Anna May Wong was best known as the first Asian American actor to work in Hollywood. From silent films to talkies, from the stage to television, she could do it all and she did, all while navigating the blatant racism and typecasting in the industry that ultimately restricted her from reaching her fullest potential. While it’s been nearly 60 years since her death, there is renewed interest in her legacy.
This year, Wong’s story has been featured in documentaries such as Asian Americans (a co-production of the Center for Asian American Media) and as a subject of Unladylike2020 for PBS’s American Masters. Wong was portrayed by Michelle Krusiec in the Netflix miniseries Hollywood, which saw her receiving a redemption that never panned out in real life. She even received the Google Doodle treatment in January, in honor of the 97th anniversary of The Toll of the Sea; Wong’s first leading role.
CAAM’s executive director Stephen Gong, who learned about her while studying silent films in grad school, considers Wong as “one of these people that has her moment in different ways and times.” While he has been fascinated by several explorations of her life and work over the years – including a retrospective CAAM put on at CAAMFest (formerly the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival) in the mid 2000s – Yunah Hong’s 2011 documentary, Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words, comes to mind.
“I remember when it came out, I was a little skeptical because it’s hard to do that kind of reenactment,” Gong said, regarding actor Doan Ly’s portrayal of Wong. “But I thought it was very effective, and it was useful in this case because we don’t have enough footage of her being herself.”
Hong, who is originally from Korea, first watched Wong in Shanghai Express. The Chinese American actress caught Hong’s attention as the first English-speaking Asian woman with no accent she had ever seen in a film. “She made a huge impression on me. And since I moved here already [an] adult, I didn’t really have much preconception about stereotypes of Asian women in this country.”
Through copious amounts of research in an effort to learn more about her, Hong decided to make a documentary exploring Wong’s story, her biggest challenge of being turned down from The Good Earth, and her constant reinvention.
In Her Own Words was accomplished through Hong’s strategic approach. She interviewed people who knew or worked with Wong and also made the actress’ own words come alive through Ly’s re-enactments of Wong’s letters and interviews.
“It [was] really interesting to see a young Asian American actress, [in] some ways impersonating [Wong], or giving her personality for audiences to see the parallel between the actual Wong in film, and a modern-day Asian American actress interpreting her words,” Hong commented.
CAAM helped fund the production for In Her Own Words, and oftentimes, the work CAAM supports results in laying groundwork for the future. Hong’s film and Gong’s work has helped pave the way for the recent moment for Wong’s ongoing legacy.
Nancy Wang Yuen, a sociologist and author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, was one the experts interviewed in Asian Americans about Wong and her career. Bearing in mind the resources and education on the history of Asian America, Yuen found it remarkable for Wong to speak out in interviews on the prejudices she endured, despite there being little history for her to pull from.
“It was different because there wasn’t a lot of awareness what Asian American is and means, and she actually did speak out a lot about that,” Yuen explained. “Like, why are we always portrayed as the villain, [when] our civilization is so much older than the West?
“I had the benefit of all the people that came before me, all the historians, all the scholars, all the activists,” she added. “For her, she was alive during a time when there wasn’t that. She couldn’t take a course in Asian American studies.”
Yuen watched Krusiec’s portrayal of Wong in Hollywood and considered her the best part of the entire series. She commended the series for showing some of the struggles Wong endured – most notably being turned down for the lead role in The Good Earth – which only made it more clear that the actress never achieved her full potential.
“I interviewed [Krusiec], and right before the interview I re-watched The Good Earth audition scenes,” she reflected. “I still cried watching her perform those scenes because the words that she was saying in those scenes matched what the actress was experiencing in life. [The scene] was something about the child and not being able to get there, essentially not be able to fulfill her dream and her potential. And so those scenes, I think, were the best thing of the Anna May Wong scenes, as well as the entire series: her auditioning for The Good Earth, because I’m sure that was as close to reality as it was then, where she is thinking.”
When asked why Wong has recently gained attention and been featured more in the media, Gong says he believes it has a lot to do with how her experience has only grown to be more relevant in the present day, with regards to the #OscarsSoWhite and #TimesUp movements.
“I think that’s an example of how you can revisit a story that you think you know and yet has more meaning,” he said. “I think more than ever she stands in for all of the women who were denied an opportunity to practice their craft in an industry that absolutely could not see the value that added what she was giving to storytelling and film.”
Looking ahead, there’s hope for change to continue on for media representation and diversity in the entertainment industry, the more Wong’s story gets told.
“I think American audiences finally begin to see that Asian Americans are like the rest of Americans,” Hong said. “We are no longer this exotic, Oriental, or model minority. We are in some ways funny, rich and somewhat stupid too. And producers in Hollywood also realized that films about Asian Americans actually can be profitable. I think that financial success has begun to change things because there are more films about Asian American made since 2018.”
“I think what struck me about her was that she was openly critical of the system in a time when that might not have been very prudent for her,” Yuen explained. “It’s like she didn’t care, which also probably speaks to her level of stardom, that she was able to speak out and not fear that there were repercussions. Because I feel like when I was writing my book Real Equality, even then I felt like Asian American actors were still timid about being open, or just actors of color in general being open about criticizing society. So that was just 10-20 years ago.”
Yuen is also hoping for a biopic to be made about Wong someday soon.