Anna May Wong, a groundbreaking actress from the early days of Hollywood, has become the first Asian American to be featured on U.S. currency. As part of the American Women Quarters program, Wong joins the ranks of astronaut Sally Ride, Cherokee Nation leader Wilma Mankiller, and poet Maya Angelou. Her likeness boasts her signature blunt bangs and pencil-thin eyebrows, while her face rests on elegantly manicured hand.
Wong, widely considered the first Chinese-American movie star in Hollywood, pursued a career in film after becoming fascinated by motion pictures from a young age. Born in Los Angeles in 1905, Wong grew up seeing movie crews around her neighborhood. “I would worm my way through the crowd and get as close to the cameras as I dared,” she is quoted as saying in the book Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong by Anthony Chan. She landed her first leading role in The Toll of the Sea (1922) at age 17.
The actress made a swift transition to the sound film era, and was also recognized for her stage and television work. The latter includes The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, the first-ever U.S. television show starring an Asian American as a series lead. Wong was also considered one of the best dressed women of her time, and was known for mixing flapper-era styles with traditional Chinese garments and bold accessories.
Despite reaching international success, Wong always struggled with stereotypes in the film industry and found herself limited mostly to supporting roles. “I was so tired of the parts I had to play. 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. We are not like that,” she lamented in a 1933 interview. This led her to advocate for greater representation of Asian American actors in Hollywood.
The quarter, designed by Emily Damstra, pays tribute to Wong in true Hollywood fashion. “Many prominent actors from the 1920s and 1930s saw their name framed by lightbulbs on movie theater marquees, so I thought it made sense to feature Anna May Wong in this way,” the designer explains.
This isn't the first time Wong has been honored for her advocacy and achievements. In 1960, a year before she died at the age of 56, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Earlier this year, it was announced that a biopic, starring Crazy Rich Asians actress Gemma Chan, is being developed.
As for the American Women Quarters program, more trailblazing figures will be featured next year and through 2025. In the coming months, quarters with the likenesses of pilot Bessie Coleman, composer Edith Kanakaʻole, and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt will be put into circulation.
Actress Anna May Wong has become the first Asian American to be featured on U.S. Currency.
A groundbreaking actress from the early days of Hollywood, she advocated for greater representation of Asian Americans in Hollywood.
As part of the American Women Quarters program, Wong joins the ranks of astronaut Sally Ride, Cherokee Nation leader Wilma Mankiller, and poet Maya Angelou.
All images via U.S. Mint except where noted.