Meet Anna May Wong, the First Asian American on U.S. Currency
The trailblazing actress overcame discrimination to become a global star
Consumers will soon see a new face peering up at them from the United States quarter: Anna May Wong, the glamorous Chinese-American movie star.
When the U.S. Mint begins shipping the new coins on Monday, Wong will become the first Asian American to appear on the country’s currency.
The Mint is featuring the image of her face, resting gently on a manicured hand, on the back of the 25-cent piece as part of the American Women Quarters Program. Launched this year and running through 2025, the initiative honors the achievements of women from a variety of fields, including abolition, government, suffrage, space, science, the humanities and the arts. The Mint is also striving to recognize women from ethnically, racially and geographically diverse backgrounds.
Wong is the fifth woman to appear on quarters through the program so far. Designer Emily Damstra and sculptor John McGraw created the coin-face image.
Earlier this year, the Mint released into circulation four other quarters featuring poet and activist Maya Angelou, astronaut Sally Ride, Cherokee Nation chief and activist Wilma Mankiller and suffragist Nina Otero-Warren. Next year’s coins will highlight journalist and activist Jovita Idár, former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, pilot Bessie Coleman, teacher and composer Edith Kanaka’ole and ballerina Maria Tallchief.
George Washington’s likeness appears on the other side of the American Women Quarters coins—and it, too, has special significance. Artist Laura Gardin Fraser originally created the design in 1931 for a competition Congress held in honor of Washington’s 200th birthday. Congress did not select her design in the 1930s, but the Mint held onto it and used it for the 1999 commemorative George Washington gold $5 coin 68 years later.
Born in Los Angeles in 1905, Wong began acting as a teenager during Hollywood’s silent film era. Wong faced racism because of her Chinese heritage: She was underpaid compared to her white co-stars, and directors often asked her to play characters that exaggerated racial and ethnic stereotypes.
In the early 20th century, when Wong was launching her career, white actors regularly wore makeup and clothes to portray Asian characters, a practice known as yellowface. She wanted to be valued as “an actress, a woman with vision and ambition, and an American, all at a time when U.S. society could not imagine a Chines-American woman beyond the limits of racialized and gendered stereotypes of Asian women as exotic and foreign,” says Karen Leong, a gender and Asian Pacific American studies researcher at Arizona State University, to the Washington Post’s Bryan Pietsch.
Fed up with the racism in the U.S. film industry, Wong moved to Europe in 1928 and became a global star, appearing in a variety of German, French and English films. She completed a vaudeville tour around Europe and made a short film about her first and only trip to China. Later, she starred in the television series “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong.”
“I was so tired of the parts I had to play,” Wong told a magazine interviewer in 1933, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. “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.”
Eventually, Hollywood recognized her talent with a star on the Walk of Fame in 1960. Wong died in 1961, but her determination in the face of adversity continues to inspire “all who want to see images of people of color reflected back to them on screen,” writes Shirley J. Lim, a historian at Stony Brook University who wrote a biography of Wong, for the Conversation.
“Hollywood continually stymied her ambitions,” adds Lim. “And yet out of the ashes of rejection, she persevered.”