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Celebrating Anna May Wong: A Tribute to the First Chinese American Film Star

On Saturday, February 13, the Cultural Film Committee, with support from American Studies; Student Affairs; Asian and Asian-American Association; the Department of Gender, Women's, and Sexuality Studies; and Burling Library presented “Celebrating Anna May Wong: A Tribute to the First Chinese-American Film Star.”  The tribute began with a screening of the 1932 film Shanghai Express, directed by Josef von Sternberg and starring Marlene Dietrich opposite Anna May Wong. Following a light buffet, the tribute continued with a screening of Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words, a 2013 documentary from filmmaker Yunah Hong that explores Ms. Wong’s life and career. Actress Doan Ly narrates in Wong’s own words, gleaned from various interviews with the actress.

For further exploration of Anna May Wong’s remarkable legacy and influence, please see our online bibliography.  You might also enjoy a visit to Burling Library, where materials related to the actress’s life and career are displayed (in Burling Lounge, near the Smith Memorial Collection).

Born in 1905 to a laundryman and his wife, Anna May Wong was a third generation Chinese-American raised in Los Angeles. It was an era of intense prejudice and restrictive and discriminatory laws against Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans, and this racist environment seriously limited Wong’s opportunities in life, in love, and especially in her career as a film actress in Hollywood.

Despite these challenges, Anna May Wong was cast in 50 films between 1919 and 1960, beginning with her role as an extra in the silent film The Red Lantern (Leibfried 13). She soon earned “a reputation for a high level of professionalism, personal grace and charm, and an unmatched film presence.” However, even as she became internationally known for her remarkable talent, in Hollywood she was only cast in supporting roles and portrayed as a “caricature of the Chinese woman.” Many people, including members of the Chinese Nationalist movement, harshly criticized Wong for accepting roles that perpetuated negative stereotypes, claiming she was the pawn of a Hollywood that wished to denigrate and oppress the Chinese people (Hodges xviii).

By all accounts, although it pained her deeply, Anna May Wong met this criticism as well as frequent instances of racism with poise and determination. For example, tired of being typecast in Hollywood as a dragon lady, a china doll, or a butterfly, Wong moved to Europe in 1928, acting in plays, an operetta, and in films in a less prejudiced setting. She tackled her lines in French, German, and English, and learned to speak with a British accent. Wong socialized with artists and intellectuals, and among her many companions were actor Marlene Dietrich, singer and actor Paul Robeson, photographer and museum curator Edward Steichen, opera singer Mei Lanfang, philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin, and actor Butterfly Wu (Hodges 110).

When Wong returned to the United States after three years, she had achieved stardom in Europe (Hodges 109). However, she found that in Hollywood prejudice continued to negatively impact her career; for example, in 1936, she was turned down for a role in The Good Earth because she was purportedly too Asian. Although deeply disappointed with the typecasting, she continued to pursue roles on Broadway and in Hollywood films and television shows, while frequently traveling internationally, exploring her art in Australia, China, England, Germany, and elsewhere. She also worked to raise the image of China in the United States, writing articles and giving many interviews over the course of her career (183).

In 1961, at the age of 56, Anna May Wong died of a heart attack at her home in Santa Monica (Hodges 227).


Works Consulted:

“Asian American Cinema.” Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film. Ed. Barry Keith Grant. New York: Schirmer Reference, 2007. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 5 Feb. 2016.

Hodges, Graham Russell Gao. Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend. New York: Palgrave, 2004. Print.

Leibfried, Philip, and Chei Mi Lane. Anna May Wong: A Complete Guide to Her Film, Stage, Radio and Television Work. London: McFarland, 2004. Print.

Family Weekend Schedule of Events


Friday, Sept. 16

8 a.m.–3:50 p.m.

Class Visits

Families are invited to attend classes and visit informally with faculty members. Stop by the Family Weekend welcome and information desk in the lobby of the Joe Rosenfield Center to view the list of classes. Seating is limited, so be sure to ask for your required guest pass.

8 a.m.–5 p.m.

Campus Office Visit Drop-ins

Please feel free to make an appointment or drop in to various campus offices, including:

Global Roots, Local Lives

Adjusting to life in Grinnell can be daunting for even the most well traveled international student. Want to know what the quirky local customs are? Wishing you had someone to talk to about your favorite traditions at home? Feeling the need for family when yours is far away? Don’t sweat it! The Friends of International Students (FIS) program has you covered.

