Anna May Wong was born Wong Liu Tsong on January 3, 1905 in Los Angeles, California. She was the second of her parents’ seven children. Anna’s family lived in the back of her parents’ laundry business just outside of Chinatown. Anna and her siblings worked for hours each day in the family laundry.
Anna’s mother was born in San Francisco and her father was born in a California gold mining town. But like most Asian Americans in this era, the Wong family was treated like outsiders. Anna’s parents owned a laundry because it was one of the few work options available to Chinese Americans. Anna and her older sister attended a predominantly white California Street public school. The students bullied them for being Chinese American. Students would push Anna, pull her hair, slap her face, and call her offensive names like “Chink” and “Chinaman.” Anna described it as torture.
Anna’s parents transferred the girls to the nearby Chinese Mission School in Chinatown. Anna’s classmates were all Chinese American, and she was not bullied. Anna studied English and Cantonese. She excelled at learning English, but her Cantonese was not as strong. Anna’s parents were disappointed their daughter spoke Cantonese with an American accent.
At a young age, Anna was fascinated with the movies. She used the tips she earned delivering laundry to buy movie tickets. She also frequently skipped school to watch movies being filmed on the streets of Chinatown. When Anna was 14, she got her first part in a movie. She was an extra in The Red Lantern. Although she had no lines and no official credit recognition, she decided it was the beginning of a big career.
Anna continued to take whatever roles she could find. By 1921, she dropped out of school to pursue acting full-time. It was around this time that she changed her name to Anna May Wong.
Anna’s big break came when she was 17. She played a lead character in the silent film The Toll of the Sea. From there, the jobs increased. Anna took on bigger and bigger roles and had a following of fans. But her parts were still limited. Anna faced three major hurdles. First, most audiences wanted to see Asian women portraying stereotypes, as either Butterflies—passive young women—or Dragon Ladies—murderous villainesses. Second, many states across the country had anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited interracial couples from appearing on screen. Anna could not play a character in love with a non-Asian actor. Third, it was common for white actresses to play Asian characters in yellowface. Anna often competed against non-Asian women for Asian parts.
Although Anna’s roles were limited, she became wildly popular with viewers of diverse backgrounds. Asian Americans were thrilled to see an Asian person on screen. White audiences saw her as an exotic “Oriental.” Even though she often played stereotypes, she also showed viewers that Asian women could be successful professionals.