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The 5 Most Influential Yellow Peril Characters

30 May

It is not our purpose here to list characters who are simply East Asian stereotypes. We are specifically listing several pop culture characters directly created by Yellow Peril era bias The socially awkward uber geek trope, the Tiger Mother, these are another discussion. The Dragon Lady IS relevant to our conversation, but we’ll tackle that specifically tomorrow. I would also add these posts are an attempt to self educate myself. Any facts i get wrong or positions i posit that clearly miss the mark i welcome illumination on, as i am hardly in a position to pretend any sort of authority on this subject.

Additionally, the following tropes are all male. As said, if we set aside the Dragon Lady, Yellow Peril era racism was centered around the notion of East Asian men plotting trouble for all that’s good and holy in the West. China Doll tropes therefore do not factor in so much.

5. The Mandarin

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A segment of geek culture flipped out over the subverting of the villain the Mandarin in Iron men 3, which is a bit ridiculous seeing as how horribly problematic and unashamedly racist the original character it. Personally, i thought the subversion was brilliant and by far the way to go with it.

There are plenty of evil, oriental villains before The Mandarin in the pulps of the 30s, 40s and 50s. The Shadow and Doc Savage were drenched in them. However, the Shadow and Doc Savage are almost forgotten and at best, far from relevant today. Iron Man, in case you haven’t watched a movie in the past 8 years is relevant as FUCK. His biggest villain is the Mandarin who was used in Iron Man 3, and the complete change of the character which also discarded all that distasteful Yellow Peril stain from his persona caused a shitstorm and a half. So yeah, we have to include the Mandarin in this list.

Stan Lee and company back in the 60s were fiercely pro-American and anti communist. They would have simply used Fu Manchu if copyright would have allowed, but since it didn’t, they simply created a replica and called him something else.

The Mandarin is portrayed as a genius scientist and a superhumanly skilled martial artist. However, his primary sources of power are ten power rings that he adapted from the alien technology of a crashed space ship. Each ring has a different power and is worn on a specific finger. He is the foil to Tony Stark’s American technological savvy, a Chinese mastermind with long fingernails and longer mustache. He is a later incarnation of classic yellow perils stereotypes that we’ll address in greater detail down this list, but make no mistake, the character is a racial relic of yellow peril propaganda.

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4. Dr. No.

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The very first Bond villain in the film series.  He set the pattern for Bond villains and is a later incarnation of the classic oriental master villain hellbent on domination of the west.

Dr. No was born in Peking to a German Methodist missionary and a Chinese girl. He became involved with a Chinese crime syndacate, called Tongs, and ended up as their treasurere in the states. He embezzled a million dollars from them and got his hands chopped off in retaliation. No refused however to tell them where the money was, so they shot him through the left side of the chest and left him for dead. No survived, due to a condition called dextrocardia, in which his heart is on the right side of the body. It’s here that he fits himself with his famous prostheses, those hands capable of crushing metal.

He adopted the title of Doctor and changed his name to Julius No, symbolic of his rejection of his father (the white side of him), whose given name was Julius.  In physical appearance Dr. No is tall and very thin. He is described as being at least 6 inches taller than Bond, who is six feet tall, meaning that he’s probably around 6 ft 6 inches in height. His head is said to be shaped like a “reverse oil drop” due to his round head pointed chin and the yellowish tinge of his skin. In the novel he wears a gunmetal colored kimono. He also wears one of the first ever pair of contact lenses and has had a lip slice cosmetic surgery and wears stocked shoes in order to make himself taller and to conceal his identity from the Tongs.

He purchases the island of Crab Key, off the coast of Jamaica, where he restarts a defunct guano business as a cover for his criminal operations. He employs Jamaican and Cuban labourers on good wages for the guano works, brutally supervised by Jamaican “Chigroes” (a portmanteau of ‘Chinese’ + ‘Negroes’, referring to their mixed ancestry). No one who comes to the island is allowed to leave.

3. Charlie Chan.

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Hang on, isn’t Charlie Chan a good guy? How can he be part of racist Yellow Peril propaganda if he’s the smart, good guy stopping the bad guy?

Let us examine that, shall we?

