Gemma Chan as Astrid in 'Crazy Rich Asians'

Gemma Chan Will Play Hollywood Legend Anna May Wong in New Biopic

Wong was considered the first Chinese American Hollywood movie star.

Gemma Chan has signed on to play Hollywood legend Anna May Wong in a new biopic. Wong was Hollywood’s first Chinese American film star who broke barriers while still facing discrimination and racism. The Eternals star, who is producing the film as well, said “Anna May Wong was a trailblazer, an icon and a woman ahead of her time, … Her talent and her exploration of her art both in and outside of the U.S. was groundbreaking — and the challenges and prejudice she faced in the early 20th century as an actress speak directly to the conversations and the world we are navigating today.”

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The film, which doesn’t yet have a director, will be written by David Henry Hwang, the first Asian American playwright to win a Tony (M. Butterfly in 1988). Hwang will be adapting Graham Russell Gao Hodges’ 2012 biography, Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend. In addition, Anna Wong, Wong’s niece, will be consulting on the film.

Wong said of the film, “I’m delighted that I’ll get to build on my aunt’s legacy with Gemma and Nina [Yang Bongiovi, the film’s producer] who are Asian leaders in the forefront of storytelling, … Anna May Wong’s presence in American and worldwide cinema was the first of its kind, and her representation continues to resonate today. She is the embodiment of inspiration for artists of color.”

Anna May Wong was born in 1905 in Los Angeles. Her career began in silent films, but soon appeared in talkies, on stage, television, and the radio. Wong rose to fame as both an actor and a style icon, but found herself frustrated by the limited, stereotypical roles she was offered. Wong left America for Europe, where she found success in film and theater.  She appeared in films like Daughter of the Dragon (1931), Daughter of Shanghai (1937), and Shanghai Express (1932) with Marlene Dietrich.

Wong encountered racism and discrimination throughout her career, most famously when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer refused to cast her as Chinese character O-Lan in the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth. MGM cast white actress Luise Rainer instead, who performed the role in yellowface. Despite this, Wong continued working as an actor, as well as a political activist during World War II, where she campaigned in support of China against the Japanese invasion.

Wong continued to make history in 1951, when she starred in the television show The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, the first American television show starring an Asian American lead. Wong was also one of the first women depicted on the quarter in the 2022-2025 “American Women” quarters series, making her the first Asian American to appear on U.S. money.

At a time when Asian and Asian-American representation is still shamefully lacking, this film is more relevant than ever. And if you get the chance, watch something with Anna May Wong in it. You won’t be disappointed.

(images: Warner Bros.)

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Chelsea Steiner
Chelsea was born and raised in New Orleans, which explains her affinity for cheesy grits and Britney Spears. An pop culture journalist since 2012, her work has appeared on Autostraddle, AfterEllen, and more. Her beats include queer popular culture, film, television, republican clownery, and the unwavering belief that 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' is the greatest movie ever made. She currently resides in sunny Los Angeles, with her husband, 2 sons, and one poorly behaved rescue dog. She is a former roller derby girl and a black belt in Judo, so she is not to be trifled with. She loves the word “Jewess” and wishes more people used it to describe her.