Historically, the representation of Chinese people in European and Hollywood cinema tends to veer from: the dangerous ‘other’, to racial stereotypes, and the mysterious exotic. Chinese men and women are also portrayed differently, men are often represented as villains, greedy and calculating, or weak and subservient; and women as a ‘Dragon Lady’, controlling and treacherous (reminiscent of a sexually manipulative female, Film Noir character), often presented as an object of desire.
In 18th Century Britain the Chinese were viewed positively, as civilised and technically able, but this changed as the Imperial European powers expanded. With legal Chinese immigration into the US and the British Empire — often planned by Governments to provide cheap labour for large construction and mining projects — a racist, xenophobic fear developed (encouraged by the media) that Chinese labourers were unfairly undercutting American and European workers. This led to Sinophobia — a conspiratorial fear that the Chinese are intent on destroying Western culture — that was called the ‘Yellow Peril’, and ironically it arrived at a time when China was militarily weak and either being colonised, or itself dominated by Western or Japanese control, and Chinese immigrants to the US and the British Empire were likely to the ones facing unjust exploitation.
In the short British film Attack on a China Mission (1900) a missionary is killed by Chinese ‘Boxers’ and his wife is saved by sailors. The maiden in distress is gallantly saved from the horror of the anti-Christian, barbaric ‘other’.
Many early films with Chinese characters accentuate the separateness of Westerners and the Chinese, and the tragedy that befalls anyone who crosses the barriers between the two — while simultaneously dwelling on the sensual, and exaggerating the exotic ‘mystery’ of the East. The Forbidden City (1918) tells the story of an inter-racial romance between an American man and a Chinese princess who is punished by death for her wrongdoing. The story continues, some time later, with the daughter searching for her father in the Philippines. In Broken Blossoms (1919) a Buddhist missionary travels to London and falls in love with a cockney girl, whose violent father is opposed to their relationship. In the silent film Mr. Wu (1927) the Chinese father seeks revenge on an Englishman who has seduced his daughter. The ‘otherness’ of the Chinese characters is reminiscent of older, non-Christian characters in Western storytelling, such as Shylock from The Merchant of Venice: an alluring and beautiful daughter comes with the strings of belonging to the ‘other’, and a father intent on maintaining that separateness, whatever the cost.
When the separate Chinese world crosses into Western culture it is routinely portrayed in a negative light, as: devious, murderous, an arch villain, a super-villan, and the criminal mastermind of a criminal world. The Fu Manchu character has appeared in a number of films including, The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929), and The Face of Fu Manchu (1965). The Fu Manchu character was adapted from a series of novels first published in 1911. Fu Manchu is a professional criminal, dressed in what appears to be traditional Chinese clothing, sporting a long wispy moustache, and intent on destroying the West, or achieving world domination. In Flash Gordon (1936, 1940, 1980) the universe has already been conquered by the dastardly Emperor Ming (Ming the Merciless) who has both a Chinese sounding name, and is played by European actors, made-up to look asian. The Chinese super-villain crops up in the James Bond film Dr No (1962), this time sporting a mechanical hand (which closely resembles the hand of the crazed inventor in Metropolis); and in Cocaine (Retitled While London Sleeps) (1922) a hedonistic, Chinese-run (played by European actors) London night club, which epitomises the ‘roaring twenties’, leads respectable English customers astray, resulting in a father seeking revenge for his daughter’s death.
The non-threatening character
Another classic Chinese character in Western films is the amiable and non-threatening ‘lackey’ who works for a Westerner, usually in a low status capacity, or has embraced Western culture and operates ‘harmlessly’ within the system. The Charlie Chan character appeared in numerous films dating back to The House Without a Key (1926), which is based on a novel from 1919. Although more of a real character than previous Chinese stereotypes — and respectably employed as a detective — Charlie Chan (often played by European actors) is still a racial stereotype, and something of a tolerated outsider. But Charlie Chan is important, because he is an ethnically Chinese man in the leading role, being portrayed in a positive light. Cato Fong from the Pink Panther (1963), Inspector Clouseau’s personal assistant, is also a more positive character than the Chinese super-villans, and paired with the equally ridiculous Inspector Clouseau his stereotype is less offensive, although still patronising, at least he is played by an ethnically Chinese actor. In the Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958) Chinese misfortune is presented through the experience of a Westerner, who is guiding desperate Chinese orphans to safety (during the Civil War and Japanese invasion). Although based on true events, the woman whose life the story was based on had serious misgivings about the film’s liberties, including a prominent Chinese character being turned into a half-European. In The Good Earth (1937), a Chinese family drama set during the Civil War, the parts are played by European actors — the famous Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong was not allowed to play the heroine because the Hays Code prohibited scenes which suggested an interracial relationship: even though both her and her spouse (played by a white actor) were playing Chinese characters.
In the 1950s and ’60s, with the Cold War in progress, Communist China was increasingly viewed as a threat. In Yangtse Incident: The Story of H.M.S. Amethyst (1957) a Royal Naval ship, delivering supplies to the British Embassy, comes under an unprovoked attack from Communist troops; in A Hill in Korea (1956) British troops are attacked by Chinese forces during the Korean War; in the US films The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954), Fixed Bayonets! (1951), and Pork Chop Hill (1959) US servicemen face both North Korean and ‘Red Chinese’ enemy troops while fighting in the Korean War.
The Communist Chinese are portrayed as overtly aggressive, out for a fight with the West. In Seven Years in Tibet (1997) the Communist Chinese are seen as hostile, militaristic, fired up by hate-filled ideology and Chinese expansionism, invading gentle and peace-loving Tibet. The paranoia about ‘Red China’ becomes almost cartoon-like in paranoid films like Battle Beneath the Earth (1967) where a renegade section of the Chinese military begins a war with America by tunnelling beneath US cities to plant atomic bombs.
