When I first opened my web browser this morning, the first thing I noticed was the Google Doodle. The Doodle was a slideshow of images, depicting a woman I had somehow never heard of before: Anna May Wong. Wong is known as Hollywood's first Chinese-American star, managing to succeed and make a name for herself despite facing the difficulties of racism and typecasting at the time. Today, January 22, marked the 97th anniversary of her first leading role in "The Toll of the Sea."
I was immediately intrigued by Anna May Wong. How did she become so successful even in the face of racism and stereotyping? Asian Americans are still struggling to be properly represented in Hollywood today, so her success and ability to land a leading role nearly 100 years ago is remarkable. Wong's career started out the way anyone would expect for an Asian-American woman of her time (1905-1961). She struggled with typecasting, only being offered small roles that were merely Asian stereotypes. However, rather than settling, Wong refused to limit herself to these stereotypical roles and moved to Europe to further her career. In Europe, she was able to star in many movies and plays. She made a name for herself, eventually being offered leading roles in the United States. Wong returned to the U.S. and was cast in multiple leading roles, including a role in "Shanghai Express" in 1932 alongside Marlene Dietrich. She was also the first Asian American to have a leading role in a television series ("The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong") and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.
After researching Anna May Wong, I wanted to know how I had never heard of her before. She seemed like such a monumental figure in Asian American history. Not only was she successful despite the odds being against her, she actually refused to settle for depicting Asian stereotypes and instead upended her whole life to make a name for herself the way she wanted to. She broke down racial barriers and defied expectations set for Asian American women of her time. Why was this the first time I had ever even seen her or heard her name?
My unfamiliarity with Wong is both surprising and unsurprising to me. It's surprising that she has not been celebrated more considering her accomplishments, but it's also unsurprising considering how Asian Americans have been neglected from the American history that I was taught growing up. However, I'm happy that I was finally introduced to Wong and her contributions to the Asian American community and that more people might have been introduced to her today. Being Chinese American myself, I wish that I had been able to grow up with Anna May Wong as a role model.