Despite its less than successful release, I include the film Big Trouble In Little China on my list of guilty pleasures: high on my list. It tells the story of Jack Burton, who helps his friend Wang Chi rescue Wang’s green-eyed fiancée from bandits in San Francisco’s Chinatown. They go into the mysterious underworld beneath Chinatown, where they face an ancient sorcerer named David Lo Pan, who requires a woman with green eyes to marry him in order to release him from a centuries-old curse. [Wikipedia]
David Lo Pan is certainly not the first nefarious villain from the mysterious and inscrutable land of ultra-long fingernails and wicked martial arts. You could even include Ming the Merciless in this batch of bad hombres. But isn’t it an easy cliché to engender a fictional villain with unknown magical powers from a distant and unknown country? Remember, Lamont Cranston didn’t learn the secrets to cloud men’s minds of the corner of Flatbush and Avenue J.
The history of Asian people in this country is a major part of the strength and diversity of the nation. Unfortunately, it isn’t a history we can be terribly proud about. From the force labor working on the railroads or in the gold fields to the shameful internment during WWII, the Asian people have been treated as outsiders not worthy of respect for nearly two-hundred years. Is it any wonder that several of the most vivid villains in literature have been silken-clad wizards sporting dangling mustaches and glowing yellow eyes.
Which brings up Sax Rohmer’s notorious creation, Dr. Fu-Manchu.
Rohmer’s fiction seems to borrow a great deal from authors such as Conan Doyle and Bram Stoker. Like Dracula, Fu-Manchu is the central character in the narrative, with his pursuers commendable but hardly memorable. Like Dracula, the Doctor has surreptitiously come to London to pursue his evil purposes and hides out in in the dark and shadows of the city. The Doctor is well-versed in the methods of undetectable death whether by his Ninja-like cohorts or just the bite of a rare scorpion or centipede. In a terribly dated scene, “lethal” cannabis is used to murder an unsuspecting victim.
All of the villainous methods could apply to Dr. Fu-Manchu or even to Dr Jekyll, but they seem far more nefarious when associated with an evil Chinaman with glowing yellow eyes. Unfortunately, Rohmer over-emphasizes the skills and the evil of Fu-Manchu: Is he the world’s most dangerous criminal? The greatest chemist? The most accurate knife thrower? Fu-Manchu is tall, clad in flowing silk robes, with an cruel, frightening face and piercing yellow eyes. And he is Chinese.
Is Fu-Manchu a colorful villain from early in the last century or is he a stereo-typical Chinese villain operating outside of political correctness?
Both are probably true and I certainly recognize the social politics of casting a specific race as not only the villain but also as having come from a mysterious and dangerous country, China. But in literature is this more a matter of selecting an unforgettable villain than it is in disparaging the Chinese? Is it any more offensive than, say, the depiction of Chester A. Riley as working hard in the aircraft factory and coming home to further the stereotype of the clueless husband and bumbling father?
I’m just asking. I was less than enthused by Sax Rohmer’s novel and despite the very careful set-up for further sequels, I’m probably going to spend the time reading yet another Simenon. Maigret’s eyes at least are not yellow.