The Kung Fu master
The Chinese martial arts expert represents a more positive image of Chinese people — empowered by the physical and mental discipline of their Kung Fu skills. Bruce Lee’s series of Hong Kong produced films were popular in Europe and America in the 1970s. Bruce Lee was followed by a spate of copycat American Kung Fu experts — one mainstream spinoff was the popular US television series Kung Fu (1972 – 1975) featuring a half-Chinese, half-white Shaolin monk searching for his half brother in the American Old West. Here the plight of Chinese-Americans is portrayed sympathetically, often suffering from exploitation by greedy industrialists. Kwai Chang Caine, the Shaolin monk, also exemplifies the best of traditional Chinese culture: hard work, honesty, respect for other people, and ancient teaching. This new tradition of the powerful but wise Kung Fu master continues with Jackie Chan in films like Rush Hour (1998), and Shanghai Noon (2000), which break up the action sequences with light humour.
Stronger female roles for Chinese actresses include Lucy Liu’s part in Charlie’s Angels (2000), which included martial arts fight scenes, which by this time had become mainstream in Hollywood (in films like The Matrix). The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) included martial arts fight scenes, stunt action sequences, fantasy Chinese history, and supernatural elements.
The siren or ‘Dragon Lady’ character dates back to some of the very early representations of Chinese people in Western cinema. In Piccadilly (1929) a nightclub owner introduces a new Chinese dancer Shosho (previously employed to wash the dishes). Her success sets off a disastrous series of events, rivalries and jealousies. Shosho, like the dancing robot Maria from Metropolis (1927) is able to magically mesmerise men with her moves. She is a mysterious object of desire, possessing magic-like, charismatic power. The club in Piccadilly is a bohemian place, where boundaries can stretched, but when a black man dances with a white woman he causes outrage and is thrown out: where racism is socially ingrained there can only be so much toleration.
Chu-Chin-Chow (1934) features the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong as the traitorous slave girl Zahrat, and features extravagant sets, luxurious costumes, and extended dance sequences. It’s a celebration of the exotic East, a land of uninhibited sexual licence, decadence and greed. The visual style of Shanghai Express (1932) echoes the Eastern exoticism of the mysterious ‘Dragon Lady’, with Shanghai Lily’s friend Hui Fei, also played by Anna May Wong. This time the story is set on a train (often perceived as a fast, glamorous mode of travel in the 1930s), against the backdrop of the Chinese Civil War.
In The World of Suzie Wong (1960) a beautiful ‘bargirl’ falls for an American artist who has decided to spend a year in Hong Kong. The film explores the separate worlds of the working class Chinese characters and the wealthy European expatriates (and the prejudices, and hypocrisy of the wealthy middle class English). Suzie Wong’s inability to come to terms with her job as a sex-worker (to support herself and her baby), echoes the kooky character of Holly Golightly’s denial in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s which was released a year later, in 1961. But, unlike earlier films with Chinese sirens, like Piccadilly, which predict disastrous consequences for mixed-race relationships, The World of Suzie Wong echoes the anti-establishment sentiment of the 1960s, and sympathy for two main characters going against the system, polite middle class society, and the status quo. They are able to define their own world, on their own terms, and succeed.
The James Bond film Dr No, with its famous Chinese super-villain, also has two Chinese sirens. Miss Taro is a Chinese agent working for Spectre, and she is intent on seducing, and then killing, James Bond. Annabel Chung, another of Dr No’s agents, is tasked with keeping an eye on Bond while under the guise of working as social photographer (dressed in a cheongsam). These representations return to the perception of Chinese characters as being dangerous and untrustworthy.
Cassandra Wong is the Chinese siren in Wayne’s World (1992), and appears in part as a homage to 1970s Kung Fu films, and as the romantic interest of the nerdy white protagonist. Although she is something of a stereotypical Hollywood ‘hot babe’, her character makes a positive contribution to the story.
Heroes, and real people
By the early 1980s Chinese people were gradually being presented as real people, which is to say believable, complete, characters. The BBC television series The Chinese Detective (1981-82) had a British Chinese central character who was presented in a positive light, and as an ordinary person. Peggy Su! (1998) is a story about various Chinese characters in 1960s Liverpool, focusing on their story — rather than appearing as an exotic ‘accessory’ in a narrative focused on white people’s experiences. The British Italian film, The Last Emperor (1987) sympathetically presented the story of Puyia, the last Chinese Emperor, by understanding him as a real person: his privileged background, his downfall from Emperor to a puppet ruler, and his eventual path to becoming ‘an ordinary person’. His story echoes the turbulent and traumatic events of 20th Century Chinese history, expressed through his own, idiosyncratic memories.
Today, while China plays a significant role in the global economy, and rivals the US technologically, Hollywood films like The Martian (2015), and 2012 (2009), present the Chinese as able to offer the US material assistance, but fail to deliver a prominent Chinese character. Like any target audience, the largely white (increasingly black, and in the US Hispanic) Western audience wants to see themselves reflected back in the entertainment they see — because mainstream entertainment plays an important role in individual, and group identity.
The representation of ethnically Chinese characters in Western films echoes the treatment of other non-white groups, who have frequently been marginalised, portrayed as untrustworthy (stupid, greedy, or villainous), and their woman as beautiful but treacherous (exotic sex objects): these worlds of ‘otherness’ play by different cultural rules, and values, often as part of a criminal underworld. While the representation of Chinese people in Western films has become more positive, there are still relatively few leading parts that offer strong and positive roles.