Anna May Wong rose to fame as an actress during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Living from 1905 to 1961, when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and its extensions were enforced, Wong grappled with racism that limited her opportunities. Nevertheless, over the span of her career, she acted in over 60 productions and marked many firsts for Asian Americans.

“As Hollywood’s first Chinese American movie star, Anna May Wong faced more challenges than most actresses of her era,” says Katie Gee Salisbury, the author of Anna May Wong’s biography Not Your China Doll. “In spite of the racism she experienced—studios balked at casting her in leading roles and often relegated her to China doll or dragon lady stereotypes—Wong persisted and even thrived, working in silent films, talkies, radio, theater, and television across four decades.” 

As a result of her artistic achievements and philanthropic efforts, Anna May Wong became the first Asian American to be memorialized on American currency in 2022 when the U.S. Mint released quarters bearing her likeness as part of the American Women Quarters program. Below are 13 facts about her life, career and legacy.

1. She was a third-generation American.

While Anna May Wong was of Chinese descent, she was born and raised in the United States and was considered a third generation American. She was born Wong Liu Tsong in Los Angeles on January 3, 1905. She was given the name “Anna” by the family’s American doctor at birth. She later added "May" to her name and made “Anna May” her stage name as a teenager.

She was the second of seven children of her parents Sam Sing and Gon Toy Lee, who were both California natives. The couple owned and operated a laundry business near Chinatown in Los Angeles, where Wong and her siblings also worked alongside their parents.

2. She experienced racism in school.

Wong and her siblings initially attended a predominantly white public school in California and experienced racism and hostility from her classmates. She recalls a particularly harrowing experience in The True Life of a Chinese Girl, a three-part memoir published by Pictures Magazine in 1926. 

“They surrounded us. Some of them pulled our hair, which we wore in long braids down our backs. They shoved us off the sidewalk, pushing us this way and that," she wrote, adding that the students chanted racist slurs during the assault. "I don’t suppose either of us ever cried so hard in our lives, before or since.” 

Wong and her siblings eventually transferred to the Chinese Mission School in L.A.’s Chinatown, which had a predominantly Chinese student body and she was no longer bullied. While Wong’s native language was English, she learned Chinese while attending the school, though she spoke it with an accent. 

3. Wong had to carry ID under the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Anna May Wong’s Certificate of Identity, issued when she was 19.

While the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years, the act was extended until it was officially repealed in 1943 through the Magnuson Act. The law required all Chinese residents in the United States to carry Certificates of Identity issued by the government. Wong’s fame as an actor did not exempt her from carrying one of these certificates and she endured othering that many Asian Americans experienced during this period. 

4. As a child, she spent time around film sets.

In the 1910s, when Wong was a child, film production shifted from New York to Los Angeles. Wong used the tips she earned while working at the laundromat and her lunch money to buy movie tickets and watch films. She would also watch movies being filmed on the streets of Los Angeles.

Wong recalled in an interview, “I would worm my way through the crowd and get as close to the cameras as I dared…I’d stare and stare at these glamorous individuals, directors, cameramen, assistants, and actors in grease-paint, who had come down to our section of town to make movies.”

5. She was first cast as an extra at age 14.

Wong’s film career officially began when a casting call went out for Chinese women for the silent film The Red Lantern (1919), directed by Albert Capellani. She carried a lantern in one of the film’s scenes, but she was not mentioned in the movie credits

Three years later, Wong landed her first leading role in the film, The Toll of the Sea (1922), which was the first feature film made in the two-strip Technicolor process. The film was based on the opera Madame Butterfly. In the melodrama, Wong played the part of Lotus Flower, a Chinese woman who rescues an American man floating in the sea. 

6. Hollywood’s anti-miscegenation laws restricted Wong's acting roles. 

Anti-miscegenation laws in the United States, which had its origins in the late 19th century, prohibited racial mixing in relationships and cohabitation. These restrictions also translated to the silver screen as part of the Hays Code.

