By Amy Kashiwabara,
University of California, Berkeley
This icon indicates a streamed video clip associated with the paragraph in which the icon appears. In order to play the clips, you must have Netscape version 3.0 or higher. You must also have QuickTime 2.1 or higher on your machine. These are large files, the image quality and the speed at which they stream may depend on network/server traffic at the time you invoke them. If you are dialing up via modem, forget it altogether.
The digital video on this page was incorporated with the assistance of the UC Berkeley Multimedia Research Center
"He's handsome. He's tough. He's worth millions. He's Asian American. (Learn his secrets inside.)" Thus begins a mailer advertising Transpacific Magazine, directed at a young and supposedly very mobile new class of Asian-Americans. Next to these words, Russell Wong appears, elegantly dressed in a tuxedo. He is meant to represent the minority that made it big, who has arrived as a powerful force in American and global life. Yet the secrets that lie behind Russell Wong are not his alone. If he represents the success of Asian men in becoming mainstream in America, he also represents their failures and their history.
The history of Asian-American men in mainstream media is largely found in the visual medium of the motion picture. Asian-Americans can be found in the very first black and white silent shorts of the late nineteenth century and in films of every successive decade. Sometimes these characters were more popular, sometimes less. Sometimes they had large roles, sometimes the most minute. Sometimes they were played by actual Asians and sometimes by Whites in yellowface. But whatever the means, Hollywood has consistently produced some version of Asian and Asian-American men to present to the American public.
Hollywood has often failed, however, to make a distinction between Asian-Americans and Asians. Therefore, attitudes toward Asian-American men have been heavily influenced by portrayals of Asian men. As Eugene Franklin Wong puts it, "the hand-me-down potential of stereotypes, especially negative ones, can be activated by the presentation of motion pictures that were made years earlier." Critics have also noted two distinct types of representations of Asian men in American movies, iconized by the fictional characters Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. These critics include Wong, Gina Marchetti, Dorothy P. Jones, and Richard Oehling, among others. Only a few critics have attempted to differentiate between portrayals of Asian-Americans and Asians. This is largely because the films rarely differentiate. The fact is that Charlie Chan may have been the first well-known Asian-American man. This is not how the movies present him, however. According to the films, he is a "Chinese detective" who happens to speak perfect English, dresses in suits, lives in Hawaii and has Americanized children. These things merely make him an acceptable hero, but did not make him into an American or even a "Chinese-American detective." Fu Manchu, on the other hand, epitomized the threatening foreigner. Although very different, these two characters have been the archetypes for representations of both Asian and Asian-American men.
The first Asians to come to the United States of America in significant numbers were Chinese laborers. Correspondingly, the first images of Asians to appear in the mainstream media were of these men. "When Asian immigrants appeared in newspapers and magazines in the 1900's, they were depicted with slanted eyes, buck teeth and yellow skin." Perhaps these were also the first images of Asian-American men. The emphasis at the time was clearly on what was foreign about them, however, and not on what may have been assimilated. Anti-Asian sentiment must be held largely accountable for this emphasis. Anti-Asian sentiment was a major reason behind immigration exclusion acts directed first at the Chinese, then the Japanese. Barriers were also created to prevent them from becoming U.S. citizens. As early as 1852, California Governor John Bigler accused the Chinese of retaining allegiance to their homeland and of coming into the country illegally. These beliefs would be reflected in the movies to come. Before the turn of the twentieth century, the first "discriminatory legislation on immigration passed by the American Congress, closed America's doors on the Chinese."  Anti-Chinese attitudes probably influenced the portrayals of the Chinese and other Asians which in turn fueled those attitudes, and so on. "Culturally biased perceptions of the Chinese as uniquely non-Western in dress, language, religion, customs, and eating habits determined that the Chinese were inferior."
The early presence and size of the Chinese population has been reflected in the fact that "China has been shown in feature films by far the most frequently (of Asian countries.)."  While Jones was writing in 1955, this may still be true. However, Japan is rapidly catching up. To the extent that representations of Asians were representations of Chinese, supposedly general characteristics of Asians drew upon stereotypes of the Chinese. And anti-Chinese bias translated into anti-Asian bias.
Rather than acknowledging the differences between Asian cultures, American versions of Asians often borrowed haphazardly from all cultures. "All of the dozens of Asian and Pacific Island cultures are lumped into one homogenous identity, thus Korean and Vietnamese women in the 1950's-70's are commonly called Mama-San despite the Japanese (American) origins of that term." Other examples include the Chinese character of Broken Blossoms (1919) committing hari-kari and the random association of Buddhism to all Asians. Of course, Hollywood Buddhism would probably not be recognized by any actual Buddhists. Boris Karloff, in the title role of The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), offers Karen Morley as a blood sacrifice. "In the end, the image of both the Chinese and Japanese in the media depended more on political factors among the dominant Caucasian population of the United States than upon the characteristic behavior or attitudes of either immigrant group."
The early Chinese laborers entered American mainstream media as coolies. They could be easily recognized in magazines and newspapers of the day by their queues, coolie caps, slippers and jackets, often with braiding or buttons. Long after the coolie disappeared in reality, these exotic items implied a connection to this stereotype. According to the coolie stereotype, Asian men are economically inferior, strange eunuchs who speak with an accent and although outwardly submissive, may not be trustworthy. Usually small in stature, the coolie was early on given the particular tasks of cooking and cleaning. "Among the Chinese, laundry work emerged quickly, as did restaurant service and personal/household service, as `Asian' occupations."
To a large extent, Asians found themselves in these positions because these were the ones allowed them. Trapped in real life, men of Asian origin also became trapped in the fantasy world of Tinseltown. "One of the first attempts at film comedy," went by two names, Robetta and Doreto or Chinese Laundry Scene (1894)." This short silent film stars "the Chinaman Hop Lee (who) employs tremendous ingenuity and dexterity to elude the Irish policeman who chases him." Musser also describes a scene from The Terrible Kids which appeared in 1906. One of the mischievous boys from the title assaults a Chinaman and pulls on his queue. In these and other films of the first few decades of movie making, the "Chinese were presented mainly to provide comic relief and to establish local color."
An exception is the 1922 film, Shadows. The Chinese man, played by Lon Cheney, is actually the star of this melodrama. However, Yen Sin does nothing to break out of the Chinese laundry man stereotype. While Yen is a sympathetic character who wins the hearts of the townspeople of Urkey, he is clearly a coolie. He wears the typical dress and treats everyone in a deferential manner. Although tall, Cheney played Yen as "bowed by a lifetime of hard labor." This physical deformity makes him look both comic and submissive. To be fair, Cheney's performance is actually a heartrending portrayal of a gentle man, but his subtlety was lost upon the writers who supplied the story titles for this silent film.
The coolie laundry man laid the groundwork for the stereotype of the Asian domestic servant. Most of the characteristics remained. The paragon of the coolie domestic servant can actually be found on television as late as the 1970's. He is Hop Sing from Bonanza. "This Western series dominated the Sunday-night ratings for over a decade." As Hop Sing, Victor Sen Yung wears coolie attire and speaks in a high-pitched voice with an accent. Like a harried housewife, he literally runs and hops around, cooking, cleaning, completing all domestic errands. He is also a good foot shorter than the beefy men of the Ponderosa. In one episode, a lady visits the all-male household. To Hop Sing's complaint, "Rush, rush around all the time, lickety-split," she replies, "He's delightful." More than just a good servant, Hop Sing's Asian eccentricities serve to amuse the Cartwrights, their guests and supposedly the audience. His complaints can not be taken seriously because he is not taken seriously.
Other coolies can be found in this show doing various domestic tasks, including room service at the town's fancy hotel. Mute Asian characters receive with bowed heads the tips tossed to them, the largesse spread by the cowboy noblesse oblige. The Bonanza series extended the film industry's concentration on the Chinese as basically inarticulate cooks and domestics. These characters were not presented as Asian-Americans, at best they were seen as resident aliens. However, there is a second type of coolie in Bonanza. Those who speak more English seem to have a more "American" attitude, speaking casually to their bosses. There seems to be some recognition that Asians were assimilating, although they were still relegated to being servants.
Before Bonanza, Victor Sen Yung had the opportunity to practice playing the domestic coolie in several other roles. In 1954, he played a Chinese houseboy named Wang in the Republic Serial, Trader Tom of the China Seas, a "hodgepodge adventure about the United Nations, spies and revolution." In traditional coolie attire, he is again seen cleaning and dusting. He even gets to help fight the bad guys occasionally, but most of the time he is left behind to tend the store while Trader Tom takes a woman with him on his dangerous adventures. Both the good and the bad guys have Chinese servants here. So the main effect of Asian servants in this serial is to give local color and to reinforce the social status of all Whites. The role of Gursan, played by a White man in yellowface is an even more unflattering portrayal than Wang. While Wang is pleasant-looking and likable, Gursan is a tall, thin idiot who minces around. His features are grossly distorted in an effort to create a Fu Manchu appearance.
Around the 1920s, another version of the coolie appeared. From laundry man to domestic, the Asian man became more specifically a manservant, tending to the personal services of a White man. Brief sightings of the beginning of this stereotype can be found in Son of Kong (1933), San Francisco (1936) and The Painted Veil (1934). The first, of course, is a sequel to the famous King Kong. In this subsequent version, Victor Wong plays the loyal servant, in coolie attire, who does all the important tasks like steal guns from the enemy and row the boat while his White boss stands handsome and helpless. Thanks for his work comes in the form of the praise "Good boy, Charlie." In The Painted Veil, Greta Garbo plays a young woman who moves to China with her doctor husband. There she is given both a houseboy and a housegirl who call her only "Missee." Incidentally, this movie's version of China makes it a disease infested place where war, callousness and ignorance contrast with the civilized, compassionate White world.
San Francisco stars Jeanette MacDonald and Clark Gable. This black and white melodrama ends with the dramatic earthquake of 1906. Gable plays a nightclub owner whose Asian manservant wears the traditional coolie cap and coat. In addition to dressing Gable, he works as a maid and a cook. His longest line in the film is "How about going upstairs for some chop suey?" and the actor's name fails to appear in the list of credits. The role of the Asian man in San Francisco is particularly interesting because the film shows a variety of assimilated White ethnics including Irish and Italian men. The Blacks in the film serve as entertainers. In this sea of stereotypes, only the Asian man does not wear Western clothes and to him is given the task of serving the White lead.
None of these films comment at all on the position of the Asian as servant. Once again, they serve only as local color and appendages of the White characters. They are foils for the elegant elite. They add a touch of exoticism with their accents and strange clothes. In fact, their physical appearance is the most important aspect of their characters. Certainly dialogue is not, and character development is limited to making it clear that they are happy servants. While these three films are set in places as far apart as China, America and the make-believe Skull Island, the Asian character does not change. Nor does the fact that the characters if Son of Kong and San Francisco are probably Asian-Americans make them any different from those in The Painted Veil. Asian or Asian-American, the characterization is of a dutiful servant in a minor role.
