There were also other pioneering [East and Southeast] Asian American actors like Benson Fong, Victor Sen Yung, Lotus Long, Suzanna Kim, Barbara Jean Wong, Fely Franquelli, Chester Gan, Honorable Wu, Kam Tong, Layne Tom Jr., Maurice Liu, Teru Shimada, Willie Fung and Wing Foo; all began their film careers in the 1930s and ‘40s.

With the relatively small percentage of actors that support themselves by acting, it was only logical that they should try to limit the available talent pool as much as possible. One way of doing this was by placing restrictions on minority actors, which, in the case of Asian actors, meant that they could usually only get roles as houseboys, cooks, laundrymen, and crazed war enemies, with the rare “white hero’s loyal sidekick” roles going to the big name actors. When the script called for a larger Asian role, it was almost inevitably given to a white actor. (A Brief History of Hollywood Yellowface)


Anna May Wong was a native Los Angeleno and the first Chinese-American movie star. She landed her first film at 17 years old in the silent The Toll of the Sea and later appeared opposite Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express

Though she was a talented actress, she struggled to avoid being typecast. What’s worse, she occasionally was passed over for Asian roles when producers hired Europeans instead of her. 

In 1951 Wong became the first Asian lead in a U.S. television show when she starred in “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong”.

Anna May Wong’s Certificate of Identity, August 18, 1924, National Archives at San Francisco.

She was born Wong Liu Tsong in 1905 in Los Angeles to a Cantonese-American family that had lived in America since at least 1855. However, being an American didn’t matter in a time when people of Chinese descent were being heavily legislated against. 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. Even at the peak of her fame, Wong still had to carry papers like the one above to prove she was allowed to be here. Read the rest of the article.


Anna May Wong might not be immediately recognizable today unlike some of her contemporaries (she acted alongside Buster Keaton and Marlene Dietrich to name a couple), but she was the first Chinese American movie star and a fashion icon in her own right. Her long and varied career spanned both silent and sound film, television, stage, and radio. In 1922 the New York Times commented,“She should be seen again and often on the screen.” Of course being an Asian-American in the 1920s and 30s severely limited the roles offered to her; anti-miscegenation laws meant she couldn’t be cast as a romantic lead opposite of a white actor. American directors even passed up her as a lead for Chinese roles casting white women to play Chinese characters instead (see German actress Luise Rainer as O-Lan in The Good Earth). Still in the late 1930s, she starred in several B movies for Paramount Pictures, portraying Chinese Americans in a positive light. These smaller-budgeted films could be bolder than the higher-profile releases, and she used this to her advantage to portray successful, professional, Chinese-American characters.
While she was first and foremost an actress, once quoted as saying “I am wedded to my art,” Anna May Wong was also a fashion icon in her day. She cultivated a stylish flapper image and in the 1930s was on various “Best Dressed” lists. When I admire Anna May Wong I appreciate her beauty and her fashion sense, but also admire her talent and ability to thrive in a time when the odds were stacked against her.


Evening Dress (Costume)

Travis Banton


An evocative and glamorous example of the work of Paramount Studios costume designer Travis Banton, who, during the 1930s, also dressed Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, and Mae West, this dress was worn by Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. While the dress may evoke the “cheongsam”, a from-fitting traditional Chinese dress style, its construction is along the lines of high-necked form-fitting Western gowns from the Belle-Epoque period, but the dragon motif adds a distinct Asian influence, dazzling in its execution in gold and silver sequins on luxurious satin. It was designed by Banton for Wong’s role of Tu Tuan in the 1934 film “Limehouse Blues.” Wong was a pioneer for Asian-American actors and one of the few actors in general to transition from silent to talking films. (MET)



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