Young Hollywood Was Asian

Katie Gee Salisbury
15 min readMay 3, 2022

the playboys, half-castes, outsiders, and sirens who made motion pictures

Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong gaze at a film reel in a Paramount publicity still for Daughter of the Dragon, 1931

Another year, another badass Asian film becomes the unexpected darling of arthouse cinemas across the country and takes the film world by surprise. Since the release of Crazy Rich Asians in 2018, every new release that centers around Asian or Asian American stories has felt like winning another chip at the craps table. Little by little, chip by chip, we are amassing proof not only that there is a place for Asians in Hollywood, but also that movies can be spectacularly successful when Asians act, write, and direct them.

Everything Everywhere All at Once, a low-budget indie production brought to life by the visionary team Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (aka the Daniels), is the latest of the bunch and it just crossed the $20 million mark in revenue. If one day we decide to cash in our stockpile of chips, will Hollywood stop making Asians jump through endless hoops to make it on screen and into writing rooms?

Of course, we shouldn’t have to prove ourselves, and the fact that we do says a lot about how white supremacy still dominates America in the most unconscious yet persistent ways. Many have doubted, even today, whether Asians/Asian Americans are charismatic enough, creative enough, human enough to be cast in leading roles or to carry a story that does not revolve around a majority white cast. Anna May Wong’s career, which began in 1919 when she was fourteen, proves that this is simply not true.

Interestingly, one of the things I have discovered in the course of researching Wong’s life is that Asians/Asian Americans were an integral part of early Hollywood. Whatever you may have heard, we were there from the very beginning. And the reason that was even possible is because the people who built the film industry in Los Angeles, as I write in my forthcoming book about Anna May Wong, were a band of outsiders.

The upright Christians and Midwestern folk who thought they’d discovered their own personal Eden in Southern California in the late 1800s were thrown into a tizzy when studios Back East started sending packs of actors, directors, and cameramen to Los Angeles circa 1910. Residents were disturbed and outraged over those “damn flicker outfits” and wanted…

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Katie Gee Salisbury

Author of NOT YOUR CHINA DOLL, a new biography of Anna May Wong, forthcoming from Dutton on March 12, 2024. Available for pre-order: www.notyourchinadoll.com