Friday, June 23, 2006

Good Enough to be a Manservant

Earlier this week, the Charlie Chan box set came out on DVD, despite moderate outcry from the Asian American community. Charlie Chan represents one of the more insensitive and infamous instances of yellowface in Hollywood history; Warner Oland, a White actor donned Yellowface to successfully portray Chinese American detective, Charlie Chan, who would use Confucian teachings and Ancient Chinese techniques to solve crimes, along with the help of his son, known to Charlie Chan's character merely as '#1 Son' (frequently played by genuinely Asian/Asian American actors). Due to the protests of the Asian American community who would prefer to see Charlie Chan retired indefinitely, the Fox Movie Channel cancelled its planned Charlie Chan film festival in 2003. However, White film critics seem hellbent on defending Charlie Chan as a historical "classic", applauding its release on DVD and rejecting accusations of racial insensitivity. A NY Times columnist lauded praises on the Charlie Chan franchise and soundly misses the point when he writes:

Are the Chan films racist? Not, I think, by the standards of their time. Mr. Biggers is said to have created Chan (based on a real detective, Chang Apana, who worked for the Honolulu police) to counter the negative images of Asians being fueled by the Hearst papers' "yellow peril" campaigns and embodied most repellently by Sax Rohmer's sadistic "Oriental" villain, Dr. Fu Manchu. Mr. Oland, a popular heavy of the silent era who played practically every ethnicity available (including, on occasion, a Swede), was the screen's first Fu Manchu, in the 1929 "Mysterious Doctor Fu Manchu" and three subsequent films for Paramount.
Hell, Charlie Chan is so beloved by Western Hollywood, they are revitalizing the franchise with a Charlie Chan sequel, in 2007, starring Lucy Liu as Charlie Chan's granddaughter. Anyone who might have deluded themselves into thinking such Yellowface has been relegated to the annals of ancient Hollywood history, think again. The TV miniseries 'Marco Polo' is currently filming in China. It documents the travels of Marco Polo and the time he spent in Kublai Khan's court. Kublai Khan was the Mongolian war lord and the first emperor of China's Yuan Dynasty (Wikipedia article on Kublai Khan). Ian Somerhalder (who played the ill-fated Boone on Lost) plays Marco Polo, and B.D. Wong has been attached to the film as Polo's manservant. However, raising eyebrows in the online community is the casting of Brian Dennehy as the historically Asian Kublai Kahn. I guess, according to Hollywood, Asian actors are good enough to play manservants to White protagonists or bumbling sons to Sherlock Holmes in Yellowface, but Heaven forbid we find an Asian actor to play a king. Cross-posted: Asian Pacific Americans for Progress Act Now! If you are interested in writing a letter regarding this project, you may contact RHI Entertainment, the company that has been listed as producing and directing this film via their contact form. You can also try contacting B.D. Wong directly (he is usually sympathetic to the Asian American community and concerns of our representation in film) via the contact information on his website. Update (6/23): The unofficial B.D. Wong site confirms this project, and writes that the series will be titled "The Discovery of the World". Filming was scheduled to start on June 14 and will proceed through most of June and July.


Anonymous gatamala said...

Sickofhypocrite[s] should channel their anger towards this, instead of you.

Brian fuckin Dennehy????? I can't believe that even the Hollywood bottom-line mindset would give this casting the go-ahead.

If you could point me in the direction so that I could properly register a complaint I would appreciate it.

6/23/2006 02:08:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

Well, according to the articles picked up by online news sources, RHI entertainment, a production and distribution company is producing this film.

Currently, there is no information regarding 'Marco Polo' on their website, probably because the project is still in filming stages.

If you would like to contact RHI entertainment, you can do so by filling out their form here.

6/23/2006 03:06:00 PM  
Blogger Ragnell said...

I was about to say the same thing.

Brian Fucking Dennehy for Kublai Khan?


6/24/2006 02:51:00 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

am i the only person who had never heard of brian dennehy before?

6/25/2006 03:46:00 PM  
Anonymous gatamala said...

I would refer you to some of his work, but I can't. :D
Try Wiki or IMDB.

6/26/2006 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

yeah, i imdb'd him -- i'm just surprised y'all knew right away who he was.

6/26/2006 12:10:00 PM  
Blogger Steven said...

If you can get past the Yellow Face (which is difficult, I know), the Charlie Chan movies are actually pretty good. For their time and for B-movie mysteries, their portrayal of first and second generation immigrants is interesting and complex.

Except for speaking with an accent and being smart, he's not a particularly sterotypical depiction of a Chinese-American, and his children don't fit into ANY particular Asian stereotype(his first son's an the Olympic swimmer and his second son's more like Jimmy Olsen than Chop Chop). That they are completely Americanized but played by real Asian-American actors, while he is not, is odd, to say the least.

Oh, and the mysteries are good and engaging, and the early ones had some pretty good acting, directing and cinematography.

But it does have that Yellow Face, so, you know, you may still hate it.

6/27/2006 05:25:00 PM  
Blogger Jenn said...

I admit that I've only seen one Charlie Chan episode, and, in that case, Number 1 Son was a buffoon. I didn't know that a previous son was an Olympic swimmer.

But, I do remember that while watching the episode, I simply COULDN'T get over the Yellowface. I just found it so offensive I couldn't really pay attention to the storyline.

That and I would argue that Charlie Chan's "broken Engrish" and use of Confucian wisdom was rather stereotypical...

6/27/2006 10:36:00 PM  
Anonymous mayhemwench said...

I hope you don't mind me commenting. :-)

I am torn on the Chan issue. I trained as a historian, and looking at it from a historical standpoint, it really isn't incredibly racist for its time, though it does portray stereotypes. Similar arguments have been made about, for example, Bartolomeo de las Casas, who was sympathetic toward Native Americans but advocated bringing African slaves to work sugar plantations in the Americas - and this was a radically liberal point of view for the time. As was Junipero Serra's decision that if the California Indians converted to Christianity and gave up their culture for Spanish culture, they should be allowed to own land. (I'm pointing to Native American history because that's what I know.)

On the other hand, I HATE that argument. Yes, the Chan films weren't especially racist for their time, but the Depression years weren't exactly known for their egalitarian views on race, either. Were it an example of progressive thinking on race, it would be understandable to defend it. As merely an example of what was acceptable in racial stereotypes, it does not deserve to be defended.

So, from the viewpoint of a historian, I'm glad that the movies are being put on DVD because they are an example of pop culture from the time period, and they are also a wonderful example of how institutional racism could affect acceptability. However, for critics to laud them as an example of racial egalitarianism in the 1930s is a little ridiculous.

7/01/2006 10:49:00 PM  
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