Blog Post 3: Paramount and the Renewed Yellow Peril: Changing World Politics
The final section will analyze the reemergence of a “yellow peril,” discussing such issues as why the representation of the yellow peril is reappearing, and why Paramount transitioned from promoting Asian American actors and actresses (casting Asian Americans in Flower Drum Song, casting Anna May Wong in Shanghai Express, writing Daughter of Shanghai when Wong campaigned vigorously for better roles for Asian women) to the doctrine of yellow face and stereotyping that has produced such films as The Last Airbender, My Geisha, The Love Guru, and Team America: World Police.
Reemergence of the Yellow Peril
Paramount films of recent show a regression from a “model minority” or non-stereotypical depiction to a “yellow peril” style portrayal of Asian Americans.
A brief history of Asian Americans in feature films, and the tides that they accompany, will provide some background on the current status of Asian Americans in Paramount films.
The first era of Yellow Peril was accompanied by movies like Daughter of the Dragon (and the rest of the Fu Manchu series), The Good Earth, and Broken Blossoms. Broken Blossoms, one of the early silent films, starred Richard Barthelmess in yellowface as a young Asian man who becomes devoted to a young abused girl. There are no actors or actresses of Asian decent in the film, aside from a few extras in the opening scene showing “China.” Daughter of the Dragon, a Paramount film, starred Anna May Wong as the devious, exotic daughter of the villain Fu Manchu. While this did mark an instance of an Asian being cast in a feature film, it was still with Wong in the role of a villain. Sessue Hayakawa’s role in Daughter of the Dragon was notable in that his character was both Asian and a main protagonist, suggesting that during the initial yellow peril, Paramount had a slightly less racially prejudiced view towards casting Asians and Asian Americans than other studios did. Case in point: MGM’s The Good Earth, which followed Daughter of the Dragon by 6 years, was set in China, yet the six main Chinese characters were all played by Caucasian actors and actresses. Anna May Wong was offered the role of the (again) villainous Lotus, but she refused it, not wanting to be typecast as the villainous exotic Asian female once again.
The reasoning behind the yellow peril can be attributed predominantly to two causes: Chinese workers taking American jobs after the transcontinental railroad was completed, and the exoticism and difference of Chinese culture and practices to white Americans, making Chinese Americans subsequently mysterious and dangerous to white Americans. Says writer Robert Lawson,
“The Chinese, of course, were by far the most foreign and outlandish. They
ran laundries, no work for a man anyway, they had no families or
children, they were neither Democrats nor Republicans. They wrote
backwards and upside down, with a brush, they worked incessantly night
and day, Saturdays and Sundays, all of which stamped them as the most
alien heathen…. We knew that they lived entirely on a horrible
dish called chopsooey which was composed of rats, mice, cats, and
puppydogs (Quoted from Shim 388).”
America transitioned into a period of depicting Asian Americans as model minorities, first of the Chinese, then the Japanese, then of all Americans of Asian descent. World War II and the bombing of Pearl Harbor shifted resentment towards Asian Americans on a whole to resentment of Japanese Americans, exalting Chinese Americans for their resilience to continued Japanese attacks. However, the tables quickly turned on the Chinese, as Communists took over China, and Japan in turn was the good guy for adopting American democracy. When all Asians were labeled model minorities, it was only to be “made into puppets by racial politics (Shim 392),” to repudiate African Americans for failing to replicate the financial and educational success of Asian Americans. Born of this model minority era were movies like Shanghai Express and Daughter of Shanghai, and perhaps most importantly, Flower Drum Song, with its aforementioned all-Asian cast.
Paramount’s recent films with Asian cast members include The Last Airbender, My Geisha, The Love Guru, and Team America: World Police. Each of these four movies casts Asians in stereotypical, often antagonistic light, and none of these (or the over 100 other feature films Paramount has produced between 2000 and 2010) feature an Asian American as the leading man or woman. The Last Airbender features an Asian antagonist and Asian extras, My Geisha involves a white woman who tries to pass as an Asian woman (meta yellowface?), The Love Guru has a Caucasian actor play an Indian guru, and Team America: World Police showcases Kim Jong Il as a villain with a heavy Asian accent. In fact, only two of the major Asian roles were actually played by Asians – Storm Shadow (GI Joe: Rise of the Cobra) and Hikaru Sulu (Star Trek), which both perpetuate the stereotype that Asian men can only have major roles in martial arts or combat parts, and which were both created before the 1990s (Sulu in 1966, Storm Shadow in 1984). In addition, none of the characters are women, and only John Cho, who plays Hikaru Sulu, is American (Byung Hun-Lee, who plays Storm Shadow, is Korean) (1).
But why has Paramount regressed to (or even further than) the levels of the previous yellow peril? To answer that, we must look at current global events between the US and Asia, and changing economic and political tides. First and foremost is the emergence of China and India as major economic powers. Like in the case of Vincent Chin, there is American backlash at rising success of Asians, which is then transposed to resentment of Asian Americans (2). As the word “outsource” became more and more prevalent, American fear of both an eclipse of the American economy by Asia as well as, on a more personal level, jobs being taken by lower-paid workers across the Pacific blossomed. This developing anger was further compounded by the events of September 11th 2001, and the ensuing “War on Terror,” which led to widespread xenophobia that carried over from views of the Middle East to views of the Far East.
It is telling that Paramount’s biggest current Asian star is an animated panda named Po. And while independent Asian American media may have made leaps and bounds over the past decades, mainstream media seems to have regressed. And while media and the economy may be irrevocably tied to each other, Paramount has regressed to pre-original yellow peril levels, by not casting Asian Americans in a film based on a television series that inspired a generation of young Asian Americans, many of whom looked forward to seeing their idols on the big screen, to seeing someone who looked like them. The Last Airbender failed them.
(1) Paramount stats: http://www.racebending.com/v3/background/paramount-pictures-and-asian-americans-a-tarnished-legacy/
(2) Osajima, Keith. “Asian Americans as the Model Minority: An Analysis of the Popular Press Image in the 1960s and 1980s.” A Companion to Asian American Studies. By Kent A. Ono. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005. 215-23. Print.
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