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Breaking the Stereotypes of Dragon Lady and Demure Butterfly

Long before Bruce Lee, Lucy Liu, and other Americans with Asian ancestry penetrated Hollywood, there was Anna May Wong (January 3, 1905 – February 3, 1961) of the silent film era - the first Asian American movie star!

Photo by lakandula

Born as a third-generation Chinese-American, her hometown, Los Angeles, could not be more perfect to allure her to step into Hollywood and dream big at an early age. The Toll of the Sea and Thief of Baghdad were among the significant silent films she acted in that paved the way for her celebrity status.

Principally remembered for her portrayals of the stereotypical dragon lady or the demure butterfly, her long and varied career spanned both silent and sound film, black and white to color film, television, stage, radio and fashion in America and Europe.

Her frustration over being typecast into stereotypical supporting roles forced her to explore a career overseas. In Europe she acted in plays and films like Picadilly.

When the sound era arrived, she was part of early films with talkies like Daughter of Dragon, Daughter of Shanghai, and Shanghai Express (the latter with Marlene Dietrich).

When she lost the role in The Good Earth over a German actress Luise Rainer, she decided to go on a tour of China to trace her roots and learn about Chinese theater. She was strongly criticized for not being able to communicate in many places she visited because of her Taishan dialect and her foreign upbringing. This depressing episode in her life made her declare upon returning to Hollywood: “I am convinced that I could never play in the Chinese theatre. I have no feeling for it. It’s a pretty sad situation to be rejected by the Chinese because I’m American, and by American producers because they prefer other races to act Chinese parts.”

In late 1930s she made a string of low-budgeted B movies that gave her non-streotypical roles like a successful and professional Chinese-American woman. She took advantage of this positive re-imaging of being Asian in America which was highly publicized by the Chinese-American press.

During World War II she supported the Chinese cause against the Japanese invasion. She donated her salary from anti-Japanese propaganda films Lady From Chunking and Bombs Over Burma, which she made in 1942 and 1943.

Later in her life she invested her money into real estate and owned a number of properties in Hollywood. In 1951 she starred in the title role of TV detective series The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. The series failed to have another season. Soon after, her health deteriorated. On the inauguration of the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, she received a star at 1708 Vine Street for her contribution to the film industry.

She died of heart attack while in her sleep in her Sta. Monica home in 1961 at age 56.

As a tribute, I created these triples on old images of Ms. Wong juxtaposed with Chinese calligraphy and a subtle final layer of street vignettes. Used my reliable SLR with a modified Supersampler.

written by lakandula

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