Anna May Wong and Women of Color in Hollywood Today

guest bloggerContinuing our entries for Women’s History Month, we asked the talented writer and producer Paula Yoo (author of Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story, Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story) about whether women of color in Hollywood still face the same challenges that Anna May Wong once did. Here’s what she had to say: 

“It’s a pretty sad situation to be rejected by [the] Chinese because I’m ‘too American’ and by American producers because they prefer other races to act Chinese parts.”Anna May Wong, quoted from James Parish and William Leonard’s Hollywood Players: The Thirties (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House Publishers, 1976, pp. 532–538)

Anna May Wong dreamed of becoming a famous movie star in Hollywood. As a child working in her family’s laundry in downtown Los Angeles, Anna was often distracted by movies being filmed on location. While dropping off her customers’ clean laundry, Anna would hover nearby on the sidewalk to observe the actors, directors, and camera crews.

Anna, however, had no idea that she would also become a pioneer for actors of color, thanks to her determination to overcome the discrimination she faced in the 1930s as one of the few actresses of color in the industry. Like many struggling actors, Anna was forced to accept certain roles she found demeaning (and even racist) because the competition was so fierce in Hollywood.

Anna May Wong in Shining Star by Paula Yoo, artwork by in Lin Wang
Anna May Wong in Shining Star, artwork by Lin Wang

As Anna’s fame grew, she took advantage of her newfound power as an acclaimed and popular actress to fight for more dignified roles that did not stereotype or demean women of color onscreen. Her work paved the way for many of today’s actresses of color. In fact, there have been many articles pointing out the recent trend towards more inclusive and diverse roles for female actresses of color in Hollywood.

As a working TV writer and producer, I myself have noticed a significant increase in actors not only being cast in major roles but also for roles that were not tailored towards a specific race in the first place – in other words, color blind casting. I have worked on a wide range of shows, from NBC’s The West Wing to SyFy’s Eureka. I am proud that the shows I worked on featured wonderfully diverse casts. All the executives and show creators I worked with showed a sincere commitment towards increasing diversity in all areas of our shows.

We have come a long way since the days of Anna May Wong, where it was not uncommon to see white actors tape their eyes back in “yellowface” to play Asian roles. But we still have a long way to go

artwork by in Lin Wang from Shining Star
artwork by in Lin Wang from Shining Star

towards a more multicultural Hollywood. According to the latest casting statistics report* released by the Screen Actors Guild in 2009, the overall number of roles performed by all minority actors declined in 2008 from 29.3% to 27.5%.

(The breakdown of film and TV roles for 2008 was 72.5% Caucasian, 13.3% African-American, 6.4% Latino-Hispanic, 3.8% Asian-Pacific Islander, 0.3% Native American and 3.8% other-unknown. The U.S. Census data from 2000 showed that the nation’s population was 73.4% Caucasian, 11.5% African-American, 10.6% Latino-Hispanic, 3.7% Asian-Pacific Islander and 0.8% Native American.)

In statement from SAG regarding the 2009 casting statistics report, president Ken Howard said, “The diverse and multicultural world we live in today is still not accurately reflected in the portrayals we see on the screen.”

But according to the same SAG casting statistics report, there was also some good news. For example, Asian American actors increased their presence onscreen, rising from 3.4% to 3.8% in both film and TV in 2008.

In fact, if you look at today’s movies and TV shows, you will see many well-established Asian American male actors, from Hawai’i Five-0 and Lost star Daniel Dae Kim to Glee’s Harry Shum Jr. to Community’s Danny Pudi to The Fast and the Furious’ Sun Kang… and that’s just for starters.

Anna May Wong quoteAnna May Wong’s legacy helped pave the way for today’s acclaimed Asian American movie and TV star veterans, such as Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy), Lucy Liu (Charlie’s Angels), Kelly Hu (Arrow), Tia Carrere (Wayne’s World), Grace Park (Hawai’i Five-0), Ming-Na Wen (SGU: Stargate Universe), Moon Bloodgood (Terminator: Salvation), Keiko Agena (Gilmore Girls), Yunjin Kim (Lost), Linda Park (Star Trek: Enterprise), and countless others. And actress Maggie Q became the first Asian American woman to be cast in a lead role on a TV drama series when she won the part of Nikita in The CW hit series, Nikita.

