Tag Archives: China

Yellowface Film Review #11: Ghenghis Khan

Ghenghis Khan (1965)

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Not as hideously embarrassing as the John Wayne version but this rather flatly conceived and directed take on the 12th Century Mongol conqueror is in its own way every bit as bad. It goes without saying that Omar Shariff is far more appropriate casting as the Asian warlord but the script is given minimal thought as in the early part of the film scenes and events are just plonked together with no real care or attention and several occurrences literally happening because people have chanced upon each other in the wilderness.

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Director Henry Levin obviously has a budget but an awful lot of this just looks like hordes of extras riding around in Yugoslavian fields with bombastic music laid on. It gets more exciting in the last half an hour when Levin suddenly seems to want to inject some chutzpah into proceedings but by then it’s all too late. The film follows The Conqueror’s (historically inaccurate approach) by making Jamuga Temujin’s arch enemy (they were blood-brothers in fact and their rivalry only developed later on) and Borte Jamuga’s “woman” who Temujin steals when in fact Borte and the later Khan were betrothed as children and Jamuga it was who helped Temujin rescue her when she was captured by the Merkits. Jamuga incidentally is played by Irish actor Stephen Boyd and the film climaxes with he and Shariff having a bare-chested “Mongol duel” which sadly isn’t as homo-erotic as it sounds.

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Along the way appear the Emperor Of China and the Shah of Khwarezm (Persia) who are portrayed as effete weaklings compared to the warrior Mongols, probably quite accurately in fairness but it does all seem a little crude with them offering fierce neighbours their daughters as if they were giving away tea coasters. Indeed at one point Telly Savalas as Shan proclaims to Temujin before they reach China “If we keep going East we’ll come to a land where I’ve heard they eat dogs”.

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Yellowface watch

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And here’s the rub. Shariff and Savalas aside there’s an awful lot of “ethnicing up” as firstly all the Mongols are portrayed by young actors who look and sound like they’ve not long left RADA and Temujin’s older advisor Geen is played by none other than Michael Hordern in Arab looking garb. 1352062351_genghis_khan_1965.0-20-36.386

Borte is played by Catherine Deneauve’s tragically short-lived sister Francoise Dorleac, who, according to one online reviewer,“doesn’t look remotely Mongolian or Central Asian, and considering she doesn’t really have much to do except be flung about by the men and very occasionally say a dialogue or two, it really wouldn’t have hurt to have an Oriental (sic) actress here

chingiz_han_genghis_khan_1965_dvdrip_1_87gb_1550025 Well, she does get wooed by a man with a doughnut around his neck.

Things get far worse though when Temujin and his band of brothers arrive in China to be greeted by none other than James Mason as Kam Ling who proves once again that there isn’t a screen legend in the history of cinema who wasn’t capable of coming a celestial crocker as one of the true greats of the big screen proceeds to make an almighty tit of himself in chinoiserie.

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Here’s where it gets controversial though because we have heard some argue that no make-up means no yellowface but here’s proof to the contrary as there’s no Lon Chaney-style taped eyelids here. Instead Jimmy simply affects a supercilious grin, pushes his front teeth out so they protrude Benny Hill style, squints his eyes up and spouts twee epigrams in the very highest vocal register he can find. An embarrassing outing for such a normally solid and reliable pro.

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The Emperor Of China on the other hand is portrayed by Robert Morley whose wiki page quotes film critic Leonard Maltin maintaining he was “particularly effective when cast as a pompous windbag“. And that’s exactly how Bob chooses to play the Son Of Heaven, as if he’s organising a particularly troublesome church bazaar rather than the affairs of the Middle Kingdom. Watching him attempting pick up tiny tea cups with his long tapering fingernails has a certain amusement factor but there’s no concealing the fact this is an utter train wreck of a perf and it should be remembered that once upon a time this type of “character” acting would be held up to us “effniks” as an example of a “technique” we obviously didn’t possess.

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Favourite scene? I’m tempted to say the one where the real-life Jamuga declares to Temujin “What use is there in my becoming a companion to you? On the contrary, sworn brother, in the black night I would haunt your dreams, in the bright day I would trouble your heart. I would be the louse in your collar, I would become the splinter in your door-panel….as there was room for only one sun in the sky, there was room only for one Mongol lord” simple because it’s obviously not in this film and with real-life dialogue and relationships like that why write your own?

