Cinema and Media Studies Anna May Wong
by
S. Louisa Wei, April G. Wei
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0272

Introduction

Anna May Wong (b. 1905–d. 1961) pioneered as the first Chinese American film star with celebrity status in every continent and the ability to perform in multiple languages. She starred or appeared in over sixty films, five plays, ten television shows, and her own vaudeville show that she staged throughout Europe in the 1930s and in Australia in 1939. She attempted to overcome racial prejudice even as her career suffered from being typecast with such stereotypes as “China doll” and “dragon lady.” Her early roles, including the leading role in the first-ever full Technicolor silent feature titled Toll of the Sea (1922), and the supporting role of a Mongol slave girl in The Thief of Bagdad (1924) made her the earliest embodiment and interpreter of Asian women on the international screen and stage. She crystallized the careers and roles of Asian actors in European and American filmmaking, and her achievement remains undimmed in the present day. Anna May Wong learned to code her talents and cultural references in spite of racist scripts and audiences fully ignorant of Asian culture. In supporting roles, she at times upstaged the lead actress; the most famous example was her performance with Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932). Struggling in a racist and conservative Hollywood in an era when the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882–1943) was in effect, her strategy of sustaining her professional life and film career for two decades was through ocean-crossing—pursuing roles in the United Kingdom, the Weimar Republic, and Australia, then returning to Hollywood on her own will. Rejected for the role of a lifetime as O-Lan, the good wife, in the cinematic adaptation of Pearl Buck’s novel, The Good Earth (1937), she made a highly publicized trip to China. Upon her return, she starred in a series of B-movies with a positive view of China and its people. During World War II, Anna May Wong made several propaganda films and toured USO bases entertaining the troops. Never completely forgotten, Anna May’s legend was revived by scholars during the centennial of her birth in 2003. As an early cosmopolitan woman, a fashion icon, and an imposing photographed image, Anna May Wong inspired scholarly studies, as well as creative works including song, children’s books, documentaries, and recently, a multimedia work. In the era celebrating global cultures, Anna May Wong is recognized for defining a lifestyle that was unique then but is now considered distinctly modern.

Autobiographies and Biographies

The diversity of Anna May Wong’s work, her artistic forms, her performative language, and the international settings of her film pose sizable challenges to a biographer. As an eloquent actress, fashion icon, and early cosmopolitan, Anna May Wong documented her life and career through many interviews, articles, and letters, as exemplified by her mini-autobiography published in China (Wong 1936). Her self-expressed philosophy of life enlightens her biographers as well as urging them to (re)interpret the not-so-favorable realities in her professional life. As early as the 1970s, Chu 1976 attempted to put major events of her life together through a selection of reportage. Parish and Leonard 1976, Gee 1980, Gan 1995, Zia and Gall 1995, and Ng 1999 follow suit by including her in various listings; Chan 2003 is mostly informative in contextualizing Anna May Wong’s life within the history of Asian Americans, yet Wong’s legend was mostly formed outside that context. Hodges 2012 remains the only biography that covers nearly all periods of Anna May’s life—from the eventful years to eventless ones where she still tried to break through. Leong 2005 offers a shorter biography of her with a more focused context of Sino-American relation and cultural exchange. Other biographies are relatively brief, and their approaches are described below.

  • Chan, B. Anthony. Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905–1961). Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Chan’s biography provides background information about Wong and Asian American history. Chan portrays how Wong defied many restrictions and conventions, showing that she defined herself with a “perpetual coolness.” Chan asserts, lacking any clear evidence, that Wong had a Daoist philosophy, without mentioning her reading of and friendship with Lin Yutang, whose work influenced the actress.

  • Chu, Judy. “Anna May Wong.” In Counterpoint Perspectives on Asian America. Edited by Emma Gee, 284–289. Los Angeles: Asian American Studies Center, UCLA, 1976.

    E-mail Citation »

    This short piece published in 1976 puts together Anna May Wong’s career through a selection of media reportage from the 1920s to the 1960s. It presents a solid summary of how Anna May perceived herself and how she was viewed in her time. As an earlier study of Anna May, this piece is a reference for nearly all later biographers and researchers.

  • Gan, Geraldine. “Anna May Wong.” In Lives of Notable Asian Americans: Arts, Entertainment, Sports. By Geraldine Gan, 83–91. New York: Chelsea House, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    This brief encyclopedia entry is useful as an initial survey of Anna May’s life.

  • Gee, Emma. “Wong, Anna May.” In Notable American Women: The Modern Period. A Biographical Dictionary. Edited by Barbara Sicherman and Carol Hurd Green, 744–745. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

    E-mail Citation »

    This early encyclopedia entry is useful for a quick survey of Anna May Wong’s life and career.

  • Groves, Derham. Anna May Wong’s Lucky Shoes: 1939 Australia through the Eyes of an Art Deco Diva. Ames, IA: Culicidae, 2011.

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    This book describes in great detail Anna May Wong’s trip to Australia in 1939, where she performed on stage as a diva of opera. One-third of the book is like a biography of Wong in Australia, describing her performances, interactions with journalist and friends.

  • Hodges, Graham Russell. Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend. 2d ed. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.5790/hongkong/9789888139637.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Hodges’ comprehensive, definitive biography covers Wong’s life and career using vast, original primary materials including Wong’s personal correspondence and newspapers from many countries. Hodges portrays Wong’s cosmopolitanism and reveals Wong’s struggles against the endemic racism of her time, and negative reception in Nationalist and Communist China, and the paradoxes of her search for a Chinese American identity, while performing stereotypical roles.

  • Leong, J. Karen. “Anna May Wong.” In The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism. By Karen J. Leong, 57–105. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

    E-mail Citation »

    Leong’s book takes a biographical approach to three individuals—Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, and Mayling Soong—who served as a bridge between China and America in the 1930s and 1940s and represented what she calls “the China mystique.” The chapter on Anna May exposes her legacy through how misunderstandings of her cultural origins are forced on her all the way through her career as an actress in Hollywood and in Europe.

  • Ng, Franklin. “Anna May Wong.” In Distinguished Asian Americans: A Biographical Dictionary. Edited by Hyung-chan Kim, 352–354. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999.

    E-mail Citation »

    This entry summarizes Anna May Wong’s acting career with brief descriptions of her most famous films.

  • Parish, James R., and William T. Leonard. “Anna May Wong.” In Hollywood Players: The Thirties. By James R. Parish and William T. Leonard, 532–538. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1976.

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    The authors provide a memorable panorama of 1930s Hollywood with career studies of seventy-one actors and actresses who were notable but not quite superstars.

  • Warner, Jennifer. The Tool of the Sea: The Life and Times of Anna May Wong. N.p.: LifeCaps, 2014.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book is a general introduction of Anna May Wong’s life story.

  • Wong, Anna May. “Wo De Zishu” (“My Self Account”). The Young Companion 114 (February 1936): 24.

    E-mail Citation »

    Written in the first person, this short piece was translated from Anna May’s English writing for The Young Companion, a popular Chinese-language magazine published in Shanghai and most influential between 1926 and 1941. Printed in the “Celebrity Life” column of the magazine shortly after her arrival in Shanghai, this article briefly summarizes her film career and responds to criticisms over her “demeaning roles” in American and European films.

  • Zia, Helen, and Susan B. Gall. “Anna May Wong.” In Notable Asian Americans. By Helen Zia and Susan B. Gall, 414. New York: Gale Research, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    This reference presents narrative biographical entries on 250 prominent Asian Americans, from past to present. The entry on Anna May Wong summarizes information regarding her background and achievements.

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