Celebrating the History of Motion Pictures from 1890 to 1960

Anna May Wong – The First Chinese-American Film Star

Anna May Wong


January 3, 1905, in Los Angeles, CA.


February 3, 1961, in Santa Monica, CA.
Buried at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery (Los Angeles, CA)


Wong Liu Tsong (“Frosted Yellow Willows”)


From the early 1920s to the early 1940s, Anna May Wong appeared in films in Hollywood, England, and Germany, becoming the first international Chinese-American film star. Although her career faded during the 1940s, she continued to work on stage, television, radio, and in an occasional movie until 1960.

Throughout her life Anna May battled racism and stereotyping, while at the same time being widely criticized by Chinese Nationalists in both America and China for taking roles they felt perpetuated a negative image of Chinese people. However, her determination, elegance, beauty and sophistication brought many positive elements to her performances, and she became the embodiment of Asian womanhood for a generation of American and European audiences. Anna May appeared in over 50 films.

Anna May Wong in Toll of the Sea.


First Film:

“The Red Lantern” (1919), starring Alla Nazimova. While the film was being shot on the streets of Chinatown in Los Angeles, Anna May was cast as an extra. She played a lantern bearer.

First Screen Credit:

“Bits of Life” (1921), in which she played Lon Chaney, Sr.’s wife, Toy Sing.

First Significant Role:

Cast as Lotus Flower, the lead roll in “The Toll of the Sea” (1922), a film based on Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly”. It was the first feature to be filmed in Technicolor’s two-color subtractive process.

Breakthrough Part:

Cast by Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., as a Mongol slave in his lavish production “The Thief of Bagdad” (1924). Directed by Raoul Walsh for United Artists, this film cost $2 million and took five weeks to shoot. The impressive sets, which included towering minarets and Moorish buildings, were constructed on a six-and-a-half acre location at the Pickford-Fairbanks studio in Hollywood. Although Anna May Wong had only a supporting role, her brief appearances on screen caught the attention of audiences and critics alike.

First Talkie:

“The Flame of Love” a.k.a. “The Road to Dishonour” (1930), produced by British International Pictures. Anna May spoke the dialog in the French, German and English versions of the film.

Film Highlight:

In 1932 Anna May Wong starred with Marlene Dietrich in “Shanghai Express”. This film, directed by Josef von Sternberg, was nominated for Academy Awards for “Best Picture” and “Best Director”, and won the Oscar for “Best Cinematography”.

Major Disappointment:

After testing for the role of O-Lan, Paul Muni’s wife in the film “The Good Earth” (1937), and then being considered for the smaller role of Lotus, his concubine in the film, Anna May lost out to Luise Rainer and Tilly Losch respectively. (It’s interesting to note that both Rainer and Losch were born in Vienna, Austria, and were not Asian.) The film went on to be nominated for five Academy Awards, and Luise Rainer won the ‘Best Actress” Oscar for her performance.

Best Films:

“The Toll of the Sea” (1922); “Thief of Bagdad” (1924); “Peter Pan” (1924); “Piccadilly” (1929); “Shanghai Express” (1932).


Anna May Wong was 5 feet 7 inches tall, had black eyes and usually wore her hair in bangs. She was widely regarded as having the most beautiful hands in filmdom, and many of her contemporaries considered her to be among the world’s best-dressed women. She loved to read, and studied everything from Asian history and the teachings of Lao Tzu, to Shakespeare. For exercise she played golf, rode horses, and skied. After critics lambasted her voice and singing while she was doing a play in London in 1929, she paid a Cambridge University tutor to help her gain an upper-class English accent.

Because love scenes between Oriental and Caucasian actors were not permitted on U.S. screens at the time, Anna May was limited to playing supporting characters during the 1920s while the lead parts often went to a Caucasian actress in Oriental makeup.