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But instead I’ll opt for the one where Temujin clouts his oldest brother-in-law around the chops before telling him “You have a strong right-arm, and I like to know it is at my side, but your mouth…is young…and it needs training. With enough training, my brother, you may yet become my strong right-arm…” Dialogue which would surely grace any gay porn film.

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And this, ladies & gentlemen, is the final Yellowface Film Review (at least for the time being) as the Ovalhouse run of The Fu Manchu Complex draws to a close tomorrow. There are though still TWO PERFORMANCES LEFT. BOOK YOUR TICKETS NOW http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex for the play described as “incredibly guiltily hilarious” (The Public Reviews) and “a boisterous romp through the Yellow Peril canon” (Madam Miaow Says). If you’ve been already we do hope you enjoyed it and we hope you have enjoyed this series of reviews.

Yellowface Film Review #7: The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness

The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness (1958)

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The second highest grossing film in the year it was released, this is an especially frustrating piece of dodgy big budget yellowface mush in that there’s an extraordinary story in there somewhere but it’s buried under all sorts of hokey sentiment, feel-good schamltz and truly disastrous casting.

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Based on the true story Gladys Aylward, who worked as a missionary in China most of her adult life, this two and half hour epic tells the tale of Gladys’s early work in China and particularly her leading of 100 orphans across difficult terrain to safety from the invading Japanese army. In between all this (and dominating the screen time to an inordinate degree) is Gladys’s (by all accounts) almost completely fictionalised romance with Colonel Li Nan, here presented as a Eurasian but played by the entirely Caucasian German Curt Jurgens.

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There’s no doubting that Gladys Aylward was a remarkable woman and she herself loathed this film. Among a whole list of inaccuracies she was mortified to see herself (in real life short, dark and cockney) portrayed on screen by the statuesque, blonde, camera-genic and Scando-posh Ingrid Bergmann.

Gladys_Aylward Inn-of-the-Sixth-Happiness-Bergman Perfect casting!

She was also particularly upset by the way her passage to China was glossed over in the film as a convenient recommendation letter from a kindly employer and a few comedically rude Russian soldiers before “Hollywood’s train delivered her neatly to Tsientsin.” In reality Aylward and her family had to struggle particularly hard to get her to the Middle Kingdom (in a real indictment of class-ridden society she was turned down as a missionary because her academic qualifications weren’t deemed strong enough) and she had to spend her life savings on a perilous and complicated train journey where at one point she was forced to abandon the train in Siberia in what must have been a terrifying ordeal for a young woman on her own. Along with this the name of her missionary in Yang Cheng was “Eighth Happiness” (owing to the traditional “lucky” factor the Chinese associate with the number eight) and she felt her reputation was damaged by the numerous movie-snogging sessions Bergmann and Jurgens share in the film. In real life Gladys Aylward went to her grave never having kissed a man and the ending, where she leaves her orphans in Xian to return to Colonel Li Nan, is pure fiction. She continued working with orphans until she was in her sixties and never saw Li again. She also felt that Li being portrayed as Eurasian was an “insult” to his Chinese lineage. I wonder if she would’ve felt the same way had Li been portrayed by a genuine Eurasian. I do hope not.

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The film itself is actually reasonable engrossing for the first half an hour until Hollywood Gladys arrives in China (in reality Snowdonia) and we glimpse our first sight of Robert Donat as The Mandarin (no not the Iron Man one), a casting decision so ridiculous it beggars belief as well as shattering all credibility.

robert-donat-innofthesixthhappiness-2 Even more perfect casting!

From here on in it just gets worse and worse with the final 45 minutes, all tears and melodramatic declarations of love, drags the actors into unfortunate over-playing and there’s one extraordinary scene where Ingrid fluffs her lines no less than three times.

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In the beginning the Chinese (with the exception of Peter Chong’s jolly cook) are portrayed as scary savages but as the film progresses  they morph into picturesque peasants . Of the genuine East Asians the aforementioned Chong (usually second-fiddle in his numerous film appearances) is an amiable enough presence but his characterisation is forced into far too many “ching-chong simpleton” tropes and while there’s a nice role for the young Burt Kwouk as a reformed prisoner Tsai Chin is completely wasted.

