Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Frosted Yellow Willows

This past Sunday evening I had the rare pleasure of seeing Anna May Wong in the fully restored 1929 silent film Piccadilly -- the performance critics believe to be her finest. Watching her in the eighty year old motion picture caused me to consider what a gift she had -- what great obstacles she had to overcome -- and just how substantial her artistic achievements actually were.

Born Wong Liu Tsong, January 3, 1905, on Flower Street in Los Angeles, California, Anna dropped out of high school to pursue a career in acting, and went on to become Hollywood's first Chinese-American movie star. She also became America's first Chinese-American television star. You can read a comprehensive account of her story by clicking here. She really was a remarkable personality who deserves greater appreciation.

The film Piccadilly is, I think, evocative of many themes in her life. The film is British, and could not have been made in America, because it implies a kiss between a Caucasian actor and an Asian actress.

Thus began what I call "the girl must die" theme in Western cinema, wherein any Asian female who becomes romantically involved with a Caucasian male is scripted to die rather than consummate the relationship. This is subliminal anti-miscegenation taken to the extreme. In Piccadilly, Anna May -- playing "Shosho," a nightclub enchantress -- falls victim to rumor and prejudice, and is shot by a jealous suitor -- the deus ex machina that precludes her relationship with an Englishman from normal resolution.

Anna May Wong also fell victim to rumor and prejudice in her own life. The combined effects contributed to her despair and her death, which came from a heart attack, in Santa Monica, California on February 2, 1961, one month following her fifty-sixth birthday.

When she died, it was still unlawful for an Asian to marry a Caucasian in five American states. The last of those laws would fall four years later, in 1965.

The things we do to one another in the fiction we call reality...

Oh, well... in the words of the physician... life is brief, art is long.


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