Anna May Wong (January 3, 1905 – February 3, 1961) was the first Chinese American movie star, and the first Asian American actress to gain international recognition. Her long and varied career spanned both silent and sound film, television, stage and radio.
Born near the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles to second-generation Chinese-American parents, Wong became infatuated with the movies and began acting in films at an early age. During the silent film era, she acted in The Toll of the Sea (1922), one of the first movies made in color and Douglas Fairbanks' The Thief of Bagdad (1924). Wong became a fashion icon and by 1924 had achieved international stardom. Frustrated by the stereotypical supporting roles she reluctantly played in Hollywood, Wong left for Europe in the late 1920s, where she starred in several notable plays and films, among them Piccadilly (1929). She spent the first half of the 1930s traveling between the United States and Europe for film and stage work. Wong was featured in films of the early sound era, such as Daughter of the Dragon (1931) and Daughter of Shanghai (1937) and with Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express (1932).
In 1935 Wong was dealt the most severe disappointment of her career, when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer refused to consider her for the leading role of the Chinese character O-Lan in the film version of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth, choosing instead the German actress Luise Rainer to play the leading role. Wong spent the next year touring China, visiting her family's ancestral village and studying Chinese culture. In the late 1930s, she starred in several B movies for Paramount Pictures, portraying Chinese Americans in a positive light. She paid less attention to her film career during World War II, when she devoted her time and money to helping the Chinese cause against Japan. Wong returned to the public eye in the 1950s in several television appearances as well as her own series in 1951, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, the first U.S. television show starring an Asian-American series lead. She had been planning to return to film in Flower Drum Song when she died in 1961, at the age of 56.
For decades after her death, Wong was remembered principally for the stereotypical "Dragon Lady" and demure "Butterfly" roles that she was often given. Her life and career were re-evaluated in the years around the centennial of her birth, in three major literary works and film retrospectives. Interest in her life story continues and another biography, Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story, was published in 2009.
Anna May Wong was scheduled to play the role of Madame Liang in the film production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song, but was unable to take the role due to failing health. On February 3, 1961, at the age of 56, Wong died of a heart attack as she slept at home in Santa Monica, two days after her final screen performance on the television show The Barbara Stanwyck Show. Her cremated remains were interred in her mother's grave at Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles. The headstone is marked with her mother's Anglicized name on top, and the Chinese names of Anna May (on the right) and her sister Mary (on the left) along the sides.