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?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Flash Gordon: The Emperor Ming and Other Offensive Stuff

I honestly don't know why I watched this miserable excuse for a movie. The worst thing I have ever had to sit through - and not just because of the twisted, odd little racist plot details.

The only good thing I can say about this pathetic bit of "filmmaking" is that Queen wrote that catchy, soaring theme song. Yes, that's dear old Freddie Mercury belting out that "FLASH!.... AAAAH!... Savior of the universe!"  
Did you see that Fu Manchu-esque evil space lord dictator guy? Yeah? That's Emperor Ming. MING! And not just any Ming - he's Ming the Merciless! He's an alien and his name is Ming. Translation: They're implying that the name "Ming" (a very stereotypical Asian name) is alien. Foreign. Different. And, judging by the context of the character, evil.
There's really no need to explain the plot, because there isn't one. Long story short: Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones), the white-as-white-can-be, all-American football star, teams up with some other white aliens to take down the Oriental-esque Emperor Ming (Max von Sydow) from destroying Earth (never mind any other planets that might be in danger).

Ming the Merciless was originally conceived as Flash Gordon's nemesis in the comic strip of the same name in the year 1934. This was one year after Chang Apana, the inspiration for Charlie Chan, died, and a year after Filipinos were barred from immigrating to the US. An odd mix of pro-Asian and anti-Asian sentiments, don't you think? Yeah. And then came Emperor Ming the Merciless, a demonic, intimidating evildoer with a penchant for torture and for bedding white girls, not to mention a creepy (incest implied) relationship with his daughter Aura. Now, nowhere in the comic nor the movie (the 1980 version) is Ming the Merciless ever referred to as being of Asian descent or claiming some allegiance to an Asian country. However, the itty bitty hints and details surrounding his character have definitely been inspired by debilitating stereotypes surrounding Asian people. 

1. The name. I said it before. "Ming the Merciless." The "Ming" bit just screams "Asian!" The "Merciless" bit screams "EVIL ASIAN!" So all together, it screams, "Asian EVIL ASIAN!" And believe you me, it's not a pleasant sound.
2. The clothes. It's obvious that the clothes are not authentic Asian garments (well, specifically Chinese garments), but everyone's wearing flowing silky-looking robes that look extremely "Oriental!" Mr. Ming's harem girls are all wearing Chinese-style headdresses that look like they were made out of tinfoil. He's wearing plenty of tinfoil Chinese emperor robes himself. It's all so otherworldly, yet distinctly Asian. Again, fetishizing and making Asian-ness something unnatural and, no pun intended, alien. 
3. The facial hair. Classic Fu Manchu stuff. All that drawn-out beard and moustache? The arched and overgrown eyebrows? Coincidence? I think not!
4. The harem. The harem. The harem. Ming's harem. Ming's harem of white women. Ming's harem of white women who wear "Oriental" clothes. Just like Fu Manchu, Ming has an insatiable appetite, it seems, for white women, or just women in general. And this is no Charlie Chan or Mr. Moto. One needn't worry about the Honorable Detective or the Sly Secret Agent stealing and raping your women. But beware of Ming the Merciless, otherwise known as Fu Manchu! He'll seduce your women and add them to his collection of scantily clad alien whores!
5. The not-so-subtle reference to opium. When Flash's would-be girlfriend ends up in Ming Manchu's harem, she is offered a drink that will alter her mind and make her enjoy her (ahem) experience with Ming Manchu that night. She drinks it and is completely infatuated with the magical beverage. It's a little too reminiscent of opium for my taste. And we all know about the connotations of opium and Asia were...
6. Ming Manchu's hypnotism ring. He uses it to hypnotize Flash's would-be girlfriend into a session of pseudo-masturbating... It's weird. It's hypersexual, just the sort of thing you would expect from this character. And in our quasi-Puritan society, this is seen as horrific and savage - so the audience begins to make this connection between hypnotism, forced (albeit tame) masturbation, evil men, and Orientalness! All represented by this one character and this one scene! All leading to more distrusting of the "Yellow menace!" And this came out in 1980! The indignity!

This is a good example of a trend in Hollywood that's been around since the birth of the Fu Manchu stereotype - the idea that Asia is evil, inherently evil, and that they are determined to crush or take over everything Western society holds dear. It's a classic example of fear of the other and fear of the exotic and mysterious "Orient" taking over and overruling Western society. And this fear suddenly begins to manifest itself in oddball characters (like this guy) that are not designed to spark outright anger and fear of Asian people, but instead to breed a sleepy hate and distrust of those "Orientals." It's really sickening.
The one good thing I can say about this film is that it was completely panned by critics. They blasted it mostly on campy dialogue and ugly costumes - not on the racial undertones of the character of Ming the Merciless. And because this "movie" was shot down by critics, it did poorly at the box office and was reduced to a cult classic.  


  1. Oh, and his home planet is called "Mongo." Tack on an "L" and you've got "Mongol." Subtle. Real subtle.

  2. When Ming's subjects saluted him, they said "Heil Ming!" WHAT?!!?!?!?!?

  3. Interesting perspective. When I saw this as a little girl (age 7 or 8) I didn't make the connection that Ming was a quasi-Asian evil emperorer, but now that I am seeing this 30+ years later, I googled Ming the Merciless and Oriental and now I can see that the depiction (at least in the 30's) was inspired by the "evil" Oriental man.

  4. He is a Chinese criminal and villain of Sax Rohmer's story attempt to takeover the world and kill mankind to enslaved special agent Nayland Smith and his Interpol agents must stop a criminal and brought to justice and still hiding from the law and made into movies tv series comics novels and radio serials of the same name American author was born in England and became a journalist of the New York post magazine and remain popular figures of all time thanks for the information.from:Wayne

  5. Replies
    1. What's opposite to apophenia - stupidity, enforced with tribal mentality and denialism ?