Anna May Wong holds the distinction of being Hollywood’s first Chinese American movie star. Despite this status, she and her films – including those produced during WWII – are largely forgotten.
Wong’s career began in the silent era, where she specialized in the stereotypical roles the film industry offered her – many Madame Butterflies and Dragon ladies. Her only remarkable film from this time was The Toll of the Sea (1922), the first Hollywood film shot in Technicolor.
She had better luck in Europe, most notably with the British silent classic Piccadilly (1929), which featured her best and most iconic performance. Many forget that she technically wasn’t the lead given how much she dominates the film. However, Wong couldn’t stay away from home forever, and she returned home in the 1930s.
Once again, she was offered the same stereotypical roles that had defined her early career. In Daughter of the Dragon (1931), she played the scion of Fu Manchu (Warner Oland in yellowface). B-movies – such as Daughter of Shanghai (1937) and When Were You Born? (1938) – offered more nuanced roles, but Wong best chance came with China-set epic The Good Earth (1937). However, the Hays Code prevented her from being cast opposite a white actor (Paul Muni in yellowface), and she lost the lead to Luise Rainer. As consolation, Wong was offered the part of the villain, to which she famously replied: “You’re asking me – with my Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture, featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.”
Although her relationship with China was strained due to her stereotypical roles, Wong used her position in Hollywood to support the Chinese cause against the Japanese invasion. As a part of her advocacy, Wong starred in a set of low-budget propaganda films.
In Bombs Over Burma (1942), Wong plays school teacher Lin Ying, who thwarts a foreign agent sabotaging a vital supply convey. The film is undermined by a weak story that’s been stretched to 60 minutes, with a significant portion of the runtime padded with stock footage.
Lady from Chungking (1942) is a better showcase for Wong’s talents as well as a better film overall. She plays Kwan Mei, a village leader who infiltrates the Japanese army to rescue downed American pilots. The movie still suffers from a low budget, with much of the action taking place off screen.
Aside from the novelty of seeing heroic Chinese characters in American productions, neither of these films are forgotten masterpieces. They are shoddily constructed and stiltedly written. But none of that means that they are unimportant or undeserving of a place in the history of WWII cinema.
Wong’s career has been defined by lost opportunity. Many of her films are lost or nearly impossible to obtain. Every copy of her ground-breaking television programme The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (1951) was destroyed by the studio. Her chance at a starring role in a major Hollywood production was undermined by the racism of the Hays Code and studio hiring practices. And at the age 56, just before her planned comeback in Flower Drum Song (1961), she died of a heart attack. Hollywood failed Anna May Wong again and again. What little is left of her legacy should not be quickly discarded. She does not deserve to be forgotten.
If you want to learn more about the history of Chinese Americans and how Anna May Wong fits into it, be sure to check out The Chinese in America: A Narrative History (Iris Chang, 2003) from the 2AD Memorial Library. Her films Toll of the Sea, Bombs Over Burma, and Lady from Chungking are all in the public domain and can be watched for free above and on the Internet Archive.