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Anna May Wong will be the first Asian American person featured on U.S. currency

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood, and now she will be the first Asian American person to be featured on U.S. currency as part of a program to celebrate distinguished American women. To reflect on Anna May Wong's legacy, I spoke with sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, who studies race and racism in Hollywood. And I started by asking her to tell us about the roles that Wong was given in early 20th century Hollywood.

NANCY WANG YUEN: She was, I think, seen as somewhat exotic. And so she played mostly, like, slave girls or Madam Butterfly-type roles or the Dragon Lady villain. I mean, she starred in a movie called "Daughter Of The Dragon," where she literally played a Dragon Lady.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON")

ANNA MAY WONG: (As Ling Moy) No love, now; no jealousy. Just merciless vengeance.

YUEN: So she made do with what she had. But she also then decided, hey, I'm done with Hollywood. I'm going to go to Europe and do cabaret acts and learn languages. So she really was very modern, I think, even by today's standards.

CHANG: Right. But I'm still glad that you pointed out those early roles because, you know, while the U.S. Mint is celebrating her courage as an advocate for more multidimensional roles for Asian Americans, as you point out, her roles were often these, like, flattened representations of Asian women. I mean, you and I have spoken about some of these stereotypes. You just mentioned the villainous Dragon Lady. You and I have talked about sexually submissive Lotus Flowers, the seductresses played by Asian actresses in the past. How much would you say that the very roles that Anna May Wong portrayed helped perpetuate those racial and sexual stereotypes? What do you think?

YUEN: I think they did. And not because of Anna May Wong's talent or her beauty, but those were the imagination surrounding what Asian women could be. But at the same time, she was a fashion icon. And I remember she also dressed up in tuxedos and top hats and all sorts of, I think, subversive ways of looking at what an Asian woman could be.

CHANG: And, you know, as we're talking about right now, she faced a lot of discrimination throughout her career. In fact, she even went to Europe, where she did find quite a bit of success in French and German films. What in your mind is the significance of having Anna May Wong's face on the American quarter so many decades after her film career?

YUEN: I don't think we think of classic Hollywood as encompassing someone that looked like her. She is part of U.S. and Hollywood history, right? She was born in 1905. And when people say, go back to your country, I can think about Anna May Wong. She's been here. She's part of Hollywood classic movies. And she also embodies something, I think, modern. She reminds me that we still have a ways to go because the dreams that she had of having multifaceted roles, I think we're starting to see some of that, but we haven't fully achieved all the stories. I think about Michelle Yeoh in "Everything Everywhere All At Once," how shocking that was to see an immigrant woman, you know, in her 50s just being all...

CHANG: A superhero.

YUEN: ...Sorts of different things. Yes, a superhero. I know that Anna May Wong would have been so excited.

CHANG: Well, yeah. I mean, you mention "Everything Everywhere All At Once," starring Michelle Yeoh. But, you know, we've also seen movies like "Crazy Rich Asians." We've seen directors like Chloe Zhao find success, an Academy Award, all this acclaim. What do you see as Anna May Wong's enduring legacy in Hollywood when you look at how Asian representation has evolved since she finished acting decades ago?

YUEN: I could just imagine her sitting around, sipping some tea, maybe drinking some champagne and looking at all the roles that are out and say, oh, my goodness, I wish that I was here auditioning and being offered roles. At the same time, I would say she would, you know, still say, like, hey, you know, we need more. She would celebrate, but also, I think, still critique 'cause that's who she was. She would just call things out. She wasn't worried about Twitter canceling her (laughter).

CHANG: Exactly. She was fierce until the end. And now she's on the American quarter. That is Nancy Wang Yuen, author of "Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors And Racism." Thank you so, so much for joining us today, Nancy.

YUEN: Thank you, Ailsa. I love talking about Anna May Wong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.