Anti-miscegenation laws prevented actors of different races from kissing on screen, which barred Wong from playing the romantic lead in many films. It was common for non-Asian actors to play the part of Asian characters, but Wong could not play a romantic lead in a film even if the male lead was a white actor playing an Asian character. 

7. She created her own film production company in 1924.

As a result of the limited roles available to her, Wong created her own film production company called Anna May Wong Productions in March of 1924. She hoped to make films about her own Chinese culture and circumvent some of the casting restrictions she experienced. However, the company closed after one year because of issues with the business partnership. 

8. She was passed over for lead Asian character roles in favor of non-Asian actors.

Because of anti-miscegenation laws and film narratives that centered white heroes, Wong was often typecast to token roles like the exotic slave girl or the villainous dragon lady. For instance, she played the supporting role of a conniving slave in The Thief of Bagdad (1924) alongside star Douglas Fairbanks. Even when she signed with Paramount Pictures and played leading roles such as in Daughter of the Dragon (1931), she was cast as Ling Moy, an exotic dancer and vengeful daughter of Fu Manchu.

“I was so tired of the parts I had to play,” she said in a 1933 interview. “Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain—murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass. We are not like that.” 

In 1936, casting began on a film adaptation of Pearl Buck’s book The Good Earth, a story about a Chinese family in a rural village. Wong auditioned for the lead part of O-Lan, but she was offered the role of Lotus, the concubine, which she turned down. She expressed her frustration, “You're asking me—with Chinese blood—to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture, featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.” Luise Rainer, who was cast as O-Lan, won an Oscar for her performance. 

9. Wong moved to Europe and starred in films and plays.

After experiencing repeated frustrations in Hollywood, Wong moved to Berlin, Germany in 1928, where she found more freedom in her career in the absence of American anti-miscegenation laws. She starred in films and made her theater debut in the play The Circle of Chalk (1929) in London and the Viennese operetta Tschun Tschi (1930). Wong also created her own stage show that she toured around major cities in Europe in the 1930s, which included acts like singing Noel Coward’s song “Half-Caste Woman.”

10. Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn were first Asian Americans to act as Hollywood romantic leads.

Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn in "Daughter of Shanghai," 1937.

In 1937, Wong and Korean American actor Philip Ahn acted opposite each other in Daughter of Shanghai, becoming the first Asian American actors to play a leading romantic couple in Hollywood. Because of the prevalence of white actors being cast as Asian characters in movies, this pairing was remarkable. In the film, Wong plays a woman attempting to solve her father’s murder and Ahn plays an FBI agent on the case.

11. Wong helped with war relief in China during World War II. 

Wong visited China for the first time in 1936, where she directed and produced a documentary and travelogue film titled My China Film. In China, however, she was criticized for the film roles she played because they were considered negative and stereotypical portrayals of Chinese people, with some reviewers calling her performances “degrading.” She said in an interview, "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."

However, her trip strengthened her connection to China and her cultural heritage. During the Second Sino-Japanese War between the Republic of China and the Empire of Japan as part of World War II, Chinese civilians suffered with displacement, violence and a widespread humanitarian crisis. Wong used her star power in the United States to help raise awareness for the United China Relief by giving speeches, leading public campaigns, and participating in fundraising events.

Anna May Wong
Carl Van Vechten photograph collection (Library of Congress)
1940 portrait of Anna May Wong.

12. She was the first Asian American to lead a US television show.

After her tour in Europe and her involvement with the China Relief Fund, Wong returned to acting to star as a detective in the 1951 television show, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong on the DuMont Television Network, making her the first Asian American to lead a television series. While there were plans for future episodes, the show was canceled after the first season.

13. She was the first Asian American woman to be awarded a Hollywood Star.

Wong was the first Asian American woman to be awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. She died the following year of a heart attack. She remained the first and only Asian American woman on the Hollywood Walk of Fame until she was joined by Lucy Liu in 2019.