Almost half a century after her death, Anna May Wong (1905 to 1961) has not been forgotten.
In fact, her life is another example of the continued discrimination against Asian-Americans and Chinese in the US by other ethnic groups, which includes Caucasions, African Americans and Latinos.
The first indication of this discrimination and racisim in the US against Chinese and/or Asian Americans appeared during the California Gold Rush, which John Putnam wrote of in Chinese in the Gold Rush.
As a child, Anna loved going to the movies and even cut school to go to the show.
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. The Western stereotype cast her as a sneaky, untrustworthy woman that 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.
The discrimination against the Chinese in America was only exceeded by the racism and hatred directed at African-Americans.
Then 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.
Since the Chinese—due to cultural differences—often did not complain, they were left behind.
In many respects, racism toward the Chinese still exists in the US 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 a 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.
Return to Part 2 or start with The Chinese in America – Part 1
This post first appeared on November 10, 2010 as Anna May Wong – The Woman Who Died a Thousand Times
Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of the concubine saga, My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too.
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