The changing image of Chinese in Hollywood films
A recent flood of post-election comments by mainland Chinese netizens on Taiwan media Facebook pages is drawing lots of attention. The global publicity and characterizations of China stoked by the incident reminds me of another hot topic in film studies – How did the image of Chinese evolve in Hollywood films in the past century?
It goes without saying that the image of Chinese conveyed by US film makers for most of the 20th century was quite negative. But with China’s rise, has the image turned positive? To answer that question, it’s necessary to look at Hollywood’s past depictions of the Chinese people.
Let’s start with a 1984 movie named “Red Dawn,” which tells the story of the US being invaded by the allies of the Soviet Union, Cuba and Nicaragua. At the time, the US and the USSR were in the throes of the Cold War, and producers didn’t have to go far in firing the imagination of US movie goers. The Russians have always been the bad guys in films.
But when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) decided on a Red Dawn remake in the early 2000s, Russia was no longer the omnipresent enemy. With the end of the Cold War, it was perhaps boring to keep showing Russians as the enemy. Not so with the Chinese.
The remake of this box-office hit drew intense criticism from China because of the movie’s portrayal of Chinese as villains. At the same time, as China increasingly became a major market for Hollywood, US movie makers couldn’t risk provoking Chinese audiences. At the last minute, the film’s producers used special effects to transform the Chinese Army depicted in the film into the North Korean Army.
The Chinese, or US stereotypes of them, have long appeared in American movies. In 1895, the Edison Manufacturing Company produced a short comedy named “Chinese Laundry Scene,” featuring a Chinese laundry worker being chased by a policeman.
During those days, Chinese in films were always “coolies” who did low-income jobs. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 also galvanized anti-Chinese sentiments, encouraging physical attacks on Chinese people on the streets. Chinese were also forced to move out of white communities, doing jobs that whites had no interest in.
Starting from the 1910s, the phrase “Yellow Peril” was likewise popularized in the US by newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst. The pages of the Hearst publications portrayed Chinese as evil forces that were intruding on the country.
The fears stirred by “Yellow Peril” journalism gave American whites even more reason to discriminate against Chinese. It was also during this period that many Hollywood films featured Chinese villains who were identified with the high crime rates in local Chinatowns.
The Manchu with the black hat
The Hollywood character, Dr. Fu Manchu was the evilest of all.
Fu is a fictional character introduced in a series of novels by British author Sax Rohmer. He was also featured extensively in cinema, television, radio, comic strips, and comic books for over 90 years, and has become a cultural symbol of the “Yellow Peril.”
The first Hollywood film about Fu was “The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu,” produced by Paramount in 1929. Fu was played by Warner Oland, whom later continued to star in sequels such as “The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu” and “Daughter of the Dragon.”
The most famous portrayal of Fu Manchu was by horror star Boris Karloff in “The Mask of Fu Manchu.” This MGM film was brimming with racist discrimination against the Chinese, but it later became a cult film due to its weird flavor.
Until the early 1940s, Fu Manchu appeared again in the movie serials such as the “Drums of Fu Manchu.” But the character then disappeared from move screens before resurfacing in the 1960s. The reason was that during World War II, China and the US were allied against Japan. Due to pressure from the Chinese government and Chinese people, the US State Department asked Hollywood to stop making films with such racial stigmatization.
Enter Charlie Chan
Detective Charlie Chan was another famous Chinese character who debuted during the of Fu Manchu era. He was created by American author Earl Derr Biggers. He was portrayed as intelligent, heroic, benevolent and honorable in contrast to the racist depictions of evil Asians like Fu Manchu. However, critics contended that Chan, despite his good qualities, only served to reinforce condescending Asian stereotypes such as a subservient nature.
The first Charlie Chan movie was “The House without a Key,” played by a Japanese actor.
Later, Charlie Chan films usually starred Japanese or Korean actors. But none of these films were popular until white actor Warner Oland played the part. Oland had also played Fu Manchu in an earlier Hollywood incarnation.
Orland’s portrayal was more successful because his Charlie Chan was more gentle and modest than the others. He also had a good sense of humor. He went on to play the character in more than ten films that also became 20th Century Fox’s biggest box office hits in the 1930s.
