First Asian American movie star Anna May Wong featured in PBS’ ‘American Masters – Unladylike2020’

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Anna May Wong

Trailblazing Asian American movie star Anna May Wong is being spotlighted in PBS’ “American Masters — Unladylike2020,” a multimedia series consisting of a one-hour special for broadcast and 26 digital short films featuring courageous, little-known and diverse female trailblazers from the turn of the 20th century.

Narrated by Julianna Margulies (“ER,” “The Good Wife”) and Lorraine Toussaint (“Selma,” “Orange Is the New Black”), the series of eight- to 10-minute animated shorts are being released digitally weekly on Wednesdays from March 4, the start of Women’s History Month, to Aug, 26, which is Women’s Equality Day.

The purpose of the series is to illuminate the stories of extraordinary American heroines from the early years of feminism. The showcased women achieved many firsts, including earning an international pilot’s license, becoming a bank president, founding a hospital, fighting for the desegregation of public spaces, exploring the Arctic and singing opera at Carnegie Hall.

“American Masters — Unladylike2020” is produced and directed by Charlotte Mangin and brings these women’s incredible stories to life through original artwork and animation, rare historical archival footage and interviews with descendants, historians and accomplished modern women who reflect upon the influence of these pioneers.
Interviewees in the Wong episode include historian Shirley Jennifer Lim, associate professor of history at SUNY Stony Brook and author of “Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern,” and actor and Tony Award-Winning producer Jenna Ushkowitz, best known for her role as Tina Cohen-Chang in “Glee.”

Born in Los Angeles to second generation Chinese Americans, Wong was the first Asian American female movie star. Her long and varied career spanned silent and sound film, stage, radio and television, in an era when Chinese protagonists in Hollywood movies were typically performed by white actors in yellow face, according to PBS.

The first woman to buck this trend, Wong starred in cinematic classics such as “The Toll of the Sea” (1922) at age 17, Douglas Fairbanks’ “The Thief of Bagdad” (1924), and “Shanghai Express (1932),” in which her sexually charged scenes with Marlene Dietrich fed rumors about a lesbian relationship.

Wong left Hollywood for Europe in the late 1920s, frustrated by the stereotypical roles in which she was often typecast — as either a victim “Madam Butterfly” or as a “dragon lady” victimizer. Her career was also limited by American anti-miscegenation laws, which prevented her from sharing an on-screen kiss with any person of another race.

Learn more about Wong and unsung women who changed America at


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