Anna May Wong, born Wong Liu Tsong in Los Angeles in 1905 to second generation Chinese-American parents, is widely considered to be the first Chinese-American Hollywood star, and certainly the first Chinese-American actor to win international fame and attention.
After gaining success in such films as The Toll of the Sea and The Thief of Baghdad in the 1920s, and fed up with the stereotyped roles she was given (the Coventry Evening Telegraph in 1961 remembers her as the ‘slinky villainess of many pre-war films‘), she moved to Europe to take on parts in British and German cinema, as well as to make her début in a theatre play.
So read on to find out more about Anna May Wong and her surprising connection to Britain, which saw her visit places like Nottingham, Harrogate and Streatham, and how she had a special place in her heart for Britain, as did the British people for her.
Britain, Germany and Piccadilly
This is just one of the many images of Anna May Wong featured in British newspapers and magazines from the 1920s and 1930s, as the British public were fascinated by Anna May Wong’s otherness. Her race and her beauty made her intriguing to a British audience (newspapers of the time would use the word ‘exotic’), and consequently it can be difficult reading commentary on her looks, as well as learning about the Asian stereotypes she played.
Meanwhile, her British film début was a resounding success. Piccadilly, a rather dark story centering on the goings-on of a London nightclub, was brought to life by Anna May Wong. One commentator writing in The Tatler notes her ‘poetry of motion,’ as she eclipsed co-star Gilda Gray.
She went on to star in Show-Life, directed by Richard Eichberg, a joint British-German venture. For this she reaped a variety of plaudits, some of which we have compiled from cinema trade publication The Bioscope, from 26 September 1928:
‘The performance of Anna May Wong ensures the success of the film.’ (Impartial)
‘Extraordinary fine performance of Anna May Wong in the leading part. Nothing surpassing it in impressiveness, perhaps, has ever been shown on the screen.’ (Daily Telegraph)
She is also described, in the typical language of the day, as a ‘very clever little actress.’
Not content with acting just in England, she also travelled to Berlin, as the Dundee Courier reports in January 1929. By October 1929 she was back in England working for British International Pictures at Elstree Studios. This was to be another British-German feature, named Road to Dishonour or Hai-Tang, depending on which country the film was screened in. And as this feature was a talkie, Anna May Wong learnt German to fulfil her part.
Road to Dishonour told the story of a Russian military officer who was captivated by a beautiful Chinese actress, played by Anna May Wong. The Bystander notes in March 1930 how the film was an ‘enormous success at its world premiere in Zurich, and proved a great personal triumph for the little lady, who learned German specially to play it.’
Again, this sort of language makes for uncomfortable reading today. But Anna May Wong’s foray into European cinema had been a resounding success; and she would go on to make more films like Study in Scarlet and Tiger Bay in Britain, as well as treading the boards for the first time in a theatre role.
In March 1929 The Graphic features a fashion spread of Anna May Wong wearing a variety of shawls, in anticipation of her ‘stage début.’ As the Dundee Courier relates in January 1929, she ‘has not yet displayed her talents in a play,’ despite possessing a ‘beautiful singing and speaking voice.’
The Dundee Courier goes on to describe how she was to take ‘the principal part in The Circle of Chalk’ – a ‘traditional Chinese play dating from the eleventh century, which has been playing in China right up to the present day.’
Again, Anna May Wong was a great success – although the yellowfacing of her fellow cast members (sadly common at the time) is distinctly uncomfortable. Anna May Wong played a ‘Chinese dancing girl’ in this production, as The Graphic in March 1929 relates, who is to be bought by ‘the rich merchant Mr Ma, who is to buy her as his second and inferior wife.’
Later Anna May Wong took to British musical halls and cabaret shows, with which The Bystander in 1934 reports she had ‘moderate success.’ The reviewer notes how:
Her talents are not of the kind that are best discovered to an audience by vaudeville footlights or the spot-light of a restaurant. When she sang her own delicate, melancholy little songs she was charming, but American hot numbers don’t suit her voice or personality.
It is clear that this journalist wants to keep his vision of Anna May Wong as purely Chinese, and not for her to muddy the waters by being both Chinese and American. But the Norwood News, also in 1934, gives the following glowing reviews of the actor’s stage prowess:
The charm of her stage performance will be a delight that few people will forget, and those who have only seen her as an actress will be delighted in her as a singer.
In 1931 The Bystander is reporting that Anna May Wong is back in Hollywood. It was during this period that she made two of her most famous films Daughter of the Dragon (1931) and Shanghai Express (1932).
In 1932 The Sketch features a picture piece entitled ‘Aboard Shanghai Express,’ showing Anna May Wong in her role as Hui Fei. This ‘thrilling spy story set in the Far East’ also stared Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook and Warner Oland.