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The main problem, in my very humble opinion, with this type of film (or stage play) is that it wants its cake but it’s not even  sure how to eat it. In truth there’s nothing much wrong with wanting to put some “exotica” on the screen (or stage) but when you have a story set in China and then reduce it to endless scenes of two Northern Europeans supposedly portraying an inter-racial romance but in reality drearily flirting against a North Wales backdrop it rather banjaxes the intention.

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Yellowface watch

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First up there’s Robert Donat who with even his first non-speaking appearance sat in a sedan chair derails the whole film. Donat sadly passed away just before the film was released and one would hope this wasn’t his last acting role as it makes a very poor epitaph frankly. Despite Tolstoyish facial hair his fruity English tones and mannerisms are more Vicar Of Dibley than Mandarin of Yang Cheng and coupled to this the film requires him to go from concubine-laden public-beheading local despot to tearful goodbyes to a Christian missionary woman, a character-transformation tricky enough in the best of circumstances but one a man in yellowface will surely struggle with.

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Less embarrassing but possibly more confusing is Curt Jurgens as Bergmann’s love interest, beefcake hapa hunk Colonel Li Nan. His military uniform is so ubiquitous in appearance that in early scenes he looks and sounds more like Rommel Of The Desert than a Chinese Nationalist Army officer. Watching him talk of his “white blood” is extremely strange and it’s once again heavily indicative of  Hollywood’s almost pathological aversion towards featuring strong East Asian male actors in roles that aren’t subservient or asexual, an aversion certainly shared in Britain.

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My fave scene? All of the early ones before Ingrid’s character learns to speak fluent Chinese and Donat is dubbed into what I can only describe as florid Emperor’s mandarin. Utterly surreal.

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Next we tackle a real Beast Of Yellowface, John Wayne’s ill-fated turn as Ghengis Khan in the The Conqueror. Not to be missed. And neither is The Fu Manchu Complex. There are just 5 performances left of the show which the brilliant Madam Miaow (Anna Chen) says “deftly demolishes a slew of stereotypes, setting them up and bowling them down like skittles in a boisterous romp through the yellow peril canon” (and she knows a thing or two about that stuff herself). Book tickets here http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex 

 

Yellowface Film Review #6: The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City (1918)

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Despite an undeniably progressive (certainly for its time) plot centered around an inter-racial romance between San San, a Chinese princess, and John Worden, an American diplomat (well it wouldn’t be vice-versa gender-wise, would it?),  and notwithstanding some heartfelt emoting from Norma Talmadge and Thomas Meighan (two of the great stars of their day) this is a fairly crass affair. The title itself is a giveaway. The heroine only goes there once and, though it could be argued that San San’s conniving father wants to curry favour there, the story certainly doesn’t revolve around the imperial palace. Like much of this film it seems to have been chosen for its exotica factor.

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Competently directed by Sidney Franklin the picture comes a cropper in its casting and portrayal (naturally) with even the 1918 New York Times lamenting that Franklin “was unable to make some of his actors seem like natives of the East”, a criticism which, having watched it, I can only regard as more than a little lenient.  The male Chinese characters (with one notable exception) are unremittingly ruthless in a manner that can only be regarded as gratuitous and San San herself is introduced with a caption that has her imploring Buddha to “please send love-man here to give me million sweet kisses”.

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Steady on! Indeed there’s an awful lot of snogging in the first part of this though there’s no surely no denying that the intended inter-racial frisson of these clinches go for a burton because of the spectacularly unconvincing yellowface casting.

forbiddenCity-grapevine  She’s half-Chinese you know.

It’s also more than a little a cheeky to begin the film with Kipling’s famous quote about “never the twain shall meet” between “East” and “West” but then put it in the mouth of the Chinese emperor!

Yellowface watch

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Yellowface is everywhere in the first half of this, though in fairness (and unlike a lot of similar films of the time) a great deal of effort seems to have gone into making the actors seems as “Chinese” as possible. There’s an awful lot of bowing and florid gestures and Norma Talmadge  as San San seems to be attempting that styilised but slightly stilted manner that many in the Western entertainment industry perceive as authentically “Eastern”. Talmadge later portrays the Eurasian fruit of San San’s union with Worden (the curiously monikered Toy) where she looks and acts like a regular Caucasian but is still captioned in hilariously clumsy pidgin English (even when speaking with other Chinese characters).

