circa 1935: American film star, Anna May Wong (1905 - 1961) poses with a cut rose. (Photo by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

Happy Women’s History Month! This is the 5th blog of a series of blogs called “Women’s History Month Heroes You Should Know”. This series will be a collection of my research into little-known American women who have made history in one way or another (or multiple ways!).

The focus of today’s blog is Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Asian American movie star.

This is her story.

Dreaming of Hollywood

According to oprahmag.com, Anna May Wong was born in 1905 in Los Angeles, California. From an early age, Wong had dreams of starring in Hollywood movies. Growing up, she oftentimes skipped school to visit the local theaters and tried to step foot onto some real Hollywood sets. In 1919, Wong was cast as an extra in The Red Lantern, making this the first Hollywood movie she would star in at age 14.

Racism in Hollywood

At 17, Wong dropped out of school to pursue her movie career and scored her big break with a lead role in the 1922 film The Toll of the Sea. Following this came several roles in bigger films including Daughter of the DragonPiccadilly, and The Shanghai Express. Despite this success, Wong experienced racism through severe underpayment. For example, she earned $6,000 for a lead role in The Shanghai Express compared to the $78,000 that the white actress Marlene Dietrich made. In addition, the roles Wong played were deeply rooted in stereotypes of Asian American women.

A Move to Europe

After starring in The Shanghai Express, Wong found that Chinese audiences denounced her as an actress because of the stereotypes she portrayed in her roles. Despite this rejection, Wong still toured around China and helped to raise money for refugees of World War II while there. After a few years, she grew tired of portraying Hollywood’s stereotypes and in 1928, moved to Berlin. While there, she grew international acclaim starring in European movies filmed in England, Germany, and France.

First Asian American to Lead a TV Show

Although she auditioned to star in The Good Earth in 1937, the lead role went to a German-American actress who dressed in yellowface. After that, Wong pursued television. In 1951, she landed a role in the only season of The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, where she starred as a crime-solving art gallerist. This made her the first Asian American person to lead their own tv show. She received a star on the Hollywood walk of fame before passing from a heart attack in 1961. Read more about Anna May Wong here.

Read another post from the blog series “Women’s History Month Heroes You Should Know” here.