Netflix's 'Hollywood': Who Was The Real-Life Anna May Wong?

In Netflix's Hollywood, we meet the first Chinese American Hollywood star.

Netflix's 'Hollywood': Who Was The Real-Life Anna May Wong? Getty

Netflix's new series Hollywood follows the stories of confronting race and power during Hollywood's Golden Age. Among the fictional characters, we also see glimpses of real-life people and their untold stories — or the stories they might have wished they got to have.

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Actress Anna May Wong is one of those people. The first Chinese-American Hollywood star, she was considered one of the most beautiful and talented women in film at the time. However, due to the racism of the time, her career was limited to roles as "Dragon lady" characters and supporting parts in films where white actresses were cast as leads and wore "yellowface" to play Asian characters. 

The biggest injustice of her career was being passed over for the lead in The Good Earth, a part that earned the white actress who got the role an Oscar. In the new Ryan Murphy series — you know him already as the man behind Glee and American Horror Story — called Hollywood, Wong stages a comeback and eventually wins an Oscar in the years after The Good Earth. Unfortunately, what happened in real life wasn't as happy of an ending.


Who was the real-life Anna May Wong in Netflix's Hollywood?

Her father never wanted her to be an actress.

Wong was born in LA in 1905 and was raised by her parents, who owned a laundry. Her birth name was Wong Liu Tsong but she used her American named Anna May Wong professionally. 

Though Wong was fascinated by film from an early age, her father was less enthusiastic. She would skip school to watch movies being shot in her neighborhood and use the tip money she got from delivering laundry to buy tickets to see films.

When her father found out that she had been missing school he would whip her with a bamboo cane. She wasn't dissuaded, however, and started lurking around film sets and asking directors for any opportunity to appear on camera. One she started getting cast in real parts, her father acquiesced to her dreams but was still protective of his teen daughter. He demanded that she have an adult guardian at the studio. He took it one step further and insisted that she be locked in her dressing room between scenes if she was the only Asian in the cast.


She broke barriers in early Hollywood.

Wong was 17 when she landed the lead role in The Toll of the Sea. In addition to being the first full-length film shot in color, it was also the first time an Asian actor was the top-billed performer in a feature film. Typically at that time, Asian women were played by Caucasian actresses in "yellowface." But even the starring role in this film was a stereotype of an Asian woman. Wong's character was submissive and sacrificed everything for the love of a white man. 

Roles were limited after that.

Though no one disputed Wong's talent or her beauty, her career was limited because of her race. Anti-Chinese sentiment ran high in America and immigration from her homeland was banned at the time. There were laws preventing Caucasians from marrying Asians and Asian-American communities were often insular to avoid persecution and racism in mainstream society.


Wong was largely cast in supporting roles in films where white actresses took the leads. Many of her parts were women who did evil things and were killed or raped as a kind of cinematic atonement. She eventually left Hollywood to try working in Europe. She explained the move by saying "I was so tired of the parts I had to play. Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain — murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass."

She was rejected for The Good Earth.

The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that told the story of a poor farming family in China. MGM secured the rights for the film version and set about casting for the film. Paul Muni, a white actor, was cast as the male lead. Wong was allowed to audition for the female lead, O-Lan, but was rejected because director Sidney Franklin felt she looked wrong for the part. Eventually, Luise Ranier, who was Caucasian, got the role. Wong also auditioned for the role of Lotus, a concubine but that, too, went to a white woman. Ultimately. Ranier won an Oscar for her part in the film. 

In addition to the director feeling that Wong didn't look the part, there was also the issue of miscegenation laws. Because Caucasians and Asians were legally prohibited from marrying, the studio had some concerns about casting an Asian actress opposite a white actor. At that time, the Motion Picture Production Code of 1934 prohibited filmmakers from portraying miscegenation in a positive light, and MGM might have worried that casting a Chinese-American opposite a Caucasian be taken as promoting miscegenation. They also feared that theatres in the most racist regions of the country might refuse to run the movie. 


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She had more success in Europe.

Eventually, Wong left Hollywood to go abroad and found the European film industry more accepting. She remained overseas for many years, and was beloved by audiences in France, England, and Austria. She starred with actors like Laurence Olivier and Marlene Deitrich. She did return to Hollywood in later years to fulfill the terms of her studio contracts but her acting career all but ended after World War II. She made occasional appearances on TV between 1950 and 1960 but her last film was Impact in 1949. She made over 50 films in the US and overseas during the course of her career. 



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Wong in the 1930s. 


Wong never married.

The anti-miscegenation laws affected Wong's personal life as well. She tended to get romantically involved with white men, who couldn't marry her because of the laws forbidding mixed-race marriages. But her thriving career and independent spirit didn't mesh well with the values of most of the Chinese and Chinese-American men she knew. She never got married and never had any children, either. 

She passed away in 1961. 


While the fictional Wong is indicated with a career that earns her an Oscar and lets her show the world her true talent and value, the real-life Wong never achieved that level of acclaim. She passed away in 1961 at the age of 56 due to heart failure. Long after her death, she was one of the first movie stars to be featured on a US postage stamp.

Hollywood is streaming on Netflix now. 

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Rebekah Kuschmider has been writing about celebrities, pop culture, entertainment, and politics since 2010. She is the creator of the blog FeminXer and she is a cohost of the weekly podcast The More Perfect Union.