We also have a new generation of Asian American up-n-coming stars, including Brenda Song (Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior), Jamie Chung (Samurai Girl), Julia Ling (Chuck), Devon Aoki (2 Fast 2 Furious), Kristin Kreuk (Smallville), Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical), Reshma Shetty (Royal Pains), Jenna Ushkowitz (Glee), Ellen Wong (The Carrie Diaries), and Archie Punjabi (The Good Wife), plus many, many more talented actresses.

Anna May Wong went from being a working class daughter of a poor Chinese laundry man in downtown Los Angeles to a glamorous movie star and Hollywood icon. But her most important contribution to the arts was inspiring future generations of Asian American actresses to break the glass ceiling of discrimination in Hollywood. That legacy is what made Anna May Wong a true shining star.

*The 2009 Casting Data Report is the most recent report from the Screen Actors Guild.

Read more about Anna May Wong and her pioneering journey to overcome discrimination in Hollywood in Shining Star: The Anna May Wong Story.

Further reading for Women’s History Month:

Women in Professional Baseball: “Diamonds are a girl’s best friend”

Recommended books for Women’s History Month

8 thoughts on “Anna May Wong and Women of Color in Hollywood Today”

  1. Paula, Great article. Question: Why does the casting data stop at 2009? Up until 2009 SAG was very diligent in reporting the numbers every year. Why did they stop?

  2. Hi Jason. Thank you for your question. I don’t have an answer but if you go to this website link, it lists all the official SAG diversity reportage they have done since 1999. There are specific statistical diversity reports from 2003 to 2009. In 2010, they did send out an alert for members to answer another questionnaire on diversity for a future compilation report. That report has not come out yet. Hopefully the new report, when released, will have better numbers. Sincerely, Paula

  3. PS. In addition, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) released their WGA West TV Staffing Brief report in March 2013 detailing the latest diversity statistics for minority and women writers in the television industry. There was an increase in minority writer hires, from 7.5% in 1999 to 15.6% in 2012, as well as for women writers (from 25% in 1999 to 30.5% in 2012). However, the report concluded that not enough progress had been made in the past decade. After reviewing the statistics for the 1,722 writers working on 190 broadcast and cable shows in the 2011-12 season, the WGA report found that almost a third of these shows had NO writers of color on staff last year. For more info, please go to this link for the full report:

  4. Thanks for sharing the WGA link, Paula. Really interesting stuff – it is amazing that in 2012, nearly a third of TV shows had no writers of color on staff. The lack of casting and the lack of writers of color are closely related, though I think people often forget that what happens in the writer’s room shapes what happens onscreen. Let’s hope the next SAG stats show big improvements!

  5. I just finished a book on the life of Anna May Wong and would like to know more about her life and career. She must have endured so much stress in her life, from both sides. I just hope she found happiness in her life…life can be “choices” one must make to go forward on your dreams. My question, among many, is do you think a quality movie can be made based on her life and career and who would be a good choice to portray her? For what it is worth I find Lucy Liu and Lynn Chen to be great actress’s and not just because they are Asian-American. To me they get my attention when I see them on TV and/or movies they are in. They just have such presence in their roles that I find compelling for a viewer. Lucy Liu is terrific in “Elementary” and I have also seen quality work from Lynn Chen including “Saving Face” among many others.
    Hope to hear back from you…Thank you for your time.
    Patrick Covey

    1. Anna May Wong was the personification of beauty, art, and talent. I have read three books on her and have several of her movies I want to see soon. My question(s) are is there a place where I can ask questions about Ms. Wong…not personal questions…just ones pertaining to work and times she worked in? I just hope she was able to find some inner peace in her life and work…she was sadly “ahead of her time” or so it seems. I hope to hear from you soon.
      Thank You for your time.
      Patrick Covey

Comments are closed.