Bad Girls Throughout History: 100 Remarkable Women Who Changed the World - Ann Shen (2016)
Anna May Wong
Born in Los Angeles, Anna May Wong (1905-1961) was a third-generation Chinese- American actress who became the first internationally renowned Asian star, appearing in over sixty films. As a child, Wong often ditched school to visit Hollywood film sets and ask for bit parts. Without her parents’ knowledge, Wong landed her first extra role at age fourteen, then her first screen credit at sixteen alongside Lon Chaney in Bits of Life. From there, she blazed into Hollywood, appearing in one of the first Technicolor films, The Toll of the Sea, and becoming a bona fide star in Douglas Fairbanks’s The Thief of Bagdad.
Even as Wong’s star burned brighter, Hollywood didn’t know what to do with an Asian-American actress. She was often relegated to stereotypical roles of Dragon Lady or submissive Butterfly, and she was limited in her choice of leading lady roles because the Hays Code had censored interracial relationships. Wong grew tired of fighting the system for positive roles; she was especially battle- scarred after being denied the leading Chinese role in The Good Earth, losing out to an all-white cast and instead being offered an offensive role as the only deceitful character in the movie, which she declined.
Wong finished her contract with Paramount Pictures with a string of B movies that actually gave her the freedom to portray nonstereotypical Asian-American roles, including Java Heart, in which her character kissed the lead white male character. Then she moved to Europe and grew her film career, toured China to learn about opera but was rejected for being “too American,” and rallied in support of China’s struggle against Japan during World War II. In the 1950s, Wong starred in a television series written for her, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong; it was the first U.S. show starring an Asian-American lead. Though her struggles in a career that spanned the Roaring Twenties and World War II are eerily similar to what many Asian-American entertainers still face today, Wong opened the door just a little bit wider for everyone who came after her.