Anna May Wong’s Shosho dances on a table in the backroom of a kitchen in a 1920s West End London nightclub, the Piccadilly. Her arms gyrate slowly. Her head is slightly bowed but she looks out at her audience of (male and female) dishwashers. She lifts her arms to cover her face and her coy smile as her hips sway. Shosho is dressed in a shabby apron, plain top, and frayed stockings, but she makes it work. She makes it work especially in opposition to the men and women around her, who are grotty and overworked, slumped over dirty dishes, staring with mouths agape. One woman wipes her snotty nose with her sleeve. Wong is in the center of the room, the focal point of everybody’s gaze.
Unfortunately, her audience includes the nightclub’s manager, Valentine, played by a suave Jameson Thomas. After a customer complains about a dirty plate, interrupting a performance upstairs, Valentine descends to the scullery to establish the root of the problem. The shot of Wong’s dance in medium close-up is viewed from his perspective. The camera moves down her body, caressing her as it comes to rest on her laddered tights, before turning to take in her distracted audience. This shot introduces the eroticism that will charge the rest of the film, an eroticism that in part emerges from the class and racialized position of Anna May Wong’s character. Valentine is incensed about the disruption she’s caused, but he’s already drinking her in, enabling the viewer to do so at the same time.
In this moment of E. A. Dupont’s 1929 late-silent film, Piccadilly, as the camera and Valentine’s gaze caress her body, Anna May Wong isn’t in control of her image or her audience. She won’t let this happen again.
From a 21st century perspective, the silent period isn’t an obviously sexy time for cinema. Many see the silent films that survive today as interesting curios or objects of academic study, but the films don’t necessarily move, arouse, or thrill a contemporary audience. It’s hard to engage in a bodily way with a 100-year-old film and if you move away from the burgeoning Hollywood star system to silent British cinema, things get even more unsexy. Derided at the time for its stilted style focused on the lives of upper-class society folk or rural sweethearts on country farms, it bears the influence of Victorian theater and literature rather than the more dynamic, modern style of early Hollywood, German expressionism, or Soviet montage.
Yet silent cinema, from its origins, had an erotic edge. Film historians have unearthed explicitly erotic films depicting stripteases and voyeuristic shots of undressed women. Comedies and “scientific” or “ethnographic” films often provided a pretext for sexual display. Film stars, like Rudolph Valentino, exuded sex appeal. Silent cinema’s sexiness shouldn’t be forgotten just because it’s harder to access.
The Italian star Valentino is an appropriate example. Taking on a melange of ethnically diverse roles as Spanish, French, Argentinian, and Indian heartthrobs before his untimely death in 1926, Valentino’s sex appeal was founded upon his ambiguous racial identity and the illicit thrill of seeing him ravish white women. Silent cinema’s eroticism is often uncomfortably intertwined with racist, colonial politics of representation. The very illicitness—sometimes literal illegality—of representing interracial sexual relationships on-screen provides the films’ erotic thrill. This tension is the point of these films.
It’s one thing for a European star to play these ethnically and racially ambiguous and enticing roles. It was quite another for actors of color like Anna May Wong, working within and often against oppressive and racist production companies. Piccadilly was produced by British International Pictures (BIP), a British film company that had just erected a studio touted as a new “British Hollywood” in Elstree, a village outside of London in Hertfordshire. Hiring German director E. A. Dupont after his spectacular German film, Varieté, released in 1925, was part of BIP’s strategy to “internationalize” British film production by making it more sensational and thus appealing to both British and international audiences more accustomed to American productions. Hiring Anna May Wong for Piccadilly was the next step in this process. She provided the “exotic” sexuality that British film so often seemed to lack.
However, Wong herself was drawn to Britain as an alternative to a Hollywood that had offered her little but racist stereotypes since her breakout performance in Douglas Fairbanks and Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad in 1924. The British studio had hired Wong for her racialized sex appeal; Wong was hoping to escape such simplistic perceptions of her talent. One of the major masterpieces of Britain’s silent era, Piccadilly dramatizes this conflict, depicting Anna May Wong mastering her own sexual image and identity away from the gazes like Valentine’s that open the film.
