Actress Anna May Wong is considered the first Asian-American to become an international star. However, very few people know or have seen her films because her legacy has been buried mostly in silent films. Even more so, during Wong's time, Wong was not valued as a star and was frequently dissatisfied with the stereotypical roles the studios gave her.
Born as Wong Liu Tsong, which is beautifully interpreted as "frosted yellow willows", she had a fascination with film since she was six years old when her father took her to see her first picture show. But her dream of becoming an actress was to remain a secret because of her family's plans for her. Although, by the time she was a teenager, she already picked out her immortal stage name - Anna May Wong. It was in high school, that a nervous breakdown would afford Wong the chance of lifetime. When Wong soon became bored from resting, she was invited by her cousin, James Wong, to the set on the Universal Studios lot. It was while visiting with her cousin, that she spotted the eye of director Marshall Neilan who offered Wong her first role as "Toy Sing" in "Bits of Life" (1921). Wong discussed the life-changing decision with her family and although her father voiced his disapproval over the film industry, he agreed for Wong to accept the offer.
Her next role was as the lead, "Lotus Flower" in "The Toll of the Sea", written by another female powerhouse Frances Marion. Wong earned critical claim for her performance and her career quickly began to build toward stardom. But America's anti-miscengenation laws would inhibit Wong's career. By 1927, Wong had become a star but it was for being typecast as the "dragon lady" type of roles. And Wong left Hollywood in 1928.
While Hollywood may have not realized what they had, Wong became a European sensation with characters and material that let the world know how much of a truly talented woman she was. Wong caught Hollywood's eye again, this time with a notable studio - Paramount Studios. It was in "Shanghai Express" (1932) that Wong caused a controversy with the Chinese press, whereas some news sources berated her, the Peking University awarded the actress. But "Shanghai Express" would be Wong's most memorable film.
Despite her renewed success, Hollywood continued to pass Wong over for roles that would strengthen her career. When it came to casting the role of "O-Ian" in "The Good Earth" (1934), Wong was not allowed to even audition for the role. Instead, the studios offered her role of "Lotus" - the film's song girl who destroys the family. Wong turned it down. The title role went to Louise Rainer, of German descent, who received the Best Actress Oscar for her performance.
The disappointment of "The Good Earth", made Wong take a year off and travel to her native China. When she returned to Hollywood again in order to fulfill the rest of her contract, Wong was finally cast in roles that were more positive portrayals of Chinese-Americans, but they were not as popular as Wong's earlier successes. By the 1960s, Wong made guest appearances on television and returned to film again but she was still struggling with the identity that the entertainment industry had with Asian-Americans.
After her death, Wong's legacy, although small, has remained strong. Her presence in film has sparked interest not only in her life but how her career was affected by racism. Like Lena Horne, Anna May Wong will be remembered for her beauty and her talent, but also, the longstanding question of, "What if?"