Charlie Chan was also popular with audiences in China. There were at least five movies about him produced in Shanghai and Hong Kong in 1930s and 1940s. His popularity in Shanghai theaters reflected the fact that he was the only Chinese character who was portrayed positively in Hollywood films.
Some of Charlie Chan’s popularity in the US might also have had something to do with the fact that a rising Japan had replaced Chinese as the “Yellow Peril” in the minds of many Americans. This made Charlie Chan a sort of compensation for Chinese people as US-Japan tensions escalated in the run-up to Pear Harbor.
During the Golden Age of Hollywood, films about China also enjoyed traction with US audiences due to their exotic flavors, like “Shanghai Express” and “The Bitter Tea of General Yen.” “The Good Earth,” based on the 1931 novel of the same name by Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck, was an exception. The film heroically portrayed the Chinese farmer’s struggle against the harshness of life.
But MGM refused to let the famous Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong play the heroine, because the US Hays Code in effect at the time prohibited interracial marriage, and the hero was played by the famous white actor Paul Muni.
MGM then asked Wong to play the villain. She refused in what went down as the most famous case of racial discrimination in the history of Hollywood.
Wong usually played salacious women in her films, which was also stereotypical of Hollywood’s portrayal of Asian women. “The World of Suzie Wong” was such a film. An American artist meets a Chinese girl while traveling in Hong Kong and they fall in love.
In this kind of film, Chinese women could never resist the masculinity of white men, who contrasted favorably with a racial stereotype of weak Chinese men.
Enter The Dragon
The situation changed somewhat after the introduction of Bruce Lee’s films and Hong Kong-produced Kung fu films, which modified the image of Chinese men in US movies to a degree.
However, Lee’s films perpetuated another stereotype in US films. Henceforth, when a Chinese guy was featured, he had to be shown as a Kung fu master. Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Chow Yun Fat’s presence in Hollywood reinforced this image.
As a Chinese actor, Jackie Chan’s success in Hollywood is unmatched. Just like Charlie Chan, there’s nothing that he cannot handle. The difference is that he uses his fists while Charlie uses his brain.
After all, they share the same mission — protecting the white-dominated society.
A major problem of Jackie Chan’s image is that he is never sexually attractive to white females, maybe partly because of language barriers, and partly because he seems to have no interest in it.
Thus, as successful as he is, he is still objectified and is not a “person.” He’s good at kicking ass, but he does not love and care.
“Anna and the King of Siam” starring Chow Yun Fat and Jodie Foster represents a breakthrough for Asian actors. Though Chow played a king of Siam, not Chinese, it was still unusual for an Asian actor to play with a top-notch white actress in a love story. But the film was not popular, and Chow never repeated the role in other films.
But another inescapable fact is that Hollywood’s film industry has become a globalized business. Producers still know how to manipulate the images of foreigners to US audiences. If a country or group of people is at war with the US, it will be portrayed badly in films as in the case of Germany and Japan during World War II.
But Hollywood also is very cognizant of the fact that the overseas movie box office is twice as big as the one in the states. Producers know they must tread carefully with the influences of their films in the international arena.
In China’s case, the commercial success of films like “Avatar,” “Transformers,” and “Fast and Furious” have proved that China is replacing Japan and UK as Hollywood’s largest overseas market. Thus, US producers must rethink their portrayal of China and the Chinese.
It’s perhaps not surprising against this backdrop that people are noticing a change in how Chinese are portrayed in US movies.
In “Wall Street II,” the Chinese real estate tycoon Zhang Xin guest-starred as a businesswoman; in “2012” China helps the world build a fleet of Noah’s arks; and in “The Martian,” the China National Space Administration saves Matt Damon. All this presents a new stereotype of the Chinese—as the big buyer and savior of the world.
This article was originally published in WeChat account called “虹膜 ” in Chinese and was republished on Feb. 7, 2016 by The Initium Media, a Hong Kong-based digital media company. Asia Times has translated it with permission with editing for brevity and clarity.
Translated by Jiawen Guo for Asia Times