Piccadilly is an erotic thriller before such terms existed to define it, precisely because Wong’s sexuality is criminalized. The film was made in Britain during a period when both nudity, sexual activity, and interracial relationships were banned by the British Board of Film Censors. As with later Hollywood films made under the Hays Code, the erotic thrill of the film lies not just in its narrative but in the way it pushes the boundaries of racist and sexist censorship and how it implies, symbolizes, and hints at what it can’t represent. Piccadilly is a film about an eroticism it’s unable to depict.
Under the BBFC’s watchful eye, Piccadilly—a film about an interracial sexual relationship made by a production company hoping to sex up British cinema—becomes a film about the erotics of not touching, not seeing, and not representing. In the early scene of Shosho’s tabletop dance, Valentine’s gaze acts both as the censorial surveillance of an angry boss and the lascivious gawp of a future lover. As he censures her disruptive actions from afar, he can’t help but let his gaze linger on her dancing body. The play between these oppositions is the backbone of the film.
The next time we see Shosho’s laddered stockings is on the same night she’s fired for her washroom dancing, when she bumps into Valentine on the stairs outside the club. He sees Shosho from ground level and, again, his gaze is fixed on her. Yet if in the previous scene the camera slowly descends down her body, objectifying her through Valentine’s gaze, now Shosho does the descending, moving into the frame. The camera follows her as she becomes the center of the shot and the center of Valentine’s attention. This subtle change in her framing articulates Shosho’s newfound authority. The exoticized and working-class appeal of the sensation and sight of her laddered tights shrouding her legs still dominates the frame and Valentine’s attention, but what was once unconscious surveillance has now become Shosho’s deliberate strategy. This strategy will rely on not touching: distance, delayed gratification, and denied consummation.
Shosho explains that she was late leaving because she’d been looking for her “mascot,” a small Buddha figurine. A close-up depicts them both holding the figurine and wobbling its head in turn. The fiddling with and caressing of this mascot is fraught with sexual energy, replacing the actual liaison we won’t get to see. The plastic figurine embodies the objectification and commodification of a vague “Oriental” identity; it doesn’t have religious or spiritual significance for Shosho but merely serves to bring her “luck.” At least, this is what she tells Valentine. In a sense, she’s correct, as this moment will lead to her being re-hired as a club dancer. After this, the two of them return to his office but we do not see what follows. Their sexual encounter is left to our imagination.
As their relationship develops, they don’t get any closer to touching. Towards the end, Shosho finally invites Valentine home after a night out in East London––“our Piccadilly,” as she refers to it. Shosho shows Valentine another London, far away from the glitz and glamour of the West End. This is working-class London, a London with greater racial diversity, the London of the 1910s and 1920s “Limehouse” film which concentrated, mostly through racist caricatures, on the small Chinese population of the East London dock district. Shosho’s home plays up to this stereotype. It’s a space of diaphanous veils and patterned screens, of shadowy projections and “exotic” objects. It’s a space that allows Shosho the opportunity to create, frame, and light her figure for Valentine, while denying physical contact.
At the end of the date in an out-of-the-way street, Shosho surreptitiously slips Valentine a key to her house. After he enters alone and sits on her couch, she emerges from a doorway veiled with a beaded curtain and ensures that she is framed by her decorative glass screen for his view. Stage-managing the scene, she employs the décor of her living space to position herself in the best light—but always just out of reach. Valentine stands to approach her but she slows him down with her trademark coy smile and careful, deliberate glances. She moves, she performs—glacially. As they sit on the sofa, she reclines away from him, again framed through the screen. He leans forward but she raises an arm so her glittering loose sleeve covers her face. Valentine is desperate to end this game. He grabs her hand to kiss it. Shosho pulls her hand from his grasp and covers his face with it, chastising him for his haste, teasing him but emphasizing her mastery in the same gesture. Instead of allowing him to kiss her hand, she moves her hand back to her own face and kisses her fingers. The scene carefully avoids depicting contact between these two characters, yet this isn’t just a scene skirting around censorship laws: the sexual activity, the eroticism, is in the delay, the avoidance of touch, and Shosho’s slowing down and manipulating of Valentine. Piccadilly, and Shosho, use censorship laws to their advantage, playing on the illicit appeal of this relationship and creating erotic tension through abiding by the rules.
