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Who is Anna May Wong, the first Asian American on U.S. currency?

The first piece of U.S. currency to carry the likeness of an Asian American will begin shipping on Monday, according to the U.S. Mint.

On the tails side of a new quarter will be the Chinese American actress Anna May Wong, chin resting on her hand, framed by the “bright lights of a marquee sign,” the Mint said. Wong’s coin is the fifth in a series of quarters to feature prominent American women. There has been “overwhelming demand” and most of the coins are already sold out, according to the Mint’s website.

Wong is regarded as Hollywood’s first Asian American movie star. The third-generation American’s career took off at a time of widespread anti-Asian xenophobia, with the Chinese Exclusion Act still in effect. She gained fame for her roles in silent films like “The Toll of the Sea” (1922) — one of the first Technicolor movies — and “The Thief of Bagdad” (1924).

But as an Asian woman, she was often relegated to playing the villain, the enslaved person or the maid, so much so that she has often been referred to as “the actress who died a thousand deaths.” In “The Toll,” Wong played a villager who rescues a White soldier from the ocean. (He leaves and returns with a White wife, distressing Wong’s character, Lotus Flower.)

“I was so tired of the parts I had to play,” Wong said in a 1933 interview, according to the Los Angeles Times. “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. We are not like that.”

While Wong was hailed for her beauty, the compliment usually came with the disclaimers that she was “exotic” or “oriental.”

She tried to break out from playing the antagonist but met resistance, in part due to restrictions on interracial displays of affection. Wong vied for the starring role of O-Lan in the 1937 film “The Good Earth” but was instead offered the role of Lotus, a sex worker who becomes the concubine of O-Lan’s husband.

The Washington Post

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