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Hailed as the first Asian American movie star, Anna May Wong’s groundbreaking career spanned from the silent film era to 1950s TV, when she starred in her own television show. Though bound by the racist and sexist stereotypes of Hollywood in the 1900s, including laws forbidding on-screen interracial relationships, Anna May Wong carved a path for herself in Hollywood and beyond, eventually appearing in 60+ films and performing on stages around the globe.
Ann Makosinski is a 23 year old Filipina-Polish Canadian inventor, global keynote speaker, and aspiring writer. She is best known for her invention of the Hollow Flashlight, a flashlight that runs off the heat of the human hand, and the eDrink, a coffee mug that harvests the excess heat of your hot drink and converts it into electricity to charge your phone. Ann has given 5 TEDx talks, is one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30, Times Magazine’s 30 Under 30 World Changers, Entrepreneur Magazine’s Young Millionaires, and Glamour Magazine’s College Women of the Year. She recently completed her work on a line of children’s toys that run off of green energy.
Once upon a time, there was a girl who would become a queen of the silver screen. Her name was Anna May.
Anna May grew up in the early 1900s in Los Angeles, California, where her father owned a laundry shop just a few blocks from Chinatown.
She often helped out at her father’s laundromat along with her brothers and sisters. She delivered clean clothes all over L.A. and labored over the hot iron, the steam making her sweat.
One day, after receiving a big tip from a delivery, Anna May bought a ticket to the cinema. As the lights went down and the screen lit up, she fell instantly in love.
From then on, Anna May went to the movies whenever she could. When she wasn’t buying movie tickets, she was skipping school to watch movies being filmed in her neighborhood. When she got home, she often acted out the parts in front of a mirror. One moment, she could be found sobbing over the death of her beloved. The next, she was cackling like a villain.
One day, all that practice would pay off, and Anna May would skyrocket to movie stardom.
I’m Ann Makosinski, And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode, Anna May Wong. Darling of the silver screen, fashion icon, acclaimed actress, and the first Asian American movie star.
<END THEME MUSIC>
As time passed, Anna May became obsessed with the movies.
She used her lunch money to buy movie tickets. And she even sneaked out of class to go to the cinema!
In the 1910s, the movie industry was still new, and many production companies had come to California. In Chinatown, Anna May often saw directors yelling out instructions to the cast and crew on a film set. She would worm her way through the crowds to get as close as she could to the whirring cameras.
By then, Anna May didn’t just want to watch movies—she wanted to be in them.
But One big obstacle stood in her way, though: Most movie stars in those days were white, and Anna May was Chinese American.
Still, Anna May was determined.
One day, when Anna May was 14 years old, someone told her they were looking for extras for a film called The Red Lantern. The script called for crowds of Chinese people, and Anna signed right up. And… She got the part!
During her first day on set, butterflies filled her stomach. But Anna May wasn’t afraid. She had been acting in front of the mirror almost every day.
Now, in front of a camera, she felt more herself than ever before.
|FIGHTING AGAINST FAMILY
Her father was quick to burst her bubble, though. At that time, acting was not considered a good profession, and Anna May’s father said she was disgracing the family.
But Anna May told him she wanted to be independent, and wouldn’t change herself just to meet her father’s expectations.
So, Anna May auditioned for movies again and again—and was cast as an extra again and again. Sometimes, though, she got small parts with lines—which drew her one step closer to her big dream.
Over the years, Anna May’s father continued to fight against her ambitions. Once, he even locked her in her room to keep her from going to an audition! But Anna May didn’t let that stop her.
When Anna May was acting, she said she felt like a “rare flower in fields of sun.”
She loved every moment of it, and she wasn’t going to quit.
After years of acting in small parts, at 17, Anna May finally got her big break: She was cast as one of the lead actors in the 1922 movie The Toll of the Sea—one of the first feature films made in Technicolor.
Before then, movies had always been in black and white. And at that time, movies were also silent—with words displayed on a black screen between shots of the action.
But Anna May’s facial expressions and gestures were so good, she could break someone’s heart with just one look. And she could cry on cue!
The Toll of the Sea was a huge hit, and it played in thousands of theaters across the globe! Critics raved about Anna May’s performance, and because of her success, Anna May gained contacts throughout Hollywood.
Photographers begged her to let them take her photo, and her face appeared on magazine covers worldwoi, and . In addition to being a movie star, Anna May soon became a fashion icon. She wore her black hair in a trendy bob with bangs. She donned designer clothes, flapper dresses—and sometimes even suits and top hats!
Anna May became the perfect image of the thoroughly Modern American Woman.
|BUTTERFLIES AND DRAGON LADIES
From 1922 to 1928, Anna May starred in 25 films. There was one problem, though. Sooner or later, all these parts started to look the same.
She was usually either cast as a “Butterfly”—a passive young woman—or a “Dragon Lady”—a murderous villain. And most of the time, her character died at the end!
As Anna May searched for better and more diverse roles, though, she faced some big challenges.
First, many states had laws that said people of different races couldn’t get married. Those laws went so far as to even outlaw interracial couples on-screen! Most stars in Hollywood were white at that time, so that meant Anna May could rarely be the leading lady—because she could never get the guy at the end.
Second, white actors were often cast as Asian people—a practice called “yellowface.” One time, when Anna May was passed over for a lead Asian role, she was even asked to teach the white actor how to use chopsticks!
|TAKING EUROPE BY STORM
Tired of being cast in the same roles again and again—and dying a thousand deaths on screen—Anna May was done with Hollywood.
So, at age 23, she sailed to Europe to make a new start.