In 1928, Anna May left for Europe where she made a number of films in Germany and England. She also appeared on the London stage with Laurence Olivier in “The Circle of Chalk”, and in Vienna in the play “Springtime”. While in Europe she met and partied with many other rising film personalities, and an Alfred Eisenstadt photo of her with the German actress Marlene Dietrich and the German actress/director Leni Riefenstahl, at the Press Ball in Berlin, was widely circulated and eventually published in the U.S. by LOOK magazine. Anna May learned to speak both French and German, and many people believed that in both attitude and outlook she quickly became more European than American.

After retuning to the United States in 1930, Anna May appeared on Broadway in the play “On the Spot”, which ran for 167 performances. She then proceeded to Hollywood where Paramount put her under contract. Her first film for Paramount was “Daughter of the Dragon”, based on Sax Rohmer’s popular novel “Daughter of Fu Manchu”. Anna May commuted between Hollywood, New York, and Europe throughout the 1930s, acting in both plays and movies.

In 1932, Anna May did a test for the lead role in a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer picture “The Son-Daughter”. She heard through the grapevine that she did not get the role because M-G-M considered her “too Chinese to play a Chinese”. Helen Hayes was eventually given the part.

Irving Thalberg’s assistant, Albert Lewin, was put in charge of casting the film version of Pearl S. Buck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Good Earth” (1937). After testing Anna May and other Chinese actors, he argued that despite their ethnicity they did not fit his conception of what Chinese people looked like.

In 1937, Anna May Wong appeared on the cover of the second issue of Look magazine where she was identified as the “World’s Most Beautiful Chinese Girl”, even though she was shown brandishing a dagger.

Anna May Wong in Piccadilly.

In 1942, Anna May wrote the preface to one of the first Chinese cookbooks printed in the United States. Compiled by Mabel Stegner and Fred Wing, the cookbook “New Chinese Recipes” was sold to raise money for United China Relief.

In 1951 Anna May starred as a Chinese detective in the Dumont Network’s television series “The Gallery of Madame Liu Tsong”. The weekly half-hour show debuted on August 27th, and ran until November 21st, 1951.

Anna May smoked, often abused alcohol and suffered deep bouts of depression. After a long battle with the liver disease, Laennec’s cirrhosis, Anna May died in her home at the age of 56 while taking a nap.


In 1997, Bowdoin College in Maine presented the World Premier of a play about Anna May Wong entitled “China Doll – The Imagined Life of an American Actress”. The play was written by Elizabeth Wong, and it had its New York City premier during the 2005/6 season at the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre.

In 2004, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and Hugh M. Hefner, presented a lecture and film series entitled “Rediscovering Anna May Wong”. In the same year, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City presented a program entitled “Retrospective of Chinese American Screen Actress Anna May Wong”, which screened six of her films and rare newsreel footage.

In 2008 a 50 minute biographical film, “Anna May Wong – Frosted Yellow Willows: Her Life, Times & Legend”, had its U.S. premiere. Produced by Elaine Mae Woo, this documentary is narrated by Nancy Kwan.

United States Mint Honors Anna May Wong

In 2022 , the United States Mint honored Anna May Wong as part of their American Women Quarters program.

In the first of the 4 year long program, an Anna May Wong quarter was issued and will be minted in both Denver and Philadelphia.

More information can be found here:


© 2004 The Picture Show Man. All Rights Reserved.

The following products will help you explore this subject further:


  • Anna May Wong: A Complete Guide to Her Film, Stage, Radio and Television Work, (2003) by Philip Leibfried, et al
  • Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong, (2003) by Anthony B. Chan
  • Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend, (2004) by Graham Rusell Gao Hodges


  • Treasures from American Film Archives, includes the 1922 film “The Toll of the
    with Anna May Wong.
  • The Thief of Bagdad, (Deluxe Edition) (1924)
  • Peter Pan, (1924)
  • Piccadilly, (1929)
  • Chu Chin Chow, (1934) (3–disc set)
  • Impact, (1949)

Leave a Comment

error: Content is Copyright Protected!