She Who Died a Thousand Deaths: The Story of Anna May Wong
Updated: Nov 27, 2022
On January 22nd, 2020, users opened Google to find a new, striking Google Doodle. In the middle of their screens sat an Asian American woman with black and white artwork that was reminiscent of the era of silent films and colorless movies dating back to the early 1900s.
She was Anna May Wong.
The Beginnings of a Movie Star
Born in 1905 in the Chinatown of Los Angeles, California, she was often close to movie sets due to the move of film production from New York to California. Wong’s fascination and interest in film and actors started at a young age as she used her lunch money to go out and watch movies, and by the age of nine, she was set on becoming a movie star.
In the 1920s, Wong began to pursue acting full-time. She landed leading roles in several films, one of which was The Toll of the Sea, the first feature-length film produced by Technicolor.
Critics saw and commended her great talent and skill, but as a result of her race, Hollywood deemed her unfit for leading roles, casting her aside to be side characters while white actors played Asian characters in yellowface. The side characters she played were deeply flawed stereotypes that portrayed Asians in harmful ways, all while the studio system consistently profited off of her affliction.
During Wong’s time, anti-mescengenation laws prevented interracial marriages and even went to prevent interracial kissing on the big screen. As a result, this law barricaded Wong from being able to play leading roles in romantic films. In Anna May Wong, Writing Biography, and What’s Next: An Interview with John Olive, it was commented that, “She [Wong] was in Hollywood in that era when non-white actors could not kiss. This meant there was a whole range of parts that were not available to her. She couldn’t play a romantic lead where she would have to kiss her leading man. So, she had to watch parts that she could have played—should have played—go to other actors. And that frustrated her, to say the least.”
And so, Wong was cast aside to play supporting roles, which were often highly stereotypical.
Such stereotypical roles were often either the “China Doll” or the “Dragon Lady” role. The “China Doll” was portrayed as a quiet, submissive Asian woman who was completely and utterly dependent on a white man. She was portrayed as only existing to please the white man. Meanwhile, the “Dragon Lady” was a villainous character who was dominant, manipulative and possessed a lack of empathy. Both such stereotypes were hypersexualized to satisfy the white man’s fantasies, and neither had any character development in plots, rendering them completely one-dimensional and stereotypical.
These roles were the only ones available to Asian Americans at the time, if not already taken by a white actor playing in yellowface.
Wong hated playing such roles, and after realizing she couldn’t wait for Hollywood to improve, she decided to open her own studio, creating Anna May Wong Production Studios in 1924. Wong planned to dedicate the films to be about Chinese mythology. Unfortunately, it closed within a year due to her business partner being caught using bad practices.
With a failure of a studio on her hands, Wong was thrust back into returning to Hollywood’s racist roles that shoved her into a tight box of how Asians should be portrayed on the big screen. However, she refused to yield to Hollywood’s unfair ways and decided to try her luck in Europe in 1928.
Giving Europe a Chance
There, Wong was turned into a star overnight with Europe enamored by her beauty and talent. Starring as leading roles in numerous films, notable ones being Piccadilly and her first talking film, The Flame of Love. She was also in the operetta Tschun Tschi in fluent German.
Captivated by her extraordinary success in Europe, Hollywood wanted her back as Paramount Studios made her an offer to place her in leading roles if she returned to the States.
However, upon her return, Wong was still forced into stereotypical roles.
When the director of a film requested her to use Japanese mannerisms whilst playing a Chinese character, Wong outright refused. In a 1933 interview, she reflected, “I was so tired of the parts I had to play. Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain—murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass. We are not like that.”
Wong was constantly vocal about her unhappiness at the stereotypes that she and other Asian actors were constantly portrayed in, and about the constant racism of Hollywood. This was so significant, especially during a time where most actors of color didn’t speak about this.
The Good Earth
In 1935, Wong was given the severest disappointment of career. At the time, Good Earth, a Chinese-centric film about the lives of Chinese farmers was being produced. As such, directors were looking to cast people for the roles within the movie.
The director reached out to Wong, asking her to play the role of concubine Lotus, a supporting character. In response, Wong stated, “I’ll be glad to take the test, but I won’t play the part. If you let me play O-lan [the leading female character], I’ll be very glad. But you’re asking me—with Chinese blood—to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture, featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.”
The role of O-lan, one of the leading characters, ended up being given to a white actress who would play the character in yellowface. Meanwhile, Wong rejected the studio’s offer to play Lotus.
In the end, the white actress playing O-Lan received an Oscar for her role, while Wong, an actual Chinese American, was rejected from it.
Discussed in The Ongoing Legacy of Anna May Wong: Hollywood’s First Asian American Star, Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist and author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, said sorrowfully, “I re-watched The Good Earth audition scenes. I still cried watching her perform those scenes because the words that she was saying in those scenes matched what the actress was experiencing in life. [The scene] was something about the child and not being able to get there, essentially not be able to fulfill her dream and her potential. And so those scenes, I think, were the best thing of the Anna May Wong scenes, as well as the entire series: her auditioning for The Good Earth, because I’m sure that was as close to reality as it was then, where she is thinking.”
However, Wong didn’t let this disappointment burden her; instead, she surged on, continuing to act in movies and actively worked with screenwriters to remove racist or stereotypical content. In 1937, she performed ground-breaking work with fellow Korean American actor Phillip Ahn in a thrilling crime movie starring a Chinese American woman teaming up with an Asian American man to fight human traffickers.
In an interview about the movie, Wong expressed, “I like my part in this picture better than any I’ve had before, not because it gives me better acting opportunities nor because the character has exceptional appeal. It’s just because this picture gives the Chinese a break—we have the sympathetic parts for a change! To me that means a great deal.” In the 1950s, she starred in The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, where she became the first Asian American to play a leading role in an American TV series. And, in 1960, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
A True Icon
However, through all the hardships and the racism that chased after her for the entirety of her life, Wong remained vocal and loud about the inequalities she faced from Hollywood. She knew her worth and was proud of her heritage, and when she found that she was not valued in the U.S., she moved to Europe. Wong openly used her stardom to criticize the industry, forcing directors and screenwriters to do better than racist stereotypes. By fighting against these stereotypes, Wong showed that Asian Americans were more than just the stereotypes and yellowface performances on the big screen.
Two years before her unfortunate death in 1961, Wong proclaimed, “When I die, my epitaph should be: ‘I died a thousand deaths.’ That was the story of my film career.”
And yet, Wong’s legacy outlived the obstacles Hollywood forced on her, and is renowned as the first Chinese American star in Hollywood that has paved the way for many Asian Americans today.
On October 25th of 2022, Wong’s face is actually going to be put on the U.S. quarter, putting her physically down in history.
In light of her thousands of deaths, Wong has become immortal.
About the Author:
Sara is fifteen years old with a love for learning and exploring. Being naturally curious, she often finds herself researching events and people on Wikipedia. As a result, she enjoys writing about AAPI history alongside modern-day events.
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