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?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Charlie Chan in London

Charlie Chan isn't dead yet. Unfortunately. 

Charlie Chan in London takes Charlie to a large country house in London where he solves another fantastic, mind-boggling crime. In short: Condemned man was framed but his sister doesn't want him to die because she's convinced of his innocence. Condemned man's sister hires Charlie Chan to find that condemned man is innocent, which he is. Charlie Chan sets a trap and finds the real killer. But the plot isn't important. Charlie Chan is who's important here. 

Remember how I thought that watching Charlie Chan in an All-White Setting would be much more interesting? It really wasn't. If anything, Charlie Chan was even more humble,  subservient, annoying and extremely foreign. He was "Much honored to be of humble service to British lion" by inspecting the case of Condemned Man. His "humble eyes have had much practice" at making large deductions from tiny details (Sherlock Holmes ripoff, anyone?). When complimented on his deducting skills, he responds with "World is large. Me lowly Chinaman" with a simpering smile. He reminds the audience and his suspects that he's (most importantly) a foreigner - "Regret do not understand English, only American." and "Lowly Chinaman here!" and "[I am] Oriental, not British." and "Not very good detective. Just lucky old Chinaman." It's sickening. 

Because the character of Charlie Chan is played by a white man, shown belittling himself to everyone, and (essentially) a parody of all subservient Asian men, it is one of the more damaging stereotypes out there. I've said this before, haven't I? Along with Charlie Chan being a non-threatening (to other-than-Asian people) stereotype, it's also a very self-incriminating one. It shows that Asian men are ready and willing to demean themselves, but the fact that the character is portrayed by a white man (Warner Oland, no less) makes the entire thing a parody of the Asian man and someone (or something) not to be taken seriously. 

There is a character of a newspaper reporter in Charlie Chan in London that cannot seem to call Charlie Chan by his correct last name. He continues to call Charlie "Mr. Chang." It's always, "I see what you're driving at, Mr. Chang!" or "Mr. Chang enjoys his joke." And not once does anybody bother to correct him. Charlie Chan never bothers to correct him, the other unimportant people at the country house don't bother to tell Mr. Ignorant Reporter off either. What is this? Is this racism? Is this being anti-Asian, by refusing to say Charlie's last name right? Mr. Ignorant Reporter is a bit of a caricature himself, with his bushy handlebar mustache and his pseudo-British accent. Was messing up the Honorable Detective's name part of the caricature? Was it intended for comic relief or just... something random? I cannot decipher what purpose the messing up of the name was, or whether I'm just overanalyzing. I really cannot tell. 

Then there's the xenophobic, neurotic housemaid with an absurdly fake cockney accent. she's convinced that the Honorable Detective is a hypnotist (Fu Manchu anyone?) because he climbs through a window to talk to the Sister of Condemned Man. She's suspicious of the Honorable Detective because he's a foreigner ("There'll be death in this house until we get rid of that creeping, murdering foreign man!"). Homegirl is off her rocker. She represents all the people who remained suspicious of Asian people in general during this time period; however, I can't tell if her character is supposed to be there for comic relief or if she's just reminding the audience that no matter what, we can't trust the foreigner, even if it is our good ol' buddy Charlie Chan. 

Something that gets me every time I see a clip of Charlie Chan talking, I am struck by how little of an accent Warner Oland puts on. His speech is just slowed down with the funky syntax and grammar thrown in. There's no mixing of the r's and l's, no obvious, exaggeration or appropriation of an "Oriental" accent. I wonder if this was because Warner Oland never met an Asian person, so he didn't actually know how to do the inflections and whatnot? What it just lack of knowledge that kept the character of Charlie Chan from adopting a "real" Asian/Chinese accent throughout the productions.

Would Charlie Chan having a thick "Oriental" accent increase or decrease the amount of offensiveness in the stereotype? I honestly don't know. While I'm bothered that Warner Oland didn't do any research for the role in terms of the vocal performance, I'm also relieved that he didn't because it could have hurt the character's connotations so much more. The lack of research implies a slightly arrogant dismissal of the fact that some Asians do have accents, and it's a bit insulting. But I wonder if it would be twice as insulting if he did do research and try very hard to adopt a really thick, heavy "Oriental" accent. The fact that it would be a drunk Warner Oland (need I remind you that he's Swedish?) with a false and exaggerated accent, combined with the aphorisms and humbleness and subservience - the Charlie Chan stereotype would push a lot more buttons than it does already. An exaggerated accent would definitely add some weight to the whole "Perpetual Foreigner" thing - and not in a very good way (Captain Obvious reporting for duty). 

Some aphorisms before you leave:
-Front seldom tell truth. To know occupants of house, always look in backyard.
-Case like inside of radio - many connections, not all related. 
-When death enters window, no time for life to go by door.  

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