By Kayla Ngai
In 2022, the United States Mint started a four-year (until 2025) American Women Quarters Program. Each year there will be five new design releases depicting women that have majorly impacted the history of America on the tail side of the quarters. For 2022, quarters of Maya Angelou, Dr. Sally Ride, Wilma Mankiller, and Nina Otero-Warren were already in circulation. However, on October 17, the final 2022 addition was added: Anna May Wong!
Wong is actually the first Asian American individual to be featured on American currency, making the occasion all the more noteworthy. Anna May Wong has earned this honor because she helped bring more Asian representation into the Hollywood scene but was gravely underpaid and underappreciated during her time (even after starring in more than sixty movies in English, German, and French).
The mint is expected to produce over 300 million quarters with Wong’s face in their facilities in Philadelphia and Denver (designed by Emily Damstra and sculpted by John P. McGraw). She was “an actor and activist who rose to stardom in Western films against all odds in the first half of the 20th century.”
Wong was originally from Chinatown, Los Angeles, and began her career at age fourteen. She rose to fame at a time when Asian Americans “were viewed as foreigners in their own country” and the use of “yellowface” was still prominent. Thus, Wong was cast in many stereotypical roles that portrayed Chinese people in a bad light.
On top of that, Wong could not possibly be cast as a female lead because, under anti-miscegenation laws, actors of different races were not allowed to kiss in films. There were a limited number of roles for Asian actresses, so as far as representation goes, Wong had to take what she could get. It did not help that her characters were killed off in a majority of films she acted in. Due to her mistreatment, Wong moved to Europe to access better opportunities and roles. In Europe, she thrived and became a major movie actress, known for her entertaining gestures and dashing looks., After her extreme success abroad, Paramount Studios in Hollywood promised her more prominent roles if she returned to the States.
Back in the 1930s, she advocated for inclusive and proper Asian representation in movies. Throughout her career, Wong challenged the idea of Asian-American stereotypes and how Chinese people were always depicted as villains. In a 1993 interview, Anna May Wong called out, “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.”
Anna May Wong was Hollywood’s first-ever Asian-American movie star. Her unflagging dedication is why there is more Asian representation in movies and films today. She is an inspiration to many which are why now, nearly 66 years after her passing, she is being memorialized. Having her image on American currency is a testament to her hard work, as well as Hollywood and America’s evolution over time.