Hollywood’s earliest filmmakers often used colorful real locations, like the streets around Los Angeles’ Chinatown, in their movies. Watching them as a child, Anna May Wong, a third-generation Chinese-American, became fascinated.

“She saw people making movies in the streets,” Katie Gee Salisbury, author of Not Your China Doll: The Wild and Shimmering Life of Anna May Wong, exclusively tells Closer. “Her dad ran a laundry business, so she and her older sister were often walking around making deliveries or picking things up from costumers. That was her first brush with movie making.”

By age 17, Anna May began appearing in films as an extra. Only a few years later, 1924’s The Thief of Bagdad would make her a star — and a fashion icon thanks to her Jazz Age flapper style.

“She rose very quickly,” says Salisbury. “After The Thief of Bagdad, she started getting billed with the other principal actors.”

But Anna May hit a wall early. In 1927, the Motion Picture Association began establishing rules about what could and could not be shown in movies. Interracial romances became a big no-no, which limited the type of parts Anna May could play.

“They didn’t want to make her a lead because they didn’t want her opposite a white actor,” explains Salisbury. “Or if she was opposite a white actor, the film couldn’t have a happy ending.”

Anna May also grew frustrated with typecasting.

How Anna May Wong Became a Hollywood Trailblazer in the ‘20s
General Photographic Agency / Getty Images

“Why is it that on the screen, the Chinese are nearly always the villain of the piece?” she asked. “Why should we always scheme, kill, rob? I got so weary of it all.”

Recognizing that the world was bigger than Hollywood, Anna May began taking theater and film jobs in London, Paris and Vienna. She learned French and German to open up more possibilities and perfected a British accent. She became a European sensation.

Back home, things remained difficult. In 1936, Anna May lost the lead role in The Good Earth to Luise Rainer, who would win an Oscar for playing a Chinese woman.

“It was a sympathetic story about the Chinese, and they cast a German actress,” says Salisbury. Anna May rebounded by taking her first trip to China. “She brought a cameraman and had it made into a documentary.”

A year later, Hollywood tried to make amends by casting her as the heroine in Daughter of Shanghai, a film costarring Korean-American actor Philip Ahn.

“It’s rare to see two Asian-American leads even today, but Anna May was breaking ground almost 100 years ago,” says Salisbury. “Her legacy is a reminder that we have to keep pushing because things don’t change on their own.”