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Anna May Wong: Who was the first Chinese-American Hollywood star?

Clémence Michallon
Anna May Wong circa 1935: General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American actor to become a movie star in Hollywood, is being remembered on the 98th anniversary of her first leading role.

Wong, the subject of a new Google Doodle celebrating her accomplishments, played the lead in The Toll of the Sea, a 1922 silent drama based on Madame Butterfly and set in China.

This marked the beginning of the career that would see Wong move to Europe, tired of being typecast and facing racial discrimination, before returning to the US for more high-profile parts.

Born Wong Liu Tsong in Los Angeles on 3 January 1905, Wong, the daughter of two laundry mat owners, developed an interest in film and acting as a child. By the time she turned 11, she had picked Anna May Wong as her stage name, according to the National Women’s History Museum.

After being cast as an extra in 1919, Wong, having dropped out of high school, got the leading role in The Toll of the Sea, but racial discrimination – including legislation barring interracial romance from being depicted on-screen – kept her from landing more romantic roles.

In the late Twenties, Wong moved to Europe to pursue her acting career. She went on to appear in the British-German silent drama Schmutziges Geld in 1928 and in the British silent film Picadilly in 1929, among other credits. The 1930 British drama The Flame of Love marked her first speaking part.

By the Thirties, Wong had been promised more leading roles in the US, where she returned. In 1932, she starred alongside Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express. Her other credits from that decade include Dangerous to Know, A Study in Scarlet, Daughter of the Dragon and King of Chinatown.

In 1951, Wong became the first Asian American television lead in the US with the TV show The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong.

She died on 3 February 1961 of a heart attack at the age of 56 years old. Wong remains remembered both as a Hollywood pioneer and as a fashion icon, having been voted the world’s best-dressed woman in 1934 by the Mayfair Mannequin Society of New York.

Wong received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.