The trailblazing actress suffered at the hands of racist filmmakers throughout her entire career, but managed to pave the way for Chinese-American representation in Hollywood.
In the second episode of Hollywood,
Ryan Murphy’s new alternate history about the Golden Age of Hollywood, aspiring director Raymond Ainsley pays a visit to the home of actress Anna May Wong. A down and out Wong, wearing sunglasses indoors and sipping scotch during their morning meeting, refers to herself as “the great ghost”; meanwhile, a starstruck Ainsley blurts, “I think what happened with The Good Earth was just awful.”
While Ainsley is a fictional character, Wong was a real person—in fact, she was Hollywood’s first Chinese-American movie star, and the controversy surrounding The Good Earth lives in the annals of Hollywood history. Murphy’s Hollywood dives briefly into this altercation; however, it’s only a snapshot of Wong’s long and trailblazing career not just as an actress, but as an advocate for Asian-American representation in Hollywood.
In 1905, Wong was born Wong Liu Tsong in the Chinatown of Los Angeles, where her family owned a laundromat. Wong grew up working in the family laundromat, attending California public school, and taking extracurricular Chinese language classes. Wong often skipped school and used her lunch money to see movies, leading her to decide at age nine that she would become a movie star. At age eleven, she settled on the stage name Anna May Wong, and at age fourteen, she scored her first role as an extra in The Red Lantern. Wong continued to appear as an extra in numerous films while simultaneously attending high school until 1921, when she dropped out to work full time as an actress.
Wong’s big break came in 1922, when she landed her first leading role at the age of seventeen in The Toll of the Sea, one of the first movies made in Technicolor. Wong continued to pursue leading roles, but she was habitually cast in supporting roles or in stereotypically Asian roles. She was entirely boxed out of the romantic leading roles she sought, owing to anti-miscegenation laws that forbade her from sharing an on-screen kiss with an actor of another race. In Murphy’s Hollywood, Wong alludes to these discriminatory casting practices, saying bitterly, “They don’t want a leading lady who looks like me. That’s the only thing the audience cares about. You need proof? My entire career: oversexed, opium-addled courtesans, dangerously exotic Far Eastern temptresses… that’s what they wanted to see from someone who looks like me.”
In 1924, Wong created her own production company, Anna May Wong Productions, with the intention of making films about her culture; however, the company was short-lived, as Wong was forced to shutter it due to her business partner’s unethical business practices. Meanwhile, Wong was critical of Hollywood’s refusal to cast Asian performers as Asian characters, saying, “Rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.” In 1928, frustrated with the lack of possibilities for her in Hollywood, Wong shipped off to Europe, later joking, “I think I left America because I died so often.”
In Europe, Wong became a bona fide star, appearing in numerous hit films (including 1932’s Shanghai Express opposite Marlene Dietrich), plays, and even operas. In one play, she starred opposite Laurence Olivier; in others, she spoke fluent French and German dialogue. In a 1933 magazine interview, she explained her move across the pond: “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.”
In the early 1930s, Paramount Studios contacted Wong abroad, promising her leading roles upon her return to the United States. The promise would prove a disappointment, as she was still asked to play stereotypical Asian roles in B-movies. During the making of Dangerous to Know, when the director of the picture asked her to use Japanese mannerisms in her portrayal of a Chinese character, Wong outright refused.
In 1935, Wong was dealt the most severe disappointment of her career when she was passed over for the leading role of O-lan in The Good Earth, Metro Goldywn-Mayer’s screen adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s award-winning novel about the hardships of life for Chinese farmers. Wong was asked to screen-test for the role of the concubine Lotus, to which she told the studio, “I’ll be glad to take the test, but I won’t play the part. If you let me play O-lan, I’ll be very glad. But you’re asking me—with Chinese blood—to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture, featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.”
Wong took the screen test and was offered the part of Lotus, but refused. For the part of O-lan, MGM instead chose the German actress Luise Rainer, using make-up to make her appear Chinese. Rainer won an Oscar for the role; Murphy’s Hollywood depicts the ceremony, with a tearful Wong sitting in the audience as Rainer delivers her acceptance speech. Devastated, Wong embarked on a year-long tour of China in 1936, where she hoped to reconnect with her heritage. Much to her dismay, she was spurned by Chinese reporters, who criticized her for what they viewed as her complicity in Hollywood’s derogatory characterization of Chinese women. She later lamented, “It’s a pretty sad situation to be rejected by the Chinese because I’m too American, and by American producers, because they prefer other races to act Chinese parts.”
In 1942, Wong retired from Hollywood, though her retirement wouldn’t stick. When World War II broke out, she devoted her time to war relief for China. In the 1950s, she returned briefly to the public eye with The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, in which she became the first Asian American to play a leading role in an American television series. In 1960, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, yet her film comeback was a return to the racist stereotyping that dogged her entire career, as she played a maid in Portrait in Black, starring Lana Turner.
In 1961, Wong died of a heart attack at age 56. Today, she is credited with paving the way for Chinese-Americans in Hollywood, and her extraordinary life has been examined in a number of biographies. As recently as January of this year, she was commemorated with a Google Doodle celebrating the 97th anniversary of The Toll of the Sea.
In 1959, Wong said, “When I die, my epitaph should be: ‘I died a thousand deaths.’ That was the story of my film career. Most of the time I played in mystery and intrigue stories. They didn’t know what to do with me at the end, so they killed me off.” In Murphy’s Hollywood, Wong has been given a new life, with the racism and the disappointment inherent in her career laid plain for the audience to mourn along with her. It’s hardly a spoiler to say that, in Hollywood, Wong’s story ends with one improvement: this time, she doesn’t have to die.
Adrienne Westenfeld is the Books and Fiction Editor at Esquire, where she oversees books coverage, edits fiction, and curates the Esquire Book Club.
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