Host family with children pose with their international studentThe FIS program is a time-honored tradition at Grinnell College. Students from places as far reaching as Serbia, Ghana, and China are matched with local families who act as community hosts, providing them with support and friendship during their college years. With nearly 150 community hosts involved in the program, you’re sure to find a family that suits your personality. No wonder more than 84 percent of international students at Grinnell are part of FIS!

“This program really allows you to see the American family lifestyle and experience what the community is like,” says Avantika Johri ’18. “It’s really enlightening.”

For Johri, the chance to have an off-campus refuge and meet Grinnell townspeople with the Seney family has been invaluable. Whether it’s ice cream study breaks, family dinners, or a visit to the children’s school, the FIS program has allowed Johri to get a feel for what life is like in small-town Iowa. “It has really shaped my college experience so far,” Johri claims.

Sarah and Kevin Seney, as well as their three young daughters, have been equally thrilled with the experiences they’ve had as Johri’s community hosts.

“We felt that this was a way that our family could connect with the College and also give our daughters an experience they might not have gotten if we didn’t jump at this opportunity,” Sarah says. “It’s a wonderful way to connect the community with the College.”

The Seney’s daughters have relished the chance to learn about Johri’s home in India, and hope to bring her to speak in their classes at school.

Johri’s favorite part of the experience? Playing with the Seney’s children at Central Park. “They have so much energy; it kind of re-energizes me!”

“We hope that Avi feels that she can come to us for anything she may need — support, activities in the community, or just someone to talk to,” Sarah says.

So, if you’re nervous about studying in the U.S., or if you want to learn more about everyday life in the city of Grinnell, the FIS program is here for you!

Avantika Johri is an undeclared major from Mumbai, India.

Nourishing Mind and Body

For the residents of Food House, the road to personal development is paved with comfort food, cupcakes, and a community of growth and learning.

“As a first-year student, I had a floor that was very committed to creating a community,” says Sheva Greenwood ’16. “I wanted to make sure that I was going to continue getting that kind of interpersonal support. Food House in particular seemed like the place to be because I think that sometimes we put wellness on a back burner in college.”

Groups of students lounge on grass, sit on porch in front of Food HouseAt Food House, residents rally around the idea that cooking food together is a centering activity. It’s a break from the constant stress of classes, papers, and group projects. “Even the application is kind of funny,” Greenwood notes. “We have questions like ‘what is your relationship to garlic?’ and stuff like that.”

Greenwood, a Food House resident from 2013–15, sees project houses as an extension of the College’s ideal of self-governance. “It makes sense to me that as an extension of self-gov you have these spaces where people can really work out what their values are, work out what they want to do with their lives and how they want to live, in a more holistic way than just figuring out what they want as a future career.”

Residents of Food House cook “family dinners” together Sunday through Thursday, which are open to anyone on campus in search of a home-cooked meal and good company. They host fun outdoor movie nights, fancy cupcake soirees, and a Thanksgiving dinner for students who can’t go home for the holiday.

“For us, community building is not just for the members of Food House. We try to create ways for other people to connect to us,” Greenwood explains.

“Adulthood on Training Wheels”

Project houses like Food House are a long established tradition among Grinnellians. Past houses have included Music House, Art House, Dag House, Bird House, Bohemian House, and Tennis House. The project house program allows any group of 10–12 students to

  • unite in a common interest
  • delve deeper into their extracurricular passions
  • experiment with a more independent living situation.

Many students jokingly refer to project houses as “adulthood on training wheels.” They’re a way to learn the skills necessary to thrive after graduation while having a safety net of College support when needed.

That doesn’t just mean learning how to clean an oven or a toilet. It means learning how to say that you can’t eat another bite of that casserole your roommate made three weeks in a row. It means getting up the courage to ask everyone if they want to watch Broad City with you, even though you think they might be busy. It means learning to let loose and eat that weird recipe you found on Pinterest, just to see if it might taste better than it smells! In a project house, you’ll learn how to have fun, make friends, and overcome your fears.

“I think it’s just hugely important to have spaces where you can grow in the way that you want to,” Greenwood says. “I don’t think you need to know a massive amount about food justice to live in Eco House, and I don’t think you need to be an amazing artist to go live in Art House. And you certainly don’t need to be a chef to live in Food House. Everyone acknowledges that this is just another space of learning, and that you’ll get there. It might be a bit of a crash course. But you’ll come out of it with a lot more skills than you had before!”

Sheva Greenwood is a gender, women’s and sexuality studies major from New York City.