This sex scene is the climax of Shosho’s control over Valentine and her sexual image, a control that has intensified throughout the film. She dominates, she manipulates, she organizes. Her performance for Valentine and the viewer is made analogous to her job as a dancer, where she commands the stage in the same way she stages her sexual encounters.
Shosho brings Valentine to the Limehouse district earlier in the film when she insists he buy her a costume for her first Piccadilly performance: an over-priced, ornate, Orientalized set of “warrior” armor. Initially, Valentine refuses to pay but Shosho tells him she won’t dance in anything else. After Valentine pays for the costume, Shosho insists that another man in the shop, Jim—later revealed to be her other lover—be employed as a musician for her performances. Playing her lovers off of each other, Shosho leaves nothing to chance.
Her dance at the club, shown in full, reiterates the parallels between her sexual and show business performances. Her dance is the first moment in which we see her in this costume. Her glimmering armor and helmet, adorned with spiky appendages, holds an entire nightclub audience at the same distance she engenders in her sexual encounters. She begins, posed in stasis, her hands pointed like the spikes on her helmet. Her hands move in slow, wave-like patterns as she stands from her crouched position. Shosho’s dance relies on a parallel between spiky solidity and glistening light. Like Shosho, the bulky candles and spikes surrounding her hint at contact, tangibility, and encounter, while denying it at the same time. Her performance and her exotic, erotic thrill become one and the same: a stage-managed series of poses and movements choreographed to tease and titillate—but always to physically, tangibly evade—her viewer.
Shosho’s mastery of light, of framing, of bodies, and of staging forms the film’s erotic thrill. Shosho organizes what we see, how we see it, and even how we might imagine coming into contact with it, pushing the boundaries of illicit and acceptable representation of sex on the silent screen. Depictions of East Asian women in silent Western cinema often rely on a simultaneously sexualized and racialized objectification; Anna May Wong takes control of these processes and turns them on their head. In doing so, she wrests control of the camera—of the film— through the power of her performance and her conscious eroticization and exoticization of her own image. The swooping and swerving of the camera serve her; she transforms these movements into caresses and sensual brushes of her body. The use of light and shadow sculpt and shape her. The sets are her playgrounds.
Anna May Wong’s sensual, spiky, shiny performance embodies cinema itself. The film is shaped around her; she becomes the cinematic, inviting touch that cannot be actualized or consummated because of censorship laws and the screen itself. Her sexuality and sensuality, on the stage and in the bedroom, are erotic cinema, the sexual encounter always beyond the viewer’s fingertips.
Shosho and Anna May Wong subvert the authority of the club manager, the film director, of white masculinity itself, using their tools of objectification against them. The film, a studio production from colonial 1920s Britain, thus requires a return to convention to contain this and, at least nominally, deny Anna May Wong’s performative power.
This is realized through the film’s shift from the “erotic” to the “thriller.” If Shosho embodies the film’s erotic energy, its male figures embody the thriller’s forces: criminalization and detection, police procedural, surveillance, and the law. Throughout the film, there are hints that the powers of the police, detection, and surveillance are still present and threaten to inhibit Shosho’s glamorous spectacle. In the scene on the club stairs, even the lasciviously caressing camera reminds us of this surveying presence alongside the erotic. As the scene ends with Shosho and Valentine re-ascending the stairs, the camera pans to reveal a nightclub guard who has watched the entire encounter with shock. Their erotic interplay is always potentially spotted in the busy, spectacle-seeking London. Similarly, when Shosho takes Valentine to the Limehouse nightclub, a Black man and a white woman dancing together are stopped by an angry mob, articulating the limits to the film’s play with interracial relationships. The city, and especially its male inhabitants, watch spectacular sights for entertainment and titillation but they also survey them; their erotic engagement with Shosho’s body has the power to criminalize and curtail her.
