The Golden Age of Hollywood, also known as Classical Hollywood or Old Hollywood, spanned the decades between 1910 and 1960 and typically featured white movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and Elizabeth Taylor—but Asian American actors also acted in prominent roles during the time.
The Golden Age of Hollywood’s depiction of Asia and Asian people was intertwined with the threat of “yellow peril,” a cultural phenomenon marked by the fear that East Asian people posed a social, economic and political threat to the United States. The phenomenon, steeped in racism, was triggered by multiple factors, including the fear of possible military invasion from Asia, perceived competition by Asian workers to the white labor force and potential ethnic contamination as a result of genetic mixing between Asians and white people.
On the silver screens of Old Hollywood, the anxieties of yellow peril often manifested as typecast, exotic depictions of Asia and Asian people that empowered Western heroes and justified the domination of Asians, according to Gina Marchetti’s 1994 book Romance and the “Yellow Peril”: Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction.
Despite these limitations, Asian American actors during Hollywood’s Golden Age overcame racism, broke barriers and paved the way for Asian American actors of contemporary Hollywood and independent cinema.
1. Anna May Wong
With a career spanning from 1919 to 1961, Anna May Wong is known as the first Chinese American film star. Wong, whose birth name was Wong Liu-tsong, acted in more than 60 movies throughout her career, as well as on television, theater and radio. In 1922 she made her feature debut at age 17 in The Toll of the Sea. Wong became famous for her roles in The Thief of Baghdad (1924), Shanghai Express (1932) and The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (1951). Throughout her career, she was often typecast into stereotypical roles like the exotic slave girl or a villainous dragon lady.
“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 1949, after Wong had taken a break from screen acting, an article in the South China Morning Post noted, “Miss Anna May Wong, making her first motion picture in six years (‘Impact’), says she got tired of being a villainess and otherwise presenting the Chinese in an uncomplimentary light. Her current portrayal is sympathetic and she says she will make more movies if she is offered agreeable parts to play."
Wong acted in only one more film, Portrait in Black (1960), before her death in 1961.
2. James Shigeta
Born in Hawaii, James Shigeta was a third generation Japanese American who served in the Korean War. Upon his return to the United States, he began his American career as a nightclub entertainer under the pseudonym “Guy Brion.”
Shigeta was known for his role as Wang Ta in Flower Drum Song (1961), a film adaption of the musical that was the first Hollywood film to have a majority Asian American cast and was nominated for five academy awards. Shigeta also stood out for his roles in The Crimson Kimono (1959), Walk Like a Dragon (1960), and Bridge to the Sun (1961).
In the 2006 documentary The Slanted Screen: Asian Men in Film and Television, Shigeta recalled when an MGM director told him early in his career, “If you were white, you'd be a hell of a big star." Shigeta remarked this conversation was “the first time that [he] had some kind of a clue as to the fact that there might be some discrimination out there.”
3. Nancy Kwan
Nancy Kwan is a Chinese American actress who began her career playing the main character in the British-American romantic drama film The World of Suzie Wong (1960). The following year, she played the role of Linda Low in Flower Drum Song, a film adapted from the 1958 Broadway musical.
A 1960 Los Angeles Times article accompanied by a photoshoot of Kwan acknowledged the star was often typecast. “There’s a handy little gimmick in the movie business called ‘typecasting,’ which results in stars doing the same role over and over because they look the part,” the article reads. “Because of her stunning Eurasian looks, Nancy Kwan, star of ‘The World of Suzie Wong,’ had alarming visions of herself playing an endless succession of geisha girls, Madame Butterflies, and James Michener heroines. So she marched down to a photographer’s and zipped in and out of costumes, wigs and makeup.”
Reflecting on her career in a May 2021 interview for Rappler, a Filipino news website, Kwan said, “When we started in the film business in the early '60s, there were just a handful of Asian actors in the film business. We all knew each other. We all supported each other and yes, I wish we had more support.”
4. Miyoshi Umeki
Japanese American singer and actress Miyoshi Umeki was the first East Asian American actor to win an Academy Award, which she won for Best Supporting Actress in Sayonara (1957), a movie starring Marlon Brando about an American Air Force pilot during the Korean War who falls in love with a Japanese dancer played by Miiko Taka. Umeki was also known for her roles as an immigrant picture bride in Flower Drum Song and as a Japanese housekeeper in the American sitcom The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963).
In a 2018 interview in Entertainment, Umeki’s son Michael Hood asked her why she agreed to speak with a heavy accent in her role in Flower Drum Song. “I didn’t like doing it,” she replied, “but when someone pays you to do a job, you do the job, and you do your best.”