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Her conniving mandarin father is played by yellowface “specialist” E. Alyn Warren (The Hatchet Man, Outside The Law) who in his beard and glasses puts one to mind of Sigmund Freud in chinoiserie.

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This being a silent movie we are (unlike in The Hatchet Man) thankfully spared Alyn’s truly ludicrous Chinese accent but he nevertheless hams up his sly Chinaman role with relish. I don’t wish to mock a fellow professional here and I’m sure the man gave some truly fabulous performances in a 99 film career but he should never have been allowed to play East Asians.

63063-12294 63063-13349The many (yellow)faces of E. Alyn Warren

Such is the abundance of yellowface it’s something of a shock when two genuine East Asians turn up in the latter part of the film. Both perform creditably, though uncredited in the case of the first – an emperor’s court lady who racially abuses  the Eurasian Toy (most of the racism in the film eminates from the Chinese characters). Not so in the case of Charles Fang as the solely sympathetic East Asian male Yuan-Loo who fights heroically to help Toy escape but who is never seen again and whose fate the filmmakers don’t appear to deem worthy of interest. Fang’s contribution though did inspire this truly astonishing appraisal in the January 1919 Photoplay, “In one or two details the play missed its celestiality by an odd margin–notably the scene in which the Pekin palace guard, to overcome an unwary foe, resorts to a barroom wrestling match, a thing about as unlike the Chinese character as anything that may be imagined. Your Oriental moves more subtly and certainly: an overturned flower pot, the plunge of a knife, strong strangling fingers … and the outward course of events flows so serenely that even passers-by cannot tell murder has been done.”

vlcsnap_2013_04_16_22h30m13s107 “Enough cliches already!!!”

My favourite scene? When the Chinese Emperor, played by the impressively whiskered L. Rogers Lytton (who I’m devastated to say there are no pictures of), pretends to allow San San to go free with her baby by gesturing to walk along a corridor of drapes out of which appear about ten spears which promptly slay the hapless heroine. A display of “Oriental cruelty” that makes Sax Rohmer look mild.

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We are highly tempted to bust out John Wayne’s notorious turn as Ghengis Khan next but let’s see…maybe later. Meantime, if you haven’t already, don’t forget to book for the “funny, often outrageously so” (There Ought To Be Clowns) The Fu Manchu Complex http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex Just seven performances left!

 

Yellowface Film Review #5: 55 Days At Peking

55 Days At Peking (1963)

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As has been remarked before, yellowface has proved the undoing of many a great director and this barely disguised western in an exotic setting is no exception as one of the all time greats, Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without A Cause, Bigger Than Life, Johnny Guitar), comes a serious cropper with this lavishly mounted and reasonably compelling Boxer Rebellion drama that nevertheless trades in dubious stereotypes and poor casting decisions as well as being overlong and more than a little dull. Indeed, Ray is said to have had a premonition that the film would finish his career and so it proved as the great man collapsed on set halfway through shooting, was replaced and never received another directing job again.

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The film boasts handsome photography and stirring action sequences as well as strong performances from Charlton Heston and David Niven (showing much more depth here than his reputation as a light comedian would lead one to expect) but Ava Gardner’s character is something of a bore and Heston apparently found her “unprofessional”. 18822751.jpg-r_640_600-b_1_D6D6D6-f_jpg-q_x-xxyxx The film’s best scenes though come in what is easily the most involving subplot between Heston and Lynne Sue Moon as an orphaned Eurasian girl who Chuck becomes a reluctant father-figure to.

s_82863lynne_sue_moon55days You can all relax though, there’s nothing seedy in it, and the old pro-gun lobbyist gets to show a tender side while Moon is a poignant figure throughout. Incidentally I can find virtually no info on Lynne. She appeared in four films in the 60’s (including the great To Sir With Love) but appears to have vanished afterwards. One can hardly blame her. It’s difficult enough to be an East Asian actor in Britain today let alone then.

