In your spare change – for those who still carry spare change – you may soon find a woman’s face emblazoned on one of your quarters, that of Anna May Wong.
She is being celebrated by the U.S. Mint and its American Women Quarters Program, which “celebrates the accomplishments and contributions made by women to the development and history of our country.”
The program is producing quarters that feature women who contributed to numerous areas in American life, including civil rights, abolition, science, space, and the arts.
When I read about Anna May Wong’s presence on a quarter, I fully admit my ignorance – I hadn’t heard of her. Curious, I looked her up. She was an actress, mostly known for her film career. She was Hollywood's first Chinese-American film star and a household name for decades.
But I snapped to attention when I read that Anna May Wong was the first Asian-American cast as a lead in a TV series – way back in 1951. The TV series was called, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong.
And that’s when I thought, “Oh, this could make an interesting post for The TV Professor.”
That said, as soon as I started looking up information on the TV series and searching for where to stream The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, I quickly realized, "Oh. There's almost nothing out there."
I decided to write about the series, anyway.
Today's "TV Lesson" Breakdown:
A little About Anna May Wong
Well, first of all, there’s a lot out there about Anna May Wong. I don’t mean to suggest that she herself is an enigma. Her TV series, however, is shrouded in mystery, which is fitting, since it was a mystery show. In fact, there are no known copies of the TV series, not even with, say, the Library of Congress. If it weren't for newspaper accounts of the show, there would be almost no record of the series existing.
Still, what little we do know is intriguing, and the mystery of why the series isn't around, and what became of it, is interesting as well.
As for Ms. Wong, for those who aren’t familiar with her, a little biographical information is probably in order.
Anna May Wong was born on January 3, 1905, in the Chinatown area of Los Angeles, the second child of eight kids. Her birth name was Wong Liu Tsong (some sources says, Wong Liu-tsong). Some stories say that her parents gave her the name, Anna May Wong, and that her siblings all had Americanized names. Other anecdotes suggest that Anna May Wong herself chose the moniker as her stage name.
According to various sources, Wong's grandfather, Leung Chew Wong, moved from China to California in the 1850s. He was clearly a good man; he died trying to rescue a woman who fell into a well.
Anna May Wong's parents owned and ran a laundry service. As the story goes, as a little girl, Anna May started seeing movie sets around her Los Angeles neighborhood and was naturally curious. She also had a habit of skipping school and going to the movies, paying for tickets with her lunch money. Playing hooky may have actually paid off; at the age of 14, Anna May Wong landed a part as an extra, in a silent film called The Red Lantern.
Two years later, Wong dropped out of high school to become a full-time actress.
That might sound like a crazy life decision, but Wong clearly knew what she was doing. By 1921, the press was already writing about her.
A profile of Anna May Wong in a 1921 edition that ran in papers across the country, like The Bakersfield Californian and the Lowell Sun in Massachusetts, discussed how Wong would work in Hollywood by day and at the ironing board at her father's laundromat at night.
A reporter wrote, "Handsome lovers shower her with attentions. Beautiful clothes adorn her slender form. Jewels sparkle from her jet black hair. Motor cars are at her beck and call. The thrill of the drama makes her forget that the camera is recording all this for the benefit of an amusement-loving public."
By 1922, just a year later, she had her first leading role in the movie The Toll of the Sea, which was only the second film made in Technicolor (the first was the 1917 film, The Gulf Between).
The Toll of the Sea’s plot was a variation of the Madama Butterfly opera, which was set in Japan, though The Toll of the Sea was set in China. After the film's release, Wong kept landing parts, and she got a lot of notice as a slave girl in the 1924 film The Thief of Bagdad, starring Douglas Fairbanks.
That same year, she played Tiger Lilly in the silent movie Peter Pan.
Wong also became a fashion icon in the 1920s. In fact, a 1927 article that appeared in the San Antonio Light described Anna May Wong "as a flapper in every sense of the word, wearing extremely abbreviated bathing costumes, dancing the Charleston, speaking in her exotic accents, the slang of Hollywood, enjoying a cigarette whenever and wherever she pleased…"
Not surprisingly, given the times, Wong encountered a lot of racism – which did serious damage to her career. For instance, laws wouldn’t allow her to kiss a fellow actor on screen unless they, too, were Chinese, which often meant she was frequently missing out on landing leading roles.
