Who is Anna May Wong, first Asian American on US currency?

Wong, who got her first leading role in 1922, was a ‘courageous advocate’ who fought for representation in Hollywood.

Famous Asian American actress Anna May Wong
Chinese American actress Anna May Wong, pictured here in January 1946, has been celebrated for her acclaimed career and for breaking barriers in the US film industry [File: Carl Nesensohn/AP Photo]

When Anna May Wong first entered Hollywood in the 1920s, US entertainment was dominated by white filmmakers and actors. When people of other races were cast at all, it was often to play the roles of crude caricatures.

Over her career, Wong pushed back against such stereotypes and broke new ground in the industry, eventually becoming the first Asian American woman with a star on Hollywood’s coveted Walk of Fame.

Wong died in 1961 after a celebrated career in film, and she is once again being honoured for her contributions: Her image will be featured on new coins by the United States mint, making her the first Asian American ever on US currency.

“This quarter is designed to reflect the breadth and depth of accomplishments by Anna May Wong, who overcame challenges and obstacles she faced during her lifetime,” Mint Director Ventris Gibson said in a statement.

As the US mint begins shipping the special quarters on Monday, here are five facts about Wong’s life and storied career:

Wong appeared in more than 60 films

Wong was just 14 years old when she was cast as an extra in The Red Lantern, her first film.

Three years later, in 1922, she was given her first lead role in the film, The Toll of the Sea.

However, despite her talent as an actress, Wong was often assigned roles portraying racist, stereotyped images of Asian people. Two years after The Toll of the Sea, Wong played a Mongol slave in The Thief of Bagdad and was often given “dragon lady” roles in films – a stereotype portraying Asian women as fierce and mysterious.

Wong was famously passed over for the lead role in the 1937 film The Good Earth, based on a famous novel about a Chinese farming family. Instead, the role was given to white actress Luise Rainer.

Wong was a ‘courageous advocate’ for Asian Americans

Despite the prevalence of racism in Hollywood, Wong consistently pushed for greater representation of Asian-American actors. Her demands eventually started to bear fruit: in 1938, she was given a more sympathetic role as a Chinese American doctor in The King of Chinatown.

Previous roles had revolved around stereotyped figures that audiences were likely to view with less sympathy, including a sex worker, an untrustworthy daughter, and a “dragon lady”.

The contrast between those roles and her character in The King of Chinatown will be featured in a month-long programme at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles in November. The programme, titled Hollywood Chinese: The First 100 Years, will investigate the contributions and hardships of Chinese American entertainers.

“The fifth coin in our American Women Quarters Program honours Anna May Wong, a courageous advocate who championed for increased representation and more multi-dimensional roles for Asian American actors,” said Gibson at the US Mint.

She was the first Asian American woman to get a Walk of Fame Star

Wong’s contributions were recognised in 1960 when she became the first Asian-American actress to receive a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Her role in The King of Chinatown was considered a breakthrough for Wong and Asian American actors.

“[‘King of Chinatown’] was part of this multi-picture deal at Paramount that gave her more control, more say in the types of films she was going to be participating in,” said author Arthur Dong, who will be the curator for the Academy Museum programme.

“For a Chinese American woman to have that kind of multi-picture deal at Paramount, that was quite outstanding.”

In the 1950s, Wong transitioned from film to television. She also spent time performing in theatre productions in London and New York, in part due to the fact that she was often given offensive and underpaid roles in Hollywood.

She will feature in a currency series with other trailblazing women

Wong is one of five women featured in the American Women Quarters Program, which seeks to highlight the cultural and historical contributions of various US women.

The other icons chosen include writer Maya Angelou; Dr Sally Ride, an educator and the first American woman in space; Wilma Mankiller, the first woman elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, and Nina Otero-Warren, a key figure in New Mexico’s women’s suffrage movement.

“What it means is that people all across the nation – and my guess is around the world – will see her face and see her name,” Dong said of Wong’s likeness being featured on the coin. “If they don’t know anything about her, they will … be curious and want to learn something about her.”

Asian American groups have celebrated the announcement

While the brazen racism that dominated Hollywood in Wong’s time would not be accepted today, anti-Asian racism and violence have continued in the United States, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Against that backdrop, Asian American organisations have celebrated Wong’s selection as a recognition of their communities’ contributions to US life and culture.

Bing Chen, co-founder of the nonprofit Gold House, which seeks to highlight Asian-American content and push for representation, called the new quarter “momentous” and noted that Wong was an icon “for generations”.

However, Chen said Asian Americans continue to face obstacles today.

“In a slate of years when Asian women have faced extensive challenges – from being attacked to objectified onscreen to being the least likely group to be promoted to corporate management – this currency reinforces what many of us have known all along: [they’re] here and worthy,” Chen said in a statement.

“It’s impossible to forget, though, as a hyphenated community, that Asian Americans constantly struggle between being successful and being seen.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies