UW Professor Anthony Chan will be speaking next week when the U District’s Grand Illusion movie house opens its weeklong run of Piccadilly, a 1929 film starring Anna May Wong.
“Who?” you may ask. But Wong, a Chinese American actress who died in 1961, has been “rediscovered” recently, and you may soon be hearing a lot more about her.
Chan, on the other hand, has been hearing about her all of his life. “My parents were married in 1932, which is the year one of her biggest movies, Shanghai Express, came out,” Chan recalled. “I can remember them talking about her over the dinner table.”
The connection was reinforced later, when Chan and his wife visited China and his wife’s uncle talked about seeing the same movie. “I thought, what is it with our family and Anna May Wong?” Chan said.
When he came to the UW after a career in television, that question led Chan to think about writing a book on Wong. It took him five years to do it, but in 2003, Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong, 1905–1961 was published. Chan will discuss it at the film opening on Friday, Feb. 13.
“There were two other books written about Wong at the same time as mine was,” he says. “But I knew mine would be different because it’s written from the Asian American perspective.”
Village Voice’s J. Hoberman wrote that Perpetually Cool “is more analytical and more concerned with placing Wong in the context of Chinese and Chinese American history. As the title suggests (Chan) sees her as an innate hipster and compares her performance in Piccadilly to Marlon Brando’s turn in The Wild One.”
Chan has a doctorate in modern Chinese history and previously wrote a book about the Chinese in Canada, but he teaches digital journalism, Asian media and Asian American cinema at the UW. His fascination with Wong is purely personal.
“She did 60 films at a time when there was tremendous discrimination against people of Asian descent in this country,” Chan said. “She worked in Germany as well as the United States. And at age 36 she went to China and it changed her perspective. She became a Daoist. I think her story is amazing.”
The resurgence of interest in Wong was triggered in part by the books, and in part by the showing of Piccadilly at the New York Film Festival last fall. UCLA had planned to do a retrospective of Wong films in 2005 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of her birth, but moved up the celebration to take advantage of the buzz from the Piccadilly showing. Chan spoke at that retrospective last month.
Chan’s Feb. 13 talk will be at 5:30 p.m. at the Grand Illusion. The film will play there through Feb. 19. Show times are 7 and 9 p.m., with a 5 p.m. show on Saturday and Sunday.