Many Europeans already knew Anna May from her blockbuster films and her glamorous photo shoots. When she got to Berlin, German directors practically lined up to work with her!
By that time, silent movies were giving way to “talkies”—or movies with sound. Many silent film stars struggled with this transition. But with her natural acting style and warm alto voice, Anna May was a fast success.
German audiences loved Anna May so much, they tried to persuade her to stay in the country. But Anna May wanted to explore. So she traveled across Europe, acting on stage plays, performing in cabaret shows, and making even more movies.
Her popularity spread like wildfire!
|THE SHOW MUST GO ON
A few years after Anna May arrived in Europe, though, she had a terrible dream.
She was standing underneath a willow tree with a friend and weeping uncontrollably.
Anna May’s Chinese name, Wong Liu Tsong, means “Frosted Yellow Willow”—and, when Anna May woke up from her dream, she was certain it was a sign that something bad had happened to her family.
She sent a message to Los Angeles, but her family said everything was fine.
Homesick and unsettled by her dream, in 1931, Anna May returned to the United States. There, she performed in a Broadway play. Backstage at the theater one night, Anna May received a telegram.
Her mother had been in a terrible accident. They didn’t think she would make it.
Anna May felt torn apart. She longed to go back to L.A.—to be with her family. She said she knew “it was unthinkable for a Chinese girl to be absent” from her mother’s funeral. But she also knew that if she left New York, it would mean closing the play. And all the rest of the cast would be out of work.
Anna May agonized over the decision all night long. And in the morning, she made her choice.
She stayed in New York. Her father was furious, and they held the funeral without her.
Though Anna May kept busy with her performances, her heart was dragged down by grief.
A few months later, after finishing her show, Anna May returned to L.A. There, she held her own funeral service for her mother and was finally able to say goodbye.
|THE GOOD EARTH
Several years later, back in Hollywood, Anna May heard about a new role that seemed like it was written for her.
One of the studios was making a film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s famous novel The Good Earth. The movie would be the biggest film about China that Hollywood had ever made.
When Anna May auditioned for the lead female character, O-Lan, the producers said she “wasn’t the type”!
In the end, a white woman was cast as O-Lan instead.
Anna May was devastated.
Then, the studio added insult to injury. They asked Anna May to audition for a less important role—a villain.
“If you let me play O-Lan,” she told the producers, “I will be very glad. But you are asking me—with my Chinese blood—to do the only unsympathetic role in this picture featuring an all-American cast, portraying Chinese characters.”
Anna May flat-out refused.
Again fed up with Hollywood, Anna May decided to make her own movie—a documentary about China.
Anna May had longed to visit China since she was young. So, at 31 years old, she hired her own cameraman, signed a contract to write several articles for the New York Herald Tribune, and set sail.
Upon her arrival, thousands of fans flocked to the docks to greet her, and reporters peppered her with questions. But Anna May had a mixed reputation in China— some people felt that her portrayals of “Butterflies” and “Dragon Ladies” had brought shame on their country. But others adored her image as a modern woman and the most well-known Hollywood star of Chinese descent.
Anna May sometimes suffered from these conflicting opinions, but she handled them with grace. She answered each reporter’s question patiently, and eventually, she won over much of the Chinese press—and people.
For almost a year, Anna May traveled all around China, including to the village her family had come from. There, she met with her father, who had moved back to China, and he showed her around their ancestral home.
“Although I’ve been to many, many places in the world,” Anna May said. “This first and only trip I made to China was the most meaningful.”
|WORLD WAR II & TELEVISION
After Anna May returned to the United States in 1936, she signed a contract with Paramount Pictures, where she finally got to play more complex characters. She also traveled in the United States and abroad, performing on stages from New York City to Melbourne, Australia!
Soon, World War II made travel—and film work—nearly impossible. “One wonders if one is going to work again,” a depressed Anna May told a friend.
But she stayed busy. Anna May joined in efforts to support both the United States and China, and she auctioned off her movie costumes to raise money for both countries.
And somehow, even though work was difficult to find, she managed to keep acting. When the war ended, Anna May appeared in several television shows in the 1950s and 60s. She even starred in her own TV show in 1951—becoming the first Asian American to do so.
In 1961, Anna May was finally poised to make her movie comeback in Flower Drum Song, the first major Hollywood film with a primarily Asian American cast.
But then, tragedy struck. Before they began filming, Anna May suddenly passed away in her sleep. Her death was recognized in newspapers around the world, and many fans and loved ones mourned her passing.
Anna May Wong made more than 60 films during the course of her life. Today, she’s remembered for her artistic range, influential fashion, and tireless perseverance.
Anna May fought to gain recognition for her craft and skill in a racially segregated filmmaking world. Though many people told her it was impossible, she became a world-recognized actor and performer—and the first Asian American movie star. In 1960, She even got her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Through Anna May’s many talents, she paved the way for Asian American actors today—and her story reminds all of us to keep fighting for our dreams, and believing in what’s possible.
This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. Executive Producer is Katie Sprenger [spren-GRR].
This episode was produced by Isaac Kaplan-Woolner. It was sound designed and mixed by Camille Stennis [kuh-MEEL sten-nis]. A special thanks to the whole Rebel Girls team, who make this podcast possible!
This episode was written by Alexis Stratton [uh-LEK-sis strat-UHN], and proofread by Ariana Rosas [Are-ee-an-uh r-OH-s-aa-s]. It was narrated by me, Ann Makosinski, who you will get to know better on Thursday’s episode!
Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi [el-LET-tra bar-JOCK-ee]. For more, visit Rebel Girls dot com. Until next time, stay rebel!