All About Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong in Daughter of the Dragon, 1931

Have you heard of Anna May Wong? Anna May is widely considered to be the first major Chinese-American film star, and she is the namesake of our new Anna May Mary Jane shoes.

The New “Anna May” high-heeled Mary Jane, available in three colors with the gorgeous 3 inch French heel.

Mary Jane shoes are so evocative of the early Hollywood era (late 19-teens through 1950s). This is exactly when Anna May Wong was working in cinema, changing the industry from within and making her mark on film history forever. Anna May lived a fascinating life full of accomplishments, in spite of the racism, discriminatory restrictions, and stereotypes that she faced in the early film industry. 

Anna May Wong was born Wong Liu-tsong in Los Angeles, California, on January 3, 1905. Her parents were both second-generation Americans, and together they had seven children, including Anna May. Anna May’s early elementary school experiences were unpleasant; she and her sister were unfortunately the targets of racially-motivated bullying. Anna May’s parents took action by transferring Anna May and her sister to a Chinese Mission school, where the student body was majority Chinese-American. Like many young American children of the time, Anna May became infatuated with cinema through watching short nickelodeon flicks in her spare time. Living in Los Angeles meant that Anna May was not only able to watch films on the big screen, but also able to see them being made. She became a recognized figure around film sets in Chinatown, where she liked to observe movies in production. She knew at an early age that her destiny was to be a star! At 14, Anna May selected her stage name and booked her first acting job as an extra in The Red Lantern (1919). 

An early portrait of Anna May Wong, from 1926.

By 1921, Anna May left school to act full time. She starred in The Toll of the Sea, an early technicolor film, in 1922. Variety Magazine specifically noted Anna May’s ‘extraordinarily fine’ acting in The Toll of the Sea. From there, Anna May’s career grew as she delivered excellent performance after excellent performance. However, despite her growing success, she felt the restrictions of racism and xenophobia hampering her career. The practice of casting white actors in ‘yellowface’ was not only offensive and derivative, but it kept Asian actors from being cast in roles portraying Asian characters. Additionally, prejudicial U.S laws against interracial relationships and, later, the Hays Code prevented Anna May from being cast in romantic leads opposite white actors where there would be kissing or other romantic expressions. She was often relegated to roles depicting antagonistic or subservient characters, that often played into ‘Madame Butterfly’ or ‘dragon lady’ archetypes. 

Anna May Wong (center) in The Toll of the Sea, her first lead role. From the Everett collection.

By 1928, Anna May had had enough of Hollywood restricting her career based on xenophobia, so she headed abroad to Europe. There she acted in her last silent film in 1929, and moved on to making ‘talkies’. While many film stars were unable to successfully bridge the gap between silent films and sound films, Anna May did so seamlessly. Her time in Europe also jumpstarted her reputation as a fashion icon (have you heard the phrase ‘Anna May bangs’?).  Throughout the 1930s, Anna May travelled back and forth between the US and Europe, working in film, television, and the stage. In 1932, she famously starred beside Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express, and the two became close friends. Impressively, Anna May became fluent in both French and German during her time making films in Europe, becoming fluent in four languages.

Anna May Wong
Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express. From the Everett Collection.
Marlene wasn’t the only lady showing everyone how to wear a top hat!

In 1935, Anna May faced a major disappointment when she was passed over for a starring role in the biggest Hollywood film about China to date, The Good Earth. MGM refused to consider her, and instead cast two white actors for the lead roles. MGM did offer Anna May the role of Lotus, a stereotypical antagonist, but she refused on principle. Instead, she made her own film, spending 1936 filming her travels through China, and cutting the footage into a documentary.

Anna May continued her career through the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s; she used her fame and celebrity status to bolster political activism on Chinese-American issues, both inside and outside of the entertainment industry. During World War 2, Anna May contributed to the war effort by auctioning off her costumes. In 1951, she historically played the first Asian American series lead on the television show The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. In 1960, Anna May received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She was still working when she passed away from a heart attack on February of 1961, just two days after she had appeared on The Barbara Stanwyck Show. She was 56 years old. 

Anna May’s legacy is one of triumph, success and talent in the face of racism and xenophobia. Her skills in acting continue to captivate today. It was recently announced that Anna May will be included in the American Women quarters series, which will make her the first Asian American to appear on US currency. 

Mock-up of the Anna May Wong quarter from the US Mint; hope to get our hands on one soon!

In 2020, a short documentary titled Searching for Anna May Wong was released. It is really worth a watch! Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words, directed by Yunah Hong in 2011, is another great short documentary about Anna May Wong’s impact on Asian Americans in cinema.

We’re proud to present our beautiful 1920s Mary Janes inspired by and named after Anna May Wong. They are available on pre-order for $20 off full price through August 12, along with the rest of the Prism collection.

Leave a Reply

Discover more from American Duchess Blog

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading