering the morals of the American public. But by that time, Wong was ill and she died not long thereafter. Her body was cremated and no monument marks her passing.
Retrospect is not always kind. Gay men use the image of Wong with her elaborate hairdos and dragon embroidery as a broad parody of the Asian doyenne. Since most of her roles in nearly 60 movies were minor, she is scarcely a household name, except among those with a bent for film trivia.
It is kinder to recall that she was a child of poor immigrant parents who rose above her cultural and economic restraints by determination and a fierce sense of independence. She never abandoned her family ties, spending her last years supporting and being supported by a much younger brother, and filial to the end to the memory of her parents. But she went far beyond any expectations that her heritage suggested and for a brief bright time, had the world on a string.