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The Silent Collection

By Tammy Stone


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1920's Anna May Wong 5x7 Fan Photo1930's Anna May Wong Large German Tobacco Premium with Ross Verlag photoAnna May Wong goes down in movie history as the first bona-fide Asian-American film star. But she can't be known solely for this--her popularity, talent and appeal complemented her unique appearance and situated Anna among the foremost celebrities of the age. Known alternately as "Lotus Girl", "Dragon Lady" and "China Doll", and endowed with skin described as "a rose blushing through old ivory," she fought for every success and triumph she had, and her story is truly a fascinating chapter in film history.

Anna was born Wong Liu Tsong (which translates into "Frosted Yellow Willows") on January 3, 1905 in L.A.  Her parents, immigrants, operated a laundry shop and her early years were modest. But, living in L.A., she was exposed to quite a bit of location shooting while still very young, and she quickly became enraptured with the movies. She was such a frequent visitor to film sets that she actually became quite a familiar to face to cast and crew alike, but her entry into the world of fame came first through modeling, which she did throughout high school.

But it wasn't long until the film world came calling. While she was growing up, a bit of a scandal was already erupting over the portrayal of Asians in film, and through agent James Wang, Anna landed a role in Dinty (Marshall Neilan) and an introduction to Tom Gubbins, an activist fighting Chinese movie portrayals at the time. But it was the film Toll of the Sea (1922) that really put Anna on the map, and like so many of the other silent divas I've written about, she seemed to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Not only did she get to star in a film, but it was a historical moment for cinema as well. Toll of the Sea is known for being the first film to use Technicolor's two-color process - a very early venture for Technicolor, which would come to dominate the color cinematography world until the 1950s.

Being Chinese, it wasn't smooth sailing for Anna after that. But she did catch the attention of movie mogul Douglas Fairbanks, who cast her in small role in The Thief of Baghdad (1924), another big movie in the pantheon of cinema. It wasn't long after this that Anna rose to stardom, though she did get typecast because of her ethnic background. Films with Asian themes became her bread and butter: A Trip to Chinatown (1926), Mr. Wu (1927, starring Lon Chaney as an Asian) and Across to Singapore (1928) among them--the titles say it all!

After a few more films in which Anna had small, stereotypical roles--and despite the fact that she worked with many Hollywood stars--she realized that her career would not be able to substantially advance in the States, so she decided to move to Europe. Again, good timing--she didn't know this yet, but the industry was about to be entirely shaken by the imminent switch to sound cinema. Her first move was to Germany, where she made two films and met E.A. Dupont, who had also failed in the States; he cast her as Shosho in Picadilly. Though Asian, she did come to 1931 Anna May Wong Jasmatzi Tobacco Card1934 Salem Anna May Wong tobacco cardembody the gorgeous-but-lethal-to-men "vamp" that had just started to become popular in North America. She didn't star in this film, but reviews and audiences made it clear that Anna was its main draw. She was sexy, attractive and appealing - in short, she shone as the star she was always meant to be.

Unfortunately, Picadilly would prove to be Anna's last major chance to shine - she was 24. At that exact time, silent film was giving way to sound, and her film got a bit lost in the storm that the talkies would invite. Perhaps Anna knew that her era in film was waning, and she did a Basil Dean play in Europe, also starring emerging star Laurence Olivier. Soon after that, she moved back to the States, in 1931 to continue pursuing movie roles.

She didn't do too badly at that: 1931's Daughter of the Dragon and 1932's Shanghai Express (starring Marlene Dietrich) were relative successes, but again, there just weren't many good roles for Asian actresses. Back to Europe she went. In 1934, she moved to England and returned to the stage, in a musical called Chu Chin Chow. As the years wore on, Anna's problem of being typecast worsened as she did one role after another as "The Asian Character" in melodramas, a problem that was exacerbated as the U.S. became involved in the Second World War. Standout roles from this period include 1942's Bombs Over Burma and Lady From Chungking and 1949's Impact.

In the fifties, Anna turned to TV, hosting a series called The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong--the return to her original name speaks to her frustrated attempts to be accepted as an "ordinary" American actress. Though she worked fairly regularly during this decade, she was also developing health problems and had to slow down. She did make one more film, Portrait in Black (1960, starring Lana Turner and Anthony Quinn). She died of a heart attack at the young age of 56, in February of 1961.

To some degree, the life of Anna May Wong remains a bit of a mystery. She never married, and it is unclear how her contemporaries felt about the nature of an industry that forced marginalization on this stunning and talented actress. Nonetheless, she can be found in tantalizing performances in an array of Hollywood films that had Asian themes but found large audiences everywhere. She was also extremely popular with audiences across Europe--is it possible that her very "ethnic-ness" contributed to her appeal abroad where it never could at home?  It is certain that as the world has changed dramatically since her time, and as globalization takes hold, we are very lucky to have the legacy that was Anna's contribution to film.
Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of The Movie Profiles and Premiums Newsletter. Tammy invites you to write her at with any questions or comments on her column.

Other Anna May Wong Pages:

Denny Jackson's Anna May Wong Page -- The Queen of Chinese Mystery Productions!