Friday, February 28, 2014

Charlie Chan

I enjoy the old Charlie Chan movies, many of which are available on YouTube.  They are reasonably good detective flicks, told with some humor, and a pleasant way to kill an hour or two.  But…

Once we started down the path of adopting a Chinese girl, I started to become a great deal more aware of stereotypes in the media, always asking myself the questions, “Do I want my daughter to watch this sort of thing?” and “How shall I explain it to her?”

“Baba, why is a white man playing a Chinese?”

“Baba, do people in China really talk like that?”

“Baba, why are those white soldiers fighting those Chinese?”

I am given to understand that many Asians dislike Charlie Chan.  Part of me understands that: he is a stereotype and, with his trite sayings and pidgin English, a rather offensive one.  On the other hand, when seen in the context of his time, Charlie is a remarkable character: a Chinese who is portrayed as a brave, intelligent police detective of world renown.  Contrast him with his contemporary, the sinister Fu Manchu:

"Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government—which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man."

Sax Rohmer
The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu (1913)*

It is not my purpose here to go into detail about portrayals of Asians in popular American / Western media over the years, but I think it fair to say that GENERALLY Asians have fallen into a few basic categories:

--- Men are master villains like Fu-Manchu or Ian Fleming’s Dr. No, or else loyal sidekicks such as Kato of “The Green Hornet” or even Charlie the cook in the 1933 version of “King Kong"

--- Women are exotic damsels in distress who fall for the white hero, or else wicked temptresses in the employ of the villain

And, of course, they ALL speak pidgin English and know karate.**

Outside of the realm of fiction, Asians are often portrayed as villains simply because of a few minor events in American history: World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.  Generations of Americans including me grew up watching movies and TV shows in which Asians are uniformly portrayed as vicious bucktoothed killers who happily – and often treacherously – shoot, bayonet or torture white Americans.  What shall I say to my daughter if she sees “55 Days at Peking” or “Porkchop Hill” or “The Sand Pebbles”?  Or even “Tora! Tora! Tora!”

I think that it’s natural for a father to want to protect his daughter from things.  When I started down the Road to Fatherhood, I was prepared for the common threats: hormonal teenaged boys, drugs, hormonal teenaged boys, alcohol, hormonal teenaged boys, perverts, and hormonal teenaged boys.***  But there are other things that I don’t want her to see even though I know that she’s going to see them sooner or later.  How shall I explain it all?



(**) Actress Serein Wu has a YouTube video about trying to find work as an Asian in Hollywood:

“Can you do a funny accent?” “Do you know karate?” Etc.

Stupid Things Hollywood People Say to Chinese American Actors [video file].  (2013, Feb 13)  Retrieved from

(***) Remington makes a damned fine shotgun.  Just saying.

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