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What Anna May Wong's History Tells us About Oscar's Asian and Asian American Moment

As a mixed Asian kid growing up in the suburbs of Southern California in the 1990s, I was always searching television and movies for people who looked like me. Every glimpse of, say, Margaret Cho doing stand-up or BD Wong on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit felt like an all-too-rare cause for celebration.

So watching the cast and crew of “Everything Everywhere All at Once” sweep this winter’s awards season, during their march toward the upcoming Oscar ceremony, has felt to me and many Asian American friends like an overdue coming-out party.

The standard explanation for why this moment took so long is that back in the day — despite the success of a few trailblazers — there simply weren’t enough Asian artists working in Hollywood who were worthy of the academy’s gilded praise. That explanation, I’ve since realized, is false.

Asian Americans have been a part of Hollywood since its earliest days, making significant contributions despite formidable obstacles, but their names and artistry have been forgotten, overlooked or willfully erased. And it all started with Anna May Wong, the first Asian movie star born in the United States.

I first encountered Ms. Wong when I was a college intern in 2004 and saw a photo of her at the Chinese American Museum of Los Angeles. I was awe-struck: How had I never heard of such a significant figure? Who else had been edited out of Hollywood’s back story, and why?

When Ms. Wong was cast in her first leading role at the age of 17, it was something of a fluke. “The Toll of the Sea,” released in 1922, was one of countless “Madama Butterfly” remakes — a tragic tale of interracial love that ultimately punishes the woman for the couple’s transgressions. What set “Toll” apart were the M.I.T. scientists funding its production, who had pioneered an innovative color film process called Technicolor.

Yellowface — the practice of white actors using makeup and slanting their eyes to appear Asian — was well accepted in Hollywood; Mary Pickford and Norma Talmadge, both white, had donned it in their own versions of the “Madama Butterfly” saga, in 1915 and 1918. But Technicolor wasn’t looking for marquee-name movie stars; it was looking for an impressive showcase for what it called its “natural color” technology. The company decided to cast Asian actors in its Asian roles.

Ms. Wong, the daughter of Chinese Americans who ran a laundry in downtown Los Angeles, had grown up watching film crews. She’d worked as an extra since age 13, beginning with “The Red Lantern” in 1919, starring Alla Nazimova. Ms. Wong later won larger parts in bigger movies, making her a natural choice for the lead in “The Toll of the Sea.” She was cast as Lotus Flower, a Chinese girl who falls in love with a shipwrecked white American, played by Kenneth Harlan.

Critics lauded Ms. Wong’s performance. An unsigned rave by a critic in The Times declared, “She has a difficult role, a role that is botched nine times out of ten, but hers is the tenth performance.”

“Toll” was also a box-office hit, offering proof that an Asian leading lady could draw crowds. Ms. Wong’s success led Douglas Fairbanks to cast her in his 1924 blockbuster “The Thief of Bagdad,” which catapulted her to international stardom.

Read entire article at New York Times