This is edited and expanded from an entry in my “Too Young, Too Soon” series on my old Angelfire page, written around 2005–07.
Anna May Wong (née Wong Liu Tsong) (3 January 1905–2 February 1961), the first Taishanese Chinese-American moviestar and female Chinese–American actor to earn international fame, was born in L.A. to second-generation Chinese–Americans Wong Sam Sing and Lee Gon Toy. Her dad owned a laundry.
Her early childhood was spent on Flower Street, a block north of Chinatown, where Chinese, Japanese, Irish, and Germans lived alongside one another. In 1910, the Wongs moved to Figueroa Street. They were the only Chinese family among mostly Mexicans and Eastern Europeans.
Anna May as a baby in 1905
Anna May and her older sister Lew Ying (Lulu) were forced to leave their public school after endless Sinophobic abuse. Their new school was run by Chinese Prebyterians, with English instruction. On afternoons and Saturdays, they attended a Chinese-language school.
Owing to many movie studios moving from New York to L.A., Anna May had the opportunity to watch films regularly being shot in her area. She loved going to nickelodeon shows, which she skipped school and used her lunch money to attend.
Her dad wasn’t very pleased with her newfound love, but she continued going to the movies. By age nine, she was begging filmmakers for roles. She created her stage name at age eleven.
In 1919, when she was working at Hollywood’s Ville de Paris department store, she answered a call for 300 female extras for Alla Nazimova’s The Red Lantern. A well-connected friend of her dad’s helped her to get one of those parts in secret.
She spent the next two years as an extra, until St. Vitus’s dance forced her to miss many months of both school and acting. After her recovery, Anna May dropped out of school to focus on acting.
In 1921, she got her first credited role, as Toy Sing in Bits of Life, the first anthology film (an amalgamation of four different stories). Lon Chaney, Sr., was her screen husband. Anna May fondly remembered this as the only time she played a mother.
She scored her first leading role in 1922, at age seventeen, in the two-strip Technicolor film The Toll of the Sea. Though she earned rave reviews, the powers that be were loath to cast a Chinese woman as a leading lady.
Anna May had little choice but to accept supporting roles (sometimes to white actors playing Chinese characters), providing an exotic atmosphere.
Her breakthrough film was Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924), where she played a Mongol slave. Her brief appearance catapulted her to widespread public awareness among both critics and regular moviegoers.
Off-camera, she and director Tod Browning had an affair. This was very hushed-up at the time, since Browning was 25 years older than 19-year-old Anna May, and miscegenation was against the law.
Anna May’s career was severely limited by said anti-miscegenation laws. Actors of different races were forbidden to kiss onscreen, and the only Asian leading man in this era was Sessue Hayakawa. This law also applied to Asians kissing whites made up to look Asian.
In 1928, Anna May moved to Europe for greater opportunities. However, she was still legally barred from onscreen love scenes.
She returned to Hollywood in 1930, and found the same prejudices waiting for her. She later began speaking out against the stereotyping of her people, and how Asian roles were routinely given to white actors.
Finally, in the late 1930s, Paramount gave her the chance to portray sympathetic, successful Chinese–American characters.
Anna May died of a heart attack at age 56, on the eve of returning to film in Flower Drum Song.