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Hollywood’s First Asian American Star Celebrated in L.A. Museum Show

Hollywood’s First Asian American Star Celebrated in L.A. Museum Show

Hollywood’s First Asian American Star Celebrated in L.A. Museum Show

Anna May Wong — born Wong Liu Tsong in Los Angeles on Jan. 3, 1905 — is widely recognized as Hollywood’s first Asian American movie star.

A year before she died in 1961 from a heart attack at age 56, she joked that her epitaph should be, “I died a thousand deaths.” During her career, she’d appeared in more than 60 films, TV series and theatrical shows, but many of her roles were stereotypical caricatures of Asian women as exotic temptresses, dragon ladies and China dolls who inevitably met their doom so the white leads could attain their happy ending.

Though Wong’s many deaths are well documented on film, her multifaceted life offscreen remained generally unacknowledged until now. For the next seven months, the exhibit Unmasking Anna May Wong at downtown L.A.’s Chinese American Museum (CAM) will shine a broader light on the actress, philanthropist and socialite, who was known variously as “the world’s most beautiful Chinese girl” and “the world’s best-dressed woman.” (In 1938, she auctioned some of her famed wardrobe to fund medical supplies for people in China after Japan invaded the country.)

“She was a really vibrant, alive person,” says Katie Gee Salisbury, one of the exhibit curators, who first stumbled upon a photograph of Wong back in 2004. As a woman of Chinese and Anglo-Irish descent who grew up in Southern California, Salisbury was surprised she’d never heard of the Chinatown-born Chinese American actress.

Michelle Krusiec played a fictionalized version of Anna May Wong in Netflix’s 2020 miniseries Hollywood.

SAEED ADYANI/NETFLIX

Thus began Salisbury’s 20-year journey learning everything she could about Wong’s life. After extensive research, Salisbury noticed that in previous accounts “there was an overemphasis on the more tragic elements of her career” — including Hollywood’s staunch refusal to give her meaningful leading roles (most notably 1937’s The Good Earth, in which German actress Luise Rainer appeared in yellowface) — as well as her premature death.

To Salisbury — who also recently published a new biography of the actress, Not Your China Doll: The Wild and Shimmering Life of Anna May Wong — “she certainly had difficult, dark moments, but I don’t think she was the kind of person who would have looked at her life and thought [of it as] a tragedy. I just can’t see her ever saying that.”

Jewelry owned by the actress is on display.

Lucia Ruan

Indeed, the notoriously strong-willed Wong — who cheekily signed her autographs “Orientally yours” — was a woman who found success on television and in Europe when the American film industry no longer cast her.

But, says Salisbury, “you can’t really understand Anna May Wong unless you’ve seen her onscreen.” To that end, the new museum exhibition includes clips of Wong’s performances in such films as 1924’s The Thief of Bagdad (in which she played a Mongol slave) and the 1939 crime drama King of Chinatown. It also spotlights Wong’s self-produced documentary, My China Film, in which she documented her first trip to China after being offered yet another stereotypical minor role next to Rainer in The Good Earth.

The entrance to the Anna May Wong show at L.A.’s Chinese American Museum

Lucia Ruan

“She built up a level of stardom in Hollywood, but Hollywood didn’t know what to do with her,” David Schwartz, former chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image, has said.

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In CAM’s museum show, personal items — such as displays of Wong’s stylish dresses and glimmering jewelry — are on loan from Anna Wong, daughter of Anna May Wong’s youngest brother, Richard.

Throughout her childhood, Anna Wong’s father was adamant that she keep her aunt’s history alive, and she took his wishes to heart. The exhibit wouldn’t exist at all without her. Back in 2020, when artist Rachel O’Donnell painted a 12-foot-long mural of Anna May Wong onto a wall on the second floor of the museum, Anna Wong took one look and fell in love with the work. “I said to Michael [Truong, CAM’s executive director], ‘You can never take this wall down,’ ” she recalls.

Anna Wong, who is a CAM board member, claims she was joking, but museum staff nevertheless honored her request by building the new exhibit around the mural, which remains as a central piece in the final room of the show.

The Anna May Wong U.S. quarter, which was released in 2022.

U.S. Mint/Getty Images

Although both Salisbury’s book and the exhibit took several years to come to life, their fruition was timely. Within the past few years, interest in the actress has surged. In 2023, Mattel released an Anna May Wong Barbie doll, just months after she became the first Asian American to be immortalized on the U.S. quarter. In Beverly Hills, Crustacean restaurant opened its Anna May bar a couple of years back.

And onscreen, both Ryan Murphy and Damien Chazelle included characters inspired by Wong in Hollywood and Babylon, respectively. But Anna Wong wants people to know that those versions of her aunt are fictional. Above all, she says, “I want them to know her as a person.”

This story first appeared in the June 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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