Anna May Wong (January 3, 1905–February 3, 1961) was the first Chinese American movie star and the first Asian American actress to gain international recognition. Wong broke the codes of yellowface in both American and European cinema to become one of the major global actresses of Asian descent between the world wars. She made close to sixty films that circulated around the world and in 1951 starred in her own television show, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, produced by the defunct Dumont Network. Examining Wong’s career is particularly fruitful because of race’s centrality to the motion pictures’ construction of the modern American nation-state, as well as its significance within the global circulation of moving images.
Born near Los Angeles’s Chinatown, Wong began acting in films at an early age. During the silent era, she starred in films such as The Toll of the Sea (1922), one of the first two-tone Technicolor films, and The Thief of Baghdad (1924). Frustrated by Hollywood roles, Wong left for Europe in the late 1920s, where she starred in several films and plays, including Piccadilly (1929) and A Circle of Chalk (1929) opposite Laurence Olivier. Wong traveled between the United States and Europe for film and stage work. In 1935 she protested Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s refusal to consider her for the leading role of O-Lan in the Academy Award–winning film The Good Earth (1937). Wong then paid her one and only visit to China. In the late 1930s, she starred in several B films such as King of Chinatown (1939), graced the cover of the mass-circulating American magazine Look, and traveled to Australia. In 1961, Wong died of Laennec’s cirrhosis, a disease typically stemming from alcoholism. Yet, as her legacy shows, for a brief moment a glamorous Chinese American woman occupied a position of transnational importance.
The Eaton sisters, Edith Maude (b. 1865–d. 1914) and Winnifred (b. 1875–d. 1954), were biracial authors who wrote under their respective pseudonyms, Sui Sin Far and Onoto Watanna. Raised in Montreal, Canada, by an English father and a Chinese mother, the sisters produced works that many scholars have recognized as among the first published by Asian American writers. Edith embraced her Chinese ancestry by composing newspaper articles and short stories that addressed the plight of Chinese immigrants in North America. Winnifred, on the other hand, posed as a Japanese woman and eclipsed her older sibling in popularity by writing interracial romances set in Japan.
The significance of the Eaton sisters emerges from a distinct moment in American history. At the turn of the 20th century, the United States began asserting an imperial presence in Asia and the Caribbean, while waves of immigrants entered the nation as valued industrial labor. This dual movement of overseas expansion and incoming foreign populations gave rise to a sense of superiority and anxiety within the white American mainstream. Even as U.S. statesmen and missionaries sought to extend democracy, Christianity, and trade relations abroad, they also doubted that people who came to America could assimilate themselves according to the tenets of a liberal white Protestantism. This concern became evident with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and the Gentleman’s Agreement (1907), legislation that thwarted Chinese and Japanese immigration efforts. The lives and writings of the Eaton sisters intersected with these broader developments. As mixed-race authors, they catered to a growing U.S. consumer interest in things Asian, acting as cultural interpreters between East and West. In doing so, however, they complicated and challenged American beliefs and attitudes about race relations, gender roles, and empire building.