And so in 1928, frustrated with Hollywood, Wong left the country for a few years to perform in stage plays and films in Europe. It may have helped her. When she returned, American audiences welcomed her back, and Anna May Wong had a memorable turn as a supporting character in the classic 1932 film Shanghai Express, which starred Marlene Dietrich.
Still, Anna May Wong was understandably discouraged with how her career was going. In a 1933 magazine interview, Wong talked about why in 1928, she left the country.
“I was so tired of the parts I had to play,” Wong said. “Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain--murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass. We are not like that. How should we be, with a civilization that’s so many times older than that of the West. We have our own virtues. We have our rigid code of behavior, of honor. Why do they never show these on the screen? Why should we always scheme, rob, kill? I got so weary of it all--of the scenarist’s concept of Chinese characters. You remember ‘Fu Manchu’? ‘Daughter of the Dragon’? So wicked.”
A Little about The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong
So about Wong’s TV show. Maddeningly little is known about it, but it’s said that the series was written with Wong in mind – and that seems to be the case. After all, the title of the show incorporates Wong’s real first name, the one she was born with, Liu-Tsong, which, according to sources I've read, means "willow frost." (I want to thank Chris Eriksson, a reader who pointed out in the comments that "in the Chinese tradition, the surname (last name) comes first. Her first name was Liu-tsong.")
Wong starred in The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong when she was 46 years old, a time when leading roles were drying up for women in general – no matter what her ethnicity.
(I’m not saying that things are hunky dory now for women who are middle aged or older, just that from a bystander’s perspective, it seems obvious that it was far worse back in the mid-20th century than it is today.)
So it isn’t hard to see why Wong decided to play the lead in a TV series. It was a new medium that was attracting a lot of actors, from veteran performers to the up and coming.
According to the 2003 book, The Television Crime Fighters Factbook: Over 9,800 Details From 301 Programs, by Vincent Terrace, Wong “was originally depicted as a tolerant, well-meaning business woman who not only had to face the problems of running her own empire -- The Gallery of Mme. Liu Tsong -- but became her own detective to solve crimes associated with the art world (basically forgers and thieves who crave great works of art).”
Terrace added, “She was not a fighter and did not use martial arts skills. She was clever and used her wits to bring criminals to justice."
But then, according to Terrace, six episodes in, the series shifted its premise and even shortened its TV series title to Mme. Liu-Tsong. Terrace writes, “Anna May Wong was depicted as the owner of an import company that dealt with various art objects. While acquiring precious paintings was still her goal, she now had a large inventory and more corruption to fight."
After seven more episodes starring Wong as an import company owner – which sounds less exciting than an art gallery owner solving mysteries – the network decided to not order any more episodes, and The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong ended its run.
The Reviews for The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong
Reviews were not kind, though TV critics seemed to be rooting for Anna May Wong. They were fans of her but not of the show.
The Chicago Daily Tribune described the first episode of the series:
“The plot was a rather tangled skein and when they finally got it unraveled it looked like a lot of loose yarn. Miss Wong turned in an uneven performance. At the outset, we were impressed by her fine voice and assurance.
“That was before she came within camera range.
“Once she got into its spotlight she recited her lines woodenly, muffed them and looked thoroughly ill at ease.
“Once we caught a look in her eye which suggested that she was homesick for the movies, where you only have to memorize a few words at a time.
“If Miss Wong can learn to accustom herself to the TV medium and relax, this show may yet work out. With all the other chiller-dillers in the hands of males, there should be room for one mystery show with a woman heroine."
The New York Times had a similar take on the series:
“Anna May Wong, the American born actress who for many years lent an Oriental touch of intrigue to the Hollywood films, made her video debut last night in a bit of television trivia called, ‘The Gallery of Mme. Liu-Tsong’ (8:30 P.M. on Channel 5). If she was a little uncertain in her lines, it was understandable, because the author of the script obviously was not too sure where they were, either.
"To meet the needs of television, which likes to jump around the globe each week, Miss Wong is cast as the head of an international chain of art galleries. Last night, she was in her Paris branch when a Madison Avenue gamin thrust a priceless Egyptian idol in her hand.
