How Trailblazer Anna May Wong Carved Her Own Path as An Actress Amid Discrimination and Mistreatment in the US

Anna May Wong was born Wong Liu Tsong in 1905 in Los Angeles. She got her start in films at just 14 years old and went on to make more than 50 movies.

The face of Anna May Wong will soon grace the U.S. quarter. 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,” tells Inside Edition Digital.

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

Wong was born Wong Liu Tsong in 1905 in Los Angeles. She got her start in films at just 14 years old and went on to make more than 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 accomplishments paved the way for others to come after her, though she had no blueprint to forge ahead in moments of oppression and discrimination, but forge ahead she did.

"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 met with critical and commercial acclaim. And after losing out on the lead role in "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.

And Wong did all of this amid discrimination and mistreatment she and other Asian Americans and Asian immigrants 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. It ultimately limited immigration from China until the repeal of the act 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.

This occurred despite the fact that Wong was born in the U.S.  

"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 says. "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 to different standards. I think for me it's a very telling moment about what life was like for her and for other Chinese Americans," Lim says. "There's a whole structure of laws that rule and regulate racial interactions and quite frankly, maintain white supremacy. And this is also true in Hollywood and the Hollywood production codes. But as far as placing Anna May Wong in a racial racialized context, Anna May Wong is by far the most successful Chinese American star to be working at this time, but I think it's worth talking about the great,"

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's going to be hundreds of millions of quarters with Anna May Wong on the reverse side. And my understanding is, so you can buy these quarters in advance from the U.S. Mint. And my understanding is that they're almost impossible now that the subscription has already sold out, which is very exciting. So to me that it's an incredible moment that has been really a long time building all the hard work done by civil rights activists of all races. And it's been a long time coming," Lim says. "It's gonna be so amazing that, you know, can go to a place where you use cash, you can go to the grocery store, the farmer's market, and you can look in the palm of your hand and there could be Anna May Wong. And I think it also speaks to a moment, and I would like to say a moment of hope." 

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

"Anna May Wong's legacy is perfect for today because in the face of obstacles, she reinvents herself," she said. "So she's very much a creator. So when Hollywood does not work out, she goes to Europe and stars and films there. When those films aren't coming as frequently as she likes, she turns to vaudeville. When vaudeville doesn't work out, she does B movies back in Paramount, back in the United States. So she does B movies for Paramount Studios back in the United States. When that doesn't work out, she does fundraising tours. 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. And then she's on to the next thing, which is television. So she's a real path-breaker in television.

"if she were alive today, she would be a star on TikTok, YouTube, Instagram," she says. "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."

Hers is a story of striving after the American dream, in spite of the many ways the country mistreated her and people like her.

"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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