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Yellowface watch

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Where the film really falls down though is in its depiction of the Chinese. There are sympathetic East Asian characters – the already mentioned Lynne Sue Moon’s Teresa, an old man (voiced by Burt Kwouk) who Gardner befriends and there are genuine East Asian actors; as well as the previous two, the Japanese film director Juzo Itami appears as a Nippon army colonel and the great martial arts star Yuen Siu Tien (Drunken Master) makes his debut (though he’s uncredited). pekinde-55-gun-55-days-at-peking-1963-dvdrip-dual-tr-dub-bb66-3

In general though the Chinese are portrayed as a bunch of Christian murdering blood-lusters who are also a bit weird. At one point Peking is described as a “backwater” and Niven’s wife breaks down fearing her injured son will be lost in “an endless Chinese limbo”.

18822734.jpg-r_640_600-b_1_D6D6D6-f_jpg-q_x-xxyxx The main Chinese characters are represented by three simply horrendous yellowface performances that make up a triumvirate of naffness. As Empress Cixi, Flora Robson (but of course!) is reasonably restrained, coming over as an old battle-axe in chinoiserie in an end of pier production of Charley’s Aunt.

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Full marks to her though for at least showing some commitment. The same cannot be said unfortunately for Leo Genn as General Jung-Lu who appears to treat the whole idea with contempt, though maybe this is understandable.

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The very worst offender though (indeed, maybe a serious contender for worst yellowface perf of all time IMHO) is the Australian actor Robert Helpmann as Prince Tuan who seems to have make-up several times more ludicrous than either Flora or Genn, the most ridiculous long fingernails I’ve ever seen and an accent that beggars belief.

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It’s worth bearing in mind while watching this fiasco of an interpretation that this man would have been paid quite well for that performance.  I’m sure Robert was a very fine actor in the rest of his career but for this he should hang his head in shame frankly.

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My favourite scene? The one where Helpmmans Prince Tuan takes the Empress’s terms to the assembled representatives of the great colonial powers who all sit around looking at this latex-eyebrow’d ,golden finger-nailed cartoon caricature as if they can barely believe what they’re seeing.  Or maybe they’re just relieved it’s not them.

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Yellowface Film Review #6 will see us go forwards or backwards in cinematic history, depending where the fancy takes us. Meanwhile don’t forget to book tickets (if you haven’t already) for the “wildly satirical and steeped in sexual innuendo” (The Upcoming) The Fu Manchu Complex at Ovalhouse http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex Some people are saying they want to come and watch it twice. A hilarious evening guaranteed.

8x10_55_days_at_peking_KS00592_L “I COULD’VE BEEN FU!!!!!!!”

What Was The Yellow Peril?

The term “Yellow Peril” is often attributed to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1895 although this is disputed by arguments that the Hungarian General Turr used the expression earlier that year in reference to Japan: “The ‘yellow peril’ is more threatening than ever. Japan has made in a few years as much progress as other nations have made in centuries.”  The Kaiser, though, was certainly virulently ill-disposed towards East Asians and in fact commissioned a painting which was intended to encourage Europeans to cooperate against the Eastern menace. The painting, which was made into a widely used poster, showed a distant Buddha-like figure sitting in an approaching firestorm while an Ayran messenger warns the womenfolk of various European countries of their impending doom.

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Even as early as 1803 however, none other than Napoleon is said to have pointed to China on a map and remarked “Here lies a sleeping giant (or lion or dragon, depending on the source), let him sleep, for when he wakes up, he will shock the world“.  In Britain, according to Dr. Jeffrey Richards in a recent lecture at a China In Britain seminar, “the colonial mind-set was governed by a paradoxical mix of supreme confidence and fear.  Confidence in the rightness of British presence in far-off places and at the same time fear that British rule would be violently overthrown.”  Dr. Richards goes on to remark that there was ample justification for this fear. British rule in Africa had only been established after several revolts and the Indian mutiny in 1857, as well as the one in Jamaica around the same time, had traumatised British society, leaving “indelible fingerprints on the British psyche

With regards China, the two Opium Wars in 1839 and 1856 (which you’ll be hard-pressed to find on any British school history syllabus today), so named because they were literally fought over the British Empire’s determination to sell opium to the Chinese populace, may well have left something of a guilty conscience. The two conflicts in fact are barely deserving of the name as the decadent and crumbling Qing Dynasty’s unprepared and ill-equipped army proved embarrassingly ill-matched with state-of-the-art British gunboats, the result being ignominious defeat for the Chinese on both occasions, the ceding of Hong Kong to British rule (whence it remained until 1997) being but the most obvious of a whole series of humiliating penalties exacted by the victors.