Charlie Chan began as a literary hero in a series of books written by Earl Derr Biggers in 1925. Bigger was actually quite against the Yellow Peril stereotypes he found when he came to California, and explicitly conceived of the character as an alternative: “Sinister and wicked Chinese are old stuff, but an amiable Chinese on the side of law and order has never been used.”

However, Charlie Chan gained his name recognition through his appearance in over four dozen movies, from the 20s into the early 40s. The 30s was his decade and Charlie Chan films were so popular they are credited with keeping Fox Studios afloat during the great Depression.

Shockingly, Charlie Chan has actually been played by Asian actors, but only at the very beginning, and he didn’t achieve real success until the 1931 film Charlie Chan Carries On, when he was played by a Swedish actor Warner Oland, who  played the character as more gentle and self-effacing than he had been in the books, in “a deliberate attempt by the studio to downplay an uppity attitude in a Chinese detective.”

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Seriously. This guy is SWEDISH.

Controversy over Charlie runs a number of directions. Many make sure to point out that having a popular Chinese hero, with household name recognition in the 20s and 30s was certainly an excellent thing. “S. T. Karnick writes in the National Review that Chan is “a brilliant detective with understandably limited facility in the English language [whose] powers of observation, logic, and personal rectitude and humility made him an exemplary, entirely honorable character.” Ellery Queen called Biggers’s characterization of Charlie Chan “a service to humanity and to inter-racial relations.” Dave Kehr of The New York Times said Chan “might have been a stereotype, but he was a stereotype on the side of the angels.” Luke agreed; when asked if he thought that the character was demeaning to the race, he responded, “Demeaning to the race? My God! You’ve got a Chinese hero!” and “[W]e were making the best damn murder mysteries in Hollywood.”

Other critics, such as Yen Le Espiritu and Huang Guiyou, argue that Chan, while portrayed positively in some ways, is not on a par with white characters, but a “benevolent Other” who is “one-dimensional.” The films’ use of white actors to portray East Asian characters indicates the character’s “absolute Oriental Otherness;” the films were only successful as “the domain of white actors who impersonated heavily-accented masters of murder mysteries as well as purveyors of cryptic proverbs. Chan’s character “embodies the stereotypes of Chinese Americans, particularly of males: smart, subservient, effeminate.” Chan is representative of a model minority, the good stereotype that counters a bad stereotype: “Each stereotypical image is filled with contradictions: the bloodthirsty Indian is tempered with the image of the noble savage; the bandido exists along with the loyal sidekick; and Fu Manchu is offset by Charlie Chan.” However, Fu Manchu’s evil qualities are presented as inherently Chinese, while Charlie Chan’s good qualities are exceptional; Fu represents his race; his counterpart stands away from the other Asians.

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A friend of mine once asked why, in a decade of movies, did Chan’s english never improve? For such a smart guy, he was utterly unable to step up his command of english grammar? And of course we know he can’t. His stereotypical delivery of English is fundamentally tied to his popular identity. If you’re curious as to how Charlie Chan is racially a problem, quick, do a Charlie Chan impression. Right now, go ahead. What did it sound like? You wanna go out in public and do that impression?

Some modern critics dismiss the Charlie Chan character as “bovine” and “asexual”,allowing “white America … [to be] securely indifferent about us as men.” Charlie Chan’s good qualities are the product of what Frank Chin and Jeffery Chan call “racist love”, arguing that Chan is a model minority and “kissass”. Chan’s character has also come under fire for “nuggets of fortune cookie Confucius” and the “counterfeit proverbs” (“Aaaahhhh, Confucius say…”)  which became so widespread in popular culture.

He succeeds much in the same way early African Americans were able to, by being superhumanly passive and acquiescent.

Charlie Chan actually illustrates a well tread trend in racial portrayals: in times of horrifyingly blatant racism, the character is indeed a well intentioned and by some, welcome attempt to change popular mindsets. This never means the character is realistic or some progressive pinnacle. Charlie Chan did his job, a necessary one, but one that western media has fortunately moved on from and is best left behind, albeit with perhaps a tip of the hat.

2. Ming The Merciless.

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Most people still know Ming, the tireless foil to all American white guy space hero Flash Gordon. Ming and Flash both first appeared in the 1934 Flash Gordon comic strip, which was so popular it spawned decades of radio shows, movie serials, TV shows and of course the 1980s movie with the Queen soundtrack, which is how i imagine most of you fine folks know them.

