Keep on Wondering...

What are the connections between social and historical forces and the representations we see?
Why is yellowface still acceptable? When and how did yellowface turn into whitewashing?
How do these representations create and/or perpetuate stereotypes that are present in our world? What is the impact?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Charlie Chan in Shanghai Pt. 1

Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935) begins with the venerable Mr. Chan (Warner Oland) arriving in Shanghai to help arrest a opium-smuggling gang (how predictable... China... opium... Shanghai....) for the US government. He then receives a letter (anonymously) telling him to not get off the boat at Shanghai. However, he does. He gets off the boat and is met by his Number One Son (Keye Luke) and the happy couple Philip Nash and Diana Woodland. They then go to a welcoming banquet for Mr. Chan, hosted by Diana's uncle. Diana's uncle is opening a box with a present for Mr. Chan when BANG! The opening box pulls the trigger of a gun concealed inside, and Diana's uncle is dead. Then Mr. Chan begins to investigate the case and discovers that Philip Nash had the box in his possession all day and never bothered checking it to see if it had anything inside. That night, someone tries to assassinate Mr. Chan, but they are unsuccessful, as they shot a dummy that Mr. Chan had set up. The next morning, Mr. Chan calls for room service, and a telephone operator (who is in cahoots with the leader of the opium ring) connects him (secretly) to the opium leader so that he hears that Chan is still alive. Then Chan leaves with a chauffeur who kidnaps him! Number One Son figures out what happened and calls for a taxi to follow the car that Chan left in, but Number One Son's chauffeur is in cahoots with the other kidnapper as well! Then they are both taken to the house of Ivan Marloff (a Russian... my goodness), where he begins to interrogate them - but wait! Chan tricks the evil dudes into thinking that the police followed the two cars to the house, and Number One Son and Chan escape! Chan discusses Diana's uncle with James Andrews - another American agent who is inspecting the opium-smuggling gang. But then - somebody tries to assassinate Chan, and this time Andrews as well! They find the gun and see that it has Philip Nash's fingerprint on it, and he is arrested. Chan finds a letter in Andrew's belongings with an apparently unimportant message on it - but when the letter is heated, it reveals a secret message! Andrews and Chan are shocked at this conclusion, so they decide to go back to the house of Chan and Number One Son's kidnapping and look for clues. Diana Woodland remains convinced that Nash is innocent, so she has a meeting with him and she sneaks him a gun, and they escape. Chan then receives a tip-off from Andrew's valet that the opium gang is meeting at the Versailles Bar, where Nash has already met up with Ivan Marloff, and he demands that he be brought on their illegal ship as well. Marloff sees that Nash is a spy for Chan and knocks him out. Chan and Andrews are about to go down to the secret dock where Marloff and his men are when the police show up and have a shootout! Once the opium-smuggling gang is arrested, Chan reveals that it was Andrew's valet who tried to shoot Chan through the door, and he put Nash's fingerprint on the gun using a stamp pad. Andrews then offers to take the gang to the police station when Chan reveals that Andrews was the real leader of the opium gang, and that the real Agent Andrews was murdered three weeks previously. The valet and pseudo-Andrews go to jail while Nash is declared innocent.
In the beginning of the film, there is a song that Charlie Chan sings to a little, silent, flower-holding Chinese girl (well, she's a little Asian girl) about a princess named "Ming Lo Fu" whose father was The Emperor "Fu Manchu." 

Long the journey on the way, but his heart was gay, 
For was he not the Prince both strong and brave, 
But the Princess fair to save. 
And he slew the mighty dragon, even cut off his seven heads, 
And in his cave he found the Princess bound to her lowly bed. 
 Then came they both back to the land of the mighty Emperor Fu Manchu, 
To claim his reward, the dainty hand of lovely Ming Lo Fu.

