Women’s History Month: Anna May Wong

This week in North Philly Notes, in honor of Women’s History Month, we repost Shirley Jennifer Lim’s article about Anna May Wong that appeared in The Conversation on March 7.

The U.S. Mint will, over the next four years, issue quarters featuring the likenesses of American women who contributed to “the development and history of our country.”

The first batch of the American Women Quarters Program, announced in January 2022, includes astronaut Sally Ride and poet Maya Angelou.

One name on the list might be less familiar to some Americans: Chinese American actress Anna May Wong.

Back of quarter featuring engraving of woman.
Anna May Wong will appear on the back of a quarter as part of the U.S. Mint’s American Women Quarters Program. U.S. Mint via Getty Images

As someone who has written a biography on Wong, I was delighted to provide the U.S. Mint with Wong’s backstory.

The subject of renewed attention in recent years, Wong is often referred to as a Hollywood star – in fact, the U.S. Treasury describes her as “the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood.” And she certainly did dazzle in her roles.

But to me, this characterization diminishes her chief accomplishment: her capacity for reinvention. Hollywood continually stymied her ambitions. And yet out of the ashes of rejection, she persevered, becoming an Australian vaudeville chanteuse, a British theatrical luminary, a B-film pulp diva and an American television celebrity.

A star is born

Born just outside of Los Angeles’ Chinatown in 1905, Wong grew up witnessing movies being made all around her. She dreamed of one day becoming a leading lady.

Cutting classes in order to beg directors for roles, Wong began her career as an extra in Alla Nazimova’s 1919 classic film about China’s Boxer Rebellion, “The Red Lantern.” In 1922, at the age of 17, Wong landed her first starring role in “The Toll of the Sea,” playing a character based on Madame Butterfly. Her performance was well received, and she went on to be cast as the Mongol slave in the 1924 hit film “The Thief of Bagdad.”

However, she quickly hit a wall in an era when it was common to cast white actors in yellowface – having them tape their eyes, wear makeup and assume exaggerated accents and gestures – to play Asian characters. (This practice would continue for decades: In 1961, director Blake Edwards egregiously cast Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and as recently as 2015, Emma Stone was controversially cast as a part-Chinese, part-Hawaiian character in “Aloha.”) Wong would go on to land roles playing unnamed minor characters in the 1927 film “Old San Francisco” and “Across to Singapore,” which premiered a year later. But anything outside of typecast roles seemed out of reach.

Woman and man hold hands.
In ‘Daughter of the Dragon,’ Anna May Wong starred alongside Warner Oland, a Swedish-American actor who often appeared in yellowface. LMPC/Getty Images

In some ways, her career mirrored that of the great Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, who had forged a path for people of Asian Pacific descent in Hollywood. Hayakawa became a star through his headlining role in the 1915 Lasky-Famous Players film, “The Cheat.” However, as anti-Japanese sentiment increased in the U.S., his roles dried up. By 1922, he had left Hollywood.

European fame

Some actresses would have accepted their lot, grateful for the chance to simply appear in films.

Not Wong.

In 1928, fed up with a lack of opportunities in Hollywood, she packed her bags and sailed to Europe, where she became a global star.

Woman holding purse on sidewalk.
Wong poses in front of the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris in 1935. Bettmann/Getty Images

From 1928 to 1934 she made a series of movies for Germany’s Universum-Film Aktiengeselleschaft, and found work with other leading studios such as France’s Gaumont and Associated Talking Pictures in the U.K. She impressed in her roles, attracting the attention of luminaries such as the German intellectual Walter Benjamin, British actor Laurence Olivier, German actress Marlene Dietrich and African American actor Paul Robeson. In Europe, Wong joined the ranks of African American artists such as Robeson, Josephine Baker and Langston Hughes, who, frustrated by segregation in the U.S., had left the country and found adulation in Europe.

When film work wasn’t forthcoming, Wong turned to vaudeville. In 1934, she embarked on a European tour, where she sang, danced and acted before enthralled audiences in cities large and small, from Madrid to Göteborg, Sweden.

Wong’s revue showcased her chameleonlike powers to transform herself. In Göteborg, for example, she performed eight numbers that included the Chinese folk song “Jasmine Flower” and the contemporary French hit “Parlez-moi d’Amour.” Inhabiting a variety of roles and races, she seamlessly shifted from speaking Chinese to French, from portraying a folk singer to appearing as a tuxedo-clad nightclub siren.

Wong decides to do it on her own

What I love about Wong is that even as Hollywood thwarted her time and again, she continued creating her own opportunities.

Though she spent years in Europe, Wong continued to audition for American roles.

In 1937, she tried out for the leading role in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “The Good Earth.” After she was rejected, she decided that if she couldn’t star in a movie, she would simply make one of her own.

She took her one and only trip to China, documenting the experience. Her charming short film showed numerous activities, including female impersonators teaching Wong how to enact Chinese female roles, a trip to the Western Hills, and a visit to the family’s ancestral village. At a time when the number of prominent female directors in Hollywood could be counted on one hand, it was a remarkable feat.

