Birth Date: January 3, 1905
Death Date: February 3, 1961
Location: Los Angeles, California, USA
Monument Type: Historic/Residence
A future actress was born in January 1905. The child’s name was Wong Liu Tsong, yet moviegoers would know her as Anna May Wong. Both of her parents were born in California, and seven of the pair’s children, including Anna May Wong, lived long enough to become adults. Anna May Wong’s father also had a son with his first wife; both mother and son lived in China. Anna May Wong, like her siblings, worked for her father’s laundry business.
As she grew up in California, Anna May Wong experienced racism perpetrated by people her own age. Anna May Wong, along with her older sister, went to an institution called California Street School; classmates relentlessly terrorized them. Both girls left the toxic environment to gain instruction in an institution run by Presbyterians. At this new school, the sisters connected with fellow Chinese American peers. At the same time, white teachers aimed to use education as a means to “Americanize” their pupils. Anna May Wong and her older sister would also immerse themselves in a Chinese language school outside of school hours. Eventually, they would re-enroll at the California Street School.
The burgeoning film industry fascinated Anna May Wong. Movies provided a sense of escapism for Anna May Wong, and inspired her to pursue becoming an actress. She made her start as a teenager. At only 14, she graced a piece called The Red Lantern (1919); she was only an extra that did not receive recognition, but it sparked something in the teenager. She accumulated more experience in the industry through other minor roles. She fervently invested time and energy into her passion, even deciding to quit high school. It would be The Toll of the Sea (1922) that opened up new opportunities for Anna May Wong. When writing about Anna May Wong in the film, a reviewer called the performer “one of the most finished actresses ever seen on the screen.” Her acting chops in The Thief of Bagdad (1924) generated more buzz. She became a famous flapper. Yet as a Chinese American woman in the film industry, she encountered many challenges; racism permeated the trade, and many of her roles derived from ugly stereotypes. Nevertheless, she showcased perseverance in the face of adversity. In 1924, at nineteen years old, she explained, “I want to be the first to mingle American screen technique with the really fine technique of the Chinese stage actor.”
Ultimately, Anna May Wong appeared in dozens of films. The actress passed away in 1961. Anna May Wong’s legacy transcends the film industry, as her face is now portrayed on U.S. quarters, honoring how she sought to expand opportunities for Asian Americans. In 2023, Mattel launched the Anna May Wong doll, further cementing, along with recognizing, her status as an icon.
- “Anna May Wong Seeks Fame on Chinese Stage.” Seattle Star. September 20, 1924, 10.
- Hodges, Graham Russell Gao. Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend. 3rd ed. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2023.
- Kaur, Brahmjot. “Barbie Introduces Anna May Wong Doll.” NBC News. May 1, 2023: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/barbie-introduces-anna-may-wong-doll-rcna79558.
- Tinee, Mae. “‘Toll of the Sea’ Gives Tug to Heartstrings.” Chicago Daily Tribune. April 3, 1923, 21.