In the few films of the first half of this century in which there was an Asian lead, it usually went to a White actor. This was especially true if the character was sympathetic, such as in Broken Blossoms and The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933). Major roles or characters have been reserved for the whites and minor roles or characters (are) often open to, but not necessarily reserved for, the Asian actors." The practice of yellowface continued for several decades, including Breakfast at Tiffany's with Mickey Rooney and A Majority of One with Alec Guinness in the yellowface roles as late as 1961. Films with Chinese characters played by Whites allowed audiences to experience exotic locales and vicarious thrills while minimizing the threats involved. Yellowface is an example of "Hollywood orientalism (which) could bring once-forbidden pleasures to the mass movie audience as long as actual Asians were kept out."
Broken Blossoms presented one of Hollywood's first depictions of Asian-White romance. It was a great hit, hailed by critics and seen by many. Directed by D.W. Griffith, it is also notable for its compassionate portrayal of the Chinese character Cheng Huan, Yellow Man, otherwise referred to in the film as the Chink. Played by Richard Barthelmess, the Chink is a young man who loves a young White girl, Lucy, played by Lillian Gish. Wong cites evidence that despite strong reaction to some of Griffith's films,  he was not a racist." Richard A. Oehling describes Broken Blossoms as the "only really sympathetic account of the Asian in mixed-racial love stories from 1910-1930." Other critics have refused to take the pro-toleration aspect of the story at face value. Marchetti places it in the same category as The Cheat. "Both narratives use the fantasy of rape and the possibility of lynching to reaffirm the boundaries of a white-defined, patriarchal, Anglo-American culture."
However, leaving aside the nature of the Yellow Man's character, we can notice certain other qualities about him. His attire comes straight from the coolie closet complete with slippers, coolie cap and buttoned jacket. His mannerisms toward Lucy are completely deferential and he ends up serving more as her servant than her lover. He dresses her, cooks and cleans for her. In return he gets only the faint praise "What makes you so good to me, Chinky?" This domesticity combined with a fragile physical stature has led him to be described as the epitome " of the eunuch-like Asian male." Seen from a point of view which divides characteristics into male and female, even his kindness and gentleness add to his effeminization.
However, although he has certain feminine characteristics, there is one specific masculine characteristic he is given - lust. This lust is also his only threatening aspect. "We see in the shots of an increasing intimacy between the Yellow Man and Lucy an extreme close-up of the Yellow Man's face . . . and we see Lucy drawing away from the Yellow Man in wonder tinged with fear. In response to her reaction, he manages to resist his obvious desire, keeping his love "pure and holy," as the story title tell us. Thus the Chink remains sympathetic only because he does not act on his lust. He remains a servant rather than a lover. Like Lucy, the audience is supposed to be comfortable with his character as long as he is gentle and subservient. More than that is fearful, however.
In The Bitter Tea of General Yen, the star is Swedish actor, Nils Asther. This somewhat subversive story was "chosen to open New York's Radio City Music Hall." While on the surface, this proud and powerful military leader would seem to have little in common with the gentle Chink, their stories end up in the same place. Both desire white women sexually, treat those women deferentially and end up committing suicide, their love unrequited. Thus, the Asian man takes the Madame Butterfly role of self-sacrifice and pays the penalty for inter-racial love. Wong associates the assignation of suicide to Asians as "a racist justification for white devaluation of Asian life." The idea that Asians do not value life is reinforced by comments made by General Yen and American missionaries who have worked in China. "Human life is cheap in China," we are told.
The basic storyline follows Barbara Stanwyck in the role of Megan, a missionary's wife who goes to China. There she is captured by warlord Yen. At first she suspects him of wanting to take advantage of her sexually. In a bizarre rape fantasy sequence, she imagines him as both monster and gentleman, both frightening and satisfying her. However, according to the narrative, this version of Yen is clearly Megan's fantasy of the exotic other. The real Yen of the film turns out to be a literate and intelligent man who out-debates rather than overpowers her. Although he treats her well, it is also made clear that he can be cruel to his enemies.
The link to the coolie stereotype may be faint, but it can be seen in his deferential attitude towards Megan and his dress which includes a coolie cap. The stereotype sets us up to accept that a man as cruel and powerful as Yen otherwise, would take a place of subservience, or at least service, to a helpless White woman. In response to her bitter taunts of "You yellow swine," he has several female servants bathe and dress her, even dry her feet. The women performing these tasks for Megan are, of course, Asian. The low position of the Asian woman relative to the White is further emphasized by the dinner scene in which Megan is allowed to sit with the men, but Toshia-Mori, playing Yen's servant Mah-Li, must sit at a lower table by herself. Surprisingly, Megan actually falls in love with Yen by the end of the film. Their love is never consummated, however, because she only declares it after he has taken poison and is well on his way to death.
By the 1930s, the Asian manservant of the movies began to change his Eastern clothing for Western. Based on a derogatory term for Japanese houseboys, this version of domestic servant was known as Charlie. Historically, the second wave of Asian immigrants to this country were indeed largely young Japanese men who did domestic work while furthering their education. Both the coolie and the Charlie versions of servant continued to make appearances well into this century. American attitudes were reflected in the 1942 flick, Across the Pacific, in which Humphrey Bogart comments that the "Japanese make great servants.''
Little has been written about the Charlie character in movies. This is probably because in many movies, you will miss him. Often, he merely takes a hat and coat here, answers the phone there. By the simple act of donning a suit, the Asian man may as well have assumed a cloak of invisibility. At least as a coolie, his character had some more notability, if only for comic or exotic purposes. The Western suit implies that he has been assimilated as a servant, perhaps domesticated. His threat is also removed by removing any sexuality from him, as a pet is housebroken by being neutered.
In the beloved MGM version of the Irving Berlin musical, Easter Parade (1948), Mr. Hughes, played by Fred Astaire, has an Asian manservant. If you blinked you may have missed him, but he is there, in full formal attire. Sam also has the accent, small stature and submissive cheeriness we have come to recognize in Asian manservants. He changes Mr. Hughes' coat and answers the door to receive guests. Torch Song (1953) was most notable for an infamous performance by Joan Crawford in blackface. However, her love interest in the movie, the blind but utterly masculine Tai, has a houseboy. He is short, balding, wears a white coat and says "I'm sorry" with an accent so many times that his boss tells him to stop. In response to that order, he apologizes again, of course. He also quotes Confucius. Five years later, Rosalind Russell starred as Auntie Mame, the well-known eccentric. One of her eccentricities was having an Asian houseboy named Ito. Speaking short, choppy sentences like "I fetch," he runs around the house. His most prominent characteristics are a high-pitched giggle, small stature and smiling countenance. Auntie Mame is supposed to have a taste for all things exotic and Ito belongs among her ice statue of Buddha, Chinese lamps and silk gowns. Just so that there can be no mistaking his character, Yuki Shimoda assures us "You see, I be like Charlie of the Ritz."
As a servant, and only as a servant, the Asian man becomes largely acceptable and ignored. Little if any comment is usually made on his position. He serves mainly to emphasize the status of the White man he usually serves. Particularly during the forties, Asian manservants were often matched with macho White heroes, especially loners who had a distant relationship to anything or anyone feminine. Although most of his roles are tiny, the significance of the Charlie character can not be underestimated. The very fact that these portrayals are so easily forgettable is of great importance. Charlie is a great servant, assimilated just enough to wear Western clothes and speak English. He is probably an Asian-American. However, the Charlie character provides little or no basis for a lead character or a romantic one. Wong blames the lack of Asian lead roles on a "racialist belief that Asians (especially Asian males) lack desirable human qualities, which are viewed as marketable commodities by white executives.''
This belief is probably based on the scarcity of Asian male characters who have been given desirable qualities. Specifically, as Asian men became Americanized in movies and thus might possibly be seen as Asian-Americans, they continued to be relegated to minor servant roles. The Charlie stereotype complements the better known geisha stereotype created for Asian women. Regarding the geisha, Tajima writes "these `Oriental flowers are utterly feminine, delicate and welcome respites from their often loud, independent American counterparts." Together the geisha and Charlie create a feminized, domestic Asia that cares for and soothes the White man. They are fantasies of submission, passivity and loyalty.
"Those roles which Asians do secure often call for stylized and patterned displays, requiring less in the way of acting than a series of directed Oriental affectations." These Oriental affectations, which make the character distant and exotic, carried over to the characterizations of Americanized Asians. Thus the Asian face has rarely been free of associations with strange affectations. The continuing exoticism of the Asian face allows the individuality of these characters to be largely disregarded. That is, they are presented as strange and unknowable and thus it is hard to identify with them.
They become more an appendage to Whiteness than people in their own right. This can be seen in the phrasing "your boy." And since their identity is so dependent upon the White person, it makes sense that they should kill themselves if that person leaves. Oehling writes that suicide is "a practice Hollywood had long since ascribed to Asians as an almost common trait." It is as if they could not exist alone as individuals. Thus suicide as an the end of an Asian character, particularly one of any importance, has dominated films from as early as Broken Blossoms to films of today, like Year of the Dragon (1985) and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989.) The fact that these suicides are seen as largely convenient is reflected in a remark from My Geisha (1962). An American man praises Japanese women because instead of suing for alimony like American women, they "jump into volcanoes."
It is also interesting to note that while the geisha is often held up as an example which white women should follow, Charlie is not similarly glorified. This is largely due to one important point of difference between the geisha and Charlie. Both revolve around White men, but only the female is endowed with sexuality. "The common depiction of Asian women as exotic objects of white men is counterposed with prevailing a-sexual images of Asian men." Only the female is endowed with acceptable sexuality. If the Charlie character is sexualized, he is feminized, which is not acceptable sexuality for a man. Thus while several films have geishas as romantic leads, I can think of none that treat Asian male domestics in the same way. Quite to the contrary, we have noted several movies in which the Asian manservant plays the most insignificant part.
The geisha became such a popular character that "it appeared as if the geisha was Hollywood's chief emblem of postwar reconciliation." Several examples of films which star geishas include several versions of the Madame Butterfly story, My Geisha with Yoko Tani, Sayonara (1957) with Miiko Tara, and Teahouse of the August Moon (1956). Together they create a genre of films in which the submissive Asian woman plays a prominent part. Many specifically compare Asian and White women, only to find the White women lacking. Sayonara, for example "holds Katsumi up as a paragon of female virtue. Later, she is shown performing her domestic tasks, cooking, serving guests, bathing her husband, cheerfully and quietly. Direct descendant of the geisha, the submissive Asian women became an icon.
