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?

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Mask of Fu Manchu

I was supposed to watch this one three whole weeks ago... but because Netflix is stupid (kinda) I didn't get to see it until now. Better late than never, I suppose. 
The Mask of Fu Manchu is about a group of English archaeologists, commissioned by a certain Sir Nayland (Lewis Stone) who race against the power-hungry Dr. Fu Manchu (Boris Karloff) for the contents of Genghis Khan's tomb in the Gobi desert. But before the expedition can begin, the lead archaeologist, Sir Lionel Barton (Lawrence Grant) is kidnapped by one of Fu Manchu's henchmen and taken away to his palace, where Fu Manchu tortures him for the information about where the tomb is. He is kept there for many days until his daughter Sheila (Karen Morely) and her fiancĂ© Terry (Charles Starrett) begin to worry. They go to Sir Nayland and tell him that they will continue the expedition without fear of Fu Manchu and that they will try to find Sir Lionel anyways. Nayland lets them go, but soon accompanies them on the journey as well. The expedition team starts off and soon finds the tomb with no problems. There, they take the Mask and Sword of Genghis Khan to put in the museum, but Fu Manchu wants the Sword and Mask to "become" Genghis Khan and take over the world! They get the artifacts back to where they are staying for the night and set a guard to watch them just in case. The guard is killed in the middle of the night but the sword and mask aren't stolen. The next day, one of Fu Manchu's henchmen comes to the house where the team is staying and offers to trade Sir Lionel Barton for the sword and mask. Sheila jumps at the offer despite Terry's doubts, so Terry brings the sword and mask to Fu Manchu's palace, where he is looked over in strange ways by Fu Manchu's Dragon Lady-China Doll daughter Fah Lo See (Myrna Loy). Fu Manchu takes the sword and tries to do some freaky electrical stuff to it, demonstrating his scary powers. However, Nayland secretly swapped the real sword of Genghis Khan's for a fake, so Fu Manchu's special electricity experiment doesn't work. Terry is whipped as punishment under supervision of Fah Lo See, who later plans to make him her sex slave and then kill him. Fu Manchu steps in and injects Terry with a mind-control serum and sends him back to bring Sheila, Nayland, and the real sword and mask to Fu Manchu. He does so and they all walk right into the trap. Fu Manchu plans his world domination strategy and decides he needs a ceremony to celebrate it. He sends Sheila off to get ready to be sacrificed at his ceremony, who gets angry and says to him, "You yellow beast!" He sends Terry off to be bedded by Fah Lo See. He sends Nayland off to be eaten by some crocodiles. And he goes off to put on his fancy robe for the ceremony. Nayland then manages to escape and rescues Terry, while Fu Manchu assembles his army of Middle Easterners, black guys, and some other Asian-looking people for a pep rally where he wears the mask and wields his sword. Nayland and Terry find a big electronic death ray zapper and zap Fu Manchu as soon as he is about to stab Sheila. Then, for good measure, Nayland and Terry zap his followers as well. Fast forward several days, and Nayland, Sheila and Terry are aboard a boat back to England. They toss the sword over the side of the boat (but not the mask?) so that it will be safe from any future Fu Manchu.

Watch 6 - The Mask of Fu Manchu [1932].avi in Horror  |  View More Free Videos Online at
"Will we ever understand these Eastern races?" -Sir Nayland
Remember how I wrote about Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless? He is Fu Manchu, just from outer space. 
The horror. Quite literally, I'm afraid. This movie is the embodiment of Yellow Peril. It's the Perpetually Foreign and Inherently Evil Scary "Oriental!" Because Dr. Fu Manchu wants to take over the world! He wants to lead all of Asia in an uprising against the accursed white race! He enjoys torturing people! He injects funky serums into the bloodstreams of next-to-naked white men! He wants to sacrifice a white woman to an accursed pagan god! The horror! The indignity! 

