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Anna May Wong Biography
Anna May Wong Biography

Anna May Wong, born in Los Angeles, became the first female Asian American and first Chinese American to become a film star and the first to achieve international fame.

Wong was born January 3, 1905, in Los Angeles to Wong Sam Sing and Gon Lee Toy, both native-born Californians. Her birth name was Wong Liu Tsong (alternately "Frosted Yellow Willows" or "Second-Daughter Yellow Butterfly"), and her family gave her the English name Anna May. She grew up in Los Angeles among Chinese, European, Japanese, and Mexican neighbors, helping her learn to adapt to a variety of cultures.

In the 1910s, filmmakers were moving from the East Coast to Los Angeles. Wong saw film production happen all around her and quickly caught the bug for herself. By the age of nine, she resolved that would act in front of a camera.

With persistence, in 1919 at the age of 14, Wong obtained her first film role as an extra in the film "The Red Lantern." She went on to win half-dozen roles as an extra until in 1922, at age 17, she was selected for her first leading role in "The Toll of the Sea." The silent film was the first Technicolor feature film made in Hollywood.

Wong faced unending discrimination and stereotyping in Hollywood. She was often denied key Asian roles in favor of white actresses, made up to look slightly Asian ("yellow face"). Romantic interactions with white male leads were taboo – even if the female role was actually Asian. Even when allowed to play a heroine role in film, her character would typically be doomed to die. By 1928, Wong had appeared or acted in 34 films. However, she was ready to find roles beyond American constraints by working in Europe film. In 1928, she appeared in her first European film "Schmutizes Geld" (German for "Dirty Money"), a British-German production. She went on to act in six other English/German films. When she finally returned to Hollywood in 1931, her European work in film had given her international status.

Anna May Wong, Daughter of the Dragon

Anna May Wong in a publicity photo for the 1931 Pfilm Daughter of the Dragon. Photo by Eugene Robert Richee at Wikimedia Commons.

After her first American film upon returning to the U.S. in 1931 (Daughter of the Dragon), Wong went on to act in 17 additional feature films, three for which she returned to Britain. Her final feature appearance was the 1960 British production "Just Joe."

Anna May Wong, Eugene Robert Richee, Paramount Pictures, Daughter of Shanghai

Anna May Wong in a publicity photo for the 1937 Paramount Pictures film Daughter of Shanghai. Photo by Eugene Robert Richee at Wikimedia Commons.

Between 1951 and 1961, Wong also played roles in eight television productions. In 1951, she became the first Asian American lead actor in an American television series with her role in "The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong." The role was written specifically for her. A decade later, in 1961, she appeared in her final acting role in "Dragon by the Tail," one of the anthology episodes in "The Barbara Stanwyck Show."

In 1960, Wong received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She died in 1961 from a heart attack at her home in Santa Monica. She is buried with her mother at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery in the Harvard Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Wong continues to be remembered as an international film star, fashion icon, movie and television trailblazer, and champion for Asian Americans in film. She continues to be an inspiration for actors and filmmakers to this day.

In 2022, Wong was the fifth woman honored with her face minted on a U.S. quarter in the coin series of the American Women Quarters Program.

U.S. Quarter, Anna May Wong

Also see: Anna May Wong by Kerri Lee Alexander, National Women's History Museum.

Chinese Kindergarten Class in Los Angeles, Circa 1910

Circa 1910. A Chinese kindergarten class in Los Angeles. Among the children is future actress Anna May Wong (then Wong Liu Tsong), whose film career, from 1919 through 1961, made her the first Chinese American movie star.

From the Title Insurance and Trust, & C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, California Historical Society, at USC Library.