Actress Anna May Wong Will Be the First Asian American Featured on U.S. Currency

The tail side of the new Anna May Wong quarter

The U.S. Mint said it will soon be shipping coins bearing the image of actress Anna May Wong, making her the first Asian American to appear on U.S. currency. (Image: via U.S. Mint)

Beginning on October 24, the United States Mint will start making quarters imprinted with the face of Anna May Wong’s inspiring career spanned motion pictures, television, and theatre, leaving a lasting legacy for Asian American women in the entertainment industry.

“She is remembered as an international film star, fashion icon, television trailblazer, and a champion for greater representation of Asian Americans in film. She continues to inspire actors and filmmakers today,” the U.S. Mint writes on its website.

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The tail of the new 25-cent coin depicts a close-up of Anna May Wong with her head resting on her hand, while the front will feature a portrait of George Washington created by 20th-century sculptor Laura Gardin Fraser, who became the first woman to design a coin for the U.S. in 1921.

Dubbed Hollywood's first Asian American movie star, Wong championed the need for more representation and fewer stereotypical roles for Asian Americans on screen.
Dubbed Hollywood’s first Asian American movie star, Anna May Wong championed the need for more representation and fewer stereotypical roles for Asian Americans on screen. (Image: via Public Domain)

The “golden age” of Hollywood racism

Born Wong Liu Tsong on January 3, 1905, in Los Angeles, California, her family gave her the English name Anna May. Filmmaking fascinated her from an early age, and she landed her first leading role at the age of 17 in the silent drama film The Toll of the Sea (1922), one of the first films in color.

During the early stages of her career, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the immigration of Chinese workers, and anti-miscegenation laws forbade the on-screen representation of interracial marriages and intimacy.

Thus, despite the celebrity she gained from her first film role performance and the critical acclaim she received, she found it difficult to secure other leading roles because of Hollywood’s reluctance to cast an Asian actress. 

It was the era when white actors donned “yellowface” makeup to take on Asian film roles, as in the adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s book The Good Earth (1937). MGM refused to consider Anna May Wong for the leading role of O-Lan, which went to white actress Luise Rainere.

The roles she did land were laced with racial stereotypes as she was principally cast as the evil and seductive “Dragon Lady” and demure “Butterfly” roles. She was also woefully underpaid as compared to her white counterparts of the time.

Anna May Wong’s career spanned 60 films — many in the silent era — and she earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. (Image: via Public Domain)

A move to Europe

After experiencing racist treatment in Hollywood, Anna May Wong moved to Europe in 1928, where she starred in several notable plays and films, including Piccadilly (1929).

She told the Los Angeles Times in a 1933 interview that she was tired of the stereotypical roles she had to play in Hollywood.

“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,” she told the newspaper. “We are not like that.”

Despite the challenges Anna May Wong faced, her career in acting was prolific. By her retirement, she appeared in over 60 films, including The Thief of Baghdad (1924), Peter Pan (1924), Shanghai Express (1932), and Impact (1949). She also was the first Asian-American lead actor in an American television show, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (1951).

Long overdue recognition

Throughout her life, Anna May Wong advocated for greater representation of Asian American actors. She received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame a year before her death at age 56, on February 3, 1961.

Gemma Star, who played Astrid Leong in the groundbreaking 2018 movie Crazy Rich Asians, will portray Anna May Wong in a biopic of the actress. The film is currently in production.

She is the fifth woman to be recognized as part of the U.S. Mint’s American Women Quarters Program, which was first announced in January 2022 and features women who have made contributions in a variety of fields, including suffrage, civil rights, abolition, government, humanities, science, space, and the arts.

This year, the other four women in the program were poet Maya Angelou, astronaut Sally Ride, suffragist and politician Nina Otero-Warren, and Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.

The U.S. Mint is expected to produce more than 300 million Anna May Wong quarters at its facilities in Philadelphia and Denver.

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