Anna May Wong was a movie actress at a time when the U.S. really wasn't quite ready for Chinese-American leading ladies. And that time wasn't really all that long ago.
When Wong broke into pictures in 1919, Asian people in America were still very much seen as outsiders, perpetual foreigners – even those born in the U.S. like Wong was. And similar to early African-American actors like Madame Sul-Te-Wan, Asian Americans were relegated to portraying stereotypes. In Wong's case, that meant either the "dragon lady" or the "butterfly."
When a perfect role for an actress of Chinese descent did arise – that of O-Lan, a primary character in The Good Earth – Wong was denied the part. The movie, based on Pearl S. Buck's novel of life in a Chinese village, included a wide range of Chinese characters – and was cast with zero Asian lead actors. It was the norm to cast ethnic roles with laughably non-ethnic actors (and that norm persisted for some time – think Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's). Even if the movie's higher-ups had wanted to cast Wong in the lead, they couldn't. The Hays Code – a series of laws governing what could and couldn't be shown in mid-century cinema – didn't allow interracial kisses onscreen. The male lead was played by a white man, so Wong wasn't even a possibility. She was left to watch a German actress play the role she so wanted.
The Hays Code would continue to plague Wong's career, to the point that she gave up on Hollywood for a time and moved to Europe. She eventually came back, but she could never fully spread her wings as an actress. As she once said, "It's a pretty sad situation to be rejected by Chinese because I'm 'too American' and by American producers because they prefer other races to act Chinese parts."
In many ways, we've grown as a society and our movies reflect that – filmmakers are much more likely to cast roles in an ethnically realistic way, or cast non-white actors in roles that traditionally would have been limited to Caucasians. And we no longer feel the need to close our eyes to the possibility of interracial romance (people seem a lot more shocked by Heidi Klum and Seal's recent divorce announcement than they ever were by the marriage). Anna May Wong could have had a much richer career in the Hollywood of today. But even 51 years after her death, she would still be one of a very small minority of Asian-American featured actors. We've still got room to grow before the big stars of the big screen truly reflect the way America really looks.
Written by Linnea Crowther