As It Happens

How film star Anna May Wong paved the way for Asian representation at the Oscars

Anna Wong is the niece and namesake of Anna May Wong, a Chinese American screen legend during and after the silent film era, who helped pave the path for Asian representation in Hollywood.

Asian pride ripples out of history-making Academy Awards, says Wong's niece

Black and white image of a young woman with short black bangs pressing a pale rose against her face.
Anna May Wong (1905 - 1961) was a trailblazing Chinese-American actress during and after the silent film era. (General Photographic Agency/Getty Images)

Michelle Yeoh's Oscar speech gave Anna Wong chills. 

Wong, an event planner and production executive, is the niece and namesake of Anna May Wong, a Chinese American screen legend who helped pave the way for Asian representation in Hollywood, but never got the accolades she deserved.

"It was such an emotional moment," Wong told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.  "It's an amazing moment for the Asian community and it's an amazing moment for Asian actors. And then it's amazing for women. It's just amazing."

Sunday was a huge night for Asian representation at the Oscars. Everything Everywhere All At Once made history across multiple dimensions, dominating the ceremony with 11 nominations and seven wins. 

Googly-eyes, hot dog hands and sentient rocks formulated the recipe for best picture. And for the first time in 95 years, the Oscar for best actress in a leading role was awarded to a woman of Asian descent. 

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Asian actors capture Oscars

Malaysia's Michelle Yeoh won for her role as Evelyn Quan Wang, a Chinese-American, universe-hopping laundromat owner struggling with taxes, family and living up to her full potential.

"For all the little boys and girls who look like me watching tonight, this is a beacon of hope and possibilities," said Yeoh during her impassioned acceptance speech.

Ke Huy Quan brought many to tears, including himself, when he accepted the Oscar for best supporting actor for his role in the same film as Yeoh. 

"My journey started on a boat," the Vietnam-born actor said. "I spent a year in a refugee camp. Somehow I ended up here on Hollywood's biggest stage."

Cast of Everything Everywhere All At Once poses with their Oscars.
'Everything Everywhere All At Once' took home seven Oscars at the 95th Annual Academy Awards, including best picture and best actress for Michelle Yeoh. (From left: Jamie Lee Curtis, James Hong, Ke Huy Quan, Michelle Yeoh, Jonathan Wang, Daniel Kwan, Stephanie Hsu and Daniel Scheinert) (Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)

The Asian representation at the 95th Academy Awards was especially phenomenal when compared with Anna May Wong's era, according to her niece.

"It's crazy how far we've come," Wong said. "Back in those days, no one had an Asian man and an Asian woman in the lead roles."

Who is Anna May Wong?

During and after the silent film era, Anna May Wong fought hard against stereotypes and was a trailblazer when it came to demonstrating Asians could be more than just extras for movies about China or Chinatown. Despite carving a future for countless Asian actors, however, she found herself stuck in unwinnable situations, unable to escape the blatant racism that permeated the film industry. 

In 1937, Anna May Wong suffered one of the greatest disappointments of her career when she lost the lead role of a Chinese villager in The Good Earth to Luise Rainer, who was white. Not only did Rainer play the role in yellowface, her performance ultimately won her the Oscar for best actress. Anna May Wong's confidence took a huge hit, said her niece, and she was forced to rethink a lot of things in her career. 

Black and white image of a smiling woman with short bangs and a fashionable hair net.
Pictured here in January 1946, Wong was celebrated for breaking barriers in the Hollywood film industry. More than 60 years after her death, she became the first Asian American to be featured on U.S. currency. (Carl Nesensohn/The Associated Press)

Wong is often asked whether she thinks her aunt would have won the Oscar back in 1937 had she won the role, but she says she doesn't think so. Hollywood had way too much catching up to do, and it was just too hard for people of colour to be granted the same opportunities or be seen in the same light as their white counterparts, she said.

Hollywood lagging behind

"I don't know why Hollywood's so, so slow and so, so far behind the eight ball," said Wong. "Is it because people don't want to accept change? Is it because PR is unable to think outside of the box? I don't know. It's a tough question."

After Anna May Wong was robbed of the Oscar-worthy role, it would be another 86 years before a woman of Asian descent — Yeoh in 2023 — took home the trophy for best actress. And in all that time the award only once went to another woman of colour — Halle Berry in 2002.

Wong believes her aunt would have been very proud of Yeoh's emotional victory on Sunday night and says she felt Anna May Wong's legacy when her phone "started blowing up" with texts and phone calls. She said euphoria and pride kept her up all night. 

"Asians are making history right now. And I think that [my aunt] is a part of that history," she said. 

Two women smiling and laughing on a park bench.
Anna Wong poses with Shannon Lee, daughter of the late martial arts actor Bruce Lee. They share parallel experiences protecting the legacies of family members who happen to be both Hollywood and Asian-American icons. (Damian Dovarganes/The Associated Press)

Asian pride and inclusivity

Anna May Wong's fame has endured since before movies even had sound. Her niece wants to make sure everybody knows who she was and how she made history, cutting the path Yeoh was finally able to cement after so many generations. 

When it comes to leveraging this level of inclusivity for Asian actors, producers and writers, Wong hopes Hollywood will learn to look beyond ethnicity when it comes to casting and expand the notion of what roles Asian actors can play. 

She wants all actors, no matter their ethnicity, to be seen as complex individuals capable of encompassing a multiverse of expectation-defying characters. 

If Wong could, she would love to shake Yeoh's hand and tell her how proud she is. 

"I'm so proud. I'm so proud to be Asian," she said. 

"And I think other people, if you're lucky enough to be Asian, then you should be proud, too."

With files from The Associated Press. Interview with Anna Wong produced by Katie Geleff.

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