Hollywood trailblazer Anna May Wong to be first Asian American featured on U.S. currency
Hollywood trailblazer and international film star Anna May Wong will be the first Asian American featured on a United States coin.
Wong rose to stardom in the 1920s, breaking barriers while facing entrenched discrimination as America’s first movie star of Asian descent. She will be the fifth woman this year honored in the American Women Quarters Program.
The newest quarter honoring Wong, to be released Monday, will feature a close-up image of Wong’s face, her chin resting on a hand, “surrounded by the bright lights of a marquee sign,” according to the U.S. Mint.
The coin’s launch will be celebrated Nov. 4 at the Paramount Pictures theater, with a special screening of Wong’s most famous 1932 movie that she stars in, “Shanghai Express.” There will also be a panel discussion featuring Wong’s niece, Anna Wong.
Wong, a third-generation Chinese American and Los Angeles native, was first cast as an extra, at age 14, in the 1919 film “The Red Lantern” but soon after landed her first leading role in the 1922 film “The Toll of the Sea.” She went on to appear in more than 60 movies, including silent films and the first shot in color, but also worked on television, in theater productions and became known as a fashion icon throughout her decades-long career.
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Wong challenged the film industry’s perception of leading actors, earning fame in the U.S. and abroad in spite of Hollywood’s typecasting and tunnel vision for Asian characters. Almost always relegated to minor or stereotyped roles, Wong decided to relocate to Europe relatively early in her career, where her prominence only grew.
In a 1933 magazine interview, later quoted in The Times, she explained her frustration that pushed her to leave the U.S. and explore roles elsewhere.
“I was so tired of the parts I had to play,” Wong said in the magazine interview. “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.”
Nancy Wang Yuen, sociologist and author of Reel Inequalities: Hollywood Actors and Racism, said the significance of Wong on the U.S. quarter — and her contributions to improving representation in the entertainment industry — cannot be understated.
“What’s modern and still relevant about Anna May Wong is she spoke out about the racism she faced,” Yuen said Wednesday. “She was really ahead of her time.”
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Yuen said the roles Wong was offered were “one-dimensional villains and exotica,” typical for Hollywood depictions of Asian women in the 1920s and 1930s. But she said it’s impressive how Wong responded, choosing an independent path that went “outside of the constraints of a white-centered Hollywood in order to discover and create roles that were more complex, fully human.”
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) said he was “thrilled” to see Wong and her talents and activism honored in such a way.
“As the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood, she faced constant discrimination, frequently being typecast and passed over for lead roles in favor of non-Asian actresses,” Lieu said in a statement. “She is remembered not only as a great actress, but also as an advocate for increased representation of Asian Americans in film and media.”
Wong is the fifth woman, and last of 2022, to be featured as part of the four-year program that “celebrates the accomplishments and contributions made by women to the development and history of our country.” Already featured on quarters this year: writer and social activist Maya Angelou; astronaut and first woman in space Sally Ride; first woman elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation Wilma Mankiller; and New Mexico suffrage leader Nina Otero-Warren.
There has already been “overwhelming demand” for the coins featuring Wong, according to the U.S. Mint, with many options to preorder the coins already sold out.
Born Wong Liu Tsong before her family gave her the English name Anna May, Wong went on to become the first Asian American to be honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — awarded the year before she died at 56 in 1961.
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When Lucy Liu was honored with a star in 2019 — the second Asian American woman to receive the honor — Liu talked about how Wong had paved the way for Asian American actors like herself, pushing for more representation and multi-dimensional roles.
“A hundred years ago, she was a pioneer while enduring racism, marginalization, and exclusion,” Liu said.
But progress in how often and how Asian and Pacific Islanders are featured in popular films remains limited, according to a 2021 study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Institute. The study, co-authored by Yuen, found that in 1,300 reviewed films, only 44 featured API lead or co-lead characters, while nearly 40% of the films reviewed had no API representation at all. Only six of the 44 API leads or co-leads were women.
“We’re still in these historical firsts because we still haven’t seen the milestones that white folks in Hollywood have enjoyed,” Yuen said, noting that an Asian female lead has still never won an Oscar for lead actress.
But Yuen said it’s important to process how meaningful it is to see Wong featured on U.S. currency, alongside so many other American icons.
“To have Anna May Wong, a Chinese American woman, an Asian American woman, to be the face of that, that’s really significant, because we’re not seen as American sometimes,” Yuen said. “In this rise of anti-Asian hate telling us that we are enemies and we don’t belong here, having an Asian American woman’s face on the quarter really signifies we do belong here.”
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