Anna May Wong, dubbed Hollywood’s first Asian-American movie star, will be the first Asian-American woman featured on U.S. currency.
The initiative is part of the U.S. Mint’s American Women Quarters Program, which plans to release five coin designs each year between 2022 and 2025 celebrating women trailblazers in American history. Wong will be the fifth woman featured on a coin this year, following Maya Angelou, Dr. Sally Ride, Wilma Mankiller and Nina Otero-Warren.
The Chinese-American actress was born Wong Liu Tsong in 1905 in Los Angeles. Her family gave her the English name Anna May. She struggled to land roles early in her career, as she was working in Hollywood during a time when white actors would use “yellowface” to play Asian characters, often promoting harmful stereotypes.
When Wong did land roles, she was paid significantly less than her counterparts. She earned $6,000 for her top billed role in Daughter of the Dragon, while Warner Oland, who only appeared in the first 23 minutes of the film, made $12,000. For Shanghai Express, she earned $6,000 compared with Marlene Dietrich’s $78,166.
Tired of being pigeonholed into roles diluted with racial stereotypes, Wong moved to Europe to star in English, German and French films.
“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 Los Angeles Times in 1933. “We are not like that.”
Wong, who died in 1961, went on to star in 60 films and was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. When World War II broke out, she put her film career on hold and worked from the United States on Chinese war relief.
She is remembered today as a champion for Asian-Americans in Hollywood, not only because she was the first Chinese-American actress to become a major box-office attraction, but because she advocated for more representation and multi-dimensional roles for Asian-American actors.
The latest American Women Quarters Program coin features a close up of 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.
The U.S. Mint is expected to produce more than 300 million Wong quarters at facilities in Philadelphia and Denver.