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The wars were controversial in Britain at the time and at least one general election was fought over the issue, yet the prevailing  thinking seems to have been that China was an obstinate, backward and untrustworthy nation that needed to be kept in line and therefore receptive to the virtues of free trade and the Christian religion. None other than opium trader William Jardine (often “credited” as one of the architects of the first Opium War) opined that the Chinese  “are a people characterised by a marvellous degree of imbecility, avarice, conceit, and obstinacy…It has been the policy of this extraordinary people to shroud themselves and all belonging to them in mystery impenetrable….(to) exhibit a spirit of exclusiveness on a grand scale”.  Second Opium War British consul, Harry Parkes, extrapolated this down to the far simpler “I have taken their measure and know precisely how and where to plant the blow when blows are needed…The only way to gain respect in China is to command”. Even the renowned humanist Charles Dickens seemed to regard the Chinese with a fair measure of contempt, remarking on “the extraordinary littleness of the Chinese…Consider the materials employed at the great Teacup Works of Kiang-tiht-Chin(or Tight-Chin)…the laboriously carved ivory balls of the flowery empire, ball within ball and circle within circle, which have made no advance and been of no earthly use for thousands of years…”

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It is often argued that China (unlike Africa and India) was never colonised by Britain. Yet none other than Sun Yat Sen (founder of the Chinese republic) maintained that “China has suffered at the hands of the Great Powers for decades…has become a colony of the Great Powers…(actually worse), a hyper-colony …not the slaves of one country but of all…” In fact, Western powers occupied China to such a degree that in 1897 the Boxer Rebellion, led by the Righteous Harmony Society, actively sought to expel foreign imperialists and Christian missionaries until it was eventually defeated by the Eight Nation Alliance of Western powers in 1901, spelling the final end of the Qing Dynasty in the process.

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This, along with the outpouring of Chinese workers (seen as cheaper and harder working) across the globe causing enormous panic amongst white workers, led to the Chinese, in the late nineteenth and first part of the twentieth century,  being easily the most vilified racial group in the Western world, a fact almost completely forgotten today. According to the great Chinese writer, Lao She (who lived in London between 1924 and 1929) “Foreigners picture Chinese as short, pig-tailed and pancake-faced, with hardly any nose, and eyes that are only two-inch cracks; their puckered lips are always crowned with a thin fluttering moustache, and they writhe when they walk with their little stubby Pekinese dog legs. Moreover, foreigners entertain a host of notions which go beyond mere appearances and which succeed in evoking even more chilling terror. The treachery endemic to Chinamen takes on a number of different sinister forms: in tucking venomous snakes up their sleeves, hiding arsenic in the cavity of their ears’, breathing smoke, or having the power to smite people dead with a twinkle of the eye.” 

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Indeed not even celebrated British authors were free of Sinophobia (fear and loathing of everything Chinese). Rudyard Kipling (so long rationalised as merely “of his time”) declared that “I could quite understand…why the lower caste Anglo-Saxon hates the Celestial. I hated the Chinaman before; I hated him doubly as I choked for breath in his seething streets. I hate Chinamen.”  Kipling went on to maintain that “It is justifiable to kill him (the “Chinaman”)”.  Even a Girls Own Annual of the period warned that the “the readiness of the Chinese to settle in the midst of other nations, and the evils which may follow in its train…constitutes the Yellow Peril”.  In America this morbid fear of all things Eastern led to the Chinese Exclusion Act (which still stands today though all of its constituent sections have long been repealed) and in Australia there were organised campaigns to oust Chinese workers from the goldfields leading to various White Australia policies which directly favoured immigration from Caucasian settlers as opposed to Chinese.

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Along with policies and campaigns, the Chinese were vilified in the British press, the tabloids being full of lurid tales of opium dens and white girls being drugged and seduced by sinister Chinaman. The Strand Magazine (to name but one) reported on a visit to an opium den by describing the occupants as having “parchment coloured features…small and cunning eyes…twisting and turning so horribly” and that even the staircase in the opium den was  “the most villainously treacherous…which it has ever been my lot to ascend”.