Two decades later, the film would air on ABC. By that time, Wong had established herself as a TV star by playing a gallery owner-cum-detective who traveled the globe solving crimes in “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong.” It was the first television series to feature an Asian Pacific American lead.

By the time Wong died on February 3, 1961, she had left a legacy of more than 50 films, numerous Broadway and vaudeville shows, and a television series. Equally important is how she became a global celebrity despite being shut out from Hollywood’s A-list leading roles.

It’s a story of tenacity and determination that can inspire all who want to see images of people of color reflected back to them on screen.

Mourning the loss of lindy hopper and author Norma Miller

This week in North Philly Notes, we re-post the obituary from the May 5 issue of the New York Times that celebrated the life of Norma Miller, author of Swinin’ at the Savoy

By Robert D. McFadden

swingin at the savoyNorma Miller, who danced the Lindy Hop on Harlem sidewalks as a child, and as a teenager dazzled crowds on international tours in the 1930s and early ′40s doing the same kicks, spins and drops that had made it a Jazz Age jitterbug craze, died on Sunday at her home in Fort Myers, Fla. She was 99.

Her longtime manager and caretaker, John Biffar, announced her death.

Among the cultural prodigies who arose after the aviator Charles A. Lindbergh’s “hop” from New York to Paris in 1927 — hence the dance’s name — Ms. Miller, known as the “Queen of Swing,” was the youngest recruit and last survivor of the original Lindy Hoppers, the all-black Herbert White troupe that broke in at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom and popularized the Lindy Hop in Broadway shows, on tours of Europe and Latin America, and in Hollywood films.

In the movies, she danced and sang in memorable black-cast numbers in the Marx Brothers’ “A Day at the Races” (1937) and in the madcap Olsen and Johnson comedy “Hellzapoppin’ ” (1941). She later thrived as a choreographer, comedian, television actor and author, and was honored by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2003 as a conservator of the Lindy Hop.

With her own black companies, the Norma Miller Dancers and Norma Miller and Her Jazzmen, she joined early fights to undermine segregation in the nightclubs and casinos of Miami Beach and Las Vegas, where black entertainers — even stars like Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. — drew big crowds but afterward had to leave through the kitchen and stay in segregated accommodations.

A child of poverty whose father died before she was born, Ms. Miller lived with her mother and sister in a cramped, noisy Harlem apartment, whose back windows looked out on the ballroom that would be her steppingstone to stardom. On the horizon were professional friendships with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Artie Shaw and other musical legends.

She was discovered on Easter Sunday 1932 by the great swing dancer Twist Mouth George Ganaway as she flashed her moves on the sidewalk outside the Savoy, a blocklong rhythm factory on Lenox Avenue between West 140th and 141st Streets. She was only 12, too young even to get into the swanky, mirrored emporium of swing that Langston Hughes called “the heartbeat of Harlem.”

“I was a precocious youngster,” Ms. Miller said in “Queen of Swing,” a 2006 documentary on her life. Mr. Ganaway spotted her performance and gave her a Coca-Cola. From inside the Savoy, a swing band’s hard-driving sound beat its way to the sidewalk, and there she and Mr. Ganaway danced.

“He swung me out,” she recalled. “I don’t know if I ever hit the floor. He just flew me all around.”

Norma, wiry and nimble, already knew some Lindy Hop moves: the swing out, the hip-to-hip, the side-flip, the sugar push. Mr. Ganaway was impressed. He took her into the Savoy, ignoring the technicality of her age, and they were soon captivating the regulars with through-the-legs slides, over-the-head flips and acrobatic aerial lifts. Later, they won a Lindy Hop contest at the Savoy.

She continued to improve. After watching her win the Harvest Moon Ball dance contest at the Apollo Theater in 1934, Herbert White invited her to join his new troupe, the Lindy Hoppers. She agreed, and at 15 came under the tutelage of Mr. White’s choreographer,  Frankie Manning, the master of swing-era dances, who was the inspirational coach of the Lindy Hoppers.

What followed over the next few years was the professional education of a dancer: the wider world of hard work and the excitement and grind of travel to faraway places, of dancing in Broadway shows and on a seven-month tour of Paris, London and other European cities, then performances across America with Ethel Waters and a girl’s first adventure in Hollywood.

She was not quite 18 when she met the Marx Brothers, Allan Jones and Maureen O’Sullivan on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot and made her film debut in “A Day at the Races.” She danced and sang with the Lindy Hoppers in the well-known black-cast barn scene number, “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm,” which featured Ivie Anderson and Duke Ellington’s orchestra. The Lindy Hop sequence was nominated for an Academy Award for dance direction.

Ms. Miller and the Lindy Hoppers were showcased in the Broadway musical revue hit “Hellzapoppin’ ” in 1938 and in 1941 appeared in the Hollywood version, both of which starred Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson and Martha Raye. It was a slashing satire of show business, with slapstick mayhem, horned demons, collapsing staircases and fun house slides that led straight to hell.