Recent films like Oliver Stone's Heaven and Earth (1993) both contain and deny the misconceptions about Asian women. On the one hand, the American GI says things like "my first wife taught me a real lesson" and "I need a good Oriental woman," implying that Asian women are somehow more desirable than white women. But if he had in mind a submissive wife in his Vietnamese bride, he turns out to be mistaken as she Americanizes in the states. Ultimately, she does sue for alimony instead of committing suicide they way the American man fantasized in My Geisha. The stereotypes do not disappear as the foundation of representations, but they do become ironized and played upon. Rarely can they be taken at face value anymore.
The history of the Charlie character has been quite different. Rather than being a star, he becomes a prop in the background. It makes sense that this should happen if we consider that films were being made by white men who did not see Charlie as any kind of role model. On the other hand, they may have seen the geisha, as they saw her, to be a role model for White women and thus were happy to glorify and exploit her image.
The Black Widow also featurs the other reigning stereotype of Asian women, the dragon lady. Anna May Wong gave her version in several films, including A Study in Scarlet (1933). This popular stereotype continues to affect portrayals of Asian-American women. An episode of Saturday Night Live from last summer had a sketch based on Connie Chung. It showed Chung purposefully tricking Newt Gingrich's mother, putting words into her mouth, misquoting her and finally forcing her to lie at gun point. "Connie Chung is evil," Newt tells his mother. The dragon lady stereotype has specific consequences for Asian men as well. It helps emasculate them.
In several films, the Asian woman is presented as the ringleader, usually of a criminal group. In addition to The Black Widow, these include Luana Walters as Sonya Rokoff in Shadow of Chinatown, Carmel Myers as Madame Ying Su in Chinatown After Dark (1931) and Beatrice Lillie as white slaver Mrs. Meers in Thoroughly Modern Millie. Carmel Myers is advertised as "evil dragon-lady Madame Ying Su." All these films also have Asian men play coolie characters subordinate to these women. Sometimes, these men are treated as comedic bumblers, sometimes as deferential houseboys. Three of these dragon ladies ultimately end up with male bosses. For Mrs. Meers, he is code-named Buddha and never appears on-screen. The Black Widow turns out to be working for her father, who appears and disappears in a puff of smoke, only to be seen by her. And Sonya Rokoff soon finds that her henchman, the Eurasian mad scientist played by Bela Lugosi, soon breaks free of her control. However, the ladies are usually the stars and visual centers, not the men who are alluded to but may never appear at all.
The dragon lady is the one who has a major part and is known as the leader. She is paired for the most part, with weak Asian men. Like the submissive geisha, she also has a penchant for White men, even the elderly Mrs. Meers lusted after one of the young heroes. This is especially easy to understand since the Asian men around dragon ladies are usually anything but attractive. The dragon ladies are usually dressed in tight silk dresses, bodies on display. Terribly sexy, they can also be sly, cruel and continually popular. In James Bond films, "Oriental women, always potentially treacherous, must be watched with especial care. The question remains whether there is an invisible equation that subtracts power from Asian men to the extent that Asian women are shown in positions of authority.
Another important trait assigned to Asian women in film affects how Asian men are seen - her acceptance of the White man as sexual partner. At its most extreme, "the American patriarch shores up his own masculinity, proves his moral superiority, and emasculates his former enemy by the single act of marrying a Japanese woman." Often he is such a desirable partner that she is willing to give up a great deal for him as in Sayonara, The World of Suzie Wong (1960), Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1966) and of course, Madame Butterfly. "Unlike the racist image of the threatening Asian rapist, white males are generally provided the necessary romantic conditions and masculine attributes with which to attract the Asian females' passion. In 1924's The Thief of Bagdad, the princess is horrified by the array of Asian princes who comes to court her. Instead, she falls immediately for the handsome rogue played by Douglas Fairbanks.
"Noticeably lacking is the portrayal of love relationships between Asian women and Asian men, particularly as lead characters . . . the man often loves from afar but runs a distant second to the tall, handsome American." The Asian male is presented as no competition for the White male in the arenas of sexuality and romance. In fact, in most of these films, he fails to be represented at all. In her essay titled "White Knights in Hong Kong," Marchetti describes William Holden's role as a "white knight" in both The World of Suzie Wong and Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. His ladies in distress are played by Nancy Kwan and Jennifer Jones, respectively. They need to be rescued from a wide of variety of things from prostitution, abuse, poverty, and boredom. By saving them, "the white knight's gender and racial superiority and concomitant moral imperative to rule are thus simultaneously affirmed." While the Asian man does not enter the picture, he is clearly affected. Many of our heroes are "white knights," and Asian men are excluded by definition. This has been a major cause of the scarcity of popular heroic roles for Asian and Asian-American men today.
"In theory, non-white males have been positioned as threats . . . in practice, because of the subservience to white male social power, non-white males have been credited with non-masculine, effeminate characteristics." By denying him masculinity, the sex appeal and star quality of the Asian and Asian-American man are greatly reduced. In the few films in which an Asian character does star and it is suggested that he can be strong and attractive, he usually ends up emasculated. Often he dies. General Yen is a good example. Another comes from the 1961 film, Bridge to the Sun. James Shigeta stars as Terry Terasaki, a Japanese diplomat who marries an American blonde. However, "Terry does not emerge as a triumphant hero of a new, nonhierarchical family but rather fades from view and eventually disappears as an ineffectual invalid doomed to extinction."
Occasionally, it is hinted that the very ambiguity of Asian male sexuality can be intriguing. This only appears as a shadowy subplot, however. For example, Ricardo Montalban played "a Kabuki performer, a `male actress,' able to play both female and male roles" in Sayonara. The female lead, Eileen takes an interest in him. Although they clearly admire each other, they are also distant. They have no intimate contact and their conversation is more polite than passionate. The film leaves their relationship at that. Thus the "escape clause whereby white males have been able to transgress interracial sexual prohibitions, while demanding white females adhere rigidly to the prohibitions" is not challenged by Eileen's relationship with Nakamura.
Sometimes the effeminization of the Asian male comes from his proximity to an entirely masculine White man character. In contrast to all that White maleness, the Asian male can not help but look less masculine by comparison. It does not help the matter that the role often entails the kind of caring for the White man that is associated with women. In her essay "Comprehension and Crisis: Reporter Films and the Third World," Claudia Springer describes the patterns in films where a White male reporter travels east. She sees the propelling force of these narratives to be an exploration of a person who also represents the foreign country. This person is always either a woman or an ethnic male. Thus the ethnic male can take the female, or feminized, role. To illustrate her point, she points to Dith Pran in The Killing Fields (1984) played by Dr. Haing S. Ngor.
In addition to his effeminization, the manservant figure can also be rendered benign by a sort of asexuality. In the minor roles, this meant that no reference at all was usually made to a romantic or sex life. This is not particularly noticeable, however, because little or no reference at all is usually made to any life beyond service to their White master. But one type of character who looked suspiciously like Charlie emerged as a lead in the 1930s - the Asian male detective. The only well-known example of an Asian or Asian-American hero happens to share the same name as the derogatory slang term for servants. Over twenty-five Charlie Chan movies were made during the 1930's and 40's, creating a genre all their own. Chan traveled the entire globe from London, Egypt, Paris, Shanghai and Monte Carlo to Reno, Panama and Rio. 20th-Century Fox produced these films simultaneously with another series starring Mr. Moto. Yet another Asian detective, Mr. Wong, was offered by Monogram and Paramount in the 1930's.
These roles almost always went to Whites in yellow-face. This rare prototype of an Asian hero shows the extent to which sexuality had to be erased for an Asian man, even a heavily Americanized one, not to be considered a threat. Thus the most famous of the Asian male detective, Chan, seems practically sexless. That is not to say he has no gender. Chan is definitely not a woman, but he is an intellectual man who never shows an emotion, let alone lust. "There is always a romance in the Chan movies, but it never involves Charlie or his children." Only in this form can he be an Asian man and also a hero. This lack of sexuality also emerges in the lesser known Asian male detectives such as Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto and Boris Karloff as Mr. Wong. Chan and Wong are Chinese, Moto is Japanese. However, there are more similar characteristics than dissimilar. While Charlie Chan does make an occasional reference to his wife, she never appears on-screen. The other two characters fail to have any apparent love interest at all. Thus "as sexual rivals of whites, Asian males are neutralized, whether or not their potential sexual partners are white or Asian females."
One movie of the Asian detective genre was an exception. Of the six Mr. Wong mysteries, five of which starred Boris Karloff, Keye Luke had the title role in the last. He was the first Asian to play an Asian detective. Unfortunately, he would also be the last for a long time. I do not know how Phantom of Chinatown (1941) did at the box office, but if it had been popular, it probably would not have been the final episode of the series which spanned a decade.
There are very notable differences between the two versions of Mr. Wong, San Francisco-based Chinese detective. Of course, there are the differences in stature and age between Karloff and Luke. Karloff's Wong also had slicked down black hair, glasses, a mustache and a mild-manner which contrasted with the wise-cracking Detective Street. Luke's Wong looks and acts very much like his portrayal of Charlie Chan's number one son from Charlie Chan at the Opera. He has a good haircut, a tailored American suit, no glasses, no mustache and a more casual manner. Unlike Karloff's Wong, Luke is at ease trading banter with Detective Street, played in both versions by Grant Withers. While Karloff is always referred to as Mr. Wong, Luke becomes James Lee Wong, known to all as Jimmy.
Jimmy seems about ready to burst from the stereotypes we have seen. He is as successfully assimilated as number one son, but is not treated as merely a comic character or a bumbler. He has no accent. He gets to be smart, witty, handsome, a hero. It is even clearly implied that he gets a girl, played by Lotus Long. In moving between the two worlds of old-fashioned China and modern America, he also moves between shifting generations of stereotypes. For example, at one point he picks up the phone and speaks to a Chinese elder who is your typical patriarch in silk robes with a white Fu Manchu. He speaks in proverbs and with deference toward him. Supposedly, the old man is hooked into a network of information, the mysterious "Friends of China." This is all typical, but then Jimmy hangs up the phone and leads Detective Street on their search.
However, if the movie moves beyond certain stereotypes, it maintains others. Both Mr. Wongs have coolie houseboys, reinforcing their relative status. It is as if some Chinese may have equality with the Whites, but to do so they must also use Chinese men as houseboys for status symbols. In one scene, Luke calls his pigeon English-speaking houseboy, "Fooey." He protests, that it is "Fu." He is disregarded and told that in America, he is "Fooey." Later, when Fu has captured an intruder, Luke says, "Good work. Now make us some tea." It seems the Chinese hero fails to respect the Chinese domestic just like the Whites. In addition, while Street seems to have a healthy respect for Luke, there are a few slips. He calls Luke and Long "children" at one point, which emphasizes the fact that he stands literally head and shoulders above them. Nonetheless, Phantom of Chinatown did at least stretch some stereotypes. Two decades would pass before they were tested to such an extent again, in Flower Drum Song (1962).