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Nowhere more profoundly was this Yellow Peril manifested than in literature.  M.P. Shiel (actually of West Indian descent) began the trend with the invasion novel The Yellow Danger in 1898 which features a half Chinese  half Japanese villain, Dr. Yen How, who forms an “Oriental army” with China and Japan which sweeps through all of Europe. The book ends with the Chinese/Japanese army being wiped out by germ warfare.  In the book Shiel describes the principle points of the Chinese character as “an immeasurable greed, absolute contempt for the world outside China and a fiendish love of cruelty”.  So acceptable was this sort of portrayal at the time that The Academy Supplement ended their review of The Yellow Danger by describing it as “an exciting and persuasive romance, well worth packing up with one’s holiday outfit.”

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This was followed in 1905 by French writer Capitaine Danrit’s The Yellow Invasion which centres around a world-spanning Sino-Japanese secret society named the Devouring Dragon attempting to destroy Western civilization. Then in 1913 Sax Rohmer himself entered the fray with the most enduring Yellow Peril icon of them all: Dr. Fu Manchu. One year later Jack London’s The Unparalleled Invasion portrayed a China with an ever-increasing population taking over and colonising its neighbours, with the intention of eventually taking over the entire Earth.  In 1916 J. Alan Dunn’s novel, The Peril of the Pacific, described an attempted invasion of the western United States by Japan. The very first Buck Rogers novella Armageddon 2419 A.D. depicted a future America which had been occupied and colonized by cruel invaders from China. Robert A. Heinlein‘s Sixth Column depicts American resistance to an invasion by a blatantly racist and genocidally cruel “PanAsian” empire whilst many of H.P.Lovecraft’s stories revealed a constant fear of Asiatic culture engulfing the world.

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Naturally much of this made it to the stage (during the 1920’s Chinese students in London complained to Parliament about no less than five plays which they believed portrayed the Chinese in derogatory fashion) and screen with Fu Manchu himself being the subject of numerous films and TV serials though the characters were nearly always portrayed by Caucasian actors, highlighting the extreme reluctance of Western producers to show East Asian actors (particularly men)  in strong dominant roles, a reluctance that many would argue still persists to this day, as do some of the more dubious aspects of late 19th/early 20th Century portrayal of East Asians.

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Perhaps the final word on the subject should go to Sax Rohmer himself who remarked that at the beginning of the twentieth century “Conditions for launching a Chinese villain on the market were ideal”.  A recent (2010) episode of the popular British TV series Spooks featured a plotline involving the Chinese Secret Service (in essence the Chinese government) planting a bomb in central London. China’s rise as a super –power has filled many in the  West with dread. Perhaps 100 years on from Fu Manchu conditions for “launching a Chinese villain on the market” are still ideal?

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Next, we’ll be examining that most pernicious legacy of colonialism and the Yellow Peril, the practice of “yellowface”. Do stay tuned and book your tickets to see The Fu Manchu Complex http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex

Who Was Sax Rohmer?

Image Rohmer was born Arthur Henry Wardin Birmingham in 1883, the son of Irish-Catholic parents. The family moved to South London when he was 2 or 3.  His mother was an alcoholic who died when he was 18. She claimed descent from a 17th Century Irish general Patrick Sarsfield. The young Rohmer began referring to himself as Arthur SARSFIELD Ward. An only child, he read voraciously and by all accounts sought refuge in a fantasy world.  Very much a “re-inventor” of himself he was able to tell compelling tales by being able to convince himself of the truth of the story he was telling.

In 1912 he adopted the name “Sax Rohmer” which he apparently claimed was taken from the Saxon “blade” (Sax)  and “roamer”. This is the name he was known by for the rest of his life. After failing the civil service examinations and working briefly as a clerk in a bank and a gas company, he became a junior reporter on newspapers, workingas a freelance whilst submitting short stories to the various newspapers he worked on as well as lyrics and comedy sketches for music-halls.  He was later to say that his earliest interests “were centered in Ancient Egypt…I accumulated a large library on Egyptology and occult literature” and his first published short story, in 1903, was indeed called The Mysterious Mummy.