Ugh. Ew. Gross. What kind of name is "Ming Lo Fu," let alone "Fu Manchu?" That's pretty much the equivalent of the name John Chinaman or Ah Sin - in other words, it is horrendous. What's really interesting is that the Fu Manchu in the song is portrayed as an almost positive character, whereas previously in film history the caricature of Fu Manchu was General Yen in the dreamy-almost-rape scene times a billion. The song says that the Emperor was mighty and the Prince was strong and brave - those are good stereotypes for the emasculated and desexualized Asian men in this era (and many after) of film? Right? Why seven heads? Why would anyone Chinese want to kill a dragon? Dragons brought good luck... and rain... and that made crops grow... Seriously, what Chinese would kill a dragon? This lack of research in these screenplays is making me awfully tired. It was so trendy to just make things up about other cultures, huh? Did anyone ever think about how maybe it was a bit insensitive? Obviously, the people behind The Good Earth tried... not very hard, but the effort was there - right? What really sucks is I cannot find a video clip of Oland actually singing the song in the movie - so you'll just have to insert the most generically "Oriental" tune with those words. Good luck. 

Oh Warner Oland. You started with a portrayal of Fu Manchu. What made you switch from the terrifying and power-hungry "Son of Satan" to the humble, kiss-ass,  Apparently you did not do much in order to portray China’s most venerable detective. You had a couple of drinks to slur your speech (the nerve!) and grew out your goatee, brushed your eyebrows up and your mustache down... Does that make one "Oriental?" Gracious me, I don't think so. You are still clearly white, despite your supposed "Mongol ethnicity through your Russian grandmother." And what's this hooey about Asian people mistaking you for one of their own? Jeebus, you had me fooled, that's for sure!  

Number One Son. Number One Son. I don't think that he was ever referred to as "Lee" throughout the entire movie. Keye Luke was 31 when he made this film, and he plays a character that is written for a 16-year-old. There's something weird about hearing a 31-year-old saying "Gee Pop!" Or is it just me? This isn't really emasculation, as Number One Son is wasting money trying to convince his girlfriend that he can't take her out because he's busy throughout the entire movie. However, it's definitely putting Luke's character on a lower level by making him seem more earnest, less mature and calculating as his dad is - and he doesn't even get to be called by his name. Is this racism? Or is it just an attempt by the screenwriters to make Charlie Chan a more important character, putting more of the focus on him? Why can't Number One Son be smart and solve mysteries too?

Honestly, I think I might like Charlie Chan better if he kept his mouth shut. Stop spewing useless proverbs, old man! “Motive like end of string, tied in many knots. End may be in sight but hard to unravel.” Who says stuff like that? My grandmother doesn't even spew proverbs like that. Who wrote this crap? Honestly? (Upcoming: A post all about Chan-isms!)

And you know what else I'm sick of? Opium! Opium dens, opium smugglers... True, the stuff has only made its appearance in two of my posts so far... but geez! Rudyard Kipling ("Gate of A Hundred Sorrows"), Jules Verne ("Around the World in 80 Days"), Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot in "The Lost Mine"), Hergé (Tintin in "The Blue Lotus"), and countless other books (not to mention films) show characters of all types going into Chinese-run opium dens. And while I am not denying that opium dens were often run by Chinese people, I hate seeing these "dens of sin" constantly being associated with my people! Hell, even the Wizard of Oz had a reference to opium and sleepy poppies... although that wasn't directly tied to Asian people at all... Does it still have that connotation? Yes the opium smugglers in Charlie Chan in Shanghai are working with a Russian guy, but they are smuggling out of Shanghai - that's not much of an improvement, to be honest. 

And if you were wondering about the creepy dragon lady on the movie poster - she makes a two minute appearance as a Yellowfaced Chinese Bellydancer. Completely irrelevant to the story. A waste of poster space. This is (yet again) an example of exoticising China and Chinese women - oh, excuse me, Oriental women...

I rented Charlie Chan in Shanghai because I thought it would offer the most racist bits in any of the Charlie Chan films - but now I wish I had gone with Charlie Chan in London or Paris, because that would have put this (regrettably) iconic character in an all-white setting and seeing the racial tensions play out would have yielded many more freaky observations and the like. I can happily say that this movie was short, and because it was a silly mystery, I didn't have to think about the crazy plot and all. I could focus nicely on Oland's portrayal of this unforgettable member of the Awful-Stereotypes-That-Annoy-The-Crap-Out-Me Hall of Fame. 

