With eyes downcast and black hair tied into a severe no-nonsense bun, Luise Rainer lit up the screen in the 1937 hit movie, The Good Earth, as O-lan, an honorable and hardworking enslaved Chinese woman—for which she won the Oscar for best actress.
Rainer, of course, was white and won the part over the first Asian American female movie star, who was perfect for the role: Anna May Wong. O-lan was Wong’s dream role, and she screen-tested multiple times, but MGM producer Albert Lewin declared that she wasn’t beautiful enough. Instead, they hired Rainer, who performed in yellowface, the practice of using makeup to imitate the appearance of an Asian person.
It was one of Wong’s greatest disappointments, but she was used to being relegated to oversexed, dragon-lady roles. She died young from a heart attack at 56, but the Asian American community celebrates her as a pioneer in films such as The Toll of the Sea, The Thief of Bagdad, and Shanghai Express—and as an activist against racism in Hollywood. Wong frequently used her platform to speak out against stereotyping in films and discriminatory practices.
Like so many remarkable Asian American women today, Wong may finally be getting her due for all her accomplishments. Telling her story—and those of other Asian Americans who have contributed much to this country—has become even more important amid the continued rise in anti-Asian hate in the United States.
An ideal place to dive into that story is California, which has a rich history of Asian American culture. It was the home of the first significant wave of Asian immigrants to the U.S., and today, nearly 30 percent of Asian Americans live in the state. Hop in the car for this history-making road trip, which spans from Los Angeles to San Francisco and stops at many historical monuments and unexpected destinations—all of which spotlight the accomplishments of female Asian American trailblazers.
Start your trip in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo. This vibrant enclave of Japanese Americans—adjacent to downtown Los Angeles—contains about five blocks of old-school sushi spots, Japanese gardens, and so much more. Visit the Japanese American National Museum to view the artwork by Miné Okubo that later inspired her book Citizen 13660—the first personal account of Japanese internment in the U.S. detention camps of World War II. In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt enacted Executive Order 9066, which authorized Japanese relocation. The exhibit features a draft of the final manuscript, original drawings, and sketches produced while she was detained at the Tanforan detention center near San Francisco and later in the Topaz relocation camp in Utah.
To spend more time in the neighborhood, book a stay at the Miyako Hotel Los Angeles, located in the heart of Little Tokyo and just across the street from the Japanese American National Museum.
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The Harvard Heights neighborhood is home to the Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery, the first in Los Angeles to open to all races and religions and the final resting home for Anna May Wong, who is buried with her mother, Lee Toy Wong. The humble brown granite stone at her gravesite can only be identified by its white etched epitaph, “Lee Toy Wong Our Beloved Mother,” and Chinese lettering beneath. It’s a popular site for fans, who leave flowers and letters celebrating her illustrious career. Afterward, pay further tribute at Wong’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Three hours north of L.A., visit the Manzanar National Historic Site Visitor Center in the town of Independence, where more than 10,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly detained. Among these people was one of the first Japanese American women to become a doctor in the United States, Dr. Kazue Togasaki—a pioneer for Asian American women in medicine. While interned, she set up medical facilities at Manzanar until she returned home to San Francisco in 1943. Visitors can view the harsh conditions, including cabin replicas at the visitor center, and take the 3.2-mile self-guided driving tour.
In the Central Valley, Delano became famous in the 1950s for its production of table grapes and its sizable Filipino population—and even more so in the 1960s for that group’s role in the Delano Grape Strike and the farmworkers’ rights movement.
Today visitors can tour the Paulo Agbayani Retirement Village, built by and for those early activists. When the center opened in 1974, its first manager was a Filipino Mexican American labor activist named Lorraine Agtang. She was also one of the last surviving Filipino farmworkers who participated in the 1965 Delano Grape Strike. Tours of the facilities are available by appointment.
Splurge for a stay at the Carmel Valley Ranch hotel near the peaceful seaside town of Carmel for a much-needed rest. A few miles away, at scenic Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, you can visit Whalers Cabin Museum, a Chinese fishing lodge built in the 1850s. There, learn about Quock Mui, the first documented Chinese woman born in the area. She spoke five languages and acted as the liaison between ethnic groups in the area at the time.
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From San Francisco or Tiburon, take a ferry to visit Angel Island Immigration Station on Angel Island State Park. Opened in 1910, this was the main entry point for Asians coming to America. It also became the detention place for many Chinese prisoners after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act—which severely limited Chinese immigration. Their anguish remains in the more than 200 poems they chiseled into the walls. “How was I to know I would become a prisoner suffering in the wooden building?” one reads. Additionally, the “Opening Doors” exhibit here features the stories of Asian American vanguards such as Reiko Homma-True, a Japanese activist and psychologist famous for advancing Asian American mental health, and Thuy Vu, a Vietnamese refugee who celebrated a distinguished career as an Emmy award–winning journalist.
Established in the mid-1800s, San Francisco’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in the United States. Enjoy traditional pushcart dim sum or learn about local history from sites such as the Showgirl Magic Museum, dedicated to the dancers of the district’s Asian American nightclub culture of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. Located in the Clarion Performing Arts Center, the museum displays memorabilia like headdresses and costumes, collected by Cynthia Yee, a former nightclub dancer from that era and founder of the Grant Avenue Follies. Her troupe of dancers still puts on shows today for convalescing patients, fundraisers, and local events.
End your day by luxuriating at the Hotel Nikko San Francisco, which features Japanese cherry blossom art prints and an upscale Japanese Asian fusion restaurant.
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