In the early pre-code 1930s the Asian menace was a hot topic. China was in a bloody civil war, and its newsreel scenes of exotic people in various states of distress brought the mystery of the orient into movie audience's laps in a big way. Of course with foreign fascination inevitably comes 'miscegenation' fantasies, always proportionate in intensity to the extremity of the culture's racial intolerance. The white male viewer was presumably all alight with lust for the beautiful Asian ladies they saw, whether via the exotica-betrothed vamps like Theda Bara or Myrna Loy in Asian make-up (before she hit it big in The Thin Man Loy was the go-to girl for scheming Asian roles -- Mask of Fu Manchu, Thirteen Women, The Barbarian (half-Egyptian and enthralled to Ramon Novarro's sheik prince). Even today audiences who should know better, like myself, fall madly aswoon to Loy shimmering around in glittering silks.
But with every forbidden fantasy comes the verso, the dark flip-side. You can't have one without the other. While the entitled American white straight male viewer is agog over the exotica of this beautiful other (with her Sadean-skill in inflicting kinky pleasure-pain through knowledge of eastern medicine and her complete freedom from the suffocation of western bourgeois 'morality') -- he must naturally, inescapably, worry his wife is being seduced in turn by some handsome, smooth-skinned, erudite, extremely cultured albeit cold and cruel Asian man, like Nils Asther in Asian make-up in the most complex, beautiful yet ultimately frustrating of the lot, Frank Capra's Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933).
Hal Eriksen notes of Bitter Tea:
"The one scene that everyone remembers takes place during one of Stanwyck's fevered dreams, in which she imagines Yen as a Fu Manchu-type rapist, who then melts into a gentle, courtly suitor. Directed with the exotic aplomb of a Josef von Sternberg by the usually down-to-earth Frank Capra, The Bitter Tea of General Yen was unfortunately a box office failure, due in great part to its miscegenation theme (this was still 1933). Even so, the film was chosen as the first attraction at the new Radio City Music Hall."Yes, what about that misegenaiton themee and speaking of 1933 (arguably the greatest year ever for Hollywood) in Bitter Tea you can feel the sheer stupidity of miscegenation codes come full flower, practically baiting the intolerant bourgeois 'moralists' into getting angrier than Rush Limbaugh at a peace rally. For Capra's film dares to present the forbidden love of missionary Stanwyck and Manchu general Asther as preferable to the disposable British fiancee.
Abducted and given a beautiful room in his summer palace, Babs becomes enamored of the spring moon and the sight of Chinese lovers frolicking in the fronds, even if they are just soldiers and concubines. Her own sexuality is at stake as her letters back to her fiancee are misdirected by Mai-Li (the Japanese Toshia Mori) a young local who has to sit lower than everyone else at the dinner table as she is not the general's wife. In trying to seduce Stanwyck, Yen is foolish enough to listen to Bab's please of mercy, and its this mercy that costs Yen his kingdom, fortune and leads to his bitter tea-drinking.
Like another Stanwyck vehicle, this time from the still horribly racist year of 1950, The Furies, the romantic aspect is both enhanced and marred by miscegenation codes. It's fascinating that even though the general is played, as was often the style by a white man (Nils Asther), any kind of romance, even of a kiss on the lips, is forbidden. Similarly the Furies' romance between a Mexican man and Barbara is forbidden, so turns chaste and leads to his convenient hanging early on even though he's played, again, by Gilbert Roland. In Yen a kiss happens kind of but only in the Fu Manchu monster dream sequence Eriksen writes of above, but the tagline below is right, "they found a love they dared not touch." Or rather Columbia dared not; Yen is down to touch it but is also a gentleman so she has to want to come to him, and then even if she does she's eventually unable to actually kiss more than his hand in fealty. When Babs thinks about kissing him, even though she dreamt this awesome dream where the Fu Manchu rapist stereotype is replaced by a dashing Zorro type, both played by Asher, she's repulsed. Critic David Thomson seems to miss this and adores the film's choices and interprets Stanwyck's misisonary coldness as the result of external metatextual echoes of Capra's smitten advances. They had dated for their first three Columbia pictures and she had broken it off, so he cast her in Yen to try and win her back. "So Stanwyck tries to be the missionary when everything in the film calls for a creeping abandon in Megan. When I say everything I mean above all Nils Asther's Yen, one of the most attractive figures in early sound cinema--witty, fatalistic, and very smart." ("Have You Seen..." p. 99)
Clearly he's missing some obvious points: Yen can't be that smart if he lets his attraction for another man's bride get in the way of his war, since it means he'll lose it. In a closer reading his fascination for this missionary begins with her offering him a hankerchief after he runs over her rickshaw driver. He's turned on by her mix of kindness and revulsion (he doesn't care about the rickshaw driver because "life, even at it's best, is hardly endurable" - a great line he delivers with the perfect mix of ennui and breeziness). The idea of a culture clash is driven home in the way Babs gets to apply her missionary zeal to her own attraction/repulsion in pleading for the life of Mah-Li. Yen adopts her forgiving attitude almost on a dare, and while he handles the subsequent loss of his stolen fortune with Zen aplomb he can't really handle the strait-jacket of the production code (who could?) which results in Babs' surrendering to Yen in penance yet still unable to think about kissing him in real time without recoiling as if he was still the leering Fu Manchu character from her dream. She loves him but his non-whiteness ensures she'll never convert him back into that masked prince.
