Anna May Wong to become first Asian American to appear on US currency

<span>Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive</span>
Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive

The legendary Hollywood star Anna May Wong will become the first Asian American to appear on US currency.

Starting Monday, Wong’s image will be imprinted on quarters across the country. Recognized as Hollywood’s first Asian American movie star, she acted in over 60 films across a decades-long career.

Wong called for greater representation of Asian people in Hollywood and challenged stereotypical depictions at a time when “yellowface” dominated the industry and the Chinese Exclusion Act was still law.

“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,” Wong said in a 1933 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “We are not like that.”

Anna May Wong quarter.
Anna May Wong quarter. Photograph: US Mint/Reuters

Wong first began acting at the age of 14 and landed her first lead role three years later in the The Toll of the Sea. She was often boxed into racist and underpaid roles: in Shanghai Express, for example, Wong was only paid $6,000 while her white, co-star Marlene Dietrich earned $78,166, reported NPR.

Despite being considered one of the most beautiful female actors in Hollywood, Wong was never cast as a romantic lead as laws prohibited people of different races from kissing on-screen, reported the New York Times.

To escape the racist limitations of Hollywood, Wong traveled to Europe where she found greater opportunities acting in English, German and French films. Her career also ranged beyond motion pictures, including being the first Asian American to lead a television show, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. She also performed on stage in London and New York, once acting opposite Laurence Olivier.

In 1960, Wong was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She died the next year. When actor Lucy Liu became the second Asian American woman to earn a Hollywood star, in 2019, she lauded Wong as a “pioneer while enduring racism, marginalization, and exclusion”.

The director of the US Mint, Ventris Gibson, described Wong in a press release about the coin as “a courageous advocate who championed for increased representation and more multi-dimensional roles for Asian American actors”.

The coin is the fifth design of the American Women Quarters Program, which highlights female pioneers on coins: previous designs featured astronaut Sally Ride, activist and poet Maya Angelou, the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation Wilma Mankille and the suffragist Nina Otero-Warren.