Looking back at the history of the US film industry, one does not immediately think of Anna May Wong – an actress who has become the first Asian American to be featured on US currency, a distinction to honor her four-decade long career as an actress.
Wong is often considered America’s first Asian American actress, staring alongside household names like Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Laurence Olivier, as well as fighting to overcome racial obstacles and stereotypes in her long career in film, radio, and theater.
The US Mint will issue five quarters designs each year featuring pioneering women, beginning in 2022 and ending in 2025. The U.S. Mint is expected to produce more than 300 million Wong quarters at facilities in Philadelphia and Denver.
The other four quarters for 2022 feature poet and activist Maya Angelou; the first American woman in space, Sally Ride; Cherokee Nation leader Wilma Mankiller; and suffragist Nina Otero-Warren. The lineup for 2023 includes Edith Kanaka’ole, an indigenous Hawaiian composer and custodian of native culture, and the Mexican American journalist and suffragist, Jovita Idar.
Anna May Wong was born Wong Liu Tsong in 1905, in Chinatown, Los Angeles. Her parents, both born and raised in the United States, owned and operated a laundromat.
Despite being a third generation Asian American, Wong faced discrimination and racial abuse while growing up and attending public school, so much so her parents were left without any option but to transfer her to a Presbyterian Chinese School.
Wong’s escape was her fascination with films. She spent so much of her spare time in theaters and around film sets that she soon found herself cast in roles for the screen. She started acting at the age of 14 and at the age of 17, she secured her first lead role as “Lotus Flower” in The Toll of the Sea.
The film, and Wong’s role in it, was in no way a progressive shift for Asian Americans in Hollywood films. Wong played a Chinese woman named Lotus Flower, who fell in love with an American man named Allen, who later abandons her and returns to America, despite promising to take her along.
Lotus Flower gives birth to their son in China, whom she names Allen Jr., after his father. When Allen Sr. returns to China with his new white American wife, Lotus Flowers convinces them to take Allen Jr. back to the US, telling the young boy that she is not his real mother, to ensure that his affection is directed towards his new American mother.
Many of Wong’s roles were racial tropes of the exoticized Asian woman, and she fought hard to win better roles for herself, despite being sidelined by the film industry. Wong ultimately appeared in over 50 films in her lifetime. She died in 1961, at the age of 55.
Hollywood today is bustling with Asian American talent, with credit due to Wong for leading the way and fighting for space. Crazy Rich Asians actress Awkwafina (Nora Lum) made history as the first woman of Asian descent to win Best Lead Actress at the Golden Globes in 2020. The Vietnamese American actress Kelly Marie Tran played Rose Tico in the 2017 film Star Wars: The Last Jedi, becoming the first Asian American to play a leading role in the Star Wars franchise.
Through the US Mint’s recognition of her contributions to American film, many more Americans will learn about Anna May Wong, a trailblazer for Asian Americans in film!
Aryan D’Rozario is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington D.C. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz, Aryan received his master’s degree from the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, studying Modern South Asia.