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While Ming was eventually defeated in the strip, he was not only brought back, but is the villain in every single other media presentation of Flash Gordon. He is THE Flash Gordon villain. He is a blatant Fu Manchu rip off, a ruthless tyrant who rules the planet Mongo. His East Asian appearance, his name, referencing the Ming dynasty of China, and the name of his planet Mongo, “a contraction of Mongol” contribute to his oriental identity. His over the top, blatantly racist features include slanty eyes, shiny domed, pointy nailed, arching eyebrowed, an exotically dressed Oriental. He is the Yellow Peril in space, not just out to conquer the earth, but the known universe.

1. Fu Manchu.

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Fu Manchu is hands down the most iconic yellow peril tainted character in existence. Other than Charlie Chan, all the other characters on this list are Fu Manchu rip offs. My guess is the vast majority of folks reading this now recognize the name but have never read a single story or seen a movie featuring him. Aside from the ubiquity of his name recognition, he is the mold by which a century of Asian villains with the same lazy racial stereotypes were cast.

Fu Manchu first appeared in 1913 in the book The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu by Sax Rohmer. He is the foil for the British hero/detective Nayland Smith. Fu Manchu is a master poisoner and chemist, a cunning member of the Yellow Peril,  and “the greatest genius which the powers of evil have put on the earth for centuries”.

Rohmer wrote two sequels in 1916 and 1917. The books did decently enough, but would have been forgotten is not for the movies. In 1923 there was British silent film serial The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu starring Harry Agar Lyons. Lyons returned to the role the next year in the 1924 serial The Further Mysteries of Dr. Fu Manchu.

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Then in 1929  Fu Manchu made his American film début in the early talkie, The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu starring Warner Oland, best known for his later portrayal of Charlie Chan in the 1930s. Oland repeated the role in 1930’s The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu and 1931’s Daughter of the Dragon as well as in the short, Murder Will Out as part of the omnibus film, Paramount on Parade where the Devil Doctor confronts both Philo Vance and Sherlock Holmes.

But bigger than all of these was The Mask of Fu Manchu  in 1932 starring Boris Karloff. This film was huge in its day, and survived for decade after as a cult darling, it’s campiness, torture sequences, jaw dropping, over the top racism a gas for midnight screening and late night TV audiences decade after decade.

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Fu Manchu returned to the serial format in 1940 in Republic Pictures’ Drums of Fu Manchu, a 15-episode serial considered to be one of the best the studio ever made.

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Because of these films’ new popularization of Fu Manchu the writer Sax Rohmer began putting out new books. He wrote a string of them throughout the 30s, two more in the 40s, and a final two in the 50s.

The next big wave of Fu Manchu came in the 1960s when Christopher Lee (Saruman himself) starred in 5 popular Fu Manchu films from 1965 to 1969. There was a last film in 1980 starring Peter Sellers we’ll get to in a minute.

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Quick quiz: In all these films, all these serials, all these decades, how many times has Fu Manchu been played by an Asian actor?

Wanna guess? Huh? Go on, take a guess.

That’s right. Never. Fu Manchu is always, always played by a “white” actor of European descent. All of the characters on this list have been played by white guys except for early Charlie Chan.

One thing that is interesting is that Fu Manchu, the villain, vastly outshadows the hero Nayland Smith. Few can name Nayland Smith while Fu Manchu is ubiquitous.

 Fu Manchu holds Doctorates from 4 universities, has developed an Elixir of Life which has increased his lifespan by an unknown but quite significant length, he disdian guns or explosive preferring insanely complicated and arcane methods involving elaborate plans with henchmen and members of other secret societies as his agents armed with knives, “pythons and cobras … fungi and my tiny allies, the bacilli … my black spiders” and other peculiar animals or natural chemical weapons. In the 1980 movie  The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu starring Peter Sellers as both Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith, at the end of the movie Fu Manchu begs the aging Nayland Smith to please take the Elixir Of Life and gain longevity because without a worthy opponent his games and life itself is hardly worth continuing.

Nice touch. I always liked that bit. However, there is no question Fu Manchu needs to be consigned to the pages of history. And not just him but all his copycats and descendants. The trope is done. Time to stick a fork in it.

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Posted by on May 30, 2016 in Uncategorized

 

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