This repulsion and lust see-saw between beautiful white women and hormonal Chinese officers was prevalent all over the years 1930-33, and so it's no surprise one shows up in a Josef Von Sternberg-Marlene Dietrich film. Their Shanghai Express has a villain Chinese general in Warner Oland (another white guy in Asian make-up) who hijacks the title train and won't let it go until Dietrich agrees to stay behind with him. She will, because she's heroic, but it's implied that this would be a fate worse than death. Luckily Anna May Wong stabs him in a race-appropriate act of post-rape retribution before this miscegenation fantasia gets any farther.
|Shangai Express by Erich Kuersten - 2008|
Anna May Wong played another 'entertainer' who felt this way, the previous year, in in the 1931 Fu Manchu sequel Daughter of the Dragon. Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa plays a smitten detective who starts presuming that, since he's young and Asian and so is she, he can dictate who her friends are and make all sorts of don't-take-the-hint advances. Wong prefers the rich white guy, of course, even if she means to kill him and even if he's played by Bramwell Fletcher, an Englishman so wee he makes (his Mummy co-star) David Manners seem like Marlon Brando by comparison. We're meant, I think, to be a little repulsed by Haywakawa and simultaneously to secretly root for Wong's plans of vengeance agains the Petries, and to identify with the sense of love and duty she feels for her infamous father. And naturally we'd hate to see her throw away her happiness with this stiff Uncle Tom of an Asia detective! Anna meanwhile can have any white man she wants, as they all want to sew some wild oats with an exotic flower, though of course its understood none of them would ever marry her. Such things just weren't done in 1931.
The fear of course was that seeing a love scene involving a young Asian male with another woman, even an Asian woman, would lead to riots and lynchings and burning of the nitrate in the southern markets, so the censorship was pre-empted the crackers' pre-emptive strike against nonwhites, lest they rise up and steal our women (As Fu Manchu urges his throngs in Mask of Fu Manchu ---"Kill the white man, and take his women!"). As someone who was almost lynched just for wearing a yellow sweater my mom got my on a Christmas afternoon showing of In and Out in 1998 I can vouch that a lot of that intolerance is still very real. To these racist swine Asians are almost scarier than Hispanics, Latinos, African-Americans or Native Americans, because the derogatory phrase 'yellow' doesn't really fit. Asians are in fact 'whiter than white' - more refined than the white racist thinks even himself capable of. That's why for every exquisitely cruel and cultured monster like Manchu there must be hordes of leering Chinese soldiers or grinning, moronic cooks, often played by the versatile character Willie Fung, to make whitey feel better.
For example: At the very racist comic relief end of MGM's The Mask of Fu Manchu (1933), Fung terrifies the white people when he emerges out of the fog on deck with the dinner gong. All is well, apparently, once he starts giggling in pidgin English. The vile subtext is clear: So long as we keep the Chinese out of our schools (Fu Manchu boasts of earning at least one of his many doctorates at Oxford) they're perfectly harmless. This attitude occurs all over in cultures of extreme fundamentalism even today, where women aren't allowed to read.
