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.