Chasing the Hollywood Dragon

We recently visited the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City and were struck by a small photograph on display of Miss Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American movie star hailing from Hollywood’s golden age. 

Born in 1905 in Los Angeles to second generation Chinese-American parents, Anna Mae became obsessed with films as the industry grew around her.

A tall and striking figure, she was cast in the 1922 silent film The Toll of the Sea (one of the first movies made in color) and quickly rose to stardom when she landed a role in The Thief of Bagdag (1924). With this role, the exotic starlet became an international superstar and fashion icon, leaving for Europe and working across the old continent for a number of years. 

In the early 1930s, Anna May started in a number of films with Asian themes including Daughter of the Dragon (1937) and in Shanghai Express (1932), where she starred alongside the iconic Marlene Dietrich. 

After a series of disappointments and struggles with racial profiling on Hollywood casting couches, Anna May took a step back in her career and began slowly working on less acclaimed roles, eventually pausing in the 1940s to support fundraising causes for the Chinese effort against Japan. 

The glamazon – never able to escape stereotyped roles – did her best in breaking the racial ceiling by starring in her own TV series, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, the first U.S. TV show with an Asian-American lead. 

She died in 1961 at the age of 56 from a heart attack, unmarried and without heirs.

Be sure to spend some time this week watching some of these iconic movies and learning about this oftentimes overlooked culture-maker!