Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Asian-American film star and a popular actress of the silent film era, was one of Carl Van Vechten’s first subjects when he took up photography in earnest in 1932. Van Vechten, in fact, claimed that Wong was his very first subject.
Hailed as “one of the most unforgettable figures of Hollywood’s great days,”1 Anna May Wong, a native of Los Angeles, spent years skipping school to work as an extra in the movies before she was offered her first major role. In 1923 at the age of seventeen, she played Lotus Blossom, the romantic lead in Toll of the Sea. This film, the first Technicolor feature made in Hollywood, won Wong the attention of both critics and audiences. The part of Lotus Blossom was one of the few leading romantic roles she would play in Hollywood, where, to her great frustration, Wong was regularly offered only parts as stereotypical and unrealistic Asian characters.
The following year, Wong played an exotically beautiful slave girl in The Thief of Baghdad with Douglas Fairbanks. After the success of this film, Wong began to appear regularly in popular films. In spite of her increasing fame and her versatility as an actress, Wong’s career was severely limited by the noxious roles she was offered—slave girls, evil dragon ladies, mysterious and exotic mistresses—all of which misrepresented Asian women. She was frustrated further by the tendency in Hollywood to cast white actresses in Asian roles. Later in her career, Wong was sometimes hired by studios not to play Asian roles, but to coach white actresses in an effort to help them play more believable Asian women.
Disgusted with Hollywood, Wong traveled to Europe and made films in France, Germany, and England. She mastered the French and German languages so well that many thought her speech had been dubbed. European critics praised her for her “transcendent talent.”2 Throughout her career Wong pointed to the films she made in Europe, where she had the opportunity to play a wider range of characters, as evidence of her ability to play diverse roles.
When Wong returned to the United States she appeared in a number of successful films and theatrical productions, including her most celebrated film appearance, in Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich. Wong’s performance was so highly praised that Dietrich was said to have complained she had been upstaged by her costar.
Wong planned to travel to China, but decided to put off the trip, hoping to play O-lan in a film adaptation of Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth. The studio wanted Wong to play Lotus, the wicked concubine, while the lead role was to be played by German actress Luise Rainer. Wong was deeply disappointed by the studio’s decision and refused the clichéd part. “Have made two tests for the Lotus part,” Wong wrote to Fania Marinoff, “from all appearances Miss Rainer is definitely set for the part of O-lan....I am still in the same frame of mind in regards to the thing and feel a strong inclination to carry out my original plans of going to China.” 3
Leaving Hollywood in frustration a second time, Wong traveled to China. There she met with harsh criticism from Chinese who felt her films degraded Chinese women. Though she studied Mandarin Chinese, Wong soon realize that she was too American to perform in the traditional Chinese theater. The irony of this, when in Hollywood’s racist view she would never be American enough for many parts, was not lost on Wong. She returned to the United States, but stopped making films for many years. She was thirty-five.
Though Van Vechten’s first photographs of Wong are among the most reproduced images of her, she was unsatisfied with them “To tell you the truth,” she wrote to the photographer, “I had much rather pose another time when I am not feeling so happy or when I look more fit. I am afraid I wasn’t particularly interesting as a subject for your new art.”4