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Anna May Wong

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Anna May Wong was born Wong Liu Tsong on January 3, 1905, in Los Angeles, California. Her parents ran a laundry in the city's Chinatown section. Anna became a photographer's model when she was still attending Hollywood High School. She was fascinated with the movie industry at a young age, having observed several films being shot in and around her neighborhood. At almost 14 years old, her actor cousin, James Wong Howe, showed a photograph of her to a director, which resulted in her getting a bit part in Dinty (1920) (unfortunately for film buffs, there are no prints of the movie in existence, because of deterioration). The next year she appeared in two more films, Shame (1921) and Bits of Life (1921) (in which she received billing). Anna's big break came when she landed the role of a Mongolian slave girl in The Thief of Bagdad (1924). This film put her in the position of being the first (and for a long time the only) U.S. Chinese performer to become a bona fide movie star. It led to bigger parts in other movies with a Chinese or other East Asian theme, in which she alternated between playing the heroine or the heroine's evil nemesis. Another hit for her was A Trip to Chinatown (1926), in which her trademark bangs and East Asian dress only accentuated her beauty, enhancing her status with the movie-going public. Before long her name was synonymous with 'exotic', East Asian-themed productions, and films such as The Devil Dancer (1927), Across to Singapore (1928) and The Crimson City (1928) kept fans coming to the theatres. Anna's talent and beauty carried her through a successful transition into talkies, and she also traveled to Europe to act in films there. Upon her return to the U.S. after three years, she was signed to a contract with Paramount. Her career reached its zenith with her casting in Shanghai Express (1932) with Marlene Dietrich. Another in her string of successes was Dangerous to Know (1938) with Charles Laughton, Lloyd Nolan and Anthony Quinn, in which she played Lin Yang, a "kept" woman who seeks revenge when her gangster lover tries to replace her. By the 1940s, however, Anna's career had begun to stall. Theatre patrons were finding escapist fare elsewhere, and her Chinese melodramas were no longer in demand. Also, attitudes towards race in the U.S. made it almost impossible for Anna to get good parts in pictures other than East Asian-themed ones. After Lady from Chungking (1942), Anna didn't appear on-screen again until Impact (1949), and then only in a minor supporting role. She had an early television series, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (1951), but it didn't last long. Anna appeared sporadically on television throughout the 1950s. Her career problems were exacerbated by a drinking problem, and by the mid-1950s she learned that she was suffering from heart problems and cirrhosis of the liver. She made a final effort to recharge her career with Portrait in Black (1960). Although the first was a modest hit, the second film was released to mixed reviews and meager box office receipts. On February 2, 1961, Anna died of a heart attack in Santa Monica, California. She had never married.

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