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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.

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As a Chinese-American, I’ve always understood that in America, when we are talking about hipness, or street cred, or any of those things that are attributed to cool people, the racial hierarchy goes like this:  Black, White, everyone else in the whole world, and then Asian. Face it, we’re just not really cool. No one expects us to have rhythm, or style, or sweet shiny pink sneakers. At best, we can maybe be badass mob leaders who kick a lot of butt while speaking broken English. That’s why the Rush Hour series is such a masterpiece: Jackie Chan trying to be jive like Chris Tucker? COMEDY GOLD!!!

I’m the only one who’s rooting for Rush Hour 3 to come out, aren’t I?

I’m explaining this at great risk to my own cred because that isn’t the case here at all, and I’m trying to figure out why that’s so weird to me, I guess. Here, the hierarchy is very much Black, Asian (sometimes tied!), and then White trailing far behind. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the dancehall scene, which is the arbiter of cool in most of Jamaican culture. Take, for example, the international dancehall queen competition that takes place in Montego Bay every year. In 2002, the first non-Jamaican winner of this prestigious booty-shaking battle emerged: Junko “Bashment” Kudo, a 24 year old Japanese girl. Not Japanese-Jamaican, but straight up Japanese. How dancehall got to Japan, I have no idea, but the number of obscure muscles this girl can move independently while standing on one precariously tall stiletto heel is pretty damn superhuman (skip the first 1:20 for action).

The weird thing is, when she won there was no great backlash. The audience was like “alright, Jamaican girls got beaten by a Japanese girl. Whatev.” Junko has gone on to be immensely popular in other things, the dancehall scene in Japan got a boost, and yellow fever spread in Jamaica.

Flash forward to this year’s competition. A Canadian white woman wins the competition, and BOTTLES are thrown on stage. I was even told earlier in the week that Black men like Asian women better because they’re “closer to black”. While that’s certainly true melatonin-wise, why isn’t that the case in America?

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