Anna May Wong (1905-1961) was an American actress, considered to be the first Toisonese (Taishanese) Chinese American Hollywood movie star, as welll as the first Chinese American actress to gain international recognition. Her long and varied career spanned silent film, sound film, television, stage, and radio.
Born in Los Angeles to second-generation Toisonese (Taishanese)-Chinese-American parents, Wong became infatuated with the movies and began acting in films at an early age. During the silent film era, she acted in The Toll of the Sea (1922), one of the first movies made in color and Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Wong became a fashion icon and had achieved international stardom in 1924. Frustrated by the stereotypical supporting roles she reluctantly played in Hollywood, Wong left for Europe in the late 1920s, where she starred in several notable plays and films, among them Piccadilly (1929). She spent the first half of the 1930s traveling between the United States and Europe for film and stage work.
In 1935 Wong was dealt the most severe disappointment of her career, when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer refused to consider her for the leading role of the Chinese character O-Lan in the film version of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, choosing instead the white actress Luise Rainer to play the leading role. Wong spent the next year touring China, visiting her family’s ancestral village and studying Chinese culture. In the late 1930s, she starred in several B movies for Paramount Pictures, portraying Chinese and Chinese Americans in a positive light. She paid less attention to her film career during World War II, when she devoted her time and money to helping the Chinese cause against Japan. Wong returned to the public eye in the 1950s in several television appearances.
In 1951, Wong made history with her television show The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, the first ever U.S. television show starring an Asian American series lead.She had been planning to return to film in Flower Drum Song when she died in 1961, at the age of 56 from a heart attack. For decades after her death, Wong was remembered principally for the stereotypical “Dragon Lady” and demure “Butterfly” roles that she was often given. Her life and career were re-evaluated in the years around the centennial of her birth, in three major literary works and film retrospectives.
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