Almost half a century after her death, Anna May Wong (1905 to 1961) has not been forgotten.
As a child, Anna loved going to the movies and even cut school to go.
Between 1919 and 1961, she acted in 62 films. The Internet Movie Data Base says she was the “first Chinese-American movie star”.
To act, Anna had to play the roles she was given. The Western stereotype cast her as a sneaky, untrustworthy woman who always fell for a Caucasian man. The dark side of achieving her dream of acting in movies was that Anna had to die so the characters she played got what they deserved.
Anna often joked that her tombstone should read, “Here lies the woman who died a thousand times.”
Until Chinese started to emigrate to the U.S. in the mid-19th century, they had never encountered a people who considered them racially and culturally inferior.
However, the discrimination against the Chinese in America was only exceeded by the racism and hatred directed at African-Americans.
In fact, in the 1960s, many of the anti racist laws enacted during the Civil Rights era focused on protecting African-Americans, which created a protected class, and since the Chinese—due to cultural differences often did not complain—they were left behind.
In many respects, this racism toward the Chinese still exists in the US today and manifests itself through the media as China bashing, which supports the old stereotype.
When Anna May Wong visited China in 1936, she had to abandon the trip to her parent’s ancestral village when a mob accused her of disgracing China.
After her return to Hollywood, she was determined to play Chinese characters that were not stereotypes, but it was a losing battle. To escape the hateful racism, she lived in Europe for a few years.
Since U.S. law did not allow her to marry the Caucasian man she loved, and she was afraid that if she married a Chinese man he would force her to give up acting since Chinese culture judged actresses to be the same as prostitutes, she never married.
Anna May Wong smoked and drank too much. She died of a heart attack in Santa Monica, California at age 56.
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine [3rd edition]. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.
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