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Anna May Wong, the First Asian American on US Currency

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at DCU chapter.

1920s Hollywood film star, Anna May Wong is the 1st Asian American figure to be honoured on the US quarter. The US Mint began producing coins in Wong’s image on Monday. She is the fifth to emerge from the American Quarters Programme, which aims at honouring some of the most influential women in their fields. Wong’s signature blunt bangs and defined eyebrows began featuring on the back of the quarter Monday 24th. She joined four other women; poet and activist Maya Angelou; Cherokee Nation leader Wilma Mankiller; suffragist Nina Otero-Warren and the first American woman in space, Sally Ride.

Who is Anna May Wong?

Today Anna May Wong is considered the first Chinese-American movie star of Hollywood, but how did she get to Hollywood in the first place? Wong Liu Tsong, known professionally as Anna May Wong, began her acting career at just the age of 14. She took her first lead role at the age of 17, in, ‘The Toll of the Sea,’ where she was praised by Variety for her, ‘extraordinarily fine,’ acting. She went on to play a role in ‘Shanghai Express,’ giving her one of her most infamous roles. Despite that, she was continuously given stereotypical supporting roles, such as that of a Mongol slave in The Thief of Bagdad, an Eskimo in The Alaskan, etc. With her rise to stardom, Wong decided to use her fame to advocate for better roles for Asian-American actors, and condemn the stereotypical supporting roles that they were continuously being stuck with. She spoke out saying,Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain—murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass! We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization that is so many times older than the West?’

Subsequently, Wong was given the lead role in Daughter of Shanghai, where she was portrayed as the heroine of the story. She was the lead, the driving force of the plot. She was no longer a passive character hidden in the shadows. She went on to portray dozens of similar characters.  

The list of Wong’s achievements can go on for a lifetime. However what is most significant is the great influence Wong had in opening the doors of Hollywood for Asian-American actors to stand in the same spotlights as their White counterparts.  She was, and still is the pioneer for transforming the perception of Asian-American talents in Hollywood. It is no surprise that for her immeasurable contributions she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960. 

The Significance of Anna May Wong’s Appearance on the Quarter

Anna May Wong’s appearance on the US Quarter is significant for American-Asian women nationwide who historically faced, and continue to face extensive challenges when it comes to being perceived outside of the Asian stereotypes. It is a representation of the extraordinary efforts of Wong to break into Hollywood and demands that she be recognised for her incredible acting skills, rather than her ability to support her White counterparts. “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. Wong’s feature finally emphasises the struggle of Asian-American actors in being seen for their true talents. For some time, narrow-white casting perpetuated the idea Asian-American people could not exist as leads and heroes with their own stories. Placing Anna May Wong on a nationwide representative to be honoured has an effect on how Asian-American people are perceived and treated in society. This positive portrayal shows that Asian-American actresses in particular are just as capable of playing main character roles as their White counterparts. They are just as capable of being the love interest of a romcom, or the hero in an action film. Take Lana Condor for example, who famously played Lara Jean in “To All the Boys” in which the first movie accumulated over 80 million streams upon its release. Condor has since risen to fame, taking leading roles in movies such as Boo, Bitch, Girls Night and Coyote vs. Acme.

Wong’s face on the quarter is also a reminder that racism in Hollywood is rampant, disregarding Asian-American actors as candidates for lead roles, instead placing them in stereotypical plots and characters.

Wong’s image of great ambition will continue to live on and inspire young Asian American women to fight for their rightful place in a white man’s world.

20 year old law student. HerCampus DCU Editor in Chief