Anna Mae Wong grew up in Los Angeles, determined to be a part of the glamorous world of Hollywood. She became the most famous of the very few Chinese actors of the 1920s and ‘30s, navigating an industry that woefully underutilized her talent. Still, she had a groundbreaking career in silent films and talkies in both the U.S. and Europe.
Wong’s acting was subtle and unmannered; her eyebrow game was on point. She had a piercing stare that made you feel as if she saw the very best and very worst things about you, and her signature blunt-cut bangs made her face seem at once exquisitely, perfectly symmetrical. Given the quilt work of exotic roles she’d played on the silent screen, audiences expected her to speak with a broken, accented, or otherwise un-American English. But her tone was refined, cool, cultured, like a slap in the face to anyone who’d assumed otherwise.
Her early success, like that of Japanese star Sessue Hayakawa, can at least partially be attributed to the global market for silent films. Yet to truly understand Anna May Wong’s unique place in Hollywood — and the particular type of racist role available to her — you have to understand both the rampant fetishization of the “Orient” by the West and the place of Chinese-Americans in California in the early 20th century.
One illustration of this was how fan magazines tried to explain that Wong was all American, and therefore nothing to be afraid or suspicious of, yet they also explained that she was really Chinese, really, because audiences were used to Asian roles being played by white actors in makeup. And the roles Wong got were stereotyped as the exotic victim, villain, or sidekick. There was one role that she was dubbed “too Chinese” for, although the character was, in fact, Chinese. The role went to Helen Hayes. Read about Anna Mae Wong’s life and career at Buzzfeed.