What Anna May Wong was and Why she Will Appear at US Quarters

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Soon, the U.S. quarter will feature Anna May Wong’s face. The Anna May Wong Quarter, the fifth coin in the American Women Quarters Program, is meant to honor Wong, who is largely considered the first Chinese American movie star. She will also be the first Asian American to appear on U.S. currency. 

Wong’s list of accomplishments is astounding, Stony Brook University professor Shirley Jennifer Lim, author of “Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern,”Inside Edition Digital

“Anna May Wong is one of the most charismatic, photogenic, and compelling actresses of the 20th century,”Lim calls her appearance on the quarter “associative” “an incredible moment that has been really a long time building.”

Wong was born Wong Liu Tsong in 1905 in Los Angeles. She started filmmaking at the age of 14 and made over 50 movies.

“She was a vaudeville star,” Lim says. “She was the first Asian American Pacific Islander to have her own television show, which was the gallery of Madam Lou Song made in 1951. And she did radio with Orson Wells. She was really an incredible trailblazer and witty and smart woman.”

Wong’s achievements paved the path for others to follow her. She didn’t have a blueprint but she was able to persevere in times of oppression or discrimination.

“One of the reasons why I find her to be so important, compelling, a trailblazer, is because of her capacity to reinvent herself in the face of Hollywood obstacles. So whenever she didn’t have the opportunities that she wanted, she found another way,” Lim says. 

In 1928, after years of losing out on leading roles, Wong made her first trip to Europe to star in a number of films made in Germany, France and England. Her performances were praised by critics and the public. She was then denied the lead role. “The Good Earth,” a Hollywood blockbuster about Chinese peasants based on Pearl S. Buck’s novel, she hires a cinematographer, makes what would be her only trip to China, and directs, produces and stars in her own movie about the country. 

“So you can really think of it as a travel log home movie that she herself produces at this time in 1936,” Lim says.

Wong was subject to discrimination and abuse she, as well as other Asian Americans and Asian immigrant faced in the U.S. In 1882, President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years. It built on the earlier Page Act of 1875, which banned Chinese women from migrating to the United States, and was the only law ever implemented in the U.S. that prevented all members of a specific ethnic or national group from immigrating to the country. The act also required any Chinese persons leaving the U.S. to obtain certifications for reentry and excluded Chinese immigrants from U.S. citizenship. The act eventually restricted immigration from China to a minimum until its repeal in 1943. 

“This is a really difficult time when she’s a star in Hollywood. The Chinese Exclusion era, (which lasted from) 1882 to 1943, restricted her movement and mobility, forcing her to have an identity card and also to register paperwork whenever she wanted to leave the United States to travel internationally so that she could reenter,” Lim says.

Despite the fact Wong was born in the U.S., this happened.  

“When she returns from Canada to the United States to the port of Seattle, she’s really, really incredibly nervous. She’s young, she doesn’t have any family members. And she’s like, she’s practically sweating it because she’s like, Oh my gosh, are they gonna let me back into the United States? This is really stressful,”She said. “It’s easy to look at the glamorous woman and to not realize how her life could be a day to day struggle against this kind of prejudice, against this kind of racism that prompts her to need this kind of identity card.

And due to the anti-marriage, anti-miscegenation law in place in California at the time, which had been passed in 1880, Wong was not allowed to marry a white person. 

“This is second-class citizenship. This is being subjected at different standards. This is a telling moment for me about how life was for her and other Chinese Americans.” Lim says. “There’s a whole structure of laws that rule and regulate racial interactions and quite frankly, maintain white supremacy. This is true even in Hollywood, and Hollywood’s production codes. Although Anna May Wong is currently the most successful Chinese American actress, it is worth noting that she was also the first to be placed in a racialized setting.”

At the start of the 1960s, Wong was cast in the lead of the film musical “Flower Drum Song.” It was to be her biggest role. However, before she began work on the film Wong died after suffering a heart attack on Feb. 3, 1961. She was 56.

For a long time, Wong’s legacy was relegated to the sidelines, but her story is finally getting attention in the wake of her likeness being featured on a U.S. quarter. 

“There will be millions upon millions of quarters bearing Anna May Wong’s reverse. So you can purchase these quarters in advance at the U.S. Mint. My understanding is that it’s almost impossible to buy them now that the subscription is sold out. That is extremely exciting. This is an incredible moment for civil rights activists of all races. It has been a long wait.” Lim says. “It’s going to be amazing. You can go to any place that accepts cash. You can even go to the farmer’s market or grocery store. And you could find Anna May Wong in your palm. It also speaks to a time, which I would like it to be called a time of hope.” 

Wong’s story is timeless and especially poignant today, Lim says. 

“Anna May Wong is a perfect example of a woman who reinvents herself in the face obstacles.” she said. “Also, she is very much a creator. When Hollywood doesn’t work out, she travels to Europe to star and film there. Vaudeville is her go-to when these films don’t appear as often as she would like. She does B movies for Paramount back in the United States when vaudeville isn’t working out. She also does B movies back in Paramount Studios, the United States. She also does fundraising tours if that fails to work out. And when that doesn’t work out, she tours the United States and gives makeup lectures and makeup tips and beauty tips, wellness tips in a series of lectures around the United States. She then moves on to television. She’s an innovator in television.

“if she were alive today, she would be a star on TikTok, YouTube, Instagram,”She said. “She’d be selling her makeup tips and her beauty tips, her tips for being photographed. I have no doubt that she would be able to make full use of those mediums.”

Her story is one of pursuing the American dream despite the many mistreatments she and others received by the country.

“She’s been such a source of inspiration as a strong, as a powerful, and a successful Chinese American woman,” Lim says. “Somebody who we can look at and say, ‘Hey, people like her, people like us have been a part of the American narrative, the American story, for such a long time.’ Maybe it doesn’t get heard, maybe it doesn’t get celebrated in the mainstream the way that it should be, but there have been many of us who recognize her importance and have been very much waiting for this moment.” 

 

 

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