Asian American Makes History on US Coin

Film star Anna May Wong was considered the first Chinese American star in xenophobic industry
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 19, 2022 6:40 AM CDT
First Asian American Makes History on US Coin
The new US quarter featuring 20th century film star Anna May Wong.   (US Mint)

Beginning Monday, the US will have its first Asian American on currency. Anna May Wong, a film star who broke into Hollywood during the silent era a century ago, will be depicted on the backs of some 300 million new quarters, most of which are already sold out, per the Washington Post. It's fitting she is first as she "championed the need for more representation and less stereotypical roles for Asian Americans on screen," per NPR. Born in Los Angeles, she was considered the first Chinese American star in a largely xenophobic industry, per CNN. She started acting at 14 and appeared in 60 films over four decades, including foreign films out of France and Germany after she tired of playing stereotypes in Hollywood, where yellowface was common.

"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." She was severely underpaid, to boot, earning $6,000 for 1932's Shanghai Express, compared to $78,166 for Marlene Dietrich, per NPR. Also a fashion icon, with her blunt bangs, pencil-thin eyebrows, and traditional Chinese gowns decorated with fringe, sequins, and beads, Wong was ultimately recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, the year before her death at age 56. That concluded a fascinating life to be told in an upcoming biopic starring Gemma Chan.

"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," says coin designer Emily Damstra. The quarter is the fifth design put into production this year from the American Women Quarters Program, highlighting notable women in US history. The others are poet and activist Maya Angelou; the first American woman in space, astronaut Sally Ride; the first female leader of the Cherokee Nation, activist Wilma Mankiller; and suffragist and author Nina Otero-Warren, per CNN. As with the latter two, Wong's selection was made with public input. (More US currency stories.)

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