O-Lan, Suzie Wong And MeA Lifetime of Hollywood Images By Susanne Lee
Growing up in Hollywood, I spent many hours absorbed by the movies on TV and at revival houses, where along with Greta Garbo, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart, I encountered the surreal Asians of the thirties and the forties. They were a limited bunch.
My friends and I agreed villains were the best. Fu Manchu and other "inscrutables" tortured heroes, sold women into white slavery and plotted world domination. Exaggerated as they were, we found ourselves rooting for them over the long-suffering peasants.
We couldn't resist mimicking the inane "Chinese" accents and mannered speech of O-Lan and Wang Lung, nobly battling locusts and famine in The Good Earth. Louise Ranier and Paul Muni gave strangely stylized performances that provided ample fodder for our imitations, like the bizarre way Ranier tilted her head as she walked behind her "honorable husband." Even the patrician Katherine Hepburn appeared in squirm-inducing yellow-face in another Pearl S. Buck adaptation, Dragon Seed, playing a peasant patriot who, by means of her fabulous cheekbones, urged her fellow villagers to resist the Japanese invaders.
World War II movies offered an early twisted history lesson. Japanese soldiers came in two varieties: clownish yet sadistic buck-toothed bespectacled Banzai-screaming bayonet-wielding war-mongers or ice-cold kamikazes eager to die for the Emperor. We found these creations humorous, despite their offensiveness.
Some male characters emerged from the kitchens, battlefields, opium dens and rice paddies, only to support the taped-eyelid White stars, such as Peter Lorre's idiosyncratic detective Mr. Moto. Charlie Chan's sons were refreshing and believable because they were played by real Chinese. Chan's Americanized Number One Son, the ubiquitous Keye Luke, was a counterpoint to the artifice of Warner Oland's avuncular detective.
Impersonators would always get the best roles. Two Hollywood legends, D.W. Griffith in Broken Blossoms (1919) and Frank Capra in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1932), tackled the extraordinary theme of interracial sex. In these films, Lillian Gish and Barbara Stanwyck played women who defied social convention by seeking love from Chinese men.
Ironically, the Chinese men are played by Caucasian actors in yellow face. In Broken Blossoms, the Chinese merchant who rescues Gish from her abusive father finds himself falling for her, and is so disturbed by the prospect that he commits suicide. The title character of General Yen, as played by Nils Asther, is atypically complex for the era. Alternately cruel and kind, Yen struggles with his attraction to missionary Megan Davis and betrayal by one of his inner circle as his world collapses. The idea of such liaisons is so troubling that the only logical conclusion is the same: for the crime of daring to love outside their race, the Chinese men must die by their own hand.
The Dragon Lady, a mysterious seductress who led innumerable B-movie heroes astray, was exquisitely beautiful but ultimately an alien, resembling no one I ever knew. A teenager could hardly aspire to be a seductive, mysterious, silk-clad siren like Anna May Wong.
Usually cast for looks as a Dragon Lady, slave girl or dancer, Wong made a departure as Marlene Dietrich's friend Hui Feng in Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express. Playing this powerful sexual figure, who redeems herself heroically during the turbulent times of warlords, Wong strikes a blow against the usual Asian roles. The iconic image of Wong together with Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl in their slinky late-20s gowns gazing directly at the viewer remains etched in my mind.
I heard the name Suzie Wong years before seeing the 1960 movie The World of Suzie Wong, where Nancy Kwan, nubile in a body-hugging cheongsam, created a fantasy woman/fetish object long before Luke Campbell and 2 Live Crew brought his "Me so Horny" Vietnamese hookers into the consciousness of another generation.
That most rickety of clichés, the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold, Suzie fantasizes about becoming a "good girl." How could sensitive expatriate painter William Holden not want to immortalize her in his work and fall for her? ever truly accepted by Holden's peers, remains an outsider. In my teens, the film seemed a breezy romance in an exotic locale. The sexual connotations hit me hard as a freshman in college, when a less-than-sober frat boy yelled at me: "Nice Headlights, Suzie Wong!"
The sweet naiveté of Breakfast at Tiffany's, with Audrey Hepburn in her Givenchy strolling 5th Avenue to the strains of "Moon River," is tainted by one portrayal: Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi, buck-toothed, coke-bottle-bespectacled, and shouting in a ludicrous accent, is straight from U.S. wartime propaganda.
I was exposed to a completely different set of images when my parents took me to Chinatown theatres like the former Kim Sing and Sun Sing in Los Angeles (later, I would frequent the now defunct Music Palace and the Rosemary in New York Chinatown). There I saw Hong Kong and Taiwanese actors play teachers, rulers and warriors, as well as the latest Communist Chinese revolutionary operas.
Fast forward a decade and Bruce Lee's emergence in Enter the Dragon gave Asian kids a hero who could be cool and kick ass, forever transforming the perception that we were limited to being math whizzes or computer nerds. My Chinese friend Tracy tells the story of a White bully, suddenly reluctant to finish the fight he'd started, saying, "I think he knows kung fu."
None of us grew up in Hollywood's representation of Chinatown, and we never identified with the notion of a mythical, dangerous and foreign quarter of Los Angeles or San Francisco or New York where gangs ran gambling dens or smuggled art objects and drugs and practiced bizarre rituals in smoky backrooms. In Roman Polanski's Chinatown, Jack Nicholson's detective is told, "It's Chinatown, Jake," an alternate universe, where he, a white man, can never penetrate.
When I was a teenager, my girlfriends and I wondered if two Asians would ever kiss on screen. Would we get a crush on an Asian actor? In the late 80s, with the emergence of Hong Kong films, American audiences came face to face with Chow Yun Fat's cavalier killers and Jet Li's elegant martial artists. Now I laugh when I hear women of different races saying how cute Jet Li's cheeks are or how hot Chow Yun Fat is. While Asian women had been fetishized since Hollywood's earliest days, Asian men had always been neutered, asexual beings. It took Hong Kong directors to finally transform the image of Asian men.
Watching the contemporary Romeo Must Die, I waited in vain for the Jet Li and Aliyah characters to kiss. The unrequited desire of the star-crossed would-be lovers, Megan and the warlord of The Bitter Tea of General Yen, proved to be ahead of their time.
Their time has not yet come.