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The rise and fall of Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese-American star

Long before Bruce Lee, Michelle Yeoh, Jackie Chan, and other Hollywood stars brought attention to underrepresented Asians and Asian Americans, there was Anna May Wong.

Born on January 3rd, 1905 — Year of the Dragon — in a Chinese laundromat her father owned in Los Angeles, Wong’s life story falls into what author Yunte Huang describes as the “Epic Journey of Asian Americans,” one of many such lives he has chronicled throughout his writing career.

In his previous two books, he wrote about Charlie Chan and the conjoined Bunker twins “Chang and Eng”, and now has completed this trilogy of prolific Asian Americans and their “rendezvous with American history” with his newly-published biography of Anna May Wong – Daughter of the Dragon (2023).

Speaking at an FCC Club Lunch alongside NY Times reporter Tiffany May, Huang first admitted that he didn’t initially plan to write a trilogy.

“Of course I didn’t know that. Like many things in life, they came by accident, by chance,” he said.

He became intrigued by Anna May Wong and her career, which first began with her “toehold” opportunity as an extra in silent film The Red Lantern (1919) and then her “foothold” opportunity with The Toll of the Sea (1922), which thus paved the way for her to become the first-ever Chinese-American movie star.

She subsequently starred in several more Hollywood silent films but after becoming unsatisfied with being typecast in stereotypical Chinese roles, she left the US for Europe in 1928. From there she starred in more plays and silent films until the development of sound films. Daughter of the Dragon (1931) — where Huang got his book title — and Shanghai Express (1932) were two of her most notable films from the new sound era.

While her acting skills and Chinese representation were primary contributors to Huang’s desire to write a biography about Wong, her status as a fashion icon also garnered his interest.

“One thing I admire about Anna May Wong is that she is not just a beautiful, talented film star. She has the unique ability to turn working class symbols such as [the] coolie hat and [the] coolie jacket into high-class fashion, and that’s really part of her charm,” he said.

Yunte Huang and Tiffany May. Photo: FCC

The “coolie” hat and jacket that Huang referred to are the conical hat and overcoat that were common attire for East Asian migrant workers during the 19th and 20th century. These pieces of  clothing were originally associated with hard manual labour, yet Wong attempted to change public perception of these items by wearing stylised versions of them in her films and public life.

Despite a successful start to her career, Wong was ultimately snubbed from the lead role in The Good Earth (1937), based on Pearl S. Bucks’ bestselling novel, due to Hollywood rules that prohibited white actors from kissing non-white actors.

“The kiss is the soul of 20th century love in film,” Huang said when explaining the societal norms of Wong’s generation that negatively impacted her career.

Examining not just a person’s life, but also the world they lived in, is key to Huang’s strategy in writing biographies. In the case of Anna May Wong, he knew that many other historians and journalists have already documented her life, but by looking at the bigger picture, Huang can differentiate his work from everyone else’s.

“Of course this story has been told before, but my take is really to look at the large canvas out of which she came,” he said.

As her career slowly dwindled, Wong spent most of her final days drinking and smoking in the aptly-named Dragon’s Den, a bar in Los Angeles’ old Chinatown. She died of a sudden heart attack on February 3rd, 1961. She was 56 years old.

A year before she died, Hollywood honoured her with a star of the Walk of Fame, making her the first Asian-American to receive such a distinction. In 2022, the US Mint also released commemorative 25¢ quarters with Wong’s face and name on the tail side of the coin. 

When the coins came out, Huang made sure he ordered a batch for himself. Despite the coins being released over 60 years after her death, Huang didn’t feel that the coins were “too little, too late” in recognising Wong’s contributions to American society.

“To speak in a Happy Valley term, I always knew she was on the money,” Huang concluded.

Learn more about Anna May Wong’s life and Yunte Huang’s discoveries by watching the full discussion on our YouTube channel:

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