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Happy Chinese New Year - Remembering Anna May Wong

Happy Chinese New Year - Remembering Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong
Anna May Wong

She was the first Chinese-American movie star.  Anna May Wong was born Wong Liu Tsong (meaning yellow willow frost ) in 1905 in Los Angeles.  She was the daughter of a laundryman and starred in her first film, Toll of the Sea, at age 17.   

Wong made films in Hollywood, London and Berlin. She starred in over fifty movies between 1919 and 1960, sharing the screen with such luminaries as Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Marlene Dietrich. Her off screen friends included people like Carl Van Vechten, Evelyn Waugh, and Paul Robeson.  

She was known for her exotic looks and her fashion sense.  The clothes she wore were copied by high society women around the world.  In 1934, the Mayfair Mannequin Society of New York voted her the "world's best dressed woman"; in 1938 Look magazine named her the "world's most beautiful Chinese girl." 

She was loved by photographers, who took every opportunity to capture her glamorous style on film. Men were especially taken with her.  Her costume designer, Ali Hubert, described her mesmerizing beauty this way:

"On her tender and youthful body, expressing every moment with the indescribable grace of the Oriental woman, towers her head which, although completely Mongolian, is beautiful by European standards. Her eyes, for a Chinese unusually large, deep and dark like a Tibetan mountain lake, gaze with enormous expressiveness. Her well-shaped, slightly voluptuous lips form a striking contrast to the to the melancholy darkness of her eyes. Her hands are of outstanding beauty, slim and perfectly formed. Only a Van Eyck or a Holbein could capture her on canvas."

Read more: Anna May Wong Did It Right - TIME,8599,1022536,00.html#ixzz2rxZyh9d4

Though an accomplished, articulate actress, she was somewhat a victim of the stereotypes of her time.  She spent most of her career typecast either as a painted doll or a scheming Dragon Lady.  It is often said that the most disappointing experience of her career was being passed over for a role of a Chinese character in Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth for a German actress.

TIME magazine lists the following excerpts relating to her life from searches in their archives during Wong's lifetime. 

July 2, 1928: month, Dr. Tien Lai Huang, 'Chinese Lindbergh,' hopes to take off for Hong Kong with a passenger, Anna May Wong, cinema star and daughter of a Los Angeles laundryman.
Mar. 20, 1933: Greta Garbo and Anna May Wong are among Margie Chung's best friends.
Dec. 7, 1936: Under a bright Hawaiian moon, dainty Anna May Wong put out to sea one night last week in a pineapple barge. Embarked on neither a pleasure jaunt nor a cinema stunt, Actress Wong and 446 fellow passengers were [sailing home after a] shipping strike...
Nov. 24, 1941: Anna May Wong, 34 [actually 36], unmarried, announced to interviewers: 'I've come to the conclusion that everybody should marry, including me.'
June 20, 1960: Announcing their comebacks after long retirements : two fiftyish former cinema stalwarts — Anna May Wong, 53 [actually 55], who quit the screen 17 years ago after countless mystery women roles in Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan easterns... and Leni Riefenstahl...
Feb. 10, 1961: Died. Anna May Wong, 54 [actually 56], Los Angeles-born daughter of a local laundryman, who became a film star over her father's objections that "every time your picture is taken, you lose a part of your soul," died a thousand deaths as the screen's foremost Oriental villainess; of a heart attack; in Santa Monica, Calif.

Acting in films might have been her career, but it wasn't the only thing she did with her life. She also directed her talents and energy to China war relief, and eventually  became the first Chinese American to host her own television show, The Gallery of Mme. Liu-Tsong.

She died young, only 56, but lived a life that left a lasting impression and broke down racial barriers for other women.  Amazing accomplishments when you consider that the laws and standard conventions forbid her at the time to kiss her leading man, buy a house in Beverly Hills, or legally marry a white man in her home state of California until 1947.

Happy Chinese New Year - and let's hope that every year is truly a new year - each one breaking down more stereotypes than the one before.  Let's also hope that in the place of those biases, we will usher in tolerance and kindness instead.

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