A little more needs to be said about that most popular and well-known of Charlies, Charlie Chan. He appeared in over two dozen films all during the thirties and early forties. Played by both Sidney Toler and Warner Oland, Chan speaks mostly in pithy proverbial sayings. He smiles, bows and speaks deferentially. It is supposed to be a compliment when the police sergeant in Charlie Chan at the Opera says "You're all right. Just like chop suey. A mystery, but a swell dish." He also calls Chan "egg foo young." Chan's appearance and manners are always immaculately formal.
In contrast, number one son played by Keye Luke and number two son, Sen Yun, are presented as more Americanized. It is important to note that both the ultra-suave Chan and his bumbling Americanized sons are comedic characterizations. In fact, these characters seem to leave little room for an Asian-American man to be taken seriously. If he is traditional and formal, this seems to contrast in a humorous way with his Western clothing. If he is American casual, this is funny when you look at his Asian face. This may be the particular bind that Asian-American men find themselves in, outside and inside the world of movies. Much of the appeal of the Chan films comes from this unspoken, but essential, contrast of attitudes and appearances.
The concept of Americanized Asians was not entirely new, however. An early example comes from the 1934 Harold Lloyd production, The Cat's Paw. Lloyd, playing a naive young White man who was raised in China, speaks Chinese to an Asian man with a Fu Manchu, silk robes and a sign advertising a Chinese restaurant. In response, the man snaps in Brooklynese that he doesn't know what Lloyd is saying. Several films from the 1960s, however, were particularly explicit in portraying a young generation of Asians both in America and the East whose main interests are the same as any American teenager. The Shirley Maclaine vehicle, My Geisha, has a scene in which a producer is searching for someone to play Madame Butterfly in his upcoming film. The producer is played by French actor Yves Montand who, of course, should know what it means to be Japanese. He wants a simple, traditional girl. Instead the young women who come in to audition wear poodle skirts and sing fifties hits. He cries in exasperation, "They're more Western than the girls at home. . . They're not Japanese anymore."
He probably would not have thought the teenagers in Flower Drum Song were Chinese anymore, either. This Rodgers and Hammerstein musical is most notable for its almost entirely Asian cast. All its leads are Asian. While White people appear as extras in some scenes, there is no meaningful interaction between the races. There is no formal segregation, but there is no evidence that the Chinese people and White people live and work together either. As in the Charlie Chan movies, Flower Drum Song puts forth a replica of American society with Asian faces. The bank has only Asian tellers, policemen, bankers and customers.
The movie also calls upon the stereotype of illegal immigrants. Our heroine comes to America hidden in a crate because it would take her ten years to qualify to come legally under the quota. Played by Miyoshi Umeki, this picture bride is one of the conventional roles in the film. Subservient and submissive, in the end, she gets the man the other, more modern, girls want. Benson Fong plays the old-fashioned patriarch with grey mustache, glasses and silk robes.
While these characters fit into the traditional mold, Flower Drum Song also "gave birth to a whole new generation of stereotypes--gum chewing Little Leaguers, enterprising businessmen and all-American tomboys of the new model minority myth." Sammy Fong, played by Jack Soo, owns a nightclub and apparently does very well financially. To pacify Linda at one point, he buys her a convertible. He speaks in supposedly hip American slang. "I got another kumquat on the fire. I got this kid on ice but the ice is melting fast." The film makes the point over and over again that there are Asians who are more American than Chinese. When Umeki asks a Chinese gentleman to read an address for her, he responds "Sorry, sister. I can't read Chinese." The Chinese policeman, oddly enough named Mack, doesn't either. Apparently, these people live entirely surrounded by Chinese, without interaction with Whites, and yet they have Americanized so completely that English is their only language.
Nancy Kwan as Linda Low is a long-legged husband hunter who wants "a little security." Her role is not too different from the type Marilyn Monroe played so successfully in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953). However, while Linda seems to be a new kind of Asian woman, in the end she too is subservient. When she finally gets the marriage proposal which has been her only goal, she goes on her knees and removes the shoes of her husband-to-be. So "the women of Flower Drum Song were more of the same with a few modernizations."
James Shigeta in the starring role of Wang Ta explains that he is half Oriental and half American. Although he brings it up as an issue of serious discussion, Linda responds by kissing him, appealing to the American half, she calls it. The half and half identity is later celebrated in a musical number called "Chop Suey." Juanita Hall tells us she likes being like "the Chinese dish Americans made up." The entire cast joins her in the chorus of singing "Chop Suey" as if there could be nothing better. Nonetheless, Flower Drum Song was not followed by other films with Asian and Asian-American stars. "Chop Suey" did not become a staple of the American diet.
Margaret Cho, in All-American Girl, also attempted to celebrate the Americanization of Asians. She tried to use the fact that we still see humor in people with Asian faces having American manners to her advantage. Many of the gags and jokes played off this breed of humor. Unfortunately, the fact that we find it funny implies that we still don't really accept it. Thus the audience is unlikely to come to care about these characters the way they do about the characters in a successful sitcom. All-American Girl went off the air after one season of poor ratings.
So far we have discussed the history and issues surrounding the Charlie Chan family of representations, or more broadly, the assimilated servant characters. However, the reason that Asians continue to have trouble being accepted as Americans may lie with the other family of characters which draw upon the Fu Manchu archetype of threatening Asians. The Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan aspects of Asian-American and Asian characters come together in roles which portray them as treacherous and untrustworthy servants.
The suggestion that these seemingly faithful and domestic fellows can not be altogether trusted comes primarily in the form of close-ups. These close-ups inevitably show an impassive Asian countenance. In describing such a scene from The Bitter Tea of General Yen, Marchetti calls his face the "classic image of inscrutability." This very common technique allows the director to draw upon the audience's own preconceptions regarding inscrutable Asians without ever having to be explicit. The character of Tea from Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) is a good example. He is heavily exotic, wearing silk robes and sporting a white Fu Manchu. His appearance on screen is accompanied by gongs and twangs. While in the end, he proves to be a devoted servant, his inscrutability makes him a mystery till the end. He clearly makes the heroine, Julie Andrews, uncomfortable throughout the film.
While it is difficult to describe inscrutability, the key element is a total lack of emotion. An inscrutable Asian never smiles, laughs, or grimaces. The face instead is left completely impassive and unmoving. There is nothing inherently threatening about such a lack of facial emotion. The British, for example, are credited with a "stiff upper lip" which is a version of impassivity. But the British version lacks the threat inherent in inscrutability. Since the facial expression is the same, the difference must come from the context. In the case of the Asian man, the context of the expression is his Asian face. So the threatening aspect of his impassivity comes not so much from his expression, but from his features. We have learned to assign certain characteristics such as duplicity to an impassive Asian face by seeing such characters act treacherously in film after film.
Even the Americanized domestic is not entirely benign. A late version of the treacherous Charlie can be found in the supposedly pro-tolerance 1961 film A Majority of One. Made a year before Flower Drum Song, A Majority of One presents an Americanized Asian in Japan who is remarkably similar in appearance to the ones in San Francisco's Chinatown. The movie stars Rosalind Russell as a Jewish mother who moves to Japan to be with her daughter and diplomat son-in-law. There she is given a "number one boy" who has a lengthy Japanese name but is introduced with the words "we call him Eddie." In the character of Eddie, we find a combination of Charlie and the Americanized Asian, with a dash of the diabolical.
Eddie wears a Western suit with a waistcoat and assumes a casual pose with elbows akimbo. "It is a great pleasure to welcome my new bosses, who are American big shots," he says. To this Alice responds "Is he really ours?" Eddie enjoys American baseball and movies, thus showing his desire for Western things. However, in this partial assimilation he has not lost his Eastern deviousness. Realizing that there is tension between Rosalind Russell's character and her family, he tells lies about her. When she refuses to give him money, he tries to get her help in black marketing embassy goods. She refuses. So in order to get more money, he tells her son-in-law that she has been working him too hard and has treated him disrespectfully. He is a long way from the coolie we began with, yet he is still only a manservant to White people. He combines an Americanized appearance and demeanor with a supposedly Eastern deception.
An earlier and much more dramatic example of this type of representation comes from the 1915 Cecil B. DeMille film, The Cheat. Sessue Hayakawa's character of the Japanese merchant can be seen as the role of a Charlie figure who turns out to be a wolf in sheep's clothing. "Accepted as escort, confidant, and pet in white society, Tori poses no threat to its racial exclusivity because he appears to be totally asexual." He gains the trust of the Long Island "smart set" and Edith, played by Fannie Ward, by appearing in the fashions of the day. In fact, he becomes popular with the ladies for his generosity, gentility and we suspect, exoticism. When we see this dandy at home, however, he wears the silk robes of an unassimilated Asian man. In contrast to his smiling countenance when with White people, at home, he is serious and impassive.
It is clearly suggested that while he appears to White society to be one of them, in reality he is purely Japanese. And attached to the assignation of being Japanese comes the implication of duplicity, violence and untrustworthiness. Thus the audience is shocked, but not surprised, when this suave fellow turns into a violent would-be rapist. "The sexually animalistic character of Asian males is shown in the context of an attack upon otherwise helpless white women: there can be rape, but there cannot be romance." The Cheat shouts loud and clear the message that Asians, particularly Asian men, can not be trusted, no matter how Americanized they seem. In fact, the implication can be drawn from The Cheat that Americanized Asian men are even more dangerous than unassimilated ones because they can deceive people into trusting them.
The characteristics of the Asian war enemy go further back than their actual military challenge, however. "The visceral hatred of the Japanese inevitably tapped into Yellow Peril sentiments that, before the turn of the century, had been directed mainly against the Chinese." Marchetti defines yellow peril as a combination of a "racist terror of alien cultures, sexual anxieties, and the belief that the West will be overpowered and enveloped by the irresistible, dark, occult forces of the East." In the very earliest movies with Asian men, especially The Cheat, duplicity appeared as an Asian trait. Another character from Broken Blossoms, who was not mentioned earlier, should now be discussed. Edward Piel plays the character Evil Eye. Evil Eye is a lewd Chinaman who gazes lustfully at Lucy and unlike the gentle Chink, tries to force his attentions upon her. The lust of the Asian man for the White woman was another early stereotype of the Yellow Peril.
The painting of Asian men as cruel lustful miscegenators crossed over between the military portrayals and non-war movies. The James Bond film You Only Live Twice gave us Osato, the villain, who has a White, very personal, secretary named Miss Grant. The implication is that when an Asian man has power, he will choose white women, such as in other movies we have examined. Another example from around the same period as The Bitter Tea of General Yen, is the Josef von Sternberg film Shanghai Express. Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong star as the exotic female prizes of the west and east, respectively. The villain, a Chinese warlord, is played by Warner Oland. "Chang acts, in the sexually charged guise of the sadistic Asian-Eurasian potentate, as the potential violator." Chang captures a train load of colorful characters, most notably two exotic women, played by Marlene Dietrich and Anna May Wong. He bribes, cajoles and threatens Dietrich's character, Shanghai Lily, in an attempt to get her to go to bed with him. In the meantime, however, he rapes Hui Fei.
