Last month I was fortunate enough to see Piccadilly, which was recently restored by the British Film Institute, at The Castro Theater. Piccadilly has gained a lot of attention primarily due to its star Anna May Wong, the forgotten but newly revived Hollywood icon.
The character she plays in Piccadilly is not unlike all the other characters she has played in Hollywood films. She plays Shosho, a Chinese dishwasher at a fancy London club, who proceeds to become the wealthy club owner's object of affection. With the help of Shosho's Chinese husband, she becomes a performer at the club. An affair develops between the club owner and Shosho, this leads to a series of events that lead to Shosho's demise and ultimately her death. In the end, she is punished for having an affair with a white man and for her sexual transgression. The film is lushly photographed and intricately designed. Lots of "Oriental" inspired costumes and decorations that match the big production values of Hollywood.
While working at the bookstore on Wednesday, I unpacked a shipment that contained a recent biography on her life, Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend by Graham Russell Gao Hodges. I was reminded of her once again. I saw her on film for the first time in Shanghai Express as Hui Fei, a courtesan that plans to kill the man who "employs" her. What amazes me the most about Anna May Wong is her ability to bring life and dimension to the characters regardless of the blatant "orientalism" and stereotypes constructed for her. She always transcends and gives more than is required of her. This is what makes her captivating. I do know she has tried to break out of the stereotypical , exorcizing , and often demeaning roles given to her by Hollywood only to be denied ( Wong was refused the role of O-Lan in the movie version of Good Earth instead Luise Rainer was casted in the role). I know very little about Anna May Wong, though these days I'm reminded of her constantly or maybe other people are beginning to recognize her contributions to film. The recognition is way overdue in my opinion.