by Lisa Lieberman
I've read countless analyses of Roman Polanski's neo-noir masterpiece, but I'd never considered the subliminal effect of the film's title until I read an offhand remark of Yunte Huang's in his book about Charlie Chan. “Chinatown serves as the symbol for the crime-ridden, dark side of the city of Angles,” he writes. “In Chinatown, the title merely hovers in the background like a black cloud.”
Gambling, opium dens, white slavery and perverse sexual acts were long associated with the Chinese quarters of American cities in the popular imagination, fueling the anti-immigration sentiment that resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Sinister Chinese characters were staples of pulp fiction in the early twentieth century. The adventures of Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu Manchu would be filmed repeatedly by Hollywood from the silent era onwards, the villain always played by a white actor in yellowface. Borls Karloff's 1932 incarnation is the most notorious of the lot, and not only on account of the egregious line that provoked a protest from the Chinese government: “Kill the white men and take their women!”
The Mask of Fu Manchu
Made before the Hays Code, The Mask of Fu Manchu packs quite a fetishistic kick. There's a little something for everyone here: scenes of the evil doctor preparing to torture the handsome fiancé of the blonde heroine, stroking his victim's naked chest with his long fingernails before injecting him with a serum that will turn him into a slave. A kinky sequence where the young man is whipped by two semi-naked black minions of Fu Manchu's daughter (played by Myrna Loy in yellowface). Loy's character is clearly enjoying the spectacle, but her heart still belongs to Daddy. “In later decades,” Huang comments, “Asian American critics would note the references to incest and other sexual transgressions ascribed to Fu Manchu and often commented on the demeaning depictions of Asian men.”
Actually, the sexual fantasies worked both ways in the pre-Code era. An early Frank Capra film, The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933), features an interracial romance between a white missionary played by Barbara Stanwyck and a Chinese warlord (Swedish heartthrob Nils Asther in yellowface). Stanwyck's character is captured by the warlord and she has an erotic dream about him, imagining him as a brutal and passionate lover, although he turns out to be a gentleman and, in a departure from the novel upon which the film was based, their mutual attraction remains chaste. Miscegenation was taboo, even before the Hays Code, and General Yen was yanked eight days into its run, the sight of “a Chinaman attempting to romance with a pretty and supposedly decent young American white woman,” as Sam Shain put it in Variety, too shocking for audiences at the time. Nevertheless, the film was selected for the opening of Radio City Music Hall.
Publicly, audiences may have been outraged by the depiction of interracial romances between whites and Asians, but the frisson of such unions was undeniable. Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, the first Asian to play an Asian character onscreen, was a matinee idol well before Valentino. Best known today for his performance as the sadistic Colonel Saito in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), he gained notice in the role of a Japanese ivory dealer who brands the white woman he lusts after on the shoulder in Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat (1915) — an act that seemed to enhance his appeal in much the same way that Valentino's rape of the dancing girl would in Son of the Sheik (1926). “My crientele is women. They rike me to be strong and violent,” Hayakawa allegedly told a reporter.
The Shanghai Gesture
Leaving miscegenation aside, adulterous liaisons were common in Hollywood films produced during the Golden Age and set in exotic Asian locales. The frustrated overseer of a rubber plantation in French Indochina (Clark Gable) initiates an affair with his engineer's wife (Mary Astor) in Red Dust(1932). Gable carries on with two ex-lovers in China Seas (1935). Greta Garbo, meanwhile, forgets her saintly husband (Herbert Marshall) and succumbs to the advances of a married diplomatic attaché in cholera-ridden China in The Painted Veil (1934). The plots of such noir classics as The Letter (1940), The Shanghai Gesture (1941), and Macao (1952) revolve around uncontrolled passion and all three films end in murder, as if the unnatural desires unleashed in “the East” cannot be quenched in any other way. Chinatown, and perhaps the whole of Asia, turns out to be a projection of America's darkest fears and fantasies in Hollywood's eyes.
Yunte Huang, Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and his Rendezvous with American History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 275-6; 144.
The Bitter Tea Of General Yen, TCM Film Archive.
Daisuke Miyao, Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2007), 1.
Lisa Lieberman's historical noir, All The Wrong Places, was published by Five Star in March.