Her complexion was described as "a rose blushing through old ivory;" she was beautiful, talented, and Chinese-American. Her ethnicity kept her from attaining the highest echelon among Hollywood's pantheon of stars, but it did not affect her popularity.
She was born Wong Liu Tsong, a name which translates to "frosted yellow willows," on Flower Street in the Chinatown section of Los Angeles in 1905 above her father's laundry.
As a child she was fascinated with film and spent much of her free time in nickelodeons. Her first role was a bit part in the Alla Nazimova film "The Red Lantern" (1919).
She chose two western names to go with her family name, and "Anna May Wong" was born. Although it would be two years before she received on-screen billing for her work, she appeared in the films of several top directors of the day.
In September 1921, with the release of "Bits of Life," Anna May Wong's name first appeared before the public. Her first big break came the following year, when she starred in "The Toll of the Sea," the first true Technicolor feature to be made in Hollywood; she gave a remarkably mature and restrained performance in this variation on "Madame Butterfly." The film received a good deal of attention and made money. It should have started Wong on a career in lead roles, but instead she followed it with supporting roles.
The teenaged actress never lacked for work; despite appearing only in supporting roles, she acted in everything from serials to comedies in the next few years. Douglas Fairbanks chose her for the part of the Mongol slave in his lavish fantasy, "The Thief of Baghdad" (1924). While only a supporting role, it was an important one, and garnered more laurels for Wong, but still no offers for leads.
In 1927 Wong ran the gamut of studios as she added to her list of credits. However, she was becoming increasingly fed up with Hollywood. For years, heavily made-up Caucasian actors had been playing Asians on screen, but recently, a young redhead from Montana named Myrna Loy seemed to be cornering the market in those roles. So when Wong was cast in support of Myrna Loy in "The Crimson City," she made the move to Europe, where Josephine Baker and other talented non-whites had found a more welcoming atmosphere.
In Europe Wong made many films and had fans all over the continent. Germany was host to a cultural renaissance, where the Weimar Republic was in full decadent splendor. After a brief stint in that country, Wong moved to England where she made the remarkable "Piccadilly."
Anna May Wong's celebrity was international, and her striking appearance and unique fashion sense made her image ubiquitous in prestigious magazines, cheap weeklies and souvenir postcards. She returned to the United States in 1930, hoping to capitalize on her increased fame and growing notoriety, as her sexual orientation became a matter of great speculation. Rumors grew of liaisons with numerous Hollywood notables, including Marlene Dietrich, her co-star in "Shanghai Express" (1932), the film for which she is most famous.
Unfortunately, from this high point, Anna May Wong's star began to falter. She lost out on her personal dream role, that of Olan in the film version of Pearl Buck's "The Good Earth" (1937). The reasons why she failed to win the part aren't fully known, but the Kuomintang government of China, and the Chinese press, had long viewed her negatively and may have exerted pressure at a time when the United States was interested in cultivating a good relationship with the Chiang Kai-shek regime. All this in spite of Wong making a trip to China in 1936 and tirelessly working on behalf of the China Relief Fund in the 1930s and '40s.
It was a leitmotif for her life and career: viewed by Hollywood as an exotic ornament not to be considered for leading or non-stereotypic roles, she was also rejected by the Chinese as a disgrace, unable even to speak Mandarin properly. Her core dilemma was simultaneously representing and denying fundamental aspects of her identity.
It was primarily B-picture work after that. In 1960 producer Ross Hunter cast her in "Flower Drum Song." However, Wong became ill in December of 1960 and was replaced by Juanita Hall. For the next six weeks, Wong was under constant doctor's care, receiving liver injections each week from her physician.
On February 3, 1961, Wong died of a massive heart attack. It was revealed that since 1950 she had been suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, which had been caused by an overindulgence in alcohol.
Anna May Wong's contribution to show business is a unique one; she was the first Asian female to become a star, achieving that stardom at a time when bias against her race was crushing.
Onscreen, the stunning Wong commanded the camera.
Again and again, she was typecast as the exotic and dangerous "dragon lady" or the innocent "lotus flower," but she brought subtlety and grace to her stereotypical roles, and attracted adoring fans from Hollywood and London to Berlin, Paris, and even Shanghai. Over the span of her forty-year career, she appeared in over 60 films and starred in at least a dozen.
Wong might have played the role of the Vamp, the Victim, and the Villainess on screen, but she embodied the role of the Independent Woman in life. She never married.
Wong displayed astonishing technique and projected a singular cinematic presence. She seemed utterly natural and unselfconscious in her roles. When watching her perform we’re acutely aware of her mastery of precise gesture, expression and attitude—pure acting technique.