The first thing to remember about movie star Anna May Wong is that she was an American. She was born Wong Liu Tsong in 1905 in Los Angeles, with Cantonese-American family that had lived in America since at least 1855. Her father owned a laundry shop, and as the film industry began to move west, she began to gain an interest in acting and movies. However, being an American didn’t matter in a time when people of Chinese descent were being heavily legislated against.
Beginning in 1909, any people of Chinese descent entering or residing in the US, regardless of the country of their birth, had to carry a Certificate of Identity with them at all times. This was part of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (the subject of the New-York Historical Society’s upcoming exhibit, Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion), which prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers, and excluded Chinese from US citizenship. Even at the peak of her fame, Wong still had to carry papers like the one above to prove she was allowed to be here.
Wong’s career also suffered from the anti-miscegenation laws of the time, which prevented her from sharing an on-screen kiss with any person of another race (even if it was an Asian character being portrayed by a white actor.) There was only one other Asian leading man at the time, Sessue Hayakawa, so Wong was often relegated to the part of the “Dragon Lady.” In 1928, Wong moved to Europe, saying in an interview, “There seems little for me in Hollywood, because, rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.” However, in the 1930s, she returned to Hollywood, and starred in some of her most iconic films, like Shanghai Express and Daughter of the Dragon.
Despite being barred from leading-lady status, moviegoers loved her, especially minorities who were excited to see a non-white actress gain such fame. Anthony B. Chan wrote about his parents seeing Wong in his book Perpetual Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961):
Like many Chinese in North America, the films they eagerly awaited, cherished, and from which they could escape the repercussions of the Great Depression and the consequences of racist acts were those that revealed people who actually looked like them. Anna May Wong was clearly one of those who looked like them.
Watching her repartee with Shanghai Lily and Mrs. Haggarty in Shanghai Express was almost like watching one of their neighbors on the wide screen. Here was a yellow woman holding her own against two white women. It was truly an extraordinary sight that almost never happened in the icy reality of interracial relationships, in which no yellow person could think to act equally to a white person in the 1930s. That Wong as Hui Fei, a Chinese, could brazenly speak in such a witty and cool manner while exuding a controlled rationality in this mind game was even more astonishing to Chinese living in a North America that precluded and subordinated them with discriminatory legislation and overt hostility.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, but Chinese-Americans (and other Asian-Americans) still fight stereotypes and hostility today. There are few movie stars of Asian descent, and while there may be no room for the “Dragon Lady” in modern cinema, you rarely see an Asian-American woman in a leading role. Anna May Wong straddled the line between Asian and American, learning her roots but fighting to prove that she was as American as anyone else. For future generations, hopefully the fight won’t be so hard.