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Google Honors Chinese-American Movie Star Anna May Wong: All About Her Trailblazing Career

Alexia Fernandez

Google is placing a spotlight on an actress considered to be the first Chinese-American movie star.

Anna May Wong was honored on Wednesday with a Google slideshow Doodle on its homepage exactly 97 years after Wong’s first leading role in a major film, The Toll of the Sea, debuted in theaters.

Wong, who died in 1961 at the age of 56 in Santa Monica, California, was born as Wong Liu Tsong in Los Angeles in 1905 to second-generation Chinese Americans as the second of seven children.

By the age of 11, she had created her stage name, Anna May Wong, and set out to become an actress. In 1921, Wong dropped out of Los Angeles High School to pursue acting full-time. She earned her first screen credit that year in Bits of Life.

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By 1922, at the age of 17, Wong landed her first leading role in the film The Toll of the Sea, which was loosely based on the opera Madama Butterfly.

She earned greater fame in the 1924 film, The Thief of Bagdad. She drove the first rivet into the steel girders of the TLC Chinese Theatre in 1926 just 18 months before its grand opening, according to the theatre’s website.

The artist who depicted her for the Google Doodle, Sophia Diao, told CNN she was inspired by Wong.

“Asian-American actors are underrepresented even now, so amazingly Anna May Wong was so active right at the beginning of film history, bridging the gap between silent films and talkies,” Diao said.

Wong was continually offered small roles in films and was turned away from starring as a leading lady, causing her to move to Europe in 1928 in search of better roles.

Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express  | Everett

There, she became friends with director Leni Riefenstahl and actresses Marlene Dietrich and Cecil Cunningham. She went on to star in the play A Circle of Chalk with a young Laurence Olivier, and her last silent film Piccadilly in 1929 (her first film with sound, The Flame of Love, was released in 1930 and in it, she spoke French, English and German).

By the 1930s, Wong had returned to the United States and worked alongside Dietrich as a self-sacrificing courtesan in Shanghai Express.

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Anna May Wong (center) in The Toll of the Sea, her first leading role | Everett

She was dealt a disappointing blow in 1933 when MGM refused to consider her for the leading role as the Chinese character O-Lan, choosing instead the Caucasian actress Luise Rainer to play the part.

Wong traveled to China for a year after that, learning about her Chinese ancestry.

She returned to the public eye in 1951, making history with her TV show The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, which was the first TV show to star an Asian-American as a series lead.

Wong died in February 1961 of a heart attack while she slept in her home in Santa Monica.