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Anna May Wong’s resurgence in popularity – on screens and on quarters

A hundred years after her first leading role, classic Hollywood actress Anna May Wong will appear on U.S. coins as part of the American Women Quarters program, which celebrates pioneering women in their fields. 

Wong, the first Chinese-American movie star in Hollywood, is remembered “as an international film star, fashion icon, television trailblazer, and a champion for greater representation of Asian Americans in film,” the U.S. Mint said in its announcement of the new coin. 

Born Wong Lau-soeng in California in 1905, Wong’s early life coincided with the rise of the movie industry in Hollywood. She took her fascination with the screen and her fashion sense to the sets, appearing as extras in her early teens and landing her first starring role in 1922’s “The Toll of the Sea”  when she was 17. 

Some of her biggest hits included 1924’s “The Thief of Baghdad” with Douglas Fairbanks, “Pavement Butterfly” (1929), “Daughter of the Dragon” in 1931, Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express (1932) with Marlene Dietrich, “Daughter of Shanghai” in 1937 and 1929’s “Piccadilly,” which has grown in reputation the last few decades as modern audiences and critics have rediscovered it.

 Wong faced discrimination in casting, relegated for most of her career of either playing the evil vamp or the demure Asian stereotype. Even for Chinese characters, Wong was overlooked. She famously was not considered for the much-sought-after role of O-Lan in 1937’s “The Good Earth.”

In the 2007 biography “Perpetually Cool,” author Anthony B. Chan writes that Wong was much more than the images portrayed in her films and other medium: 

“Wong was the first internationally acclaimed Asian American female film star. She mesmerized audiences from Hollywood and London to Berlin, Paris, and Vienna with more than sixty films. Her stage career took her to Australia, Austria, Denmark, Italy, Scotland, Sweden, and Switzerland. Even more remarkable, she sometimes performed in the languages of the countries in which she worked. Her spoken German was legendary. Her cinematic demeanor was detached, cool, and hip. The woman had style!”

Wong was known as one of the most stylish of the stylish Hollywood set and was among the earliest to adopt the “flapper” look. 

But she wasn’t just surface: She pushed for better Asian-American representation on film and worked to raise money for Chinese refugees during World War II.

She’s not as well known to modern classic movie lovers, but the announcement of the coin should help Wong get the recognition she deserves, not to mention her portrayal in part of the upcoming all-star cast “Babylon” and a biopic in which “Crazy Rich Asians” star Gemma Chan will star.  

Read more about the trailblazer Anna May Wong in “Perpetually Cool”