Yesterday: Kiều Chinh

As the final installment of my three-part series about Asian American Hollywood actors and actresses, I wanted to focus on a woman not as well known as Anna May Wong or Sessue Hayakawa: Kieu Chinh, a Vietnamese American woman who most commonly acted in Vietnam War films. Featured in films such as Operation: CIA (1965) and A Yank in Viet-nam (1964), she later stated in an interview with the New York Times that “I’d like to see more stories based on the Vietnamese people, on our culture, so the audience will see more of the civilian side of life instead of just barbed wire, blood and bombing”. More recently, she starred as Suyuan in The Joy Luck Club (1993) and Journey from the Fall (2005), a film that follows a Vietnamese family through the re-education camps, boat people experience, and being refugees in the U.S. after the fall of Saigon. Since the start of her career, she’s received numerous awards, including an Emmy Award and multiple lifetime achievement awards. 

Yesterday: Anna May Wong

Continuing my three-part series seeking to shed light on early Asian American actors and actresses in Hollywood, I decided to paint a piece dedicated to Anna May Wong, known as the first Chinese American Hollywood movie star. Famous for her roles in films in the 1920s and 1930s, Wong gained international recognition, helped humanize Chinese-Americans in the American public, and remains an iconic figure in the Asian-American community, receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 and having an award named after her in the Asian-American Arts Awards.

Although Wong achieved high amounts of success during her career, she was also overlooked for leading Asian roles for “looking too Chinese”, with directors often casting white actresses instead. Famously, Luise Rainer (a white actress in yellowface) was chosen over Wong to play the character of a Chinese peasant farmer in “The Good Earth” (1937), a choice that was known as one of the most severe disappointments in Wong’s career. She was offered to play an evil prostitute in the film, but refused the offer, saying that “You’re asking me – with my Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture, featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters”. Frustrated by the type of roles she was offered in America, Wong later moved out of the country and went on to star in numerous hit films. Wong’s staunch refusal to play such negative depictions of Chinese and Asian characters in a largely discriminatory and racist society has cemented her legacy in the Asian-American community. 

Yesterday: Sessue Hayakawa

To shed light on those commonly forgotten by American media, especially those of color, I wanted to create a series that honored early Asian American actors and actresses in Hollywood. The focus of the first installment of this three-part series is Sessue Hayakawa, a Japanese-American actor who made his debut in 1914 and continued to act in Hollywood until his last performance before his death in 1966. He became one of the first male sex symbols in Hollywood by being typecast as the sadistic, yet devilishly handsome villain in his movies. He frequently preyed on young, often white women in his roles, drawing on the American view towards Japanese men at the time. Hayakawa is known as the first non-white actor to achieve international stardom, and was later rewarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, though he remains largely forgotten by most of the American public today.

To introduce my series “Yesterday”, I would describe the contents as including anything from the past, from as early as many centuries ago to as late as the 2000s. I often find myself fascinated by culture and history throughout the decades, and whether it’s a historical awareness piece or simply sketches of my favorite 90s films and music, I wanted to create a homage to that.