In a sequence widely regarded as the best example of the Lindy Hop on film, four couples in backstage-workers’ get-ups swing out, one after the other, into acrobatic shines at a frenetic tempo. Ms. Miller and Billy Ricker, dancing in chefs caps like animated rag dolls, execute breathtaking flips, slides, kicks, splits, lifts and lightning moves that seem to defy gravity and human speed limits

After completing the filming, the Lindy Hoppers flew to Brazil and were performing in Rio de Janeiro when the bombing of Pearl Harbor plunged the United States into World War II. Unable to find transportation home, the troupe toured for six months in South America before returning home exhausted and nearly broke.

With the war on, the Lindy Hop began to fade as musical tastes changed. In 1942, Ms. Miller made her last tour with the Lindy Hoppers, appearing in New York, Washington and Baltimore. When her dance partner was drafted into the military, she left the troupe, which disbanded soon after. While her career went on for decades, it never returned to the high notes of her early years.

The Savoy Ballroom, which opened in 1926 and brought blacks and whites together in an era of racial segregation, was torn down in 1958 to make way for a housing project. On any given night, thousands had packed its hardwood floors as swing music by Ellington, Basie or Chick Webb inspired the Norma Millers.

“Black girls didn’t have many outlets,” she told a Florida radio station in 2015, eight decades after her heyday. “You had laundry. You had hairdresser. Or teacher. Now, I didn’t qualify for any of those. I could dance. I could just do it naturally.”

Norma Miller was born in Harlem on Dec. 2, 1919, the second daughter of Norman and Alma Miller, immigrants from Barbados. Her father, a shipyard worker, died of pneumonia a month before her birth, and her mother worked as a charwoman to raise her and her sister, Dot. Norma was fascinated with dance, and her mother, though struggling to pay rent, enrolled her in Saturday dance classes. Norma danced at her mother’s “rent parties,” as friends chipped in.

In the Roaring Twenties, music was everywhere in Harlem, but after 1929, when the Millers moved into a tenement apartment on West 140th Street, swing from the Savoy boomed nightly through their back windows. Looking out on the ballroom’s rear windows, Norma saw dancing patrons as shadows moving behind the curtains, doing the Charleston and the Lindy Hop.

She and her friends practiced the dances in the gym at her school, P.S. 136, and after church on the sidewalk outside the Savoy, where Mr. Ganaway discovered her. As her talents grew, she was enrolled at the Manhattan School of the Arts on the Upper West Side.

After her meteoric Lindy Hop career, Ms. Miller reinvented herself in 1952. She founded and choreographed the Norma Miller Dancers, a jazz-dance troupe that toured America and Australia for two years, then joined Count Basie on a national tour. In the pervasive racial segregation of the day, Ms. Miller and her group faced daily reminders of their secondary status in renting rooms, riding in the back of buses, dining in black eateries and sometimes confronting white protests.

In 1957, the Norma Miller Dancers played long-running engagements in Miami Beach and Las Vegas as part of an extravagant production called the “Cotton Club Revue.” The show, starring Cab Calloway and a 48-member all-black cast, drew huge nightly audiences for months. But it also stirred racial unrest, as had been anticipated: Every cast member was given an identity card issued by the police, and after each show had to retreat to a “colored” hotel.

“We were to be the first all-black show to play the Beachcomber in Miami Beach,” Ms. Miller recalled in “Stompin’ at the Savoy: The Memoir of a Jazz Dancer” (2003, with Evette Jensen). “During rehearsal, racial tensions surfaced. The day of our big dress rehearsal, there were headlines in The Miami Sun telling Murray Weinger” — a Miami nightclub owner — “that they didn’t want his colored show on the beach.”

Ms. Miller lived in Las Vegas for much of the 1960s and ′70s. She did comedy routines in clubs with Redd Foxx and taught children’s dance classes. In 1972, she entertained American troops in Vietnam. She had roles in three of Mr. Foxx’s NBC sitcoms: “Sanford and Son” in 1973-74, “Grady” in 1976, and “Sanford Arms” in 1977.

Besides “Queen of Swing,” John Biffar’s documentary on her life, Ms. Miller appeared in at least nine other documentaries on dance, black comedy and other subjects, including Ken Burns’s PBS series “Jazz” (2000). She was the subject of a children’s book by Alan Govenar, “Stompin’ at the Savoy: The Story of Norma Miller” (2006). Her own books include “Swing Baby Swing” (2010, with Darlene Gist), a chronicle of swing dancing over her century.

Ms. Miller, who never married and left no immediate survivors, had a long-term relationship with fellow Hellzapoppin’ performer Roy Glenn, who died in 1971. She traveled widely to appear at swing and jazz festivals and give talks on her dancing days. “The Savoy was our community,” she told Bobby White in one interview in 2016, “and the dance floor was the place we found freedom.”

In 2018, Ms. Miller appeared at the Herrang Dance Camp in Sweden, an annual gathering since the 1980s of Lindy Hop lovers from around the world. “A place like this is unbelievable,” she said. “It’s like Brigadoon” the musical about a Scottish village that magically reappears once every 100 years.

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