Chinatown’s Representation in Hollywood

December 18, 2015 at 3:52 pm Leave a comment



Inspired by Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), my video essay, Chinatown Plays an Idea attempts to look at Hollywood’s portrayal of Chinatown. The films featured span from Hollywood’s silent era to its current 21st century and include Chinatowns from London, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Despite almost a hundred years of film presence and Chinatown’s inhabitation of different cities, Chinatown has been largely represented in three main ways: criminal, mystical, and Other. This filmic characterization has deep roots in the conception of the Orient. Edward Said in Orientalism credits the construction of the Orient as margin to the Occident is “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (3). Orientalism is a political tool of domination, power, and hegemony. It is something to identify what the West is not and to retain imperial superiority. Today’s repercussions of Orientalism are many, but one can be illustrated in the representation of Asian Americans in media. Sax Rohmer’s early creation of Fu Manchu in the 1910s was born of this imagination, one in which Orientalism had a large role. Today’s analysis of Asians and Asian Americans in media reveals only a slight diversification of roles and personas that have deviated from Yellow Peril, an Asian stereotype Fu Manchu pioneers.

Indeed, the larger repercussions of this has been on Asian bodies, particularly Asian immigrants to the United States. Racism and Orientalism necessitated Chinatowns where these community boundaries were simultaneously reassuring and frightening (Haenmi 26). In my video, I link Yellow Peril to Chinatown in that it has been projected onto a physical and imagined space on American soil. Whereas before the connection were people of Yellow Peril to different countries, Chinatown is viewed as extensions of Asian countries rather than American; Chinatown is unAmerican. The filmic persona of Chinatown has extended a real connotation to a physical space. Borrowing the concept of city as character, Chinatown as a character is criminal, supernaturally dangerous, and outside of understanding. In other words, the negatively imagined space of Chinatown on screen threatens the physical space in metropolises. This is particularly of interest as the imagined space of Chinatown in cinema is continually portrayed in the same way despite changes to the physical landscapes of Chinatown. For example, Los Angeles’ Chinatown is not populated by the bustling, middle class, and assimilated folk within Flower Drum Song (1961) directed by Henry Koster. The tendency to glamorize this ethnic enclave masks issues such as its status out of 272 neighborhoods as the one with the third lowest average income in Los Angeles county, and as shown towards the end of my video, quite deserted (Los Angeles Times). Most of the local Chinese community is actually in Alhambra. Currently, Chinatown faces gentrification–recent years have seen the addition of a Starbucks, Walmart, and several art galleries and offices.  This is a danger that not only threatens space but the people living within the space as well.

All the films except Broken Blossoms feature a scene of a Chinese restaurant, reinforcing Chinatown as a place of consumption not only in food, but in sights, culture, and people. Tourism has had a long stint in Chinatown history. Haenmi has discussed early films, tourism, and early depictions of Chinatown as modes to “reinforce racial distinctions and maintain the status quo” specifically to benefit the middle class (22-23). While Chinese food is a modern popular cuisine, the detail only hints at the amount of power and privilege that Western culture has exercised in consuming Chinese culture and people. In Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon (1985), Tracy Tzu follows a number of Asian characters in media before her when she “falls in love” with Stanley White, a Caucasian cop dedicated to stopping organized crime in Chinatown. Herbert, a Chinese cop-in-training, is another character that is used by Stanley to grave consequences. Both suffer for aiding White in his mission for justice; Tracy is raped and Herbert is murdered. This power dynamic of Chinese subordination and sacrifice to White power affirms expendability of Asian bodies. The commodification of Chinatown is a recurring media portrayal that invents “subjects that could pleasurably experience a new kind of ‘White’ hegemony, and by assigning the Chinese to a limited and constrained space” (Haenmi 25). Most films that include Chinatown not only assign a rigid role to Asian-ness, but more so broadens what Whiteness is in opposition to it.

Chinatown Plays an Idea questions the importance of the media portrayal of ethnic enclaves, particularly one so well-known as Chinatown. What goes on in Chinatown? Who lives in Chinatown? What kinds of places are in Chinatown? How do people in Chinatown live? While the representation of Asians and Asian Americans in the media is often analyzed, the places they populate is not so much explored. Thus far, Chinatown has been included in Hollywood as a setting but as a specific character that supports White supremacy. As Hollywood slowly tries to diversify and expand its racial inclusion, we must continue to critique not only the film industry’s illustration of racialized bodies, but racialized spaces like Chinatown as well.


Works Cited

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Haenmi, Sabine . “Filming ‘Chinatown’: Fake Visions, Bodily
Transformations.” Screening Asian Americans. Ed. Peter X. Feng.
New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

“Median Income Ranking.” Los Angeles Times.  16 December 2015.          <;.


Big Trouble in Little China. Dir. John Carpenter. Twentieth Century Fox
Film Corporation, 1986. Film.

Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Warner Bros, 1982.

Broken Blossoms. Dir. D.W. Griffith. United Artists, 1919. Film.

Chan is Missing. Dir. Wayne Wang. New Yorker Films, 1982. Film.

Chinatown. Dir. Roman Polanski. Paramount Pictures, 1974. Film.

Flower Drum Song. Dir. Henry Koster. Universal Pictures, 1961. Film.

Freaky Friday. Dir. Mark Waters. Buena Vista Pictures, 2003. Film.

Los Angeles Play Itself. Dir. Thom Andersen. Submarine Entertainment,
2003. Film.

Men in Black III. Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld. Columbia Pictures, 2012. Film.

Rush Hour. Dir. Brett Ratner. New Line Cinema, 1998. Film.

Year of the Dragon. Dir. Michael Cimino. MGM/UA Entertainment
Company, 1985. Film.


-Tien Le

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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