Technically speaking, this is where she belongs. After all, Look magazine describes the actor as “the world’s most beautiful Chinese girl”(1). But at 31, she’s never stepped foot in China till now; she was born in California to a Taishanese couple who run a laundromat. But Anna May Wong never quite escapes her Chinese-ness; in the movies, she plays fragile, self-sacrificing Oriental butterflies and villainous dragon ladies, clad in chinoiserie or barely anything at all.
All of these roles premise themselves on her supposed otherness as an Asian woman – the fact that she, even as a third-generation Chinese American, is far from the Hollywood leading lady ideal. (Ignore the fact that some of those women were able to exercise a little more creative licence in their own presentation. See: Margarita Cansino becoming Rita Hayworth thanks to prayer and a little hairline surgery.)
In the newsreel footage of this moment, Anna May Wong has the long, confident stride of an American in the heady early decades of the 20th century, and the grace and luminousness of someone once crowned the “world's best dressed woman”(2). At five foot seven, she is noticeably taller than most of the Shanghainese people around her. She attracts their stares.
She’s embarked on this trip to visit the land of her forefathers and see her family, but she chronicles this supposed homecoming with more than a little heartbreak for various newspapers back in the States: “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.”(3)
But Wong is more than that. She makes dozens of films and speaks three languages, plus her parents’ Taishanese dialect. She never marries; never has children, once declared work as “the best therapy of all”(4) and said breezily of learning German: “It’s been most interesting to master what formerly seemed like an impossibility, but we sometimes even surprise ourselves at what we can do.”(5) She met Walter Benjamin and Marlene Dietrich in Berlin, and was even rumoured to have had an affair with the latter. When Hollywood spurned her, she ditched it for Europe and was described breathlessly by one British paper as the “Chinese Garbo”(6). In 1951, she makes history as the first Asian American to star in her own TV show, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong.
Anna May Wong doesn’t know this yet, but over the decades, there’ll be Asian American box office hits and romcoms and superhero movies where you can hear Mandarin spoken, and we are asked to see Asian American actors not as tragic figures or villains but as fully-rounded human beings. Anna May Wong will die of a heart attack at 56, a year after she is given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But on that one day in Shanghai, 1936, she’s forever striding down the street, walking off into the future.
This article appears in Goddess: Fierce Women on Film. Grab your copy today.
- Richard Corless, ‘Anna May Wong Did It Right’, Time, 29 January 2005
- Geoffrey Macnab, ‘Lady Defiance’, The Guardian, 13 March 2004
- Shirley Jennifer Lim, Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern, Temple University Press, 2019, p. 7
- Shirley Jennifer Lim, ‘“Speaking German Like Nobody’s Business”: Anna May Wong, Walter Benjamin and the Possibilities of Asian American Cosmopolitanism’, Journal of Transnational American Studies, 2021, 4(1)
- Rose Staveley-Wadham, ‘Anna May Wong and Her Surprising British Connection’, The British Newspaper Archive, 13 November 2020