Two months ago, I found myself standing in line next to Lucy Liu at the end of a new Broadway musical. Even though nothing notable was said during our brief conversation, it was a surreal moment for me. Growing up in the '90s and early 2000s, Lucy Liu was one of the only Asian-American actresses I saw in movies or on TV.
A month later, Liu would have her own surreal moment when she became the second Asian-American woman to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — right next to 1920s movie star Anna May Wong. “A hundred years ago, she was a pioneer while enduring racism, marginalization, and exclusion,” Liu said of Wong during her acceptance speech. Today, most people don't know the name Anna May Wong, but she is arguably the most important Asian American to have ever graced the silver screen.
Born a second-generation Chinese American near L.A.'s Chinatown, a career in the film industry wasn't in the cards for her, but she was savvy. She stalked movie sets near her home, begging for a chance to be an extra. After getting a handful of roles in feature films, Wong had her breakthrough role in the 1922 film The Toll Of The Sea.
During most of Anna May Wong's film career, it was taboo for non-white actors to kiss white actors on screen, making it hard for her to land a starring role. Instead, she was cast as the villain, the dragon lady, the concubine, or the best friend. If those movie tropes still sound familiar in 2019, you're not wrong.
Back then, Wong took on an industry that was stacked against her and willed herself to succeed. She used her beauty and fashion sense to play up her roles and ended up becoming a prolific film star, right next to Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich (Wong actually acted alongside Dietrich in the 1932 film Shanghai Express).
Summing up Anna May Wong's legacy is hard to do in just a few words, so I decided to take a walk in her shoes and don her signature look — all while learning more about what made Wong's career so significant. Press play above to see it all unfold.
In #NotYourTokenAsian, we take on the pop products, stereotypes, and culture wars that surround Asian-American identity. Follow along as we celebrate our multiplicity during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.