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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

Nuray-Pictures-New-Releases-June-14-2013-4 Spot the Yellowface

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!

 

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