The First Asian-American on U.S. Currency Has the Most L.A. Story
Anna May Wong was a Hollywood trailblazer and advocate for representation.
Anna May Wong lived a life made for the movies, which is fitting since she was a Hollywood trailblazer, becoming the first Chinese American film star. Now, even 61 years after her death, she’s accomplishing another “first”—she will be the first Asian American on U.S. currency as part of the U.S. Mint’s American Women Quarters Program. Other women who have been featured on quarters include Maya Angelou, Dr. Sally Ride, Wilma Mankiller, and Nina Otero-Warren. Wong’s quarter depicts a close-up image of the actress with her face resting on her elegant hand.
Those who are just being introduced to Wong’s legacy through this news might be intrigued to learn that her life story is equal parts quintessential Los Angeles and Old Hollywood. Born in 1905 in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, Wong was a third-generation Chinese American whose father ran a laundromat on North Figueroa Street. According to the New York Times, when she was younger, movie productions were being shot around her neighborhood and she would skip school to watch the film crews and worm her way through the crowds to get up close to the cameras. In 1922, she got her first leading role in The Toll of the Sea. And in 1924, she started her own production company, Anna May Wong Productions.
While she appeared in more than 60 movies and TV shows throughout her career (including being the first Asian American lead actor in a U.S. television), she faced much discrimination. Wong was often relegated to stereotypical roles, playing either the villain or a love interest who died before the end of the film. Because of anti-miscegenation laws, films couldn’t depict interracial romance, so Wong’s roles were very limited. She ended up going to Europe in 1928 for more opportunities, eventually starring in a play with Laurence Olivier. But the biggest blow came in 1936 when she didn’t get the lead role in the adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth—it was given to a white German actress, Luise Rainer. Wong was a lifelong, outspoken advocate for representation in Hollywood.
Wong also had many accomplishments outside of her acting career. She produced and directed a documentary of her first visit to China, called My China Film. And she even tried her hand at real estate—famed architect Rudolph Schindler worked on her house in Santa Monica and, according to reports, she eventually turned the property into an apartment complex.
Wong died of a heart attack in 1961, but she undoubtedly paved the way for many Asian American actors today. And this new quarter announcement only adds to her legacy, which also includes a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.