Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese-American star, never got her due. After attracting notice as a slave in the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler film The Thief of Bagdad, she became a fashion plate and the go-to actress for every Evil Oriental Temptress role the studios had to offer. California’s anti-miscegenation laws prevented her from kissing any co-star of another race, and thus Wong was stymied in her acting career until she left for Europe, where she had made a handful of films in the late twenties and early thirties.
The biggest disappointment of Wong’s career occurred in 1935, when she was passed over for the female lead in Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. German actress Luise Rainier was cast instead to play the Chinese farmer O-Lan, and later rewarded for playing yellowface with a Best Actress Oscar. (Good job, Hollywood.)
Born and raised in Los Angeles but never fully accepted by its most powerful industry, Wong has a life story ripe for a biopic. And so Chinese production company Fundamental Films is developing one, with Chinese star Fan Bingbing in talks to play the lead. Given that Wong’s career exemplifies the difficulties of Asian-American actors in finding opportunities in Hollywood — a problem that evidently continues in today’s studio system — it’s a little disappointing that her story will be told in China instead of her own country and that this rich role won’t go to one of Wong’s Asian-American successors. But nobody ever said we fixed racism.