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  • The Many Lives of Anna May Wong
  • Kristine Somerville

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Anna May Wong, 1926. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

[End Page 51]

“Life is too serious to take seriously.”

—Anna May Wong

While walking to school on the outskirts of LA’s Chinatown, Anna May Wong parted ways with her older sister, Lulu, and used her lunch money to go to the Nickelodeon Theater House to see the latest chapter in the serial film The Perils of Pauline. She memorized Pearl White’s melodramatic emotions—joy, surprise, bashfulness, frustration, and anger. When she returned home, she slipped into the house, avoiding her parents and siblings, and shut herself in her bedroom above the family laundry. In front of the mirror, Anna May recreated White’s scenes while daydreaming of stardom. In her recurring fantasy, she appeared at the top of a winding staircase dressed in a trailing white gown and blazing with diamonds. At the bottom step her director proclaimed, “You are a film star, Anna May Wong.” While she was bathing in the adulation of her imagined fans, her mother walked in on her and scolded, “You are needed in the laundry.” Anna May resumed her more pressing role as a dutiful daughter.

In the early 1900s, after the gold mines dried up and the transcontinental railroad was completed, the United States no longer needed cheap Chinese labor; the men who did not return home were forced to flee to large cities, forming Chinatowns where they lived with their families in cramped and decaying housing. In 1905, a few blocks from LA’s Chinatown, Wong Sam Sing and Lee Gon Toy had their second child, a daughter named Wong Liu Tsong, whom they called Anna. To support the five children who followed, Wong Sam Sing opened a laundry, a stigmatized, physically exhausting business. His children grew up working alongside him, Anna attending the counter, doing bookkeeping, and delivering clothes. She often overheard her father say of his life, “I have time to die, but I haven’t time to lie down.” She took this lesson to heart. She was eager to work hard, but a life of toil in the laundry was not for her. Her developing beauty gave her a way out. By the age of ten, tall, slender, and graceful, she was modeling coats for a furrier, and by twelve, she had a steady job as a counter girl and model at a department store. With the money she earned, she continued to skip school and spend her afternoons at the movies.

Anna May loved walking the narrow streets of LA’s Chinatown, with its gambling houses, herb shops, hand-woven rug stalls, brightly painted [End Page 52]

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Daughter of the Dragon, 1931. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum

chop-suey restaurants, and overcrowded tenements. In the years before World War I, during the rise of Hollywood, Chinatown was one of the fledgling industry’s favorite ready-made backdrops. Anna May hung around the movie sets, catching glimpses of the actresses in their grease paint and pestering the directors, cinematographers, and property men about how to get into the business. Soon she was known as “the curious Chinese child.” In 1918, Russian-born silent actress Alla Nazimova was starring in The Red Lantern, a film about the Boxer Rebellion to be filmed near Anna May’s home. Her father refused to let her audition, believing, as they did in China, that theatrical performers came from a class of prostitutes, dancers, and thieves. Without his knowledge, she [End Page 53] met with an MGM assistant director who thought her appearance—wide eyes, expressive features, and a lithe physique—was perfectly suited for film. He told her, “You must work hard,” and then cast her as a lantern carrier. She was elated until she saw the movie with herself as an anonymous Chinese American girl in a crowd of hundreds of lantern carriers.

For the next three years, Anna May worked steadily as an extra, playing the “one-hundredth or two-hundredth servant” while continuing to model, sometimes attending school, and helping around the laundry...


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