Anna Mae Wong is known as the first Chinese American movie star and the first Asian American to gain international recognition.
A book by Anne Helen Petersen Scandals in Classic Hollywood: Sex, Deviance, and Drama from the Golden Age of American Cinema describes Wong this way:
She labored, subtly, cleverly, persistently, to challenge what Americans thought an Asian or Asian American should or could be — a challenge that persists today.
Petersen says the silent movie star experienced the racism other Asian Americans faced in that era. One boy enjoyed prodding her with needles as if she was a pin cushion. Others called her names like “Chink, Chink, Chinamen.”
Wong apparently became fascinated with Hollywood when film crews would descend on Chinatown to film scenes supposedly taking place in China. She got several jobs as an extra to add legitimacy to scenes there. Eventually she landed a few bit parts before leaving school to take on acting full time.
Petersen describes the roles Wong would get as simply “shit.”
America didn’t quite know how to categorize Wong. Was she the exotic oriental girl or someone distinctly American? Coverage of Wong seemed to vacillate between the two. The parts producers offered her tended to fall into the former.
Wong wouldn’t settle for this and spent part of her career in Europe before returning to the states. You can read the chapter devoted to Wong in Petersen’s book in Buzz Feed.