"A leering gangster, sounding as if he had seen a lot more of Chicago than Montmartre, wanted the rare object. A girl, who looked as if she going to break into an Apache dance at any moment, solicited Mme. Liu's aid in foiling Monsieur Capone. Fortunately, the Surete got there before the station breaks and put a stop to it all. High time, too."
(The Surete is a reference to the French police force.)
And here’s this review of the series from The Cincinnati Enquirer:
"Gallery of Mme. Liu Tsong: A good many things can be wrong with a television program. The chief things are a terrible story, even poorer acting and fumbling direction. All of these things, with a couple extra thrown in for good measure (such as bad lighting and staging) were apparent on this Monday night mystery starring Anna May Wong. The program offers some hope of being a fair grade TV mystery, with Miss Wong as the operator of a string of art galleries. But if it keeps up the pace of the first run, it should headed straight for the cornfields."
Two months later, around the time the show had shortened its title to Mme. Liu-Tsong, the Long Island Journal offered up a review of the episode called, “Message From Beyond.” It read:
“Always on the side of the forces of good, Madame's adventures on behalf of the underground agents took her into the catacombs, the burial place of early martyrs and the meeting place of early Christians.
"Although somewhat better than preceding episodes in this series, last night's was weak in almost every department and hardly worthy of a personality of Miss Wong's standing. Frankly, I haven't mentioned the 'Mme. Liu Tsong' program before this precisely out of deference to the charming Chinese, who deserved time and opportunity to decide to pull out and head for a rest in parts unknown while proper and gentlemanly-inclined critics looked the other way. Since she has evidently determined to stay with the show, however, I must report on it now and say that it's improving but Miss Wong, not to mention the viewing public, deserves much, much better than this."
There were 13 episodes.
There is so little information about the TV series, that I’ll offer up a list of the 13 episodes that aired. Because that’s about all we know of the show.
- The Egyptian Idols
- The Golden Women
- Spreading Oak
- The Man with a Thousand Eyes
- Burning Sands
- Shadow of the Sun God
- Golden Caravan
- Message from Beyond
- The Prodigal Stepson
- Tinder Box
- The House of Quiet Dignity
- The Face of Evil
If anyone can find a script of these 13 episodes, it would be quite a find. They probably exist… somewhere, in somebody's basement or attic. You would think. As noted, there are no known recordings of the TV series.
The comprehensive famed website, IMDB.com, offers a little information on the pilot episode of The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. Other than Anna May Wong, there were four other actors in the episode. None of them were household names, or on the verge of becoming well known.
For instance, Winifred Cushing played a part in the series’ pilot episode – the name of the part is unknown – and, according to IMDB.com, had half a dozen credits in TV and movies. Her last role was in 1954, in the TV series, The Big Story. Her character? Woman in the Crowd.
Natalie Priest also had a role on the show. She had a lengthy career, running from an appearance as a secretary on the TV series Studio One in 1949 to a film role in the 1981 Burt Reynolds movie Paternity. Her role in that film? Lady in Butcher Shop.
Between those years, Priest had various bit parts on TV dramas, many of which aren't well remembered today, and in the 1970s, she probably felt like she had really arrived when she appeared in 12 episodes on the soap opera Ryan's Hope as Sister Mary Joel. I'm not making fun of these actors. Acting is hard work, and Natalie Priest is to be commended for sticking with it for over 30 years. But based on what we know of the pilot, the TV series, throughout its 13 episodes, employed a lot of unknown actors and Anna May Wong.
Still, for all we know, some future big name actor did appear on The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. It's just been forgotten.
What Happened to The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong?
It is a mystery, although it seems likely that the recordings were destroyed long ago. The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong originally aired on the DuMont network, a TV network that lasted from 1942 to 1956. Although you could argue that the other networks – NBC, CBS and ABC – struggled – and ABC certainly did in the early days – it was DuMont that was really operating on a shoestring budget. As soon as any performer became somewhat well known after appearing on DuMont, they would bolt for NBC, CBS or ABC, networks that could afford to truly pay the talent. Small wonder the network ceased to exist after 1956.
Forty years later, in 1996, actress Edie Adams – who was married to the late great comedian Ernie Kovacs, who had a series on DuMont – testified at a hearing in front of a panel at the Library of Congress about the preservation of American TV and video.
