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, November 26, 2010

Sagwa: The Chinese-Siamese Cat

Confession: This used to be my favorite show as a kid. So forgive me if I'm not as critical as I should be. 
Based on the children's book by Amy Tan, this show features a family of cats who write calligraphy with their tails for their master, who is the magistrate of a Chinese province in the countryside. Sagwa, Sheegwa, Dongwa, and their friend Fu-Fu the bat go on adventures together that always end with a moral lesson. Really cute moral lessons, like "Don't turn your back on your friends," or "Don't steal." 

And listen to that music. Sounds nothing like Mr. Yunioshi's theme song. No obscenely loud gongs. The music isn't a specific/traditional Chinese song - but it's using the traditional instruments and structure as a backbone to all of the songs used in the series. It sounds like the composer for this show sat down and really studied traditional Chinese instruments and songs. And do you hear that? That's singing in Mandarin. About half of the singing in the theme song is in Mandarin. Not in English. Not in some made-up "Chinese" language. In Mandarin. Whooohoo! 
What's lovely about this show, you ask? It's cute little cats who write with their tails. Little Chinese cats who write in very accurate and traditional-looking calligraphy. Cute little Chinese cats who go on adventures with their best friend who is a bat. Cats who write with their tails and live in ancient China (social history lessons, kids!). Most of the character's names are derived from actual Chinese words/names. This is probably the most accurate and positive portrayal on a children's television show of (specifically) ancient Chinese culture, therefore instilling a respect towards China and it's history. Is that not cause for celebration? 
I have no complaints about any of the cat characters, because they are not based on any caricatures of Chinese people. They're generic kid show characters. There's the cute, cheerful, slightly ditzy little sister (Sheegwa), the whiney, slightly myopic and dramatic cool older brother (Dongwa), the curious, kind and occasionally very bossy middle sister (Sagwa), the strict yet funny dad (Baba Miao), the gentle but strict mommy (Mama Miao), and the clumsy but very smart sidekick (Fu-Fu the bat). There's also a gang of alley cats (Aristocats, anyone?), three Pekingese "sleeve" dogs, some mice, and cat grandparents. Ignore the fact that they're cats in China. This ensemble cast could be any kid's television show. They just happen to be cats and they just happen to be Chinese cats who write calligraphy with their tails. Nothing else.

Now the humans, on the other hand, that's where this show teeters on the brink of being potentially (mildly) offensive. There's the gluttonous, absent-minded Foolish Magistrate, a dumbed-down Charlie Chan character, who keeps potstickers in the sleeves of his robes and enjoys eating noodles and making up silly rules. There's his demanding wife Tai-Tai who keeps Pekingese dogs in her sleeves and is an extremely watered-down Fu Manchu/Dragon Lady combo what with her ability to manipulate her husband into doing whatever she wants. There are their three daughters, dumbed-down Lotus Blossom girls who giggle pointlessly and don't really serve a purpose except as stock characters. There's the Cook, a cheerful man who cooks for the magistrate and his family, and is subservient, rotund, and just like Charlie Chan, except he doesn't solve mysteries. He does use a lot of aphorisms. Then there's the Reader, the slapstick comic relief man who reads the rules set out by the magistrate to the rest of the village/province. He falls down a lot - he's the human manifestation of Fu-Fu the bat. Both are wise, clumsy, sometimes silly, and wear glasses. Almost all of the human characters in the TV show of Sagwa are based in strange, old, funky stereotypes, even though they are watered down considerably and aren't portrayed as caricatures or meant to be racist.

There is the concern that the main characters of Sagwa (the cats) are voiced by white people, and this raises the issue of whitewashing - giving a role that could be for any actor of any race that ends up being played by a white actor just because. Look out for whitewashing in upcoming film/television posts! Was denying an Asian vocal actor the chance to play a Chinese cat wrong? Was there ever any denial of an Asian vocal actor? Was an Asian vocal actor ever considered for one of the lead roles? Is it because it's only the role of a cat that the race of the actor doesn't matter? Thankfully, a majority of the human caricatures (oops, I mean characters) are voiced by people of Asian descent, albeit relatively unknown/unrecognized actors. So is casting a white actor (rather, using a white actor's voice) to play an Asian character in a vocal role whitewashing? Or... not?

In the past, cartoons depicting Chinese people always featured prominent teeth and slanty eyes on the people. Not so here! Nobody's eyes are drawn as a diagonal line. Most of them even have whites around their irises! Everyone can see in this show! And not one of them has buck teeth. Not one. I don't think any of the characters are actually drawn with teeth, so I guess teeth are irrelevant here. 
 Effort was put into making this show accurate and a good representation, which sets it apart from shows like Juniper Lee or Jake Long. The theme song, the drawings, the usage of real Chinese words, the references to Chinese history: it all screams of effort and research on the part of the creators. How awesome is that? 

