Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American movie star, but she wasn't treated like one.
In PBS' upcoming five-part docuseries, Asian Americans, the challenges Wong faced in order to break through the "bamboo ceiling" in Hollywood is one of many topics that are explored. Told through individual lives and personal histories, the series -- narrated by Daniel Dae Kim and Tamlyn Tomita -- shines a light on trailblazers, both prominent and forgotten, who had an impact on representation and what it means to be Asian American today.
In the mid-1930s, Wong was in consideration to play the Chinese lead, O-Lan, for The Good Earth, but the part was given to a white actress, Luise Rainer, who would later go on to win the Oscar. Instead, Wong -- a Los Angeles, California, native -- was asked to try out for the part of Lotus, "the evil wife," which compounded anti-Chinese stereotypes.
In ET's exclusive sneak peek from the doc, Ming-Na Wen reads a letter Wong wrote to Fania Marinoff, a Russian actress and wife to writer-photographer Carl Van Vechten, on Dec. 16, 1935 detailing the trying ordeal.
"I've made two tests for the Lotus part. From all appearance, Miss Rainer is definitely set for the part of O-Lan. No use bucking up against a stone wall," Wong writes. "Practically everyone, including my friends seem to feel that I should take the Lotus role if there is lots of money in it."
Wong, whose popularity and international fame was growing, was understandably offended.
"Once it became clear to her that she was not going to get the leading role in The Good Earth and that the Lotus role was offered to a white actress [Tilly Losch], she was like, 'To hell with Hollywood,'" Shirley Lim, author of Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern, says in the clip. The experience sent Wong on a yearlong tour of China, where she reconnected with her family and ancestral culture.
Also featured in the docuseries are Randall Park, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, activist Helen Zia, comedian Hari Kondabolu and academic expert Erika Lee.
Wong's story is featured in Netflix's Hollywood, a revisionist take on the Golden Age of Hollywood. In the fictionalized series, Wong (played by Taiwanese American actress Michelle Krusiec) faces obstacles as she tries to rebound from The Good Earth disaster, eventually landing a meaty role in a movie called Meg, which marked the actress' comeback. In the finale, Wong wins the Oscar for her performance.
“I was really flabbergasted,” Krusiec tells ET, adding she was moved by co-creator Ryan Murphy's decision to right a wrong. “I felt it was the right thing to do in terms of correcting history.”
Asian Americans airs Monday, May 11 and Tuesday, May 12 on PBS. Check local listings.
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the U.S., which celebrates the contributions and influences of the Asian community. To capture the current state of representation in entertainment, ET Online will be spotlighting Asian performers and projects all month long.
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