Thursday, September 15, 2011

"Oriental" Hollywood

Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu

Before I begin let me make clear that your's truly is about as middle-class a white guy as white America ever produced. I'm as bland as buttermilk, dance like a dork, and when younger thought that Andy's adventures in Mayberry were a documentary.

So please keep that in mind, and if I am inadvertently offensive, please take my word for it, I'm really not trying.

But see here's the thing, I've been thinking a bit about Asian stereotypes in film and have come to the conclusion that on the whole Asians fared a whole hell lot better in old movies then most other groups.

Don't get me wrong, Hollywood had more then it's fair share of buck-toothed coolies, ponytailed servants and tiny soldiers with thick glasses waiting to get bayoneted by Errol Flynn. And of course the single biggest issue in all of these movies is how few Asians have ever actually played Asians in these films, with the roles instead being filled by my fellow white guys.

But that's not to say that Hollywood did not have some fine Asian stars though. Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong were major motion picture stars during the 1920's and 30's.

Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong (Daughter of the Dragon 1931)

Here's Anna May Wong from the 1929 film Picadilly.....

Also, in the 1940's Keye Luke starred in dozens of films and normally in "action" roles.

Keye Luke and Peter Lorre doing their very best Mad Scientists in
Mad Love (1935), the "patient" is Henry Frankenstein himself, Colin Clive

Still on the whole more often then not the Asians on screen were white (I'm looking at YOU Katharine Hepburn), and the characters they were playing were embaressingly sterotypical.

Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed (1944)

But here's the thing, from my perspective there are a couple of consistent Asian stereotypes that Hollywood has always happily embraced that personally, if it was me, I'd be sort of pleased about.

The Asian Detective

During the 1930's there were several popular Asian detectives enjoying great popularity in Pulp magazines and were naturals for adaption to film.

The most famous of these Charlie Chan first appeared on film in 1931 played most famously by Swedish Actor Warner Oland, who would make a career playing Asian, often as Chan but in other roles including Fu Manchu.

Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935)

Other Asian film detectives included, Boris Karloff's Chinese, US Treasury Agent, Mister Wong and Peter Lorre's, dangerous and oddly sinister spy for Imperial Japan, Mr. Moto.

Boris Karloff as Treasury Agent James Wong

All three were smart, resourceful, and more often then not far more intelligent then the contemptuous, white people around them and inevitably solved the crime. Granted Chan had an outrageous, broken English speech pattern, but Karloff's Wong spoke perfect English, and Lorre's Moto was while speaking in a formal manner was also unaccented (unless you count Lorre's natural German accent).

Peter Lorre as the mysterious Mr. Moto

Also, in the case of Mr. Moto, who while very much the hero in his stories, is also an agent for Emperor Hirohito at the same time the invasion of Manchuria was taking place, so you get a far more complex anti-hero then 1930's Hollywood normally came up with.

Enjoy this trailer for 1938's Mr. Moto's Gamble..

The Yellow Peril

Look, okay, I know it's not the most wholesome of stereotype, and it's not something that any ones mother would approve of, but come on gang, I don't care who you are, don't tell me that there isn't something oddly appealing about being the leader of a slatheringly obedient secret society,  whose members happily die in the most horrible ways at your merest suggestion, while you and your equally evil daughter (never a son, they only betray you, although of course so does the daughter, but only after falling in love with the hero), have a nice day out as a family torturing snotty Englishmen who had the effrontery to interfere with your plans for world domination.

The classic example of course is Fu Manchu as most famously played by both Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff.

Boris Karloff (The Mask of Fu Manchu 1932)

Fu Manchu is the ultimate villain, brilliant, immortal, ruthless, twisted and quite mad, at his best Fu Manchu is as scary and dangerous as a badguy can get.

Another good example is Joseph Wiseman's Dr. No who might have been killed by James Bond, but is the guy who brought the secret lair and world domination plot into the modern age.

Joseph Wiseman (Dr. No 1962)

The Mystic Badass

Kwai Chang Caine as played by whiteboy, David Carradine in a role originally created for the great Bruce Lee spent three years on American television wandering the old West delivering sage bits of zen advice mixed with righteous asskickings, on ABC's Kung Fu, was kind, powerful and in touch with a higher reality then the rest of us.

Keye Luke and David Carradine in Kung Fu

Another Mystic Badass, and interestingly one who also traveled the old west, was Tony Randall's Doctor Lao whose mysterious and wondrous circus brought some changes to the people of Abalone, Arizona, in Gerorge Pals lovely fantasy the 7 Faces of Doctor Lao.

Tony Randall ( The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, 1964)

Now like I said, I'm not trying to defend what is in many cases truly offensive stereotypes, I'm really not, but all I'm saying is that if you've got to have some idiot's out there seeing you only as a stereotype, there are worse ones to choose from.

Plus I don't care what anyone says, Dragon Ladies are hot.

Anna May Wong (1932)


  1. I don't know about dragon ladies, but Anna May Wong definitely was mind-blowingly attractive. Born too soon, born too soon.

  2. 2013 - As a woman of mixed descent (mother Mexican, father German, step-pop English) with light brown skin and black hair, I hardly ever find myself offended by these stereotypes. I always look at these films as historically what was going on at the time and as lessons in a way of what to be aware of that still holds true now. I only get offended when I see denigration or abuse, not stereotypes - in any film of any era! We women still deal with stereotyping today so I know all about having to deal with those types of issues but I actually delight in all these films. I discovered the Charlie Chan films a couple of years ago even though I was vaguely aware of them growing up. And I just found Mr. Moto and just finished watching all 8 of these Peter Lorre films just a week ago! I _like_ him now! I find these films very delightful just take the stereotyping in stride along with all the other silly things like the tons of cigarette-smoking and misogyny present in old films (even films today have their stereotypes to deal with, though we are more politically correct these days ).

    I just enjoy a good B&W detective movie no matter the nationality of the "private dick": Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Moto, Charlie Chan, The Saint, Nero Wolfe ... the list goes on and on ... they're all such fun!