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Collagin' #5

Just terrifying

Coming soon! 
Charlie Chan in Shanghai
The World of Suzie Wong
Flower Drum Song

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Bitter Tea of General Yen

Their Forbidden Love Wrecked an Empire!

Well, it really only wrecked a province... 

Doesn't the poster just terrify you? Yes, yes it does. It strikes fear in my heart.  

I was so bewildered by this movie. Everything about it screams... Well, I don't know what it screams, to be honest. It has the ability to leave one completely speechless (which is why I type these things). 

"Human life is the cheapest thing in China... Don't be fooled by [the Chinese] looking civilized, they're all treacherous and immoral." (An actual line said in the film) Now if that's not enough to make you run for the hills, I don't know what is.

The film (based on the novel by Grace Zaring Stone) begins in China, during the Chinese Revolution. A white missionary girl, Megan Davis (played by Barbara Stanwyck) comes to China (Shanghai, not surprisingly) to marry her childhood sweetheart (played by Gavin Gordon) who is also a missionary. It is the night before their wedding when Megan's fiancé decides to delay the wedding to go rescue some orphans. Megan decides to go along. However, they need a pass from the "Oriental bandit" General Yen (portrayed in yellowface by Swedish Nils Asther) in order to reach the orphanage and rescue the kiddies. General Yen finds out that Megan's fiancé "prefers civil war to the arms of his loving bride." (More on this later...) This earns the fiancé quite a bit of ridicule at a check-in point along the road. They eventually get to a train station and prepare to send the kids off to safety. The fiancé gets into a rickshaw and goes off, but some dude clubs Megan Davis in the back of the head and she is kidnapped (oh my!) by General Yen, who takes her back to his "Summer Palace" via train. She also meets his concubine Mah-Li (Toshia Mori), his American financial advisor, Mr. Jones (Walter Connolly), and his Captain (Richard Loo). Initially, she wants to go home and doesn't fully comprehend what a monster Yen really is, until, of course, she wakes up one morning to the sounds of a firing squad outside her window. She then begs to go home but alas! Yen does not permit that, so he requests her presence at dinner, which she refuses three times. Then she goes out for a smoke on her patio and dreams about a slanty-eyed, long-fingernailed, drolling, bucktoothed, Fu Manchu-ed mustachioed Chinaman who is about to rape her when ta-da! General Yen saves the day and they kiss (Controversy controversy controversy!) Then she wakes up to see Yen standing before her, and they discuss the differences between American and Chinese culture (whoa). After Yen leaves, Megan sees that Yen's concubine, Mah-Li, is secretly in love with his Captain. Megan agrees to keep it a secret and the two become friends. She also finds out that Mah-Li has been acting as an informant to the rebels and for this, Yen sentences her to death. Megan then pleads for forgiveness and gives Yen a big speech on kindness and being a loving human being - which Yen soon pronounces as mumbo-jumbo. Then he offers to spare Mah-Li's life if Megan will remain his hostage. The Mah-Li betrays Yen to the rebels (again) and his army and servants all abandon his summer palace. Upon realizing this, he prepares to drink poisoned tea until Megan comes to his room, having realized that she is infatuated with him. She tells him of her devotion and breaks down crying. Then Yen drinks his poisoned tea and dies. The next scene is Yen's financial advisor Mr. Jones and Megan riding in a train car back to Shanghai, where, presumably, Megan will return to her fiancé. And credits roll. 

Historical Context: The Hays Code regarding film censorship had not been passed yet, so this type of movie was perfectly legal; however, upon release, nobody went to see it because interracial love was too unbearable a thought. Despite the fact that it debuted at Radio City Music Hall (and being the first film to do so), it still didn't strike a positive chord with the American (or British) audiences. Babs Stanwyck herself said that "the women's clubs came out very strongly against it" (citation) and that this surprised her. Honey! The Chinese Exclusion Act wasn't even going to be repealed for another ten years - does that give you a little peek into the minds of the masses? If the Chinese weren't allowed to be citizens, don't you think they also wouldn't be allowed to fall in love with whites? Naïvete, much?

