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Culture

Who is Anna May Wong?

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As part of the American Women Quarters Program, from 2022 to 2025, the 25-cent coin will celebrate women’s accomplishments and contributions by featuring a female figure of American history opposite George Washington. This year, Anna May Wong was among the women selected to be featured on the American coin, making her the first Asian American to be featured on United States currency.

Who is Anna May Wong?

Born Wong Liu Tsong, Anna May Wong is widely revered as Hollywood’s first Chinese American movie star. She was born on January 3, 1905, in Los Angeles, California, and was given the English name Anna May by her family, originally from Taishan, China. Growing up, Wong worked at her family’s laundromat while attending Chinese language classes after school hours.

As a young girl, Wong often visited movie sets in California and began to fall in love with film and cinema. She’d often skip school and use her lunch money to watch movies in theaters instead. In fact, by the age of nine, she decided that she wanted to be a movie star and came up with her stage name, “Anna May Wong,” by combining her family’s English name with her Chinese name. And after a 1919 casting call for Chinese women for the movie “The Red Lantern,” Wong would officially land her first role in Hollywood when she was cast as an extra. She’d go on to take several more roles as an extra while she finished school, kickstarting her year in 1922 when she starred in “The Toll of the Sea,” the first feature film made by Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation. The actress would continue to audition for lead roles in Hollywood but would often be relegated to a supporting character or cast as stereotypical Asian characters in cinema. Thus, in 1924, she created a short-lived production company, Anna May Wong Productions, to create films about her own culture.

Eventually, Wong left Hollywood mainly due to the discrimination she faced as an Asian American woman. She traded the United States for Europe and began starring in movies and plays across the pond, including “Schmutziges Geld,” “Piccadilly,” and her first talking film, “The Flame of Love.” Wong eventually returned to the United States after being promised leading roles by Paramount Studios and went on to star on Broadway in a production of “On the Spot.” Unfortunately, when Wong returned to America, she was still asked to take on the stereotypical Asian roles that caused her to leave for Europe in the first place. Eventually, after taking one of the roles she so vehemently avoided, Wong would star in “Shanghai Express” with Marlene Dietrich, after which she would tour China. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s that she would return to the United States again, becoming the first Asian American to lead a television show in the country in the series “The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong.”

Wong died of a heart attack on February 3, 1961, when she was 56, one year after being awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Internationally, she is remembered as a film star, fashion icon, trailblazer, and champion of improving Asian representation in Hollywood.

The significance of her coin

On October 24, 2022, the Anna May Wong quarter entered circulation in the United States. Her quarter was part of the 2022 American Women collection, which also included author and renowned poet Maya Angelou; Dr. Sally Ride, the first American woman in space; Native American activist Wilma Mankiller, the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation; and suffragist Nina Otero-Warren, the first Hispanic woman to run for U.S. Congress. The coin was designed by Emily Damstra, the United States Mint Artistic Infusion Program Designer, and sculpted by John McGraw, the United States Mint Medallic Artist.

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

This initiative will continue through 2025, with the list for 2023 already announced. Next year’s selection will include: aviator Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman and first Native American to hold a pilot license; Hawaiian cultural icon Edith Kanakaʻole, who played a large role in the 1970s Hawaiian Renaissance; former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was one of the most influential and politically active first ladies in history; journalist and activist Jovita Idar who devoted her life to creating a better future for Mexican Americans; and ballet dancer Maria Tallchief, who revolutionized ballet and is widely considered the first American prima ballerina.

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