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Groundbreaking Movie Star Anna May Wong Emblazoned On US Quarter

Asian American actress Anna May Wong is pictured from the shoulders up in a black and white photo. She poses with a rose in her hands. Her hair is cut in a bob with distinctive bang and she wears a dark colored dress with brocade decor on the collar.
Anna May Wong circa 1935.
(General Photographic Agency/Getty Images
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Hulton Archive)
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Anna May Wong is known as Hollywood's first Asian American movie star, but she was overlooked, underpaid and stereotyped throughout her career. Now she's getting some overdue recognition as one of five iconic American women being featured on the U.S. quarter.

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Groundbreaking Movie Star Anna May Wong Emblazoned On US Quarter

Wong, who was born in 1905 in Los Angeles, was a third generation Chinese American. She grew up working at her father’s laundromat in the original Chinatown, and she loved to visit film sets. At just nine years old, Wong chose to become a movie star.

Her first lead role was in the 1922 silent film, “The Toll of the Sea.” Wong’s character is named “Lotus Flower,” which became a term describing Asian women as disposable objects of desire.

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Anna May Wong sitting on the floor wearing a wrap.
Anna May Wong photographed in 1928.
(William Davis/Getty Images
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Hulton Archive)

Sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen says Wong was aware that her roles would play into stereotypes.

“She actually even critiqued them publicly, which is pretty astounding, in that I don't even know if actors today feel comfortable publicly critiquing roles that they've played in,” Yuen said.

Fed up with playing such tropes, in the late 1920s Wong traveled to Europe where she starred in several films and had a cabaret act. In 1935, she auditioned for the lead in the film adaptation of “The Good Earth,” a book that centered the Chinese experience. German actress Luise Rainer was cast instead.

“This was a huge, epic blockbuster film that everybody knew was going to have lots of awards,” Yuen said. “This, for Anna May Wong, was like the role of a lifetime because there were no Chinese roles for her.”

But even with this treatment, Wong stood out for her beauty, charisma and talent. She regularly stole scenes from Marlene Dietrich in the 1932 film, “Shanghai Express.”

Anna May Wong wears a brimmed hat and coat as she leans against a wall carrying a large book. A man with a mustache, wearing a suit has his arm around her.
Anna May Wong in a film with Gaston Farquet circa 1925.
(H. Gartner/Getty Images
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Hulton Archive)

“People I think see her as very inspirational and someone who’s a survivor and a challenger of the system, despite having to endure so much racism and sexism at the time that she lived,” Yuen said.

Now her face will be on the quarter. Yuen says many people think of Chinese people as recent immigrants, whereas Wong shows that they were making an impact on American culture long before that.

The first coins in the American Women Quarters Program — honoring Wong and four other trailblazers — began shipping earlier this month.

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“In a time of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia," said Yuen, "it's important to recognize and acknowledge our place in U.S. and Hollywood history."

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