The story of Anna May Wong, the talented pioneering Chinese American actress, is one of overcoming many obstacles and disappointments. She achieved superstar status despite being relegated to roles that were stereotypical of Hollywood’s image of Chinese women as either sex kittens or as sinister Orientals.
Unknown to most, Anna May Wong grew up in her father’s Sam Kee Laundry in Los Angeles, and she dreamed of escaping to become an actress.
“We were always thrilled when a motion picture company came down into Chinatown to film scenes for a picture,” she recalled in 1926. “I would worm my way through the crowd and get as close to the cameras as I dared. I’d stare and stare at these glamorous individuals, directors, cameramen, assistants, and actors in greasepaint…” Continuing her flashback in another magazine, she said: “And then I would rush home and do the scenes I had witnessed before a mirror. I would register contempt, shame, reproach, joy, and anger. I would be the pure girl repulsing the evil suitor, the young mother pleading for her baby, the vamp luring her victim.”
She found work as an extra in Hollywood, and eventually got parts in movies while still in her teens before becoming a star. Even when cast in leading roles, she never got to kiss the romantic lead as she played ‘second fiddle’ to a white actress in such movies. She was passed over for a white actress in the starring role in The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck’s epic story of the struggles of Chinese peasants.
She broke barriers in becoming an actors, not only those imposed by Hollywood, but also the cultural norms and expectations for women among the Chinese community. As noted in the newspaper, her father was ‘disgusted’ with his daughter’s career as an actress.