Impressions of England
But Anna May Wong did not stay away from Britain for too long. In August 1933 the Nottingham Journal printed a wonderful description of the actor’s visit to Nottingham Council House, the civic headquarters of the city.
On hand to greet her were the Mayor (Mr. H. Seely Whitby) and the Sheriff (Mr. W.W.W. Weldon) and she was able to take in all the delights of the Midlands city, apart from ‘the works of ‘Little John,’ Nottingham’s famous clock.’
Anna May Wong, however, ‘would have been delighted to climb up the spiral staircase that leads to the clock, as she has, at various times, made many similar ascents.’ She cited to a captivated audience the climbs she had made to reach the top of London’s Monument, and also to the top of the Statue of Liberty – having ‘put on a pair of tennis shoes to accomplish this climb.’
And then, speaking to a reporter from the Nottingham Journal, she spoke about how she was finally able to explore Britain, and what it was that enchanted her about the country:
It was the first time she had really been able to see the real England. In 1929 she was in London, but London was a cosmopolitan city and was no more ‘England’ than great cities like New York and Chicago were in America.
It was then that she made up her mind to see the rest of England at the earliest possible opportunity. Her first glimpse of England was in Springtime. It was lovely beyond all words. The green of the fields made them look like the finest lawns – ‘the kind of lawns that Americans would like to have in their gardens if they could get them.’
She goes on to describe her delight with the ‘bright green of English fields,’ not like the ‘yellowish green’ to be found in California:
She was so delighted when she first saw a field of buttercups glowing in the sunlight she stopped the car and got out and picked lots of them – ‘much to the amazement of those who saw her.’
Upon leaving Nottingham, Anna May Wong was set to be seeing ‘Liverpool for the first time’ and also to visit Harrogate, where ‘she had promised to appear at a Sunday concert.’
Meanwhile in the summer of 1934, patrons of the Streatham Hill Threatre could look forward to a ‘personal appearance’ from the film star, as she promoted her latest British film Chu Chin Chow.
In Chu Chin Chow (another example where white British actors adopted yellowface) Anna May Wong was set to play ‘the beautiful but treacherous slave girl’ Zaharat, with Walter Forde directing for Gaumont British (The Sketch, February 1934).
And it could truly be said that in the summer of 1934 Britain was mad for Anna May Wong, as this advertisement for an exclusive interview in the Sunday Mercury reveals:
…another exciting article in which Anna May Wong, the Chinese Garbo, lifts the veil on her life and thoughts; how she found film fame at 13, how a youth fell in love with her after she had given him a black eye; how she turned her back on Hollywood to star in a British picture.
An Important Legacy
But in 1935 Anna May Wong returned to Hollywood in order to try and secure the role of a lifetime – O-lan in The Good Earth. However, she lost out on the part to Luise Rainer. Cast as what would have been Wong’s love interest was Paul Muni, an actor of European descent, and as interracial relationships were not allowed to be depicted on screen at that time, Anna May missed out. Instead, Luise Rainer went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in the role.
Anna May Wong went on to make several more films after this, including Daughter of Shanghai and King of Chinatown, but as war broke out and raged across the world she went into something of a retirement, although she keenly supported China in its struggles against Japan, and she went about educating herself on Chinese history and culture.
But despite this hiatus, Britain had not forgotten Anna May Wong. In 1950 the Dundee Evening Telegraph reports how ‘Anna May Wong returns to the screen in Impact.’ In what was just a ‘small role as a maid,’ the British press still deemed her appearance as newsworthy.
In 1953 the Yorkshire Evening Post reports on a bout of ill health suffered by the film icon, as she had ‘been in hospital for two days but has been ill for some time.’ But by 1955 she had recovered enough to return to the place she had made her home some twenty years before, as The Tatler reports on how Anna May Wong visited London ‘to mark the changes since she lived here, and to see old friends.’
But sadly, not ten years later, Anna May Wong passed away aged 54 in Santa Monica, California, on 3 February 1961. The Coventry Evening Telegraph reports how ‘her last picture Portrait in Black, completed last year, is now being shown,’ as well as how she had made recent appearances in ‘television drama.’ The article goes on to note the wide acclaim she had received in Britain in the 1930s, and how, ‘at the time of her death she was under contract to make ‘Flower Drum Song’ for Universal Pictures.’
And in the Illustrated London News’s tribute to a ‘Well-Known Film Actress,’ Anna May Wong’s stage work in Britain and her appearance in British films is also noted, ensuring her legacy some thirty years on.
No doubt about it, Anna May Wong was a true trailblazer not just in cinema and theatre, but in the way she broke cultural stereotypes and resisted them, a style icon with her iconic Flapper fashion and short bobbed hair. Not given enough recognition during her lifetime, her brief sojourn in Britain allowed her for a while to escape the constraints of Hollywood, to tread the boards in a play for the first time, and let us not forget, pick buttercups in the green Spring fields!