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

Michelle Yeoh’s Oscar speech gave Anna Wong chills.

Wong, an event planner and production manager, 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 doesn’t never received the accolades it deserved.

“It was such an emotional moment,” Wong said. As it happens the host Nil Köksal. “It’s an amazing time for the Asian community and it’s an amazing time for Asian actors. And then it’s amazing for women. It’s just amazing.”

Sunday was a big 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.

Wide eyes, hot dog hands and sensitive stones formulated the recipe for the best image. And for the first time in 95 years, the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role went to a woman of Asian descent.

Has Hollywood entered an alternate universe?

Asian actors win the Oscars

Malaysian Michelle Yeoh won the award for her role as Evelyn Quan Wang, a Chinese-American laundromat owner struggling with taxes, a family and living up to her full potential.

“For all the little boys and girls watching me tonight, it’s a beacon of hope and possibility,” Yeoh said during her impassioned acceptance speech.

Ke Huy Quan brought many to tears, including himself, when he accepted the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the same movie 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 the biggest stage in Hollywood.”

“Everything Everywhere All At Once” won seven Oscars at the 95th Annual Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Michelle Yeoh. (Left to right: Jamie Lee Curtis, James Hong, Ke Huy Quan, Michelle Yeoh, Jonathan Wang, Daniel Kwan, Stephanie Hsu and Daniel Scheinert) (Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images)

Asian representation at the 95th Academy Awards was particularly phenomenal compared to Anna May Wong’s time, according to her niece.

“It’s crazy how far it’s come,” Wong said. “At that time, nobody 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 pioneer in demonstrating that Asians could be more than just extras for movies about China or Chinatown. Although she charted a future for countless Asian actors, 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 ground to Luise Rainer, who was white. Not only did Rainer play the role in Yellowface, but her performance ultimately won her the Oscar for Best Actress. Anna May Wong’s confidence took a huge hit, her niece said, and she was forced to rethink a lot of things in her career.

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

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

Hollywood lagging behind

“I don’t know why Hollywood is so, so slow and so, so far behind the eight ball,” Wong said. “Is it because people don’t want to embrace change? Is it because PR is unable to think outside the box? I don’t know. That’s a tough question.”

After Anna May Wong was stripped of the Oscar-worthy role, it will be another 86 years before a woman of Asian descent – ​​Yeoh in 2023 – wins the Best Actress trophy. And in all that time, the award has only been given once to another woman of color – Halle Berry in 2002.

Wong thinks her aunt would have been very proud of Yeoh’s emotional win on Sunday night and says she felt Anna May Wong’s legacy when her phone “started exploding” with text messages and phone calls. She said euphoria and pride kept her up all night.

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

Two women are 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 legacy of family members who happen to be both Hollywood and Asian-American icons. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

Asian pride and inclusiveness

Anna May Wong’s fame lasted long before movies even had sound. Her niece wants to make sure everyone knows who she was and how she made history, cutting the path that 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 learns to look beyond ethnicity when it comes to casting and writing. broaden the notion of the roles that Asian actors can play.

She wants all actors, regardless of ethnicity, to be viewed as complex individuals capable of encompassing a multiverse of characters defying expectations.

If Wong could, she would like to shake hands with Yeoh 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.”

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