Anna May Wong is finally having her moment. The silent film actor and Hollywood’s first Chinese American movie star is not only featured on a new commemorative US quarter, she’s also back on the big screen as the inspiration for the self-assured Lady Fay Zhu in Damien Chazelle’s current entry in the Oscar race, the ’20s industry tale Babylon.
Wong delivered many bold and daring performances in her nearly 60-film career, most famously in 1932’s Shanghai Express opposite Marlene Dietrich. But she faced severe racism and xenophobia, and was often relegated to stereotypical roles. “Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain—murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass,” she told Film Weekly in 1933. “We are not like that.” Even when Wong auditioned multiple times for a role that seemed tailor-made for her—the lead in The Good Earth, which centers on a Chinese farming family—the part was given to white actor Luise Rainer, who won an Oscar for it.
For Li Jun Li, who plays Babylon’s Lady Fay, Wong was “a lone warrior”: “There were no others like her. She was isolated but obstinate in her fight against discrimination and typecasting.” Despite everything, Wong was the first Asian American to star in her own television series and the first to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. With a Gemma Chan–fronted biopic also in the works, her star is only poised to get brighter.
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