Anna May Wong: The life and style of a Chinese-American Hollywood icon

Megan C. Hills
Getty Images

Today’s Google Doodle honours a legend of old Hollywood: Anna May Wong, the first Asian-American star to make it big in Hollywood.

Born in Los Angeles in 1905 as Wong Liu Tsong, the second generation Chinese-American star paved the way for Asian minorities on the screen and stage.

The Google Doodle was designed by illustrator Sophie Diao and tells the story of Wong’s life through black and white images.

From a young Wong rehearsing in the shadow of her parents’ laundromat to her move to Europe and eventual iconic roles in Piccadilly and The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, Diao revealed that she aimed to “highlight her commanding stage presence.”

Diao revealed that she hadn’t heard of Wong before she worked on the Doodle, but following her research she said, “She’s amazing! I wish I had known about her when I was a kid. I was always looking for Chinese American role models in movies and TV shows. Asian American actors are underrepresented even now, so amazingly Anna May Wong was so active right at the beginning of film history, bridging the gap between silent films and talkies.”

(Getty Images)

Wong, whose original Chinese name means Yellow Frosted Willow, was born to first-generation Chinese-American parents Sam Sing Wong and Gon Toy Lee. The family lived nearby Chinatown and included eight children in total, including her older sister Lulu who she attended public school with.

According to The New York Historical Society, Wong once spoke of the racism she and her sister faced on a daily basis.

Calling every day “torture”, she said, “We tried to walk unconcernedly home from school, always with a larger and larger crowd of our tormentors around us shouting, “Chink, Chink, Chinaman. Chink, Chink, Chinaman.” Yanking our “pigtails” as they called our straight black braids of hair. Pushing us off the sidewalk into the street. Pinching us. Slapping us.”

Anna May Wong as a child (Getty Images)

Despite the obstacles against her, Wong vowed to become an actress and had chosen her stage name by eleven years old - mashing together her English and Chinese names to be Anna May Wong. She said in 1926, “We were always thrilled when a motion picture company came down into Chinatown to film scenes for a picture. I would worm my way through the crowd and get as close to the cameras as I dared.”

After persistently waiting outside film sets and studios, Wong eventually was cast in a minor role at the age of 14 years old in The Red Lantern. According to Google, she said of the role, “I felt sure that I’d see my name in electric lights before long.”

(Getty Images)

At the time, Wong found it difficult to break into major Hollywood roles due to anti-miscegenation laws which made depicting interracial “sex relationships” as well as “excessive and lustful kissing” onscreen illegal; barring her from leading roles despite her growing popularity.

She had her first big break in the 1922 silent film The Toll of the Sea, which was based on the famed musical Madame Butterfly (only set in China rather than Japan).

As American filmmakers were reluctant to take a chance on Wong as a leading woman and she was stuck with stereotypical roles, she left for Europe in 1929 where she began a stage and screen darling - starring in films such as Piccadilly in 1929 and plays such as Circle of Chalk alongside Laurence Olivier. She settled in London, but occasionally went back stateside to star in projects.

(Getty Images)

Starring in over 60 films, one of her biggest roles was in Shanghai Express alongside her close friend Marlene Dietrich in 1932.

Although Wong was already bilingual and spoke English and Cantonese, she learned French and German to star in the film Flame of Love which was made in English, French and German. She also attempted to set up her own production company with the goal of creating Asian-centric projects, however the company folded due to a business dispute with her partner.

Despite Wong’s success in the west, in China Wong was received a lukewarm reception as she was criticised for the sensuality of the characters she played onscreen. According to Time, she said, “It's a pretty sad situation to be rejected by the Chinese because I am too American.”

(Getty Images)

Besides her mesmerising screen presence, she was also hailed as the “world’s best dressed woman” in 1934 by Mayfair Mannequin Society.

As time went on, Wong withdrew from the limelight - until she finally returned to the screen in the 50s. She became the first Asian American to lead a television show with her 1951 programme The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, before eventually passing away at the age of 56 in 1961. She was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 and when star Lucy Liu was honured with her own in 2019, she paid tribute to Wong's work which paved the way for her.

(Getty Images)

Liu said, "I was lucky that trailblazers like Anna May Wong and Bruce Lee came before me. If my body of work somehow helped bridge the gap between stereotypical roles, first given to Anna May, and mainstream success today, I am thrilled to have been part of that process."