Until Chinese started to immigrate to the United States in the mid-19th century, they never encountered a people who considered them racially and culturally inferior. At the time, the discrimination against the Chinese in America was only exceeded by the racism directed at African-Americans.
The Chinese-American woman I’m thinking of was Anna May Wong (1905 to 1961), and the American brand of racism that hatched the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers also had a negative impact on the life of this woman.
As a child, Anna loved going to the movies and even cut school to go to the show. Eventually, she gained some success in film as an actress. Between 1919 and 1961, she acted in 62 films. The Internet Movie Data Base says she was the “first Chinese-American movie star”.
However, to act, Anna had to play the roles she was given. Because she was Chinese, the American racist stereotype always cast her as a sneaky, untrustworthy woman that only fell for Caucasian men. The price she paid to act in movies meant 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.”
In fact, in the 1960s, many of the anti-racist laws enacted during the Civil Rights era focused on protecting African-Americans. 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 U.S. today and manifests itself through the media as China bashing. How often have you been reminded of the alleged Tiananmen Square Massacre or the millions Mao allegedly murdered during the Great Famine and have never heard that China in the last thirty years is responsible for 90-percent of the world’s reduction in poverty?
Anna was determined to play Chinese characters that were not stereotypes, but it was a losing battle. To escape the hateful racism that murdered her dreams, she lived in Europe for a few years before returning to the racist U.S.
Since the law in the United States at the time 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 got married or had children.
Anna May Wong died of a heart attack in Santa Monica, California at age 56. For her contribution to the film industry, Anna May Wong received a star at 1708 Vine Street on the inauguration of the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.
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