Ms. Adams said that in the early 1970s, the DuMont Network – which had long stopped airing programming – was being purchased by another company, and as Adams said, “the lawyers were in heavy negotiation as to who would be responsible for the library of Dumont shows currently being stored in the facility. Who would bear the expense of storing them in a temperature-controlled facility, take care of copyright renewal, etc.”
According to Adams, “One of the lawyers said he would, ‘take care of it in a fair manner.’ He took care of it all right.”
Adams told the panel that an attorney had three huge semis haul off the kinescopes, driving them to a waiting barge in New Jersey. The barge made a right at the Statue of Liberty and dumped the kinescopes in Upper New York Bay.
So that’s where “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong” recordings probably are, if they weren't destroyed years before the kinescopes were submerged.
Of course, some copy or copies may exist somewhere in somebody's basement or attic. Again, you would think some might. I know I read somewhere on the internet that a copy was listed for sale on eBay years back. But now I can’t find a mention of that, and even if there was a listing once, who knows if somebody has an actual copy or not, really? It may be that the original and sole kinescopes of the TV series met a grisly fate and are sleeping with the fishes.
We need a detective who can solve this mystery. We probably need someone, like, well, Madame Liu-Tsong.
What Happened After The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong
Anna May Wong continued performing on TV, and in fact, for the rest of her career, she would only appear on TV. Film roles simply had stopped coming, and it was hard time for her. Wong suffered from depression and drank too much.
She appeared in the TV series, I Spy, in 1955, although not in the famous Robert Culp and Bill Cosby TV series that ran from 1965 to 1968. Wong appeared in one episode of the 1955 anthology of espionage stories, a short-lived series called I Spy that was hosted by Raymond Massey.
The following year, Wong had a part in a TV series called Producers' Showcase. In 1958, she played Madame Chu in the 1958-1959 TV series, Mike Hammer, starring Darren McGavin.
Among other roles, she had two parts in the TV series Climax! (1954-1958) and another role in The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-1961). Her last appearance was in The Barbara Stanwyck Show, in an episode, "Dragon by the Tail," which ran in 1961.
The year of her second appearance in The Barbara Stanwyck Show should have been a good year for Wong. In 1961, she was going to make her film comeback in the movie Flower Drum Song – she had accepted the part of Madam Liang – but on February 3, shortly before she was due to take on the role, health issues that had been pursuing her throughout the 1950s caught up with her. Anna May Wong died of a heart attack in her sleep. She was only 56.
But actors are a hardy bunch, and sometimes, a little thing like death won’t keep an actor from advancing their career. In recent years, Anna May Wong has received something of a posthumous career comeback.
In 2020, Netflix came out with an original series called Hollywood, which had a character named Anna May Wong. The character was based on the actress, though what the character did in the series wasn't much based in reality. For instance, Hollywood had Wong winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for a role in a movie. But the movie Wong was in – in Hollywood’s telling – was completely fictional, and in real life, Wong was never nominated for an Oscar.
Also in 2020, Google Doodle featured a pretty cool slideshow of Anna May Wong. Books have been written about her in recent years.
And this year, of course, there’s the Anna May Wong quarter, with George Washington on the other side – which will be debut in cash registers and people's spare change at some point in 2022. As noted, it’s hard work being an actor, and it can require a lot of sacrifices to achieve any sort of lasting fame. For instance, perhaps because she was so busy with her career, Wong never married or had children.
But one hundred years after her first leading role in a film, Anna May Wong has a starring role on a piece of American currency. Not bad for an actress who lost out on lucrative parts and was often treated shabbily by Hollywood.
That she died, likely not being able to imagine in her wildest dreams that the country would someday put her visage on an American coin is more than a little sad, however.
Still, most actors want to leave a legacy behind, and in that, Wong more than succeeded.
The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong may be almost completely forgotten, possibly partly because of a shifty lawyer with no appreciation for television history, but thanks to making her mark on film and now on a coin, Anna May Wong’s name will forever be remembered.
Where you can watch The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong: Unfortunately, as noted, um, nowhere. You can watch it nowhere.
Articles similar to this one: Maybe this story on the history of working women (on TV)? Or perhaps you'd enjoy a look at this long forgotten TV series from the 1950s, about Decoy, the first TV series to feature a police woman?