A girl dreamed of movie stardom. Literally dreamed, as she told it years later. “There is a man with short sleeves and a big horn in front of his mouth, shouting, ‘Anna May Wong, now you come downstairs and look like the prince was already approaching — we do a closeup of that!’ … and I have an overjoyed face because I feel the great happiness — and the important man says, ‘You did a great job, Anna May Wong — You are a film star!'”
Born in Los Angeles in 1905, five years before the picture people came west from New York and Chicago, Anna May grew up watching movies made on the streets near her home. Her laundryman father tried to beat (literally beat) a dutiful girl’s sense into her, and told her she was disgracing the family, as we learn from Graham Russell Gao Hodges’ thorough biography Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend. But Anna May couldn’t get the dream out of her head. Because she was tall and graceful, and because her big eyes gave her a maturity beyond her years, she found work as an extra by the time she was 14, and played important roles opposite Lon Chaney and Douglas Fairbanks while still in her teens, and was a sensation in German and English films before she was 25.
Her resume would be impressive enough for a Caucasian actress.
It happened that Anna May Wong was Chinese, at a time when East Asians were no more likely to become Hollywood stars than someone from India or Africa.
She knew, from seeing The Perils of Pauline serials with the villainous Wu Fang, or D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, about a sensitive, opium-sotted “Chink,” that Chinese were portrayed in films as notorious criminals or emotional cripples, and that, anyway, they were almost always played by white actors. Hollywood may as well have had a sign on the studio gate reading No Chinese Need Apply. But Wong did; she was merely following her dream to be a star.
She was too young and ambitious to know it couldn’t be done. So she did it.
—excerpted from That Old Feeling: Anna May Win by the late Richard Corliss (TIME), a superb profile of actress Anna Wong Wong.