In 1909 he married Rose Elizabeth Knox, whose father had been a well-known comedian in his youth, and who, at the time, was performing in a juggling act with her brother Bill.  She was also believed to be psychic.

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In 1911 he was sent to Chinatown to research a mysterious drugs and gambling boss called Mr. King. Although he found nothing, Rohmer claims to have seen a tall Chinese man “attended” by a beautiful Arab girl that gave him the idea for Fu Manchu and his beautiful Eurasian slave girl Karamaneh. Another story goes that Rohmer and his wife consulted an ouija board as to how he could best make a living. The answer that came back was ‘C-H-I-N-A-M-A-N’.

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Professor Jeffrey Richards at a recent China In Britain event at the University Of Westminster event maintained “There is something dreamlike in Rohmer’s writing. Dreams and hallucinations feature regularly in his narratives” and  Rohmer claimed to have “dreamed” some of his plots. He even invented a character, Maurice Claw, who solved mysteries in his dreams. “His writing was intensely visual, almost cinematic”.

Rohmer claimed membership to a faction of the qabbalisticHermetic Order of the Golden Dawnwhose  other members included Aleister Crowley and William Butler Yeats. Rohmer’s supernatural stories include Brood of the Witch Queen (1918), in which an Egyptian mummy is revived to practice ancient sorcery in the modern world, and Grey Face (1924), in which a supposed reincarnation of Cagliostro causes much havoc. Rohmer also claimed ties to the Rosicrucians though the validity of these claims have been questioned and it’s believed Rohmer may have exaggerated these connections in order to boost his literary reputation as an occult writer.

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The first three Fu Manchu novels were written as newspaper/magazine serials appearing in Britain and America in 1913, 1917 and 1918. These first three novels all revolve around a plotline of the evil Doctor seeking to silence all voices in the West that are warning of the imminent danger of the rising power of China as well as featuring several attempts by Fu Manchu and his minions on the lives of the book’s two heroes, Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie, by use of mysterious poisons and exotic methods with such names as the Zayat Kiss, The Coughing Horror, The Snapping Fingers, The Green Mist and The Flower Of Silence, always with a stark racial opposition between East and West. Nayland Smith, the book’s hero, claims (in a quote worthy of the EDL) to be acting in the interests of the “entire white race, under threat from “Oriental villainy”. Critic Jack Adrian describes Rohmer’s “racism” as “careless and casual, a mere symptom of his times”

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The books proved immensely popular by playing to the prevailing attitude towards the Chinese in Britain and America at the time.  The UK Chinese community (at the time miniscule) suffered from lurid stereotyping in the tabloid press that they were taking over English jobs (an omnipresent fear it seems) and seducing and drugging white women.  “The opium den became a popular image of Oriental depravity…having already featured in Charles Dickens’ The Mystery Of Edwin Drood in 1870, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Grey in 1891 as well as the Sherlock Homes story, The Man With The Twisted Lip in 1892” (Professor Jeffrey Richards).  Although almost entirely mythical, the combination of opium, gambling and sex was heady tabloid fodder.  But one example in many is the Daily Express headline in 1920 of “Yellow Peril In London: vast syndicate of vice with its criminal master, women and child victims”.

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For periods during the 1920s and 1930s, Rohmer was one of the most widely read and highly paid magazine writers in the English language. He also wrote for the stage and created tunes to several of his songs by humming them to a transcriber. Success brought Rohmer financial security for a period but his business instincts were poor and he gambled much of his wealth at Monte Carlo. He travelled with his wife in the Near East, Jamaica and Egypt, and built a country house called Little Gatton in the Surrey countryside. In 1955 he was said to have sold the film, television and radio rights for his books for more than four million dollars.

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The next set of Fu Manchu books came in a series of six beginning in 1931. He wrote three more after the Second World War, the final one in 1959 just before his death from (one of literary history’s great ironies) Asian ‘flu. According to one biographer Rohmer proudly proclaimed of his Fu Manchu series that “I made my name on Fu Manchu because I know nothing about the Chinese”.

The Fu Manchu Complex by Daniel York opens on October 1st! http://www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/the-fu-manchu-complex Preview tickets just £7