Born in Los Angeles to traditional Chinese parents in 1905, Anna May Wong's star-struck ambition and her svelte good looks coincided with a taste for Oriental exotica on stage and screen in the U.S. and in Europe in the '20s and the '30s.
She was the first Asian movie star in the West, and her career spanned four decades, bridging the silent films to talkies, and even venturing onto stage and into early television. Wong was a woman in the right place at the right time.
Her career rose meteorically, yet she would find it hard to escape the crater of stereotyping into which she too easily tripped.
Wong was one of seven children born in a Los Angeles combination flat and laundry. She attended Hollywood High School.
She scored her first big-screen success opposite Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in "Thief of Baghdad" (1924), establishing the stardom that she held from the silent era into the early 1940s.
Although she typified the slinky Oriental siren in scores of movie intrigues, Wong did not visit China until 1936, where she remained for a year to absorb the Chinese culture.
After retiring from film life in 1947, she returned to the big screen in 1959 when she starred in "Portrait in Black."
In recent years several of her films have been beautifully restored — including "Piccadilly" (1929), which was Wong's last silent film and one in which she plays a cheeky scullery maid who becomes the glittering headliner at a swank London nightclub. In this and countless other films, she does her obligatory Oriental-style shimmy, here a concoction with Thai and Balinese flavors, in a scanty Oriental-style costume while desire-filled white men look on.
"For a good 10 years she received top billing, she was a huge international star," says Mimi Brody, who programmed a UCLA film series on Wong's work. "For an Asian American actress there's no comparison for the scope of her career."