Actress Anna May Wong: a snapshot biography

Actress Anna May Wong
Anna May Wong, 1922

Biography

“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. How should we be, with a civilization that’s so many times older than that of the West. We have our own virtues. We have our rigid code of behavior, of honor. Why do they never show these on the screen? Why should we always scheme, rob, kill?” – Anna May Wong

Born in Los Angeles in 1905 as Wong Liu-Tsong, she would become an actress, known to the world as Anna May Wong.

Anna May fell in love with movies at a young age. As film production came to Los Angeles in her youth, she often visited movie sets. And soon, she was skipping class and using lunch money to go to the movies. By nine, Anna May decided to become an actress.

Her first part came as an extra in the film Red Lantern when she was fourteen. A couple of years later, she dropped out of high school to pursue acting full-time, starring in her first lead role at seventeen. Of her performance, a New York Times review said the following: “Miss Wong stirs in the spectator all the sympathy her part calls for and she never repels one by an excess of theatrical ‘feeling’. She has a difficult role, a role that is botched nine times out of ten, but hers is the tenth performance. Completely unconscious of the camera, with a fine sense of proportion and remarkable pantomimic accuracy, she makes the deserted little Lotus Flower a genuinely appealing, understandable figure. She should be seen again and often on the screen.”

But getting roles proved challenging for Anna May. Anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S banned interracial actors from kissing on-screen, leaving mostly supporting roles for Anna May to play, even as her stardom grew. The roles often portrayed villains, leading Anna May to leave for Europe in 1928 to pursue broader acting opportunities, commenting, “I was so tired of the parts I had to play.”

In Europe, she became a star. But as time passed, opportunities in the U.S. for leading roles arose, and she missed her family in Los Angeles. She returned to the U.S. in late 1930, though she would return to Europe over the years for acting parts.

Anna May acted in over sixty movies throughout her career while also successfully transitioning from acting in silent films to sound cinema. She passed away in 1961 in Santa Monica, California.

“Actress Anna May Wong: a snapshot biography” sources:

Anna May Wong and the Dragon-Lady Syndrome, Los Angeles Times by Edward Sakamoto, July 12th, 1987 – Wikiquote / Publicity photo of Anna May Wong by Eugene Robert Richee for Paramount Pictures, scan via Heritage Auctions / Wikimedia Commons / The Toll of the Sea, New York Times film review. November 27, 1922. / Alexander, Kerri Lee. “Anna May Wong.” National Women’s History Museum. 2019. www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/anna-may-wong.

Notes:

If you enjoyed “Actress Anna May Wong: a snapshot biography”, please consider supporting Historical Snapshots with a contribution. To contribute, please visit our Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/historicalsnapshots. Your support is much appreciated ❤.

Please click here to read a snapshot biography of another actress, Hedy Lamarr