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Actress Anna May Wong Makes History as the First Asian American Featured on the U.S. Quarter

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Anna May Wong — who is considered to be the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood during the 1920s and 30s — is the first Asian American to ever be portrayed on U.S. currency, as of Oct. 24.

In January 2022, the United States Mint’s American Women Quarters Program began producing coins that featured the portraits of significant women in U.S. history. This production of quarters is a four-year celebration that will include the faces of 20 different women by 2025.  

Wong and the other nominees were selected in 2021 by the public. Through a web portal established by the National Women’s History Museum, participants were allowed to submit recommendations that they felt were deserving of the honor. 

Wong was chosen due to her tenacity and strength as a female minority in the film industry, while being subjected to stereotypical supporting roles for the majority of her career. 

Anna May Wong was born Wong Liu Tsong in Los Angeles, CA in 1905. Though she was born and raised in the United States, Wong was still the victim of discrimination throughout her life. As she began to pursue a career in acting, she took on the stage name Anna May Wong — a culmination of her English and Chinese name.

Photo from Vanity Fair

She made her first film appearance in 1919 as an extra in the silent film, “The Red Lantern.” Her big break came in 1922 when she was cast as the leading role in “The Toll of the Red Sea.” Although her performance was revered by critics, she was still often given supporting roles during the golden age of Hollywood due to her ethnicity.

In an interview with Doris Mackie for Film Weekly in 1933, Wong said, “There seems little for me in Hollywood, because, rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.”

She was refused the main role of the Chinese character O-Lan in the 1937 film “The Good Earth.” Instead, the role was played by Luise Rainer in yellowface, which earned her an Academy Award for her performance. 

Yellowface — which is when a white actor portrays a caricature of Asians in theater and film — was a common practice during the 20th century. However, when Asian characters were not played by white actors, Wong would be offered the roles. 

In the 1924 film “The Thief of Bagdad,” Wong was played a Mongol slave who was deceitful and cunning. “Dragon Lady” was a term often used in the 1920s and 30s in the West when describing Asian women who possess these qualities. 

“I was so tired of the parts I had to play,” Wong said in the same interview with Mackie. She moved to Europe in 1928 to pursue different roles but would later return to the U.S. in 1930. 

Wong continued to act intermittently, but her groundbreaking work was the 1951 television series “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong,” with a leading role that was written specifically for her. Unfortunately, there are no surviving scripts or episodes of the show. According to actress Edie Adams in 1996, a lawyer for DuMont — a network that the show was broadcast on — dumped the majority of the network’s footage into the Hudson River years after it stopped airing programs. 


For her impressive body of work, Wong was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. Another milestone to add to her list, Wong was the first Asian American actress to receive this accolade.

Photo from In Their Own League

Unfortunately, just a year after receiving her star, Wong died at the age of 56 in her Santa Monica home from a heart attack while sleeping. With a career that spanned over four decades, Wong is finally being remembered for her contributions to U.S. history. 

In a statement by Mint Director Ventris C. Gibson, she said, “The fifth coin in our American Women Quarters Program honors Anna May Wong, a courageous advocate who championed for increased representation and more multi-dimensional roles for Asian American actors.”

Recently, accurate Asian representation has been on the forefront of the entertainment industry. The 2018 film “Crazy Rich Asians” was released to major commercial and critical success. It was the first movie produced by a major Hollywood film studio to include an all-Asian cast. It is a modern romantic comedy that highlights Chinese culture in a way that is vastly different from Wong’s era. Because of her, doors have been opened for positive change.

When Lucy Liu received her star in 2019, she made sure to credit Wong in her speech at the ceremony. “I was lucky that trailblazers like Anna May Wong and Bruce Lee came before me,” she said. “If my body of work somehow helped bridge the gap between stereotypical roles, first given to Anna May, and mainstream success today, I am thrilled to have been part of that process.”

According to the National Public Radio, it was reported on Oct. 18 that more than 300 million quarters with Wong’s image were expected to be produced. Designer Emily Damstra took great consideration into how she wanted Wong to be presented. 

“Along with the hard work, determination, and skill Anna May Wong brought to the profession of acting, I think it was her face and expressive gestures that really captivated movie audiences, so I included these elements next to her name,” Damstra said

Wong was a pioneer and a legendary star as a person of color in a predominantly white business. She was a prime example of not allowing trials and tribulations to bring her down. Her persistence as a performer despite naysayers has inspired artists all over the world for years and will continue to do so for decades to come. 

Julissa Ramirez is an Arts & Entertainment Intern for the fall 2022 quarter. She can be reached at julisscr@uci.edu.