Who was the Real Anna May Wong?

Anna May Wong was born an American citizen on January 3, 1905, and died February 3, 1961. She was the first Chinese-American movie star and the first Asian-American actress to gain international fame.

On March 1, 2003, Bill Moyers reported, Anna was American-born, confident in ways her father’s generation could never be, still she lived suspended between two countries, starting with how people saw her.

“Americans regard [us] as a dark, mysterious race,” Anna May once said, “impossible to understand. Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain — murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass. I was so tired of the parts I had to play.”

In fact, because if the films she appeared in, she became known as The Woman that Died a Thousand Times.

By the time she was 32, and an established Hollywood star, in August 1937, Japan invaded Shanghai. Anna’s younger sister was living there at the time and managed to escape, but their family couldn’t get out. In 1938, Anna managed to get her family back in the United States. Then she started working with Chinatown communities to get rid of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Five years later in 1943, this racist legislation that targeted Chinese was repealed.

The Exclusion Act (1882 – 1943) made it virtually impossible for Chinese to have a normal family life inside the United States. The Exclusion law applied to Chinese laborers. It exempted merchants, travelers and students. What this meant to the Chinese who could not become a merchant, and what it meant was not a student or a traveler what it meant was that he could not bring his wife. – Stanford Lyman (Historian)

As a young girl, Anna skipped school to watch silent films at local theaters. By the time she was 9, she had set a goal to become a movie star.  She hung around the studios, including MGM, asking for extra work instead of going to school. Eventually, she landed some rolls. At 17, it’s rumored that she had an affair with an older but married director.

In 1924, at 19, Anna had her first success when she played a Mongol slave in the classic film “The Thief of Bagdad” cast alongside Douglas Fairbanks.

According to Cal Van Vechten’s daughter, Anna May had a brief affair with co-star Vincent Price. – Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend, page 164. While acting on stage in Turandot, she also had a brief affair with her costar. – Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography, page 77.

The first Chinese film star in Hollywood, the rolls she could play were limited. The Hays Code did not permit the portrayal of interracial relationships on-screen. However, Anna’s rumored lovers, from Vincent Price to Marlene Dietrich, were white, and Douglas Fairbanks called her the “Chink in my amour”. Her most famous movies were denounced as “ghost films” and banned in China. – The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies.

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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