Keep on Wondering...

What are the connections between social and historical forces and the representations we see?
Why is yellowface still acceptable? When and how did yellowface turn into whitewashing?
How do these representations create and/or perpetuate stereotypes that are present in our world? What is the impact?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Charlie Chan in Shanghai Pt. 1

Charlie Chan in Shanghai (1935) begins with the venerable Mr. Chan (Warner Oland) arriving in Shanghai to help arrest a opium-smuggling gang (how predictable... China... opium... Shanghai....) for the US government. He then receives a letter (anonymously) telling him to not get off the boat at Shanghai. However, he does. He gets off the boat and is met by his Number One Son (Keye Luke) and the happy couple Philip Nash and Diana Woodland. They then go to a welcoming banquet for Mr. Chan, hosted by Diana's uncle. Diana's uncle is opening a box with a present for Mr. Chan when BANG! The opening box pulls the trigger of a gun concealed inside, and Diana's uncle is dead. Then Mr. Chan begins to investigate the case and discovers that Philip Nash had the box in his possession all day and never bothered checking it to see if it had anything inside. That night, someone tries to assassinate Mr. Chan, but they are unsuccessful, as they shot a dummy that Mr. Chan had set up. The next morning, Mr. Chan calls for room service, and a telephone operator (who is in cahoots with the leader of the opium ring) connects him (secretly) to the opium leader so that he hears that Chan is still alive. Then Chan leaves with a chauffeur who kidnaps him! Number One Son figures out what happened and calls for a taxi to follow the car that Chan left in, but Number One Son's chauffeur is in cahoots with the other kidnapper as well! Then they are both taken to the house of Ivan Marloff (a Russian... my goodness), where he begins to interrogate them - but wait! Chan tricks the evil dudes into thinking that the police followed the two cars to the house, and Number One Son and Chan escape! Chan discusses Diana's uncle with James Andrews - another American agent who is inspecting the opium-smuggling gang. But then - somebody tries to assassinate Chan, and this time Andrews as well! They find the gun and see that it has Philip Nash's fingerprint on it, and he is arrested. Chan finds a letter in Andrew's belongings with an apparently unimportant message on it - but when the letter is heated, it reveals a secret message! Andrews and Chan are shocked at this conclusion, so they decide to go back to the house of Chan and Number One Son's kidnapping and look for clues. Diana Woodland remains convinced that Nash is innocent, so she has a meeting with him and she sneaks him a gun, and they escape. Chan then receives a tip-off from Andrew's valet that the opium gang is meeting at the Versailles Bar, where Nash has already met up with Ivan Marloff, and he demands that he be brought on their illegal ship as well. Marloff sees that Nash is a spy for Chan and knocks him out. Chan and Andrews are about to go down to the secret dock where Marloff and his men are when the police show up and have a shootout! Once the opium-smuggling gang is arrested, Chan reveals that it was Andrew's valet who tried to shoot Chan through the door, and he put Nash's fingerprint on the gun using a stamp pad. Andrews then offers to take the gang to the police station when Chan reveals that Andrews was the real leader of the opium gang, and that the real Agent Andrews was murdered three weeks previously. The valet and pseudo-Andrews go to jail while Nash is declared innocent.
In the beginning of the film, there is a song that Charlie Chan sings to a little, silent, flower-holding Chinese girl (well, she's a little Asian girl) about a princess named "Ming Lo Fu" whose father was The Emperor "Fu Manchu." 

Long the journey on the way, but his heart was gay, 
For was he not the Prince both strong and brave, 
But the Princess fair to save. 
And he slew the mighty dragon, even cut off his seven heads, 
And in his cave he found the Princess bound to her lowly bed. 
 Then came they both back to the land of the mighty Emperor Fu Manchu, 
To claim his reward, the dainty hand of lovely Ming Lo Fu.

