Anna May Wong – Reluctant Dragon Lady

Day 241 of Colourisation Project – January 3

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

A third-generation American, Anna May Wong was Hollywood’s first Chinese American movie star. Starting out in Hollywood’s Golden Age of silent movies and always under the veil of an entrenched racism, she appeared in over fifty movies between 1919 and 1960.

Anna May Wong

Publicity Still – Anna May Wong – Colourised by Loredana Crupi

She made scores of films in Hollywood, London and Berlin, her best-remembered film being Shanghai Express (1932) along-side Marlene Dietrich. According to her 2004 biography Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend by Graham Russell Hodges, Wong “hobnobbed with an intellectual elite that included princes, playwrights, artists and photographers who clamored to work with her.”

The glamorous and worldly Wong was featured in magazines all over the world. Yet back home in America she spent most of her career typecast either as an ‘Oriental’ villain or a scheming ‘Dragon Lady’.

For all her achievements it was certainly no easy ride. As the first Chinese American movie star she was by default both an architect and a victim of her times. She managed to carve out an acting career in Hollywood during a time of deeply entrenched racism.  A time when anti-miscegenation laws not only prevented inter-racial marriages and excluded Chinese from immigrating to the US, they saw to it that Caucasian actresses were cast as ‘Oriental’ women in lead parts opposite Caucasian leading men. It was a time when American actresses would be pimped up to look Asian because it was unthinkable to have an actual Asian kissing a Caucasian male lead.

Although she became the first Asian to break Hollywood’s miscegenation rule playing her first role at age 17, opposite a white romantic lead in Toll of the Sea, her role as “Lotus Flower” a young Chinese girl who falls for a white man who loves her but can’t possibly be with her, only served to nourish the prejudices of Americans towards ‘Oriental” women…they were basically not good enough to bring home to mother.

Made in 1922, Toll of the Sea was the first true Technicolor feature to be made in Hollywood with the plot being a variation of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly story, set in China instead of Japan.

Wong’s subsequent film roles were limited by stereotype and prejudice. Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s was as racist as it was homophobic. (see yesterday’s story on William Haines). By 1928 Wong had had enough of being both typecast and being passed over for lead Asian character roles in favor of non-Asian actresses, and headed to Europe.

In Europe, she was welcomed as a star and remained there for three years. Lauded for her film and stage appearances, she worked in Germany and France, making foreign versions of her British films.

In an interview for Film Weekly in 1933, Wong complained about her Hollywood roles:

“I was so tired of the parts I had to play. Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain–murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass…There seems little for me in Hollywood, because, rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.”

Wong came under attack from all quarters. Whilst having to endure American prejudices she was perceived by the Chinese to be perpetuating Hollywood’s demeaning and racist  stereotypes. Chinese nationals were offended by Wong’s portrayals of Asians as second class citizens and villains. As Hodges notes in his biography “Her role as a sexually available Chinese woman, would eventually earn her resentful criticism in China.”

Wong was hurt by the stinging attacks. On the one hand she was rejected because she was too Chinese and on the other …”It’s a pretty sad situation to be rejected by the Chinese because I am too American.”

MGM studios refused to cast Wong in its 1932 production of The Son-Daughter even though she did a screen-test, on the grounds that she was “too Chinese to play a Chinese.” The part instead went to Helen Hayes who played the role in ‘yellow-face’, a form of theatrical makeup.

Despite having achieved international success, her biggest disappointment was being denied both the lead and supporting roles in MGM’s prestige production of The Good Earth (1937). Based on the popular Pearl Buck novel, the roles called for playing opposite Paul Muni, a Caucasian actor in Asian drag. Incredulously, Wong was rejected for failing to live up to a white man’s ideal of Chinese women. Wong refused the lesser role of the villainess, the stereotypical Oriental Dragon Lady. To add insult to injury, Luise Rainer would go on to win the Best Actress Oscar for her performance of O-Lan in Chinese drag.

Ironically, the year The Good Earth came out, Wong appeared on the cover of Look Magazine‘s second issue, with the headline, “The World’s Most Beautiful Chinese Girl.” Stereotyped in America as a dragon lady, the cover photo had her holding a dagger.

In 1942, finally fed up with the Hollywood system and its persistent and pernicious stereotyping, Wong retired from films at the age of thirty-five.

Throughout the Second World War, she contributed to the war efforts by working for the United China Relief Fund and touring with the United Service Organizations, a group that provided entertainment and other services for the U.S. military. Despite her contributions in this area, she was largely viewed by Chinese-Americans as an embarrassment.

Wong was even snubbed by Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, the daughter of Sun Yat-sen and wife of the Chinese Nationalist leader, during Madame Chiang’s 1942-43 propaganda tour of the US. According to Hodges, her biographer, Chinese-Americans put the blame squarely at her feet rather than Hollywood for the demeaning stereotypes and as a result “her memory has been washed away.”

During the 1940s and 1950s, Wong took occasional small parts on television, starring in her own 10 episode series, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong in which she played a sleuth, a role written specifically for her. Screened in 1951, it was the first U.S. television series starring an Asian-American in the lead.

Seventeen years after retirement, she made a film comeback as Lana Turner’s mysterious housekeeper in the 1960 film, Portrait in Black. It was to be her final film appearance. In 1961, Anna May Wong died of a heart attack in her sleep at her home in Santa Monica, California. She was 56 years of age.

Whilst “her memory may have been washed away,” it is not entirely forgotten. In recent times there has been a revival of  interest in Wong and to mark her 100th birthday in 2005, three major works on the actress appeared while comprehensive retrospectives of her films were held at both the Museum of Modern Art and the American Museum of the Moving Image in New York City.

Anthony Chan’s 2003 biography, Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905–1961), was the first major work on Wong and was written “from a uniquely Asian-American perspective and sensibility.”

In 2004, Philip Leibfried and Chei Mi Lane produced a comprehensive study of Wong’s career, Anna May Wong: A Complete Guide to Her Film, Stage, Radio and Television Work; the same year as Hodges full-length biography, Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend.

Today a younger generation of Asian Americans see her as a pioneering artist, a trailblazer who succeeded in a hostile Hollywood system, which unfortunately still clings to remnants of prejudice, whether it be race, sexuality or religion. As Anthony Chan points out however”, her place in Asian-American cinematic history, as its first female star, is permanent.”

Wong has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1708 Vine Street, Hollywood.


“They were all so wonderful to me. You are admired abroad for your accomplishments and loved for yourself. That made me an individual, instead of a symbol of my race.”  –  Anna May Wong [Talking about Europeans on her return to America]

This entry was posted in Colorization, Colourisation, Film, Hollywood, Photography, Uncategorized, USA, Women, Women in Film & TV and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Anna May Wong – Reluctant Dragon Lady

  1. Pingback: RIP Luise Rainer | Random Phoughts

  2. Pingback: Merle Oberon Nonetheless | Random Phoughts

  3. Pingback: Pearl (Buck) of the Orient | Random Phoughts

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