Another aspect of the yellow peril is that overwhelming masses of yellow people are either coming into America, or are already here, or are ready to attack us in Asia. Marchetti links this to a fear "of cheap labor threatening to diminish the earning power of white European immigrants, thereby deflecting criticism of the brutal exploitation of an expansionist capitalistic economy onto the issue of race. The Secrets of Wu Sin from 1932 played upon the fear of overwhelming masses of yellow people coming into America and the fear of what sort of people they were. "Masses of Chinese are being run into San Francisco illegally," the program notes read. Movies which present hordes of Asians vary from fantasies like Lost Horizon (1937) to war films like The Killing Fields to the James Bond genre in You Only Live Twice. Tajima notes "memorable Asian masses" in Krakatoa: East of Java and Apocalypse Now (1979). The endless list also includes Shanghai Express (1932), The Bitter Tea of General Yen, The Thief of Bagdad, The Painted Veil and The World of Suzy Wong. In fact, most films which highlight Asia at all will have at last one scene which pans a sea of Asian faces. Sometimes it is a sea of peasants and sometimes a sea of soldiers, but the message is clear - there is a lot of them. Often this adds to their threatening nature. Another implication is that you kill one and another steps into his place. The numbers also mean that life is cheap, as General Yen explicitly told us.
The Secrets of Wu Sin also exploited the fear of a Chinese mafia. "Tong wars and gangsters are running rampant in Chinatown," proclaim the program notes from Video Yesteryear. Wu Sin, played by Tetsu Koma is the traditional crime father figure. He makes decisions, however cruel, and expects the rest of the people to enforce them. Wu spies on people through peep holes and orders them murdered. According to this film, all Chinese are associated with a massive organization of crime. Even the young who have become more Americanized, like Charlie San played by Richard Loo, are caught in the web of the old (criminal) ways. Charlie is ordered to kill the hero of the film if he wants to marry his love.
Films set in Chinatown also played a key role in maintaining the idea that there are masses of Chinese. Most of them also put forward the idea that crime was a defining characteristic of the Asian community. "Eventually, the outside world saw them (Chinatowns) as tourist attractions at best, and as islands of crime and violence at worst." Old San Francisco from 1927 made it look like prostitution is the main business of Chinatown, "the modern Sodom and Gomorrah." Other movies with these themes include Chinatown After Dark (1931), The Hatchet Man (1932), and The Black Widow serial. Like a deceptive character, "underneath a picturesque veneer, Chinatown hides its violence and corruption."
While the villainous Asian roles were more likely to go to Asians than the rare sympathetic ones, there was also a string of Oriental villains played by Whites in yellowface. Warner Oland, who would later play Charlie Chan, appeared in 1917 as a heavily exoticized villain menacing Pearl White in her serial, The Fatal Ring. In his coolie cap and elaborately embroidered silk robes, he leers impassively at her smiling face.
In 1929, Oland appeared as Fu Manchu. Debuting around the same time as Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu appeared in several movies made by Paramount and MGM. Everson argues that while the original Sax Rohmer villain had some depth of character, "the movies, however, capitalized only on his colorful blood-lust and genius for torture." Fu Manchu represents the height of Oriental evil and treachery. Like Charlie Chan, he created a niche for himself with the American viewing audience. In his various incarnations, Fu Manchu spanned several decades and media, including books, movies and television.
Nineteen thirty two brought us The Mask of Fu Manchu, with Boris Karloff in the title role. The visual high points of the film are his elaborate tortures, including a whipping scene in which Fah Lo Suee, Fu Manchu's daughter played by Myrna Loy, cries "faster, faster." The heroes of the film fear that Fu will want "the beautiful white girl" and their fears are confirmed when he steals her. His purpose, however, turns out to be dressing her in white goddess robes for a blood sacrifice to Buddha while masses of armed Asians cheer! Fu Manchu's goal is world domination by way of killing all members of the White race. Lust in the film comes instead from Fah Lo Suee who "became a gloriously psychopathic nymphomaniac in Myrna Loy's bejewelled hands."
There is an interesting dynamic that takes place in movies like The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu which comes from the tension between shifting stereotypes. For example, the diabolical lead character is played by a White, Warner Oland in yellowface, but his evil assistant is played by an Asian, Tetsu Komai. Now, the lead role played by a White is exoticized with coolie cap and silk robes but the supporting character played by an Asian wears a Western suit and tie. Hollywood seems to have just jumbled together their most popular stereotypes of Asians at random. The principal evil character was made exceptionally foreign, but the houseboy character was dressed in formal Western attire. Thus the White in Oriental robes steals the show and the actual Asian man is largely ignored.
While the Americanization of the manservant figure was treated as mostly comedic, here assimilation has darker implications. While Fu Manchu's appearance is made Eastern, the point is made several times that his education is Western. He has doctorates in philosophy, law and medicine from the best Occidental schools. But he uses this information for his diabolical Eastern purposes. The idea that the Asian man will learn from us, the better to defeat us, rises to the surface here.
In addition to Fu Manchu, there is another prototype of the stereotypical Asian villain. Ming the Merciless appeared in the Flash Gordon serial in the 1930's. He is bald, wears a Fu Manchu mustache, stands a foot shorter than Flash and wants to take over the universe. His name spells out his method for domination. Of course, he also desires the beautiful white woman, Dale. He puts her into a trance in order to have his way with her. This plot twist hints at the supernatural powers that are often assigned Asian men in order to explain their power. Perhaps this reflects a bewilderment on the part of the white men in facing an actual competitor.
"Persistent from the earliest films was the idea of diabolical Asians. They continually plotted and connived the destruction of America in general and white women in particular." Another example of the Asian man who wants to take over the world can be found in the lesser known black and white serial The Black Widow. Another example is The Yellow Menace from 1916 which had a similar plot of attempted Japanese domination.
Scenes of Asians torturing and abusing White people can be found in films like Bridge on the River Kwai (1943). Similar scenes but with other Asians as the victims appear in The Killing Fields, Heaven and Earth. Rape scenes occur in Heaven and Earth and many others. All these films show despicable acts being done by Asians who apparently lack any humanity. Most of the time the implication is that they deserve no humanity in return. Similar portrayals of Asian men can be found in Ambush Bay (1967), Guadalcanal Diary (1943) and China (1943). The awful conduct assigned to Asian men seems to justify killing them with a sense of righteousness, if not glee. In The Purple Heart (1944), a corrupt (and short) Chinese governor persecutes Dana Andrews. At the hands of the Chinese, the hero faces torture and death. We are meant to cheer when he cries "it won't be finished until your dirty little Empire is wiped off the face of the earth." The fear that despite Dana Andrews' prediction, the Yellow Peril will rise again and again is present in many of these films and those that followed.
Bridge on the River Kwai tells the story of a battle of wills between a British and a Japanese Captain, played by Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa, respectively. The setting is a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Ceylon where the Japanese are violating the international rules of war by horrific treatment of their prisoners. Robbed of power and arms, the British Captain exemplifies dignity and courage. He is a leader who has the utmost respect of his men. The Japanese soon learn that their orders will mean nothing unless they come from the lips of Guinness himself. When his attitude is "I will not have an officer from my battalion working as a coolie," his men refuse to work. In this battle of wills, Hayakawa attempts to cajole, bribe and torture Guinness, all to no avail. We are supposed to believe that the British are so strong and the Japanese so futile that even when the Japanese have all the physical advantage, the Japanese General is still helpless in the face of White man's will. After days of torture, Guiness is at last freed, having triumphed by his own will. While he stands proudly in front of his men, Hayakawa weeps alone in his cabin. From then on, it is Guinness who gives the orders. In hindsight it is rather funny that at the time this movie was made the Japanese were thought to be bad engineers and organizers. In fact, Guinness resolves to show them "Western methods and efficiency."
Other stereotypes of Asians are called upon in this Oscar-winning film, although many are simply noted in passing. For example, even though there are no women at the POW camp, Japanese lechery for white women is made apparent by a calendar of bodacious blondes in their barracks. Outside the camp, silent Asian women carry equipment for the American played by William Holden. Although it makes little or no sense in the context of the film, the Asian women end up bathing him. For his part, Holden notes their silence with satisfaction. Thus while not a major element in the film, ethnicized gender roles are maintained. The White man maintains that the Asian man is lecherous and the Asian woman, a submissive fantasy.
The assignation of deception, treachery and violence as Asian traits draws heavily upon their characterization as enemies in war. "The majority of white Americans have been intimately introduced to Asians in the context of war and violence on the motion picture and television screens." A sample of films from 1942 includes Prisoner of Japan, Remember Pearl Harbor, and Secret Agent of Japan. The stereotype created of Asian men as military foes may combine nationalism with racism. Since their physique has always been considered to be lesser than the Whites, the danger from Asian men comes from other characteristics. "When the purportedly inferior Japanese swept through colonial Asia . . . another stereotype took hold: the Japanese superman, possessed of uncanny discipline and fighting skills." These were not the only reasons given for their military strength, however.
"Films, often dotted with racial slurs, were quick to paint Japan's treachery in battle, its brutality . . . and its utter disregard for international rules of war." From World War II to Red China to the Vietnam War, the treacherous Asian soldier has played on American screens like a refrain. Each time, the depiction of the Asian enemy stood on the shoulders of the ones that had come before. These traits carried over to Asian men outside the context of war, especially in the thirties and forties, when the Asian villain became popular. By the end of the twentieth century, we had learned to associate brutality and treachery with an Asian face, especially an impassive one. In Destination Tokyo (1943), the rivals were "cunning perfidious Japanese." The message of the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967) is that "no Orientals are to be trusted and that the Japanese may well rise again."
Guadalcanal Diary from 1943 is a classic war movie with some of the worst characterizations of Asian men. It is interesting that specific reference is made to the varying ethnicities of the American heroes. Anthony Quinn talks about Conchita and Lolita. The character Sammy talks about his father being a cantor in the synagogue at home. Like San Francisco, which I discussed earlier, this film presents a version of America in which various ethnicities share camaraderie, with the exception of the Asian. The fact that there actually was a Japanese-American unit in World War II failed to make much of an impact on American perceptions. Instead, the heroes of Guadalcanal Diary refer to "these monkeys (who) live on fishheads and rice," "dwarfs," and "gook island." And the omniscient narrator proclaims that "an unseen enemy whose perfidy and deceit are now all too clear" must one by one "be blasted from the earth."
