This post was originally going to be about Charlie Chan, but before we get to that famous character of Dieselpunk era serials, i figured it might be interesting if we start with the even more famous Fu Manchu, for whom Charlie Chan was created to be an antithesis.
The name Fu Manchu is still familiar today. He originates in a series of books by author Sax Rohmer between 1913 and 1959. He is the villianous archerival to the British detective Nayland Smith and his assistant Dr. John Petrie (a direct use of the Holmes/Watson template), although interestingly, Fu Manchu’s notoriety and fame far eclipses that of Nayland Smith. Few recognize the name Nayland Smith, but many still recognize Fu Manchu still.
His true fame, as i’ve said over and over all all fantastic heroes of the first half of the 20th century, is cemented by his appearance in other media, in this case a series of both serials and films of the 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. The Mask Fu Manchu in 1932 and the serial The Drums of Fu Manchu in 1940 are the most popular. The character was later revived in the 60s for another series of 5 British movies.
In many ways Fu Manchu is a wonderfully fantastic villian: a pure evil genius, although with a rigid ethical system. Both he and Nayland Smith share a grudging respect for one another, as in their many run ins, both always conduct themselves with a certain honor. Neither, for instance, ever breaks their word. Fu Manchu’s plots are labyrinthine, everything you would expect from a diabolical criminal mastermind. He controls vast networks of secret agents who will always use deadly and venomous animals and poisons over guns and simple weapons.
He has an extraordinary long life due to a lfie extension formula he perfected, and loves the opium trade, white slavery and plots to destroy white people and their areas of the world. Fu Manchu is remarkably iconic. He is also a completely racist archetype and used to desultorily and stereotypically represent the dreaded “Yellow Peril” of the first half of the 20th century.
Now, i know none of you will be able to understand this, but you’ll have to try and imagine a time when a number of politicians, powerful media moguls (William Randolph Hearst) and of course citizens were convinced that one of the greatest threats to their country and way of life were posed by.. get this…. immigrants. Yes, hard to imagine in this enlightened day and age. Now wait, it gets even more unbelievable. In particular the worst immigrants were the non white ones. I know, shocking, right? Welcome to the Yellow Peril.
Beginning the the mid 1800s waves of chines swept into Western Countries, most notably the United States, there they basically built the country’s railroad system. Hearst and his papers were dedicated to drumming up hysteria about how all these Asian were taking the jobs and threatening the livelihood, standard of living and way of life of its white inhabitants of European descent. During the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century, this was a really big deal. Japanese military expansion leading up to WWII played into this also.
When Fu Manchu appeared, he became the archetype for Asian villains. Pulp and pop culture throughout the entire early 20th century used the Fu Manchu archetype. Asian characters in the West were unknown except for Fu Manchu and the henchmen archetypes he employed. This led to some Chinese Americans attempting to create new characters such as Charlie Chan to replace the stereotype.
I’ll just add that there was a 1980 movie starring Peter Sellers called The Fiendish Plot Of Fu Manchu starring Peter Sellers as both Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith. It was a commercial disaster, but i actually liked it and it’s a very self aware take on the entire series. Also, some people have a soft spot for the 1932 Mask Of Fu Manchu claiming its over the top racism adds to its “so bad it’s a blast” campiness. Indeed these old Fu Manchu movies and serials seem like they are PERfect for a great Mystery Science Theater 3000 viewing and… wait. What’s that? Oh happy day.
Without further ado, i leave you to MST3K veiwing The Castle Of Fu Manchu.