I write this post not to stir up racist trouble. In fact quite the opposite. I'm fascinated by the tropes of exotica, of chinoiserie -- I can't help it. The art directors involved in these 1933 films took the Asian milieu as a license to go nuts with ornate doorways, sparkling, slinky dresses, Hindu statuary reflecting monstrous shadows over jeweled walls, and exquisite torture devices. I've never thought these cine-fantasias represented the real China, but I love their beauty and weirdness as much as I recoil from scenes of neo-realist squalor or the banal prefab sameness of middle class suburbia, or anything showing reality in its lack of glory. There's a liberation from the sticky wickets of drab western symmetry when one surrenders to the Asian aesthetic. In The Cheat (1931) for example (see my review of The Universal Pre-code Collection on Bright Lights):
"Crashing like a drunken ferry between the banks of marriage's ho-hum sanctity and the liberal miscegenation fantasia (Pichel's character is coded gay/Asian, with a great sculpture collection, a penchant for sadism and silk pajamas), The Cheat (below) bangs itself up pretty bad in order for the heroine to be finally — for the sake of her children or her husband's reputation — forced into backing out of the deal. Pichel (the black-lipstick wearing assistant of Dracula's Daughter in 1935) is plenty creepy, but Bankhead, stoop-shouldered like a boxer or Garbo in Anna Christie as the gambling addict who doesn't want her husband to find out she's in debt, isn't exactly the stuff that dreams are made of. What's so sordidly pre-Code about it all is that the "cheat" of the title refers not to Tallulah cheating at cards, or cheating on her husband, but rather cheating on Pichel — our lonesome bachelor — by trying to reneg after he's already paid off. In other words, this sort of deal was — in the pre-Code universe — as valid and holy (or unholy) as the state of marriage itself!"
The Cheat was made in 1931, and the coded miscegenation repulsion-attraction was even worse! The overriding motif throughout these films is that Asians are treated with some respect if they are cultured and can speak English, though they tend to go all to blazes when the get a load of a hot white chick. Irving Pichel brands Tallulah's breast to mark her as a cheat when she won't put out after he pays off her gambling debts. Apparently Asian guys even if played by whites (as whites) are so repulsive that being literally branded on the breast is better than putting out, even if you've promised to do so.
The earliest and most influential chaste interracial romance of them all is surely that between horribly abused Lillian Gish and the disillusioned Asian curio shop owner in Broken Blossoms (1919). Chris Jacobs writes "it is a delicate story of characters and ideals caught up in an inexorable destiny. Modern-day critics who acknowledge Griffith's contribution to cinema also find the eloquent plea for racial tolerance less embarrassing to embrace than the controversial The Birth of a Nation." Yeah but as I recall they never even kiss or embrace despite this poster:
Nowadays of course racism is still a problem. But may I suggest that a part of this is the prevalence of the attitude that we are all the same? We are, but that is exactly why we should be celebrating our differences! I applaud kids who get way into the minutiae of another culture, even ironically... this is how racism is healed, through admittance. The purpose of making fun of something can be to join it, to playfully analyze and encompass it. How many best friends didn't like each other at first, but were drawn to the unique complimentary energy the other provided? It's well known that mixed race children are actually genetically superior to many purebreds, for the same reason that interbreeding leads to biological problems. The bigger the gene pool for your DNA to work from the less likely you are to have birth defects and the more likely you are to be beautiful, as per books on the subject, such as Breeding Between the Lines.
We should rejoice when our children start dating someone of a different race and culture. The best thing we can do is to mix our genes and absorb all the details of each other's culture, celebrating each other's unique perspectives rather than demonizing or objectifying. The sooner we're all one glorious carmel-skinned, mildly epicanthically-folded race the better! In the meantime we should try on each other's cultures like robes at a costume party, and in the process de-demonize ourselves to each other. This is what children do, and why children are not born racist. I had a Korean friend when I was five and I constantly teased and/or asked him about his weird culture (like afternoon prayer, the gross cooking smells, the stern but loving grace of his father) and in the process I expanded my knowledge of the wideness of the world. If I hadn't been allowed to ask about them, to express my culture shock freely I would have just been skeeved out and alienated and we would never have become friends. In not feeling the need to act like it was all just normal, the exact same as my house, I was able to slowly acclimate. Films like Bitter Tea can be accused of racism or copping out on miscegenation but they also open up the dialogue, they point out the withering hypocrisy at the core of the anti-miscegenation code and its ultimate damage to world culture the same way homophobia in Brokeback Mountain does.
Any 'us vs. them' dichotomy brings the 'us' closer together, as every snotty popular school boy learns, but ideally they learn it's only a matter of time before the 'us' shrinks so small that you are left to join the 'them.' It's only when we give up this dichotomy-addiction--and that includes the foolishness of thinking we're all the same and should just act like the other culture's aren't strange and shocking to us at times--that we begin to truly blossom. We should all become race-ophiles, openly enthralled by each other's differences, in this we can begin real unification. That's why, in a way, people like Eminem are heroes in ways that mirror the importance of Sidney Potier, the idea that to win even a fleck or respect from white society you have to out-white them should be reversed. We should all be picking and choosing what suits us from each other's racial identity, finding our own unique place wherever it may be. We're not racist when we're tourists!