January 3, 1905: Anna May Wong is born.
Anna May Wong, who was born in Los Angeles to second-generation Chinese-American parents, is considered the first Chinese-American movie star. Along with the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, Wong was one of the first Asian-American actors to achieve international fame, although, like Hayakawa, her race limited the different roles she could play on screen. Off-screen, she was considered a fashion and beauty icon, but on it, she was either the “Dragon Lady” or the demure Chinese butterfly. In 1922 Wong starred in Hollywood’s first color feature, The Toll of the Sea. At 19, she was cast in Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Baghdad (1924) - in a stereotypical “Dragon Lady” role, but a significant role nonetheless. It was this film that introduced her to the public. Also like Hayakawa, Wong fled (in 1928) to Europe, frustrated with Hollywood’s limited role opportunities and the American film industry’s tendency to cast non-Asians in Asian roles over eager Asian actors.
In Europe, Wong starred in a number of successful films, and European critics (according to The New York Times), regarded her “not only as an actress of transcendent talent but as a great beauty”, especially praising her performance in the British film Piccadilly (1928), considered one of her best. In Germany, she befriended director Leni Riefenstahl (who would go on to direct The Triumph of the Will) and the actress Marlene Dietrich. Wong returned to the United States in 1930 and accepted yet another yellow peril-type role in Daughter of the Dragon (1931), the only film in which she appeared alongside Sessue Hayakawa; in 1933 she spoke out against Hollywood’s relentlessly negative portrayal of Chinese-Americans in its films:
Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain – murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass! We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization that is so many times older than the West?
Wong’s continued on-screen portrayal of unsympathetic Asian characters led to her rejection by the Chinese government and press, who regarded her a “disgrace to the Chinese race”. Unfortunately, one of the greatest disappointments of Wong’s career came in the form of a production that did portray its Chinese characters sympathetically - a film adaptation of the Pearl S. Buck novel The Good Earth. Wong was considered the perfect fit for the role of O-Lan, a Chinese peasant and the novel’s main female character, and Buck herself had intended any movie adaptation of her novel to feature an all-Asian cast. In the end, it was decided that such a cast would shock and possibly repel American audiences, and Paul Muni, an Austrian actor, was cast in the male lead role. Because of the anti-miscegenation restrictions of the time, the studio did not consider Wong for O-Lan because her on-screen husband would be played by a white actor, and the role went instead to Luise Rainer, a German-born actress who eventually received the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance. Meanwhile, Wong was offered a separate role in the film, which she refused, stating, “You’re asking me - with Chinese blood - to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters”.