Anna May Wong Certificate of Identity, August 18, 1924, National Archives at San Francisco (54099).
The first thing to remember about movie star Anna May Wong is that she was an American. She was born Wong Liu Tsong in 1905 in Los Angeles, with Cantonese American family that had lived in America since at least 1855. Her father owned a laundry shop, and as the film industry began to move west, she began to gain an interest in acting and movies. 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. This was part of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (the subject of the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion), which prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers, and excluded Chinese from US citizenship. 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.
Wong’s career also suffered from the anti-miscegenation laws of the time, which prevented her from sharing an on-screen kiss with any person of another race (even if it was an Asian character being portrayed by a white actor.) There was only one other Asian leading man at the time, Sessue Hayakawa, so Wong was often relegated to the part of the “Dragon Lady.” In 1928, Wong moved to Europe, saying in an interview, “There seems little for me in Hollywood, because, rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.” However, in the 1930s, she returned to Hollywood, and starred in some of her most iconic films, like Shanghai Express and Daughter of the Dragon.
Picture of Anna May Wong from the 1930s ©Paramount Pictures / Photofest
Despite being barred from leading-lady status, moviegoers loved her, especially minorities who were excited to see a non-white actress gain such fame. Anthony B. Chan wrote about his parents seeing Wong in his book Perpetual Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905-1961):
The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, but Chinese Americans (and other Asian Americans) still fight stereotypes and hostility today. There are few movie stars of Asian descent, and while there may be no room for the “Dragon Lady” in modern cinema, you rarely see an Asian-American woman in a leading role. Anna May Wong straddled the line between Asian and American, learning her roots but fighting to prove that she was as American as anyone else. For future generations, hopefully the fight won’t be so hard.