 The most interesting and controversial scene in the film is a dream sequence in which Megan dreams about an exaggerated caricature of General Yen (all long fingernails, bucktoothed, drooling, slant-eyed rapist) coming into her room and about to attack and conquer when huzzah! Megan is saved by the general!  And then it ends in a kiss! A KISS! Holy crap! What's this supposed to insinuate? "Hey, Chinamen will rape you! But fear not, one type of Chinaman will save you from the rapist! Hurray!" What kind of mixed up message it that? First they issue a warning. Then they say that it's okay... What's very interesting is that it is a white woman falling in love (or lust, depending on how you look at it) with a Chinese man. Isn't it usually the other way around? Chinese/Asian girl and a white guy? Yeah, it usually is. But here, you have the opposite. Here, you have the sexier, scandalous-er version of Broken Blossoms. General Yen is the frighteningly masculine Asian male, who oozes testosterone and danger with every glare at the camera (You'll see a reprisal of this stereotype in Joy Luck Club... much much later). And it begs the question - is it better to perpetuate a stereotype of a potential-rapist-chauvinistic-scary "gangster" or an emasculated and unattractive "geek?" (True, we see the "geek" stereotype appear much later - around the same time we see the "model minority" appear, but the "geek" stereotype seems to have roots all the way back in Broken Blossoms...) Which is better for Asian men? Well, obviously, neither. 

Then you take the role of Mah-Li, played by Toshia Mori (who is Japanese, not Chinese). Initially, the role was supposed to go to Anna May Wong (no surprises there) She plays the role of a butterfly/lotus blossom but she's really a dragon lady in disguise! Pretending to be all subservient one moment and then plotting to overthrow Yen the next? You could very stupidly yell "girl power!" right here, but a more appropriate phrase might be "Dragon Lady!" True, she's not pulling an Anna May Wong in "Shanghai Express," but hey! She's plotting and being stealthy and backstabbing Yen! She's dangerous - and she's sexy. She's a concubine, for crying out loud. Her role, thank goodness, is played by an actual Asian person - but does that make Mori's role into something good? A positive portrayal? I suppose we couldn't have asked for something better - it was 1933 after all. But there's something off about her character too. She's extremely quiet, demure, and subservient to everyone in the household. She's persistent and conniving, passing information to rebel sources. She abandons Megan after Megan saves her life and convinces Yen to cancel her execution. She's in cahoots with the rebels! While Mah-Li is at first portrayed to be the stereotypical butterfly, she soon becomes a semi-embodiment of the quote I listed waaay up at the top. She's treacherous. And this is bad. I had such hopes that she wasn't going to live up to that awful quote... And my dreams were shattered. So sad.

And the yellowface. You thought I'd forgotten, eh? Lies. I haven't. It's hard to forget a face like that. With that much makeup. How do I detest thee, O makeup on Nils Asther's face? Let me count the ways. The mustache. It's reminiscent of Fu Manchu's. It's giving me nightmares. Strike one. The slanted eyes. Oh, the slanted eyes. Looks like they've been taped pretty severely. And that's pretty self-explanatory. Strike two. The eyebrows. Apparently he shaved them off and then the makeup artists drew on new slanty ones. Strike three. And look at that expression! The dastardly, conniving evil man! Just looking at his face invites distrust! Do I need to elaborate how disgusting this trend is? Was? No! I need not! Just gaze at his face. This is a white guy. A Swede to be precise. A Swede playing an "Oriental," if you will. When did this become unacceptable? WHY was it acceptable? I'm just so confused... 

Overall, this was one of the weirder movies I have seen. I can't even begin to describe it. It's not even a very technically appealing film - the shots are bland, the music is full of zithers and gongs and who knows what else, the acting is sub-par... It's all kinds of bad.