Anna May Wong is the first Asian American to be featured on a US currency (courtesy US Mint)

Beginning next Monday, October 24, the United States Mint will begin making quarters imprinted with the face of Anna May Wong, commonly regarded as Hollywood’s first Chinese-American movie star. She will be the first Asian-American person to be honored on any US currency. The new 25-cent coin depicts Wong framed by her signature bangs and her elegant, manicured nails, her gaze thoughtfully trained skyward.

“She is remembered as an international film star, fashion icon, television trailblazer, and a champion for greater representation of Asian Americans in film. She continues to inspire actors and filmmakers today,” the US Mint writes on its website.

Movie sets fascinated Wong from an early age, and she later confessed that she would skip school just to ogle at assistants, actors, directors, and cameramen. She soon landed her first leading role at the age of 17 in the 1922 silent drama film The Toll of the Sea, one of the first films in color. Despite the celebrity she gained from her performance in that role, and the critical acclaim she received, she found it difficult to secure further leading roles because of Hollywood’s reluctance to cast an Asian actress.

Anna May Wong experienced racism and discrimination during her career yet still became an icon of Asian-American representation. (via Flickr)

During the early stages of her career, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the immigration of Chinese workers, and anti-miscegenation laws forbade the on-screen representation of interracial marriages and intimacy. Such circumstances compelled Wong to move to Europe, where she experienced greater freedom to act in varied film roles. Most devastatingly, she lost the role of a fictional Chinese character in an adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth to White actress Luise Rainer in the 1930s — she was not permitted to play opposite a White actor who had been chosen to star in the movie.

Despite the challenges Wong faced, her career in acting was prolific. By her retirement, she appeared in over 60 movies and become the first Asian-American lead actor in an American television show, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong (1951).

Wong is the fifth woman to be recognized as part of the American Women Quarters Program, which launched this year and will continue through 2025. Each year, as part of the program, up to five new coin reverse designs will be announced celebrating women who have made significant contributions to American history. This year, the US Mint also began circulating coins featuring writer and civil rights activist Maya Angelou, the first Black woman to be given pride of place on a US coin; astronaut Sally Ride; Native American activist Wilma Mankiller; and suffragist and public education activist Nina Otero-Warren.

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Jasmine Liu

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.