In Defense of Fu Manchu

So over a hearty dinner last night, I had the distinct pleasure of watching one of those seminal touchy race classics “The Castle of Fu Manchu.”

The movie, taken to task by MST3K, is remembered mostly for its absurdly bad plot (holding the world hostage with an Opium-powered Ocean Freezer) and, of course, the character of Fu Manchu himself.

Now, it’s not suprising that the character of Fu Manchu isn’t treated with much fondness in the Asian-American cultural studies literature. But, having thought about it, I think there’s a way of reading Fu Manchu that isn’t so negative, indeed, I think there’s a reading that actually reclaims him as a positive figure.

Most cultural theory tends to divide the appearance of Asians in American media into two archetypes: there a “Charlie Chan” character, who represents all the collective model minority characteristics of Asian-Americans, and there’s “Fu Manchu” who internalizes all the stereotypes of Asians as hyper-intelligent, criminal gangsters.

Though both are horrendous stereotypes, to be sure, but I think it’s worth recognizing that they have to be seen as a cultural whole. Certainly caucasians are heroes in addition to being villians. Sometimes a Darth Vader is just a man in a metal suit.

In short, the question isn’t whether or not the images we see in the media are unrealistic simplifications or negative stereotypes. They’re all unrealistic simplifications and negative stereotypes. (Sans the O.C., which is really like they say it is) Mass media isn’t really proportioned to take up many subtleties

The question is more one of balance. That is, out of the images that we do see, are racial depictions on net largely biased in one direction or another? It’s like the four humours, so long as they’re in balance, we might say that race is in the very least culturally neutral.

If the two humours of Asian racial stereotypes are Chan v. Manchu, I think the last two decades have certainly seen the Chan wildly ascendant in illustrations of Asian-Americans, at least for Asian men. (Asian women have that dragon lady thing, which I think is a whole other analysis)

Examples: William Hung, the Abercrombie Incident, Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles, Tiffany Blum-Deckler from Daria, and so on and so on and so on.

So why might Fu Manchu function as a cultural banner of pride?

1) Fu Manchu is Fucking Clever

True, Asians have always been associated with intelligence, but not often in recent times have they been associated with cleverness — that is, a creative practical intelligence in self-interest. Asian brains are usually in the service of someone else. (as a scientist, or a hacker, or etc.)

2) Fu Manchu Retains His Asianness

While it’s portrayed in a terribly exaggerated way, what’s notable about Fu Manchu in the movie is that he’s got his own style of evil. A cool style. Other villians from the period might use guns, but Manchu’s got his own effective tools for the job. (snakes, poison gas, etc) Moreover, while his aim is the destruction of the West, what’s interesting is that goal retains a cultural element all his own. He is not lost in the culture around him (a la “She Bangs”) — i.e. he knows who he is.

3) Fu Manchu is a Real Threat

There’s this one scene that I distinctively remember from “Live Free or Die Hard” (which was quite an entertaining movie), where Evil Asian Lady does a kung-fu number on Bruce Willis, and Bruce Willis promptly responds by just punching her. Then there’s some quip about how her fighting style sucks. What’s interesting about Fu Manchu is that he’s always portrayed as a real serious threat — i.e. if he’s going to mess you up, you’d better be running scared.

Certainly it’s important for the Asian American community to invent their own symbols, but I think there’s nothing like taking a little bit of inspiration from the past. There’s some evidence to suggest that this might already be happening — see Better Luck Tomorrow (re-incorporating Asian cleverness).


3 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    mako said,

    You’ve successfully made me want to watch Fu Manchu.

  2. 2

    I totally agree. With “Manchu” in his name, there’s just no way he can lose.

  3. 3

    Tim Hwang said,

    Most definitely — I’m thinking it’d be cool to do a screening at some point in the fall.

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