Umeki faced scrutiny for her Japanese heritage in the wake of World War II. She was only 13 years old when the war broke out and was still living in Japan. In a 1959 episode of the Mike Wallace Interview, referring to her life in Japan during the war, the journalist asked her, “Did you hate America?,” to which she replied, “No, I didn’t. I just hated war because I was fighting with hunger. I was just wishing that the war would end, today or tomorrow.”
5. Keye Luke
Keye Luke was a Chinese American actor who started his Hollywood career in an uncredited supporting role in The Painted Veil (1934) which starred Greta Garbo. Born in China, Luke immigrated to the United States when he was three years old. He was cast in The Painted Veil when a MGM producer was looking for a Chinese actor who had “good English diction," according to Turner Classic Movies.
Luke had initially worked in Hollywood as a commercial artist doing promotional artwork for Fox and RKO theaters. According to his 1991 obituary in the New York Times, after being denied roles because of his race, Luke reflected in the early 1990s, “A Chinese role should be played by a Chinese actor if he can play it. But if an actor can make you feel the reality, that person should get the part.”
Luke was best known for his role as Lee Chan, the “Number One Son,” in the Charlie Chan films. His first big role was in Charlie Chan in Paris (1935). The Charlie Chan films featured the detective work of a fictional Honolulu police chief who was portrayed as a pastiche of Sherlock Holmes and an archetypal Asian sage.
According to the 2017 textbook Race in American Film: Voices and Visions That Shaped a Nation, these films depicted the Asian Charlie Chan as affable and intelligent—but the detective was usually played by a white actor in yellowface. Charlie Chan’s sons, usually played by Asian American actors, assisted his investigations and were labeled “Number One Son,” “Number Two Son,” and “Number Three Son.” Luke’s 1991 obituary in The Guardian was headlined, “Hollywood’s Number One Asian.”
6.-7. Benson Fong and Maylia Fong
Born in Sacramento, California, Benson Fong began his career in an uncredited role in Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936). Fong later was cast in the role of Tommy Chan, the “Number Three Son,” in several of the Charlie Chan films. He also played the role of Master Wang in Flower Drum Song, along with other roles in various films such as Japanese officer, Chinese clerk, houseboy, South Korean scout, chef, and guerilla.
Benson Fong was married to Gloria Suie Chin, an actress who was also known as “Maylia.” According to her 2016 obituary in the Hollywood Reporter, the actress signed a contract with Columbia Pictures and given the stage name Maylia, which means “beautiful” in Cantonese. Maylia’s first role was that of a servant in Singapore (1947) and she later went on to play an orphaned Chinese teenager in To the Ends of the Earth (1948).
8.-9. Sesue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki
Sessue Hayakawa was a Japanese actor who often played the romantic lead—a rarity for Asian men in American cinema. Hayakawa began in silent films like The Typhoon (1914) and Cecil B. deMille’s The Cheat (1915). Later, Hayawaka was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the Japanese commander Colonel Saito in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), a war epic about World War II.
According to the book Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom, Hayakawa’s production company tried to favorably mold the actor’s image to the American public by showing him as safely assimilated into U.S. culture, while also emphasizing his Japanese traits.
Hayakawa was married to the actress Tsuru Aoki, who was also an actor in the silent film era. According to a 2005 article in Camera Obscura by Sara Ross, the construction of Aoki as an adoring wife to Hayakawa was critical to his success as a romantic lead in early Hollywood cinema.
While Aoki’s career was largely overshadowed by her husband’s, she was a prolific actress who was contracted with Universal Pictures and acted opposite her husband in many films, including The Dragon Painter (1919), a silent film about a delusional painter, played by Hayakawa, who believes his fiancée is a princess who was captured and transformed into a dragon. The couple acted together for the last time in Aoki’s final film and first talkie, Hell to Eternity (1960), before her death in 1961.
10. Li Lihua
Li Lihua was a Chinese film star who came to Hollywood in the 1950s to act in the war film China Doll (1958), in which she plays a Chinese woman prostituted out by her impoverished father who lost his farmland to Japanese invaders. While Lihua had already starred in more than 40 Chinese-language films, she was referred to as “a newcomer of delicate loveliness” in a 1958 review of China Doll in Film Daily.
Beyond an icon of Asian beauty, however, Lihua was a cultural mediator who set herself apart from other sex symbols of Hollywood’s Golden Age. In a 1956 interview in World Today, Lihua remarked, “I refuse to be photographed in a scantily clad pose... I refuse to do so not only because of my principles, but also because I have never shown any flesh in any of the films I starred in in China or Hong Kong.”