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing

Just when we thought there was going to be a lot more movies with some REAL representation, this little film came along and screwed everything up. 
London, 1923. Lord Southmere (Derek Nimmo) is a Queen's messenger and he has just arrived from China with a piece of microfilm concerning the mysteeeeerious "Lotus X." A group of Chinese spies find out and try to capture him, but not before he puts the bit of microfilm on the bone of a dinosaur in the Natural History Museum. Along the way, he enlists the help of his old nanny, Hettie (Helen Hayes) and her fellow nanny Emily, to thwart the Chinese spies. They are then captured by Hnup Wan (the "inscrutable" Peter Ustinov), the head of the London division of Chinese spies, whose old nanny was friends with Hettie. However, the nannies escape and plan to help Lord Southmere escape as well. Meanwhile, Lord Southmere won't tell Hnup Wan and his right hand man, Fan Choy (Bernard Bresslaw) where the microfilm is. All they know is that it was hidden on a dinosaur in the Natural History Museum - so they decide to steal one of the dinosaurs in order to find the microfilm. The Chinese spies load the dinosaur onto a truck in the middle of the night, but before they can run away with it, the nannies steal the truck and the dinosaur, with Hnup Wan and Fan Choy following close behind. There's a long chase scene, which ends in the dinosaur and truck accidentally running onto a flat wagon of a train, and the nannies and the dinosaur are carried away. The nannies continue to look for the microfilm but are forced to conclude that it just isn't on the stolen dinosaur. Then a little boy points out that there are multiple dinosaurs in the museum, and everybody realizes that the Chinese spies and therefore the nannies stole the wrong one! Hnup Wan gets to the dinosaur first and finds the microfilm of "Lotus X," which he prepares to look at properly, until Fan Choy replaces Hnup Wan as the head of the London division of Chinese spies. The nannies have now realized that Lord Southmere is in danger, so they recruit other nannies and they fight the Chinese spies in a Chinese restaurant, and Hnup Wan saves Lord Southmere. Later, everyone gathers in Hnup Wan's office to see what "Lotus X" was. And the piece of microfilm that started this whole mess turns out to be a recipe for wonton soup. And everyone is happy. 

Wonton soup???? Are you serious? All that plot for wonton soup? Not only is that just stupid... it implies that Chinese people only really care about food! It shows us as greedy gluttons who desire only to keep our precious wonton soup recipes to ourselves! Disgusting!
One of the most racist portrayals I have seen so far is from a children's movie. Horrifying.
Remember how I kept saying in previous yellowface portrayals that the accents weren't all that noticeable or prominent? How they were really only slowing down their speech or using an ambiguous accent that wasn't really specifically Asian? This is the first film I have watched that has that stereotypical, over exaggerated accent. One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing is just the most God-awful representation of someone of Chinese descent that I have seen yet. Every "r" gets mixed up with every "l." The speaking characters add the suffix "-ah" to every other word and butcher the English language shamelessly. Ustinov and Bresslaw employ a funky gutteral "nnnnnnnnnnnnn" noise after every sentence. When Ustinov reads "Chinese" out loud it sounds like this: "foy toy mee shee loo mah tung ah..." 
Then there's the yellowface. It consists of some crazy taping of the eyelids, some blue (blue?) eyeshadow, and some Charlie Chan-esque facial hair. It doesn't sound like much, but man oh man... It's terrifying. It's blue, sparkly eyeshadow! What about smearing blue sparkly eyeshadow across an actor's eyelid makes them Chinese? Absolutely nothing! Interestingly, there was no darkening of the actor's skin or prosthetic buck teeth. Not a single Asian person was seen in this movie either. All of the extras were white men as well, unlike Good Earth or Bitter Tea of General Yen, which at least had the good sense to at least include extras... Combine this level of scary yellowface with the heavily exaggerated and ugly ugly accents and you have got some scary Chinamen.
Hnup Wan is a bad Charlie Chan and a friendly Fu Manchu. He is roly-poly and bumbling like Charlie Chan, and is mysterious, manipulative and sly like Fu Manchu. He dresses in Western clothes and sometimes employs stupid aphorisms like Charlie Chan. He has crazy henchmen like Fu Manchu. Hnup Wan has the Charlie Chan facial hair and the Fu Manchu super-slanty eyes. He is asexual like Charlie Chan and employs funky-strange torture methods like Fu Manchu. And this character was in a children's movie (Ironically, he was played by Peter Ustinov, who then portrayed Hercule Poirot, which is most definitely a Charlie Chan parallel). 

The big fight scene between the nannies and Hnup Wan's henchmen is awful as well. It shows little old nannies beating up kung fu masters. Painful! But that's not all! The "masters"aren't even doing kung fu, or any martial art I know of. They're jumping in the air, doing a pirouette, then landing with a high kick and a hair-raising "HOOOAAAAAAAIIIEE!" Cue karate chop hands. Dear me. Two years after Enter the Dragon and you can't even hire proper martial artists? Shameful. 
Even more terrifying is that this was a Disney film. A children's movie. Hnup Wan and Fan Choy (Heavens to Betsy, those names!) are in the movie for comic relief and as the antagonists. On the one hand, this presents the Asian (male? There are no Asian women in this film at all) as a bumbling, slightly stupid and funny person that is really only good for making fun of. On the other hand, it shows the Asian as one who is sly, manipulative, cunning, dastardly clever and mysteeeeeeeeerious. These contrasting (conflicting?) portrayals end up sending only one message: Make fun of Asians because you can and because it's funny. One reviewer on IMDB wrote about how seeing this movie in theatres led him to do Hnup Wan impersonations. Is that a good thing? Absolutely not. That's like asking the Asian kids on the playground to do Long Duk Dong impersonations despite the obviously painful connections. In fact, Hnup Wan, Fan Choy, Mr. Yunioshi, and Long Duk Dong all belong in a new, separate category - Stereotypes That Exist Solely For Comic Relief and Playground Taunts.

Not cute at all. Listen to that soundtrack. It's got a stupid little xylophone. And the stupid little flutes and zithers and CRAP? It's racist! It sounds like the Mr. Yunioshi theme, only... mysterious. Gross. Makes me wanna cry. This stuff makes Flower Drum Song sound good. 
Children's movies relying on caricatures and stereotypes for comic relief? Shameful. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Collagin' #12

Rotate? Crap...
Coming Soon!
One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing
Joy Luck Club