Encyclopedia Womannica

Leading Ladies: Anna May Wong

Episode Summary

Anna May Wong (1905-1961) was the first major Asian-American movie star. She openly criticized racist typecasting and many of her critiques still ring true today.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today we’re talking about the first major Asian-American movie star. She openly criticized racist typecasting. Her accomplishments were groundbreaking, and many of her critiques still ring true today. Let’s talk about the prolific Anna May Wong.

Anna was born in Los Angeles in 1905. Her birth name was Wong Liu Tsong. She initially attended a majority-white school, but transferred to a Chinese school to escape racism she experienced from her classmates. 

Anna often skipped class to check out nearby film sets, pushing her way to the front of the crowd to get closer to the cameras. She came up with Anna May Wong as her stage name by age 11, and she was 14 when she appeared in a silent picture called The Red Lantern. When she was 17, she played the lead role in The Toll of the Sea, one of the first movies in color.

Anna’s most notable early role was in 1924, when she played in the hit movie The Thief of Bagdad. Though this part was a stepping stone for her career, it’s also emblematic of the problems with Hollywood casting that Anna would soon after vocally advocate against in interviews. In The Thief of Bagdad, Anna played a treacherous slave in a subservient role, wearing very little clothing. 

Anna appeared in more than 50 films throughout her life, and she often struggled with subservient, exoticized typecasting. Hollywood also repeatedly granted lead Asian roles to white actors, and cast actual Asian actors as villains. After working in the United States for several years, Anna had enough of Hollywood’s biased casting and moved to Europe. 

Europe was more receptive to Anna’s acting ability. She starred in films throughout the continent, with reporters praising her “transcendent talent.” One notable appearance was in the British movie “Piccadilly” in 1929.

After a few years appearing in Europe, Anna returned to Los Angeles for another shot. She appeared in the famous 1932 movie Shanghai Express, opposite Marlene Dietrich. However, Hollywood still hadn’t really improved its racist casting methods.

Anna auditioned for the lead role in the The Good Earth, a film based on the novel about a family of Chinese farmers. Despite Anna’s film credentials and glowing reviews, the role went to the white actress Luise Rainer, who wore makeup to make her look Chinese. Anna was devastated. Matters were only made worse when MGM asked her to do a screen test for an unsympathetic concubine role in the picture. Anna refused.

Frustrated once again, Anna left America again and traveled to China in an attempt to perform in traditional Chinese theater. Tragically, she faced harsh criticism in China for her Hollywood work, which was perceived as degrading to Chinese culture. 

Anna returned to America, defeated. At age 35, she took a break from making films for many years. Then in 1951, she made history by becoming the first Asian American to play the lead in a TV series. The show was called The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, starring Anna as a mysterious detective and art dealer for the show’s 10-episode run. You might notice the lead character has Anna’s birth surname! The role was truly created just for her. Unfortunately, no copies of the series exist today.

Anna hoped to continue acting, but she soon faced several years of failing health. She passed away due to a heart attack when she was 56 years old.

Though Anna May Wong is often overlooked as an icon of early Hollywood, she was an incredible talent who never gave up her fight for equal casting.

As always, we’re taking a break for the weekend. When we return on Monday, we’ll be starting a brand new theme for the month of August. We’re talking all about Musicians! Tune in, you won’t want to miss it. 

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Talk to you Monday!