"Should Fu Manchu put that mask across his wicked eyes and take that scimitar into his bony, cruel hands, all Asia rises. He'll declare himself Genghis Khan come to life again. And that, my friend, is what you have got to prevent." - Sir Nayland
Some background on Fu Manchu: Originally conceived by British author Sax Rohmer, Fu Manchu was "yellow peril incarnate" an an evil scientist to boot. 
"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."
-- Nayland Smith to Dr. Petrie, 
The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu, Chapter 2
Scared, huh? I know I am. He's everything scary and bad about Asians compiled into one dude with freaky long fingernails and some funky facial hair. In fact, this sounds like a Moriarty-type criminal mastermind trapped in Sherlock Holmes' body! Whoa! Strangely enough, the Fu Manchu books were sort of like Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes series, featuring Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie versus the (apparently) insidious Fu Manchu. Except that Nayland Smith isn't brilliant, and neither is Dr. Petrie. They're just racist and often voice the anti-Asian sentiments of the book (and presumably Sax Rohmer as well). It's just Fu Manchu that's cunning and clever and supremely evil and anti-white. So not only do you fear his evildoings - you have to fear his intelligence as well! 
What does this remind you of? The model minority? This fear that China will take over the world? Yes and yes! He's super smart (model minorty) and he wants to take over the world (China takes over the world)! Captain Obvious, reporting for duty!

"Men of Asia! The skies are red with the thunderbolts of Genghis Khan! They rain down on the white race... and burn them!" - Fu Manchu 
Let's ignore Fu Manchu's scary intelligence for a moment, shall we? Let's focus on his sadistic scariness instead. He puts Nayland on a weird seesaw that gradually lowers him into a pit of (presumably) hungry alligators (or are they crocodiles?). He puts some other white guy on a platform between two walls of spikes that inch closer and closer together until... well, you get the idea (Said white guy is rescued, but not before he freaks out sufficiently). He has Terry whipped into a pain-induced stupor and then injects him with funky serum. He puts the good Sir Barton under a giant, endlessly clanging bell for days without food or water or reprieve from hearing the sonorous clanking, eventually driving poor Sir Barton insane. What does this do, you ask? This makes Fu Manchu an even more frightening character. Not only will he kidnap you, he'll torture you too! It's another little aspect to this already disgusting character that makes his foreignness and his evilness even more intolerable. He'll torture you in ways unimaginable! And he'll get a kick out of it! And on top of that... he's Asian! Asian and evil! Evilly Asian! Asianly evil! My eyeballs are rolling in terror!

Then there's Fu Manchu's army of Asians. Of course, this screams of perpetual foreigners and peril of all types - that's to be (hate to say it) expected from a movie from this time period. However, the only "East Asians" we see in the movie are Fu Manchu and his creepy little daughter, plus or minus a few mute extras. The rest of Fu Manchu's army is made up of... Middle Easterners? What's the subtext here? That the East Asians are the power-hungry ones, and the Middle Easterners are the ones who will follow their leaders like little woolly sheep? I have no ideas. Care to help me out on this one?
This one's right up there on the So-Racist-it-Makes-Me-Violently-Sick list with Mr. Moto. Shame.


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  2. And I just noticed this was on the wrong post. Lovely. Sorry about that, I swear I hit the 'back' button to go back to the first post I was on.

  3. Not a difficult subtext, I should say. The white man´s burden at its best. Down with the yellow coolie! Self evident are the fears to be sent back home to deal with gardens and cricket games, plus the economic loss and, of course, honour and glory with it. The death rays machine at the end of the movie is a clear flashforward of things to come in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Makes one wonders whether Japan´s propaganda during the IIWW was altogether way off or had a grain of truth in it. A racist movie all the way round...and adorable in its naivete and self assurance. Not to mention the creative side of it. Truly excellent.!

  4. It's been a long time since I read the books (they're a slog at times - Nayland is truly a dullard), but I think Fu Manchu is supposed to be from Malaysia, hence the mix of races amongst his followers. Or am I thinking of The Hood from Thunderbirds? Perhaps I am, although he's in many ways a carbon copy if Fu Manchu but without so many followers.