In his study of World War II propaganda by both the Americans and the Japanese, John W. Dower does an excellent job of showing how stereotypes grew from twisted truths. He presents the American perception of Japanese group identity as a misconception based on what Japanese military leaders were trying to achieve. The West "accepted Japanese emphasis on the primary of the group or collectivity at face value, and used this as prima facie evidence that the Japanese were closer to cattle or robots." While America at the time accepted this emphasis as a truth about Japanese society, Dower sees in it just the opposite. That is, he believes emphasis on group identity by military leaders could be seen as evidence the those leaders were seeing too much individuality in their people. Dower claims that Japanese propaganda on this issue was little more than an optimistic forecast, and certainly not truth. However, this caricature of the Japanese was believed to be true by most Americans. At a time when a certain people is held responsible for killing your children, it must be especially easy to believe the worst about them. Other characteristics assigned to the Japanese included their being "thoroughly militaristic, repressive and irrational."
Many theorists have noted the abundance of films made during times of war which completely vilified the enemy. Everson writes that films of World War I and II clearly "had a propagandist as well as an entertainment mission" which led them to paint our side as so very good and the other as so very bad. In terms of war stereotypes, Hollywood representations of Germans, especially the Nazis, may be the most prevalent. These villains can be recognized by their "German-sounding names or German-style uniforms." But at least names and uniforms can be changed. The continuing legacy of the military stereotypes of Asians was villainizing their faces. This tendency can be seen in a film like An Annapolis Story in 1955. War here is merely the setting for romance, but the enemy is seen once. A small Asian fighter pilot attacks the hero. There is a close-up of the fanatical grin on his face and apparently that is all the director required to make his point. So we must not forget that German-Americans who wished to assimilate had the chance of doing so to the extent that "the only thing that remained German about these men and women was their family name, and often that too became Americanized."  As long as an Asian face is considered un-American, this choice will not be open to Asian-Americans. Thus while Leab notes the extinction of the German-American image, this can be seen as successful assimilation. German-Americans have become simply Americans in the media, unlike Asians.
The political implications of this difference can be seen in the treatment of German- and Asian-Americans during World War II. Dower emphasizes the link between their treatment and the fact that portrayals of the Japanese were even more ferocious than that of Germans. For example, there were "good Germans" in films of the day, but "GOOD JAPS are dead Japs."  In fact "the Japanese military man had no redeeming features whatever. He was merciless in battle, unspeakably cruel to his captives, and, worst of all, he had NO sense of honor when women were concerned." The overwhelming negativity with which the Japanese were portrayed had very real consequences. "There was little fear on the home front that people of German descent owed a divided allegiance," whereas fear of Asian duplicity led to Executive Order 9066.
"Ironically, Japan's practice of assisting its nationals would be used by anti-Japanese forces to create the image that the overseas Japanese were `spies and secret agents.'" In the Japanese, America found a way to combine their largely irrational fear of people of color with a military fear. "Pearl Harbor enabled Hollywood to revive all the old `Yellow Peril' characteristics . . . The Jap (was) a screaming, unshaven, wizened fanatic, crouched low over his machine guns, bombing Red Cross ships." While the Germans were less likely to be presented as rapists in the World War II films than in World War I, the specific fear of miscegenation was exploited in terms of the Japanese. "Richard Loo, Benson Fong, and Philip Ahn were the leaders in the Japanese crusade of debauchery and rape."
Caricatures of the Japanese can even be found in cartoons of the day. Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes created a duck version of the Jap who has glasses, buck teeth and cries "oh sorry, sorry, sorry" (with slurred "r"s). They also created Tokio Jokio and Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips. In fact, "the bucktoothed Japanese became a standard cartoon figure." The cartoon Japanese grovels to Bugs Bunny not to make him commit hari-kari as Bugs calls him "Bow legs" and "slant-eyes." Max Fleischer created a Popeye the Sailor cartoon entitled You're a Sap, Mr. Jap,which is a song Popeye sings over and over. This cartoon shows the Japanese deceiving our hero causing Popeye to cry out righteously "double-crossing Japansies." The defeated Japanese general commits suicide. However, the cartoon representations of Asians were not limited to the Japanese. The Chinese got their chance to be ridiculed in Seein Red, White and Blue, another Popeye cartoon. Chinese spies, a third the size of Popeye, change from baby outfits to communist robes. Against such an un-American force as this, even Bluto has to join Popeye in a ruthless scourge. After all, Bluto may be a villain most of the time, but he is still an American!
These portrayals of Asian men have affected the acceptance of Asian-American men. "Cultural and racial biases against foreign Asians by whites are re-directed against Asian-Americans." When Asian-American men have appeared assimilated, they have been largely invisible and subordinate, such as in the Charlie stereotype. Otherwise, the emphasis has continued to be on how foreign they are, calling upon all the stereotypes of treacherous and inscrutable Asians. This is reflected in the continuing popularity of Chinatown as a setting for crime and Chinese mafia as villains.
However, while these films have Chinese characters, rarely are they really about the Chinese. Tajima writes "American films are almost never made about Asia or Asians-rather, Asia is the setting and Asian revolve around the world of white leads." The same can be said about movies set in Chinatown. Sometimes, "Chinatown functions as pure style with neon dragons, pop songs, lion dances, and displays of martial artistry, forming a part of postmodern popular iconography." One of the latest versions of the Chinatown flick is Year of the Dragon with Mickey Rourke as Lieutenant Stanley White, John Lone as the gangster and model Ariane as the Asian-American newswoman caught between two worlds. Chinatown is also caught in two worlds, created by its conflicting themes. "Chinatown fulfills a commercial hunger for a domesticated otherness that can represent both the fulfillment of the American myth of the melting pot and play with the dangers of the exotic."
In response to criticism of its terrible portrayal of the Chinese community, it offered the following caveat. "This film does not intend to demean or to ignore the many positive features of Asian-Americans and specifically Chinese-American communities. Any similarity between the depiction of this film and any association, organization, individual or Chinatown that exists in real life is accidental." It is hard to know if the people who wrote this statement were aware of the irony that drips from every word. Whether or not it is intentional, the film does demean Asians by reducing their culture to an excuse for violence. It mocks the positive contributions made by Chinese to this country by having them recited by weak and twisted Asian characters who are supposed to be heroes. And the enormous similarity between the depictions in this film and the ones in a century of films set in Chinatown is anything but accidental.
Scene after scene of gratuitous blood spurting at the hands of Asian teenagers dressed in punk 80's garb splatters across the screen. This is assimilation at its worst. We are told by one old Chinese guy that the young have learned to kill instead of work from the White people. The Chinese mafia is fully contemporary in its crime operations and its methods, machine guns being the weapon of choice. However, Tai still uses Charlie Chan inspired metaphors, such as "like a fly biting an elephant's ass." Smoke-filled gambling dens are presented as the modern opium dens. And once again, all the silent Asian witnesses know about or are involved in some way with the Chinese mafia, which supposedly has connections both with the Italian mafia and China. At one point, Tai travels to Thailand to visit his drug connection who is a general at the head of masses of armed Asian soldiers.
Joey Tai dresses in sharp tailored suits, looking every bit the "silky son-of-a-bitch," Stanley accuses him of being. Marchetti even argues that he "merges the myth of the Asian man as a sexual threat with the image of the eunuch," bringing a homosexual subtext into his relationship with White. To complete the list of stereotypes, Tai dies at his own hand when he realizes he has been defeated. Marchetti writes about Stanley White and Joey Tai as two men with identity problems, and with problems dealing with mainstream America. According to her, "melting into America is acceptable only if a white, male, Anglo-saxon definition of identity is taken as the ideal." The appropriately named named "White meets this definition; Tai does not."
Nor does the recent police academy graduate, Herbert Kuang. White picks Kuang to go undercover for him in Chinatown because he is, of course, Chinese and more importantly, an unknown to the community. Like Tzu, he verbally resists White, but ultimately does everything White wants. In the Charlie Chan tradition of "good Asians," he is the one comedic figure in the film which makes fun of his bad driving and lack of aim. He also wears glasses. Although he dies at the hands of the mafia, his death is clearly a sacrifice to White. He screams "Stanley" as the bullets burst through him and uses his last breaths to give White the information he wants.
White's wife Connie ends up another sacrifice. Played by Caroline Kava, she appears on-screen dressed in a bathrobe, a nurse's outfit, or covered in grime, surrounded by pieces of the washing machine she is trying to fix. In contrast, Tracy Tzu, girl reporter, is the height of elegance. Connie is supposed to be white trash and Tracy, a Chinese princess, usually in heavily tailored clothes. Meeting Stanley for a date, she wears a short skirt, heels and a fur-lined swing coat. For no apparent reason, she loves Stanley. While she lies across the bed, he undresses while telling her why and how he hates her. When she tells him to leave, he takes her anyway, ignoring her futile punches. Although she claims to resist him, she gives in to him again and again throughout the film which ends with her wrapped in his arm.
"Albeit of a generally distorted variety, many Americans have a greater identification of foreign Asians than they do of Asian American minorities." It has also been "argued that Asian Americans, in the minds of many whites in the industry, were considered non-Americans, foreigners," and no different from Asians from Asia. Richard Oehling notes a shift after 1924 "marked by a remarkable decline of interest in the Chinese and Japanese alien residents in the United States and in increasing concern with Japan and China as foreign powers." These fears combined with the economic rise of Japan to create some of the most threatening stereotypes of Asian and Asian-American men to date.
A combination of these anxieties and stereotypes are apparent in the 1989 Charles Bronson flick, Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects. Bronson plays police officer Crowe. According to the film, all Japanese businessmen go to bars filled with prostitutes. The young daughter of one such businessman defends these actions as his right as a man and criticizes her mother for speaking against them. The businessman, Hiroshi Hada, is played by James Pax. A good-looking man, he wears thick black glasses as do several of the Asian male characters. None of the Asian women wear glasses. In his first scene, Pax is being taught to act more Western and is humiliated when he incorrectly talks about his bowels in response to being asked how he is.
After being transferred to Los Angeles, he goes to bars there with his comrades and picks up a blonde "hostess." His drink in one hand, he gropes her breast with the other. On his way home, he puts his hand up the skirt of Rita, Crowe's adolescent daughter, causing her to cry out "some Oriental guy touched my holy of holies!" A brawl begins when a White man grabs two random Asian guys and in the ensuing confusion, Hada slips out. The police investigate the matter, bringing the young girl down to the station for questioning but he is never caught.
The discussion which surrounds this event is peppered with inferences to Asian lechery and the old adage that all Asians look alike. The latter is ironized, however, by coming from an Asian-American detective. The image of hordes of Asians is also invoked. The detectives mention that Los Angeles has 25,000 Japanese businessmen in it, making it impossible to find Hada. Crowe, in his righteous indignation, yells about "some sleazy Oriental (who) gropes my daughter" and how the Japanese are "buying hotels, office buildings, golf courses, they're taking over, taking over!" He rants and screams obscenities at a group of Asians gathered in front of a fancy hotel. In response, they bow. The idea of the super-Asian also comes up in a discussion of Japanese school habits. "These Japanese school kids don't play hooky, go to school six days a week, only sleep six hours a night." While this is said with grudging admiration, there is an implication that they are working hard to be superior.
