Almost every working Asian actor in Hollywood can trace their path back to Bruce Lee and Anna May Wong.
The Chinese American screen legends are typically talked about the way one talks about revered ancestors. One was a martial arts icon, the other an actor who stood out during the silent film era despite playing women who were either submissive or dragon ladies. Both are credited with demonstrating Asians could be more than just extras for movies about China or Chinatown.
Although Wong was born in 1905 in Los Angeles and Lee in 1940 in San Francisco, their families like to imagine they crossed paths.
“They may have. Well, they may have seen each other at like a party or something,” said Anna Wong, the elder Wong’s niece and namesake.
“My father was an actor when he was a child in Hong Kong. So, you know, he may have seen some of her films that came across,” Shannon Lee chimed in. ”He loved to see Hollywood films as well when he was young.”
Lee and Wong had never met before doing a recent joint Zoom interview with The Associated Press. They discovered parallel experiences protecting the legacy of a family member who happens to be an icon of both Hollywood and Asian America.
They have seen their relatives’ popularity ebb and flow over decades. They have grappled with bogus long-lost child claims, weird licensing requests and on-screen portrayals out of their control. But they’ve also seen how the fascination continues: There are museum exhibits, TV show projects and an American quarter tribute.
With “Everything Everywhere All at Once” poised to snag trophies at the Oscars on Sunday — particularly for Asian cast members Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan — both women reflected on how things have changed since the blatantly racist practices that permeated Wong and Lee’s heydays.
Lee has a “soft spot” for Yeoh because she came from kung fu cinema like her father. She’s thrilled for Yeoh’s recognition, especially because for so long Hollywood used Bruce Lee to justify casting Asians only as characters there just to karate chop.
“Of course she’s doing action in the film but being recognized for her artistry and her acting and for all of that is really heartwarming for me to see,” she said. “And Ke as well who … as a young kid was very sort of stereotyped and he was put in a box because of it.”
It’s especially phenomenal when compared with Anna May Wong’s era, according to her niece.
“Back in those days, no one had an Asian man and an Asian woman in the lead roles,” Wong said. “It’s crazy how far we’ve come. But then again, how far are we?”
While Lee was 4 when her father died, Wong never met her aunt. She knew her as “the pretty lady” in the pictures her father — Anna May Wong’s brother — kept around the house.
“When he started telling me about the pretty lady, I was wanting to realize who she was,” Wong said. “And then I became obsessed with her films and seeing all kinds of things.”
Both grew up hearing stories of how Anna May Wong and Bruce Lee fought hard against stereotypes, yet were sometimes stuck in unwinnable situations.
After gaining fame in movies like “The Thief of Bagdad” and “Shanghai Express,” Anna May Wong suffered one of the greatest disappointments of her life in 1937. She lost the lead role of a Chinese villager in “The Good Earth” to Luise Rainer, who was white. Rainer went on to win a best actress Oscar.
The younger Wong brings this up on the lecture circuit. Millennial audiences “find it completely irrational to say, ‘Okay, so let’s take a Caucasian person and make them up to look like an Asian person and … no one will notice,’” Wong said.
“It’s actually a good thing that today’s generation thinks that that’s crazy,” Lee added.
Even earning a lead role didn’t necessarily mean a big payday for Asian talent. Before Bruce Lee went to Hong Kong and made hits like “The Big Boss” and “Fist of Fury,” he was Kato in “The Green Hornet.” The TV series premiered in 1966, only lasting a season and carrying a massive pay disparity.
“When you look at the pay stubs and then they say what everyone’s getting paid, he’s like way down on the bottom,” Lee said. “Hopefully, there’s changes happening there.”
Neither actor was ever nominated for an Oscar. But the 2020 Netflix miniseries “Hollywood” depicted an alternate universe where Anna May Wong — played by Michelle Krusiec — won an Oscar. It created a nuisance for her niece and a reminder of a sad time in the actor’s life.
“After that series came out, people said, ‘Do you have her Oscar?’” Wong said. “I’m thinking, ‘You know that that series was fictionalized, right?’”
Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 flick “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” featured a fictitious scene of Bruce Lee picking (and losing) a fight with Brad Pitt’s stuntman character. His daughter criticized the cameo as nothing but “horrible tropes,” even penning an op-ed in The Hollywood Reporter.
“With this one film now everybody’s like, ‘Oh, that’s what Bruce Lee was really like,’” Lee told the AP. “No, that was not what he was like at all.”
Anna May Wong died in 1961 at 56 and Bruce Lee died in 1973 at 32. All these years later, the interest in them hasn’t abated.
In a total coincidence, both families recently signed on as producers of biopics. Lee is working with Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (no relation), Wong with “Crazy Rich Asians” star Gemma Chan.
“Ang is a very earnest, gracious man. I think he wants to make a really great film,” said Lee, who’s been working on her movie for several years. “I would say in this moment I am cautiously optimistic.”
Wong almost walked away from her project when several self-proclaimed “Anna May Wong experts” reached out to producers — but they reassured her they’re “not going to take these people on when we can have an actual relative of Anna May Wong.”
They both also receive (and often deny) steady merchandising proposals like Anna May Wong teacups and Bruce Lee football helmets, snack bowls and tin guitars.
“I guess I have to say it does speak to the love that people have. So I’m grateful for that,” Lee said.
Both women hope people take away lessons in perseverance when looking at Bruce Lee’s and Anna May Wong’s lives. They were “symbols of what’s possible,” Lee said.
“For them to have gotten the opportunity to get on the screen, in the first place meant that they had extremely big energy, amazing work ethic and then they were able to accomplish the impossible in some way,” she added.
Tang is a member of The Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at @ttangAP.