Returning power to these forces of law and policing requires returning the film to the familiar elements of the Limehouse genre and setting, to narratives about murderous Chinese men and dead Chinese women, to the seedy underworld of East London. The thriller, drawing on a British tradition of detective fiction and anticipating the film noir with its chiaroscuro lighting and femme fatales, ultimately subdues the erotic. Shosho is found dead the morning after her night with Valentine in her apartment. A long trial sequence reveals that Jim, after discovering Shosho’s affair with Valentine, brutally murders her, strangling her with her own hair before shooting her. Shosho is killed for her subversion and performative power. Authority is returned to the male figures of law and order, and the erotic energy of Shosho, a character whose Chinese identity is central to her performative mystique, is sublimated by the racist conventions of the Limehouse genre.
In death, Shosho and Anna May Wong’s impact outlives her. After all, her life has been one of reaching beyond the body, extending her influence and her presence. Apart from the actual moment of Jim murdering Shosho, the court scene merely recounts events we have already witnessed. The scene takes place in a dull, gray room full of men: a space of pure bureaucracy and procedure. The trial sequence and its flashbacks last 15 minutes, a substantial chunk of the film’s almost two-hour running time, but it functions in sharp contrast to the preceding scene in Shosho’s apartment. Slowness, stasis, and delay are no longer eroticized but boring and bureaucratic. The “thriller” element of the film—the acknowledgment of the illicit nature of Shosho’s behavior and subsequent “punishment” for it—is decidedly unthrilling.
The film ends with a shot of newspaper headlines about the inquest into Shosho’s death displayed on a London street. One man buys a paper and reads the news, but his eyes quickly turn to the comics and the horse-racing results. Shosho’s death is already yesterday’s news. The man throws his cigarette to the ground and the camera tilts down to follow it, before panning right as another man picks up the butt to finish it off. The camera’s slow, sensual movement now follows the detritus of the city as Anna May Wong is no longer present to captivate audience and camera. The man who picks up the cigarette is part of a train of men with sandwich boards moving in a circle to advertise a new nightclub stage show called “Life Goes On.” Shosho is violently swept offstage and out of our gaze, and London barely seems to notice, already turning its attention to new shows and new spectacles. But Shosho has offered an alternative to a world that moves like clockwork. She offers a vision of cinema as light, bodily display, sensual movement, and erotic spectacle, rather than the repetitions and revolutions of the camera as machine.
The cigarette and newspaper are passed around and thrown away in a final vision of the city and cinema as procedure. The newspaper also completes Shosho’s containment as the subject of a Limehouse narrative, criminal activity summarized in the daily press and then discarded. Yet Wong’s cinematic existence, brief as it was, offers an alternative to this tangible and banal world. Her effect and her absence are felt in the dullness of these final scenes. One last time, Anna May Wong denies consummation. She exists for a moment, she invites contact, she exudes illicit and radical sexuality, and she subverts the constrictions of genre and of a racist, patriarchal form of cinema. She is subdued, but even this can be incorporated into her strategy of slowing down, delaying, and disavowing.
Silent, spiky yet sensual, and 100 years in the past, Anna May Wong will always be beyond our grasp in Piccadilly. For 90 minutes, though, we are under a spell she casts with her body over other characters, the settings she turns into stages, the viewer, and the camera itself. In 1929, at the death of silent film, she witnessed the end of one cinematic era and the onset of another. Her corporeal, wordless performance is swept away as the latest fad is introduced. But Wong’s performance imprints itself viscerally, despite the separation of the film screen, and a century of film history. She ensures that we won’t—that we can’t—forget her. She holds us at arm’s length.