The idea that western looking Asians remain foreign at home is also evident. Hada and his friends all wear suits outside the home, and we see them specifically learning to act more Western. This is treated almost as comedy, but there is a threatening undertone that they are learning to be deceptive. At home in a very traditional house with shoji screens and mats, Hada and his wife appear in kimonos. The movie also provides a hari-kari scene, this time by their young daughter who gets raped during the course of the film. She is humiliated at what has been done to her and blames herself. Dressed in kimono and obi, she commits ritual suicide, even tying her legs together. It is appropriate that she is compared to a Japanese geisha doll in the film, because that is her role. No further depth is given her character.
It was probably films like Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects that Choy meant when she wrote "the models for passivity and downright servility set in these films fit neatly into the model minority myth and contrast sharply with the more liberating ideals of independence and activism." However, despite roles like these, there are more positive images of Asian and Asian-American women as well.
While little empirical evidence is available on the subject, twenty-four hours of television will show you some interesting things about the respective frequency and roles given to Asian-American men and women. First, Asian-American women appear much more often in every mainstream genre. Connie Chung is only the best known of dozens of Asian-American newswomen. Our local news has Wendy Tokuda, Emerald Yeh, Terilyn Jo, Sherry Hu and Malou Nubla. There are a couple Asian-American men in the news as well, including Vic Lee and David Louie. However, the ratio seems roughly in the ballpark of 2:1 and the women are more likely to be anchors. This fact has been reflected in the large number of fictional representations of Asian newswomen, including Hard Copy, Quantum Leap, and The American President (1995). "For many in the Asian American community, this figure of the successful female newscaster has come to embody a new bent on racist representations of Asian Americans as the `model minority.'" 
Asian-American women appear in numerous popular and mainstream movies and television shows. Tia Carrere played Wayne's love interest in the 1992 movie, Wayne's World. Star-Trek: The Next Generation has an Asian woman character who is married to the White chief of engineering. Even the Saturday morning action-adventure "Masked Rider," has an Asian-American woman married to a White man as lead characters. It almost seems possible to me that the Asian-American woman may be the only minority who is over-represented with respect to her percentage of the general population. I am not arguing that this is in any way wrong, although I would argue that she is almost always paired with a White man. Choy writes that "the marketability of the Asian female artist or worker in media depends on her ability to replace Asian cultural identity with allegiance to western priorities." She goes on to discuss Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa. The press wrote about the former as losing her Asian qualities and the latter as remaining "`completely Oriental."
Advertisements are interesting because thirty second commercial and print ads rely heavily on preconceptions. In general, Asians appear less often than African-Americans and more often than Hispanics. It is particularly interesting to look at advertisements that use groups. These groups are usually meant to show assimilated diversity. Time and again, a Black man and an Asian female are pictured with a group that is otherwise White. Very rarely will an Asian man be part of such a group. Examples include a corporate scene from a Cotton Incorporated commercial in which there are two White men and an Asian woman and a Toyota Camry ad in which two White men and an Asian girl discuss the car's merits. A survey of advertisements in the top five most popular magazines in America for one month yielded only two Asians. One was a Stove Top Stuffing ad with two dads (White and Black), one White boy, one Black boy and one Asian girl. The other showed Ford designers: three White men, one White woman, one Black man and one Asian woman. The thing to note about all these advertisements is that the people are shown as assimilated Americans. The minorities are not exoticized, all the races dress alike. These minorities are supposed to be African-Americans and Asian-Americans. It is at this level of acceptance into American society, that the Asian man fails to appear. "Thus, the `typical' Asian workers portrayed as coolies at the turn of the century are in today's media mirrored in one-dimensional Chinese laundry men, Japanese gardeners and Filipino houseboys." Seinfeld is just one example. Asian men appear as grocers and restaurant workers, with heavy accents.
In addition to these continuing domestic stereotypes, Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects and other films exploit a new popular stereotype, that of the Japanese businessman. "The United States' image of Japan was that of a nation outstanding among the Asian states for its Western-oriented proclivities albeit one of potentially dangerous military proportions."98 Although Higashi argues that the Japanese were unassimilable, an argument can also be made that they assimilated too well. The contemporary challenge from Japan, after all, comes from them beating us at our own game. The idea is that we taught them capitalism and technology, but now they know them better. Wong writes that throughout their long history, Japan has consciously borrowed from other cultures. He believes this "became a thoroughly expeditious national trait at a time when the transition to a modern society was essential."100 However, Higashi's argument holds to the extent that Asian businessman have largely been portrayed as using their financial superiority to maintain their traditional and foreign culture.
"The competition between Asians and unskilled American laborers stimulated negative attitudes and, therefore, negative stereotypes." The feel-good Ron Howard film, Gung Ho, attempted to both reflect and deny these stereotypes. Starring Michael Keaton and Gette Watanabe, this 1985 picture showed two men, one from the East and one from the West who bring their different work ethics to an automobile plant. The story takes place in the small town of Hadleyville where the closing of the plant has destroyed the local economy. Enter the Japanese to re-open the plant to the joy of the townspeople. The catch is, they expect their new workers to put the company over themselves as individuals.
This is an America which has lost the Puritan Work Ethic and is re-learning an Eastern version of it. At the same time, Keaton and his pals teach the suited Japanese that family and self are also priorities. This is a working class America, laboring with their hands, which thinks it is a big deal when Keaton puts on a suit. In contrast, the Japanese are strictly middle and upper management. The only time they take off their business suits is to bathe in the river. If the American Dream used to be the sort of financial and social success the Japanese now seem to have, the American Dream has become having a loving family and a good steady job. Gung Ho is first and foremost a comedy, which wants everyone to see how they are alike under all those funny differences. However, it never became a very big hit despite its popular director and star. Perhaps this is because it brings up some sensitive topics for America, topics about which is not yet ready to laugh. This is a contemporary example of an old contradiction in American opinions of the Japanese. "Even outspoken exponents of Japanese exclusion . . . were also enthusiastic admirers of Japan's willingness to Westernize."
While on the one hand, the Japanese businessman can be a threatening figure, he can also be a comic figure. Gette Watanabe in Gung Ho is a good example. His exaggerated politeness, awkwardness and appearance are the basis for most of the humor in the film. Basically, compared to the cool Keaton, the man is a geek. This is emphasized by thick glasses and a bad haircut. While Watanabe played an upper management businessman in Gung Ho, these characteristics appear in his portrayal of a visiting Chinese high school student in Sixteen Candles. Described by normal American teenagers as "totally bizarre" and "a very weird Chinese guy," Long Duck Dong remains idiotically cheerful. His hair parted down the middle, he uses two forks as chopsticks and makes other errors. Chinese gongs accompany his appearance on screen. When he does learn to party, he does it by dancing with his head enveloped in the ample bosom of a White woman twice his size. Another example of Asian man as bumbling fool comes from Mickey Rooney as Audrey Hepburn's Japanese neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Rooney had his eyes pulled painfully to the sides of his face, buck teeth and thick glasses for this popular 1961 film. He came closer to looking like the WWII cartoons of the Japanese than anyone else. He bumps into things and nags only to be pacified when Holly Golightly flirts with him. Together these comic versions of Asian men create a subgenre of Asian man as geek, qualifying for a stereotype in the four Revenge of the Nerds (1984, 1987, 1992 and 1994) movies.
More often, however, Asian men are presented as a triple threat. They are enemies in war, competitors in trade, and when victorious in either of those pursuits, they go after white women. These last two threats are the subjects of a recent episode of television's Law and Order. The episode called "Blue Bamboo" shows economically powerful Asian men who use their money to buy and abuse white women. By combining these assigned traits to Asian men, white men can bury their fear of competition in a hatred of miscegenation. And since the Asian man is an abuser, they can set themselves up as the protectors of white womanhood. Since the Asian man is an abuser, no white woman in her right mind would choose an Asian man herself. Therefore, any white woman with an Asian man must be there against her will and need rescue. All of these beliefs are implied in this combination of characteristics assigned to Asian men.
The assignation of cruelty as a characteristic of Asians men sets the audience up to believe contemporary accusations of despicable treatment. The plot revolves around a blonde American who has killed her Japanese male boss, Mr. Hiyashi. Her defense is that she had been forced into prostitution and physically abused at his hands, and therefore had acted in self-defense. As the prosecution describes the scene amongst themselves, "Tall, blonde Miss Bowen killed a short dark Japanese man who was running a white slavery operation." In addition to playing upon these fears, Martha refers to inscrutability. "The Japanese are the worst. All they're interested in are themselves. You're only there for them. And they have a way of looking at you, like I could never get a read on them." The prosecutor, who are the stars of the show, explicitly question Martha's version of the story, but the jury rules not guilty. In the end, the viewers own prejudices probably decide whether or not you believe Martha.
"Ultimately the Japanese as an ethnic group were unassimilable, not least because Japan's rise to world power status was perceived as a threat to the United States and to Western perceptions of the Orient as feminine." Since China and Korea are not currently seen as a real threat to the United States, perhaps Asian-Americans from those countries will be more accepted as Americans. Thus the Chinese restaurant owners, who are American icons, are also clearly an Asian-American phenomenon. They are not seen as entirely foreign. And when a major network decided to air a sitcom about Asian-Americans, the family was Korean. Of all the Asian countries, however, Japan seems to currently fascinate Americans most. While the characteristics assigned to Asians have drifted from the immigrants of one country to another, we live in a time when the Japanese are represented differently than other Asians. The Asian businessman is almost always Japanese.
The Japanese or Japanese-American businessman looks in some ways like the Charlie character. Both appear to be assimilated. What used to be deference to his boss in Charlie has become exaggerated politeness and formality in the businessman. In another episode of "Law and Order," a minor role is played by Mr. Kee of Kee investments. As the main purpose of Charlie was to show his face and subordination, the purpose of Mr. Kee is to show his face and financial strength. The same can be said of four Japanese men in 3-piece suits who appear in an episode of Seinfeld, one of the most popular sitcoms on television. Elaine's publishing company is in trouble and their only hope is a buyout by the Japanese. The message is that American business, Americans, and America are being bought by the Japanese as we run out of money and financial strength. While the Japanese businessman may look like Charlie, he is more like The Cheat version than any other. That is, he looks assimilated, but his soul is Japanese and therefore, not to be trusted.
That message comes out loudly and clearly in 1993's Rising Sun. Sean Connery as John Connor and Wesley Snipes as Web Smith star as investigators into the murder of a young woman in a boardroom. Harvey Keitel plays police officer Tom Graham and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Eddie Sakamura, the prime suspect. The plot reveals layers of corruption and crime which involve both Japanese and White men. It also shows the Japanese to be the fiercest capitalists on the block. We are supposed to be awed as the camera scans from the bottom of their huge corporate offices to the top, which is barely visible as it blends in with the sky. The film also tell us that the Japanese have no interest in re-investing in America. Their corporate building, which went up in six months, is made of pre-fab Japanese parts and used no American workers in construction. To emphasize the point that the Japanese are winning, the opulence of their lives is contrasted with American homeless people and gang neighborhoods. In another scene, the investigators visit Jim Donaldson of what used to be the Donaldson corporation but has since been sold to the Japanese. While nominally still a corporate executive, it is clear Donaldson no longer has any power.
