Actress Anna May Wong’s Certificate of Identity, August 18, 1924
Movie star Anna May Wong was American (born Wong Liu Tsong in 1905 in Los Angeles to a Cantonese-American family that had lived in America since at least 1855). But beginning in 1909, any people of Chinese descent entering or residing in the US, regardless of the country of their birth, had to carry a Certificate of Identity with them at all times. This was part of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers and excluded Chinese from US citizenship. Even at the height of her fame, Wong still had to carry papers like this to prove she was allowed to be in the US.
Anna May Wong’s parents were second-generation Chinese Americans; her maternal and paternal grandparents had resided in the U.S. since at least 1855.
At the age of 17 she played her first leading role, in the early Metro two-strip Technicolor movie The Toll of the Sea (1922). The New York Times commented, “Miss Wong stirs in the spectator all the sympathy her part calls for and she never repels one by an excess of theatrical ‘feeling’. She has a difficult role, a role that is botched nine times out of ten, but hers is the tenth performance. Completely unconscious of the camera, with a fine sense of proportion and remarkable pantomimic accuracy … She should be seen again and often on the screen.”
Despite such reviews, Hollywood proved reluctant to create starring roles for Wong; her ethnicity prevented U.S. filmmakers from seeing her as a leading lady.
Conscious that Americans viewed her as “foreign born” even though she was born and raised in California, Wong began cultivating a flapper image.
It soon became evident that Wong’s career would continue to be limited by American anti-miscegenation laws, which prevented her from sharing an on-screen kiss with any person of another race, even if the character was Asian, but being portrayed by a white actor. The only leading Asian man in U.S. films in the silent era was Sessue Hayakawa. Unless Asian leading men could be found, Wong could not be a leading lady.
Tired of being both typecast and being passed over for lead Asian character roles in favor of non-Asian actresses, Wong left Hollywood in 1928 for Europe.
She returned to the U.S. in June 1935 with the goal of obtaining the role of O-lan, the lead female character in MGM’s film version of The Good Earth. Since its publication in 1931, Wong had made known her desire to play O-lan in a film version of the book and as early as 1933, Los Angeles newspapers were touting Wong as the best choice for the part. Nevertheless, the studio apparently never seriously considered Wong for the role because Paul Muni, an actor of European descent, was to play O-lan’s husband, Wang Lung.
According to Wong, she was instead offered the part of Lotus, a deceitful song girl who helps to destroy the family and seduces the family’s oldest son. Wong refused the role, telling MGM head of production Irving Thalberg, “If you let me play O-lan, I will be very glad. But you’re asking me – with Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.” The role Wong hoped for went to Luise Rainer, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance. MGM’s refusal to consider Wong for this most high-profile of Chinese characters in U.S. film is remembered today as “one of the most notorious cases of casting discrimination in the 1930s”