Were there any other Asian leading ladies before 1960?
We are familiar with Asian players of both sexes in Hollywood from the Twenties onward: Sessue Hayakawa and his hedonistic actress/wife Tsuru Aoki. Less notable is Keye Luke, who played Charlie Chan’s No. 1 son (Chan himself was played by a bevy of non-Asians notably Warner Oland). And let’s not forget Merle Oberon, who carefully hid her Indian lineage in her early years; and, of course, Bruce Lee.
And on the horrible list, can anyone forget Mickey Rooney’s regrettable performance as the buck-toothed Mr. Yanioshi in 1961’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s?
There;s no question that the biggest Asian female star prior to 1960 was Anna May Wong (see below).
She was actually Asian-American on the sense that she was born in Los Angeles — her father ran a Chinese laundry — in 1905. By 1919 she started appearing a series of silent films that led to subsequent parts in a broad range of ‘talkies.’ In all her career lasted more than 40 years and encompassed more than 60 movie and tv credits.
Anna May was indeed a topline star, although she was always severely typecast and limited in the roles she was offered. She battled various health problems in her life, and died of a massive heart attack in 1961 at the relatively early age of 56.
Nancy Kwan is Hong Kong Chinese, born in the city in 1939. Her movie CV is nowhere near as impressive as Wong’s but she was a star from the get go. Kwan studied at England’s Royal Ballet when she was spotted by producer Ray Stark eager to find the right actress to play a prostitute who romances William Holden.
Her prominent debut led to myriad other roles including the 1961 version of The Flower Drum Song. Kwan became a bona fide Asian star. She has since rolled up more than 50 movie and tv credits, including a stint as a producer of entertainment for Asian markets.