Queer Icon: Anna May Wong (1905-1961)

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By Kyle Parker

Anna May Wong
(1905-1961)

Born in Los Angeles to Chinese American parents, Anna May Wong was always fascinated by stardom. In a time when minorities were often stereotyped, Wong still longed to be on the silver screen. The lights and flash of Hollywood wasn't far away and she was determined to be apart of that world.

Many, and most, of Wong's castings were, sadly, Asian stereotypes. Frustrated by Hollywood’s obsession with dehumanizing Asians, Wong traveled to Europe. It was there she found a bit more freedom to explore herself as a performer, outside the constraints of the Hollywood elite. While in Europe, it is rumored that Wong had a relationship with silver screen goddess Marlene Dietrich. The lesbian relationship tarnished Wong's reputation, and the two distanced themselves from one another, though they both appeared in Josef von Sternberg's 1932 pre-Code film Shanghai Express, in which they both play prostitutes (Dietrich as the infamous Shanghai Lily and Wong as her companion, Hui Fei) aboard a train which becomes hijacked by Chinese rebels. You can practically feel the sexual tension between the two actresses.

In her later life, Wong stepped away from performing and focused on charity work, raising money for China relief. She would go between charity and acting the rest of her life until her death from a heart attack in 1961.

While much of what we know about Anna May Wong is from the use of her talent to stereotype Asian culture, Wong’s persistence to be taken seriously as an actress, her refusal to succumb to stereotypical roles helped to humanize Asians and Asian Americans. Wong’s flair helped her birth a reputation for herself that still lives on today.