"Business is war," Eddie tells us. We also learn from Connor that "a Japanese company never stands alone" and that "hundreds of powerful companies all acting in partnership to win" join forces. Once again, the overwhelming masses of Asians are called up. Only this time they are not masses of soldiers or peasants, but business warriors prepared to use their ruthless tactics on the economic battlefield. While the film does portray the Japanese as superior to Americans technologically, financially, and very possibly culturally, it also does something else. It implicates America in its own demise. As Graham says, "We're giving this country away."
The threat of miscegenation also pervades this film. The powerful Japanese men are literally surrounded by White women, mostly leggy blondes. Graham tells us "They all want to fuck a Rose Bowl queen." They keep a bordello-like residence for them and even have a luxurious bedroom hidden behind a secret panel in the boardroom. The point is driven home by one scene where short old Japanese businessmen pose with tall White chicks at a party. In another, a Japanese man eats sushi which has been laid out on all the most private parts of a young blonde while he dips a redhead's breast in sake, only to suck it from her. "Plundering our natural resources," the ever-colorful Graham comments.
However, while the Americans may be helping the Japanese win, there is also evidence of dirty dealing on the part of the Japanese. In particular, technological advances are used to gain an advantage. In one scene a corporate takeover is being negotiated in the boardroom. Unbeknownst to the American side of the negotiations, they are being bugged and every word they say is repeated into the ear of their adversary. Martial artistry seems oddly paired in some ways with technology, but this film, like many others, show the Japanese as adept at both.
The martial arts have a unique place among the characteristics of Asian men because it spawned an entire genre of action-adventure flick. There is practically a subculture around the kung fu, karate, kick boxing and other forms. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles grossed $42.3 million in 1993, making it one of the top 50 movies of the year. Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story came in at number 46 the same year, grossing $35.1 million. Many other movies of this genre are B-movies, drawing on the tradition of the dubbed Hong Kong import.
The interesting thing about the treatment of the Asian as martial artist is how it solves the dilemma of how such small weak-looking men can be such fierce competitors. Peter Lorre in the title role of Mr. Moto's Last Warning (1939) is a perfect example. The Japanese detective can defeat two sturdy White men in physical combat. The martial arts is often treated as a mysterious power. The advantage that has sometimes been seen as magic, as in The Black Widow, or as an alliance with supernatural forces, can also be explained through the occult machinations of the martial arts. Martial arts training is portrayed as not only physically rigorous, but also spiritually and emotionally rebuilding. White men who want to learn do not join a sport as much as a religion. In addition to entire films around the subject, martial arts also comes up as a regular attribute of Asian men.
Martial arts also brings us full circle from Peter Lorre in 1939 to Russell Wong today. Wong is one of the few, if not the only, Asian-American hero in American mainstream media today. And yet, he is barely mainstream. His television show, Vanishing Son, is syndicated, but has never appeared on one of the major networks. Wong has probably received as much attention as he has because he is such a rarity. Even in a second-class show like "Vanishing Son," it remains unique for an Asian-American man to star and be treated as a sex symbol.
Unique as it may be, Vanishing Son still builds upon stereotypes we have seen before. Each episode opens with the words "running from oppression, searching for freedom he came to America," while we see Wong doing martial arts. During the show, we will probably see him kicking and posing while various bad guys shoot at him with guns. Sometimes the bad guys are stock Chinese mafia villains, who work out of Chinatown, of course. His enemy in one episode is named White Powder Moss which is remarkably similar to a character from Chinatown called White Powder Ma. The Asian criminal also has a penchant for blondes. In another storyline, he is manipulated by a Chinese smuggler who happens to be a beautiful dragon lady type who deceives everyone. In an episode called "Two Guys with Guns," three reporters appear. Two of them are White, one is an Asian woman. Each episode also ends with a proverb. With only this television show and a few low-budget movies under his black belt, Wong made it onto People Magazine's list of celebrities titled "The 50 Most Beautiful People in the World 1995." Since there was exactly one Asian-American woman and one Asian-American man included in the fifty, it is easy to interpret their inclusion as tokenism. While Wong has become a symbol of how far integrated Asian are into American society, there is reason to believe that he is not as accepted as some Asian-Americans would like to believe. For example, Transpacific magazine presents him in a tuxedo, looking sophisticated and assimilated. "People" magazine, however, displays him in a martial arts pose, thus emphasizing his exoticism. While it is not clear what he is wearing, it appears to be a combination of a jacket and martial arts attire.
The secret behind the handsome, tough, worth millions Asian-American Russell Wong may be that in fact he is half-White. Thus he represents only limited possibilities for other Asian-American men to be seen as sex symbols and heroes. And even though he is half-White and probably third generation, he must still play a Chinese illegal immigrant whose specialty is martial arts. The most original thing about his character is that he is considered at all desirable. This has been enough to make Russell Wong a star among Asian-Americans. However, "Vanishing Son" also shows that representations of Asian-American men have a long way to go before they shake off one hundred years of Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan characterizations. Perhaps the opening line of Vanishing Son should really be "running from stereotypes, searching for freedom."
1.Eugene Franklin Wong, "On Visual Media Racism: Asians in the American Motion Pictures," diss., U of Denver, 1978, ii.
2. Christine Choy, "Cinema as a Tool of Assimilation: Asian Americans, Women and Hollywood," In Color: 60 Years of Images of Minority Women in Film: 1921-1981, A project of the Exhibition Program of 3rd World Newsreel, UC Santa Cruz Library, 1993, 23.
3. Wong, x.
4. Wong, vi. A similar point is made in Choy 24.
5. Dorothy P. Jones. "The Portrayal of China and India on the American Screen, 1896-1955: The Evolution of Chinese and Indian Themes, Locales, and Characters as Portrayed on the American Screen." Center for International Studies, MIT, Cambridge, 1955.
6. Renee Tajima, "Asian Women's Images in Film: The Past Sixty Years," In Color: Sixty Years of Minority Women in Film: 1921-1981, A project of the Exhibition Program at 3rd World Newsreel, UC Santa Cruz Library, 1993, 26.
8. Richard A. Oehling. "The Yellow Menace: Asian Images in American Film." In The Kaleidoscopic Lens: How Hollywood Views Ethnic Groups. Edited by Randall M. Miller (Jerome S. Ozer, 1980), 187.
9. For example, the 1913 Webb-Heney Act made them ineligible to own land.
10. Charles Musser, "Ethnicity, Role-Playing, and American Film Comedy: From Chinese Laundry Scene to Whoopee (1894-1930)." In Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and the American Cinema. Edited by Lester D. Friedman (U of Illinois Press, Chicago: 1991), 43.
11.> Musser, 43.
12. Choy, 23.
13. From the box cover of the video.
14. Mick Martin and Marsha Porter, Video Movie Guide 1995, Ballantine, NY: 1994, 1100.
15. Wong, 252.
16. Martin, 131.
17. Wong, 12.
18. Michael Rogin, "Making America Home: Racial Masquerade and Ethnic Assimilation in the Transition to Talking Pictures." The Journal of American History. vol. 79 No.3 (1992): 1050.
19. Jones, 14.
20. Including the notorious Birth of a Nation.
21. Wong, 77.
22. Oehling, 190.
23. Marchetti, 10. For a Freudian analysis, see Robert Lang. American Film Melodrama: Griffith, Vidor, Minnelli. Princeton: Princeton U Press, 1989, 90-104.
24. Wong, 76. Discussion of the feminization of the Chink can be found in Marchetti 35.
25. Lang, 102.
26. Martin, 462.
27. Wong, 29.
28. Marchetti gives an interesting feminist critique regarding the film's opinion of White women, 46-49.
29. Dower, 343.
30. Wong, 256.
31.< Tajima, 26.
32. Wong, 15.
33. Oehling, 195.
34. Choy, 24.
35. Marchetti, 178.
36. Marchetti, 134.
37. The other being the geisha as noted in Tajima, 26 and Choy, 23.
50. Marchetti, 51.
51. Marchetti, 20-21.
52. We will look at the origins of these characteristics in the following discussion of Asian war enemies.
53. Wong, 25.
54. Dower, 10.
55. Marchetti, 2.
57. Marchetti, 2.
59. Oehling, 185.
60. Rogin, 1062.
61. Marchetti, 207.
62. Everson, 38.
63. Everson, 40.
64. Oehling, 187.
65. Wong, 30.
66. John W. Dower. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon, 1986, 9.
67. Larry Langman and Ed Borg. Encyclopedia of American War Films. New York: Garland, 1989, 445.
68. Joan Mullen. Big Bad Wolves: Masculinity in the American Film. New York: Pantheon-Random, 1972, 151.
69. Mullen 266.
70. My late uncle, Richard Hata, served in this unit.
71. Dower, 30.
72. Dower, 29.
73. William K. Everson. The Bad Guys: A Pictorial History of the Movie Villain. New York: Citadel, 1964, 125-6.
74. Daniel J. Leab, "Deutschland, USA: German Images in American Film." In The Kaleidoscopic Lens: How Hollywood Views Ethnic Groups. Edited by Randall M. Miller (Jerome S. Ozer, 1980), 162.
75. Leab, 156-7.
76. Dower, 79.
77. Everson, 136.
78. Leab, 174.
79. Wong, xxii.
80. Everson, 131.
81. Everson, 130.
82. Everson, 137.
83. Dower, 84.
84. Wong, 31.
85. Tajima, 27.
86. Marchetti, 203.
87. Marchetti, 204.
88. Marchetti, 204.
89. Wong, 31.
90. Wong, 262.
91. Oehling, 183.
92. Tajima, 29.
93. Marchetti, 216.
94. Choy, 25.
95. Choy, 25.
96. Choy, 23-24.
97. Wong, xv.
98. Higashi, "Ethnicity, Class, and Gender in Film: DeMille's `The Cheat.'" In Unspeakable Images: Ethnicity and American Cinema. Edited by Lester D. Friedman (U of Illinois, 1991) 132.
99. Wong, xiii.
100. Oehling, 184.
101. Wong, xix.
102. Higashi, 132.
103. "All-American Girl with Margaret Cho.
104. "Variety," Jan. 1994.
Copyright © 1996, Amy Kashiwabara
This paper is a Senior Honors Thesis in Political Science, UC Berkeley, submitted May 1996; it has been mounted on the UC Berkeley Media Resources Center web site with permission of the author.
No portion of this paper may be reproduced by any process or technique without the express written consent of the author.
The author and the Media Resources Center are grateful for support received for video acquisitions from the UCB Center for the Study and Teaching of American Cultures.