Ugh. Ew. Gross. What kind of name is "Ming Lo Fu," let alone "Fu Manchu?" That's pretty much the equivalent of the name John Chinaman or Ah Sin - in other words, it is horrendous. What's really interesting is that the Fu Manchu in the song is portrayed as an almost positive character, whereas previously in film history the caricature of Fu Manchu was General Yen in the dreamy-almost-rape scene times a billion. The song says that the Emperor was mighty and the Prince was strong and brave - those are good stereotypes for the emasculated and desexualized Asian men in this era (and many after) of film? Right? Why seven heads? Why would anyone Chinese want to kill a dragon? Dragons brought good luck... and rain... and that made crops grow... Seriously, what Chinese would kill a dragon? This lack of research in these screenplays is making me awfully tired. It was so trendy to just make things up about other cultures, huh? Did anyone ever think about how maybe it was a bit insensitive? Obviously, the people behind The Good Earth tried... not very hard, but the effort was there - right? What really sucks is I cannot find a video clip of Oland actually singing the song in the movie - so you'll just have to insert the most generically "Oriental" tune with those words. Good luck. 

Oh Warner Oland. You started with a portrayal of Fu Manchu. What made you switch from the terrifying and power-hungry "Son of Satan" to the humble, kiss-ass,  Apparently you did not do much in order to portray China’s most venerable detective. You had a couple of drinks to slur your speech (the nerve!) and grew out your goatee, brushed your eyebrows up and your mustache down... Does that make one "Oriental?" Gracious me, I don't think so. You are still clearly white, despite your supposed "Mongol ethnicity through your Russian grandmother." And what's this hooey about Asian people mistaking you for one of their own? Jeebus, you had me fooled, that's for sure!  

Number One Son. Number One Son. I don't think that he was ever referred to as "Lee" throughout the entire movie. Keye Luke was 31 when he made this film, and he plays a character that is written for a 16-year-old. There's something weird about hearing a 31-year-old saying "Gee Pop!" Or is it just me? This isn't really emasculation, as Number One Son is wasting money trying to convince his girlfriend that he can't take her out because he's busy throughout the entire movie. However, it's definitely putting Luke's character on a lower level by making him seem more earnest, less mature and calculating as his dad is - and he doesn't even get to be called by his name. Is this racism? Or is it just an attempt by the screenwriters to make Charlie Chan a more important character, putting more of the focus on him? Why can't Number One Son be smart and solve mysteries too?

Honestly, I think I might like Charlie Chan better if he kept his mouth shut. Stop spewing useless proverbs, old man! “Motive like end of string, tied in many knots. End may be in sight but hard to unravel.” Who says stuff like that? My grandmother doesn't even spew proverbs like that. Who wrote this crap? Honestly? (Upcoming: A post all about Chan-isms!)

And you know what else I'm sick of? Opium! Opium dens, opium smugglers... True, the stuff has only made its appearance in two of my posts so far... but geez! Rudyard Kipling ("Gate of A Hundred Sorrows"), Jules Verne ("Around the World in 80 Days"), Agatha Christie (Hercule Poirot in "The Lost Mine"), Hergé (Tintin in "The Blue Lotus"), and countless other books (not to mention films) show characters of all types going into Chinese-run opium dens. And while I am not denying that opium dens were often run by Chinese people, I hate seeing these "dens of sin" constantly being associated with my people! Hell, even the Wizard of Oz had a reference to opium and sleepy poppies... although that wasn't directly tied to Asian people at all... Does it still have that connotation? Yes the opium smugglers in Charlie Chan in Shanghai are working with a Russian guy, but they are smuggling out of Shanghai - that's not much of an improvement, to be honest. 

And if you were wondering about the creepy dragon lady on the movie poster - she makes a two minute appearance as a Yellowfaced Chinese Bellydancer. Completely irrelevant to the story. A waste of poster space. This is (yet again) an example of exoticising China and Chinese women - oh, excuse me, Oriental women...

I rented Charlie Chan in Shanghai because I thought it would offer the most racist bits in any of the Charlie Chan films - but now I wish I had gone with Charlie Chan in London or Paris, because that would have put this (regrettably) iconic character in an all-white setting and seeing the racial tensions play out would have yielded many more freaky observations and the like. I can happily say that this movie was short, and because it was a silly mystery, I didn't have to think about the crazy plot and all. I could focus nicely on Oland's portrayal of this unforgettable member of the Awful-Stereotypes-That-Annoy-The-Crap-Out-Me Hall of Fame. 

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