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Examining The Racial Stereotypes Of 1932's 'The Mask Of Fu Manchu'

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"The Mask of Fu Manchu" screens as part of the Breaking the Commandments: Pre-Code Hollywood film series at Digital Gym Cinema. It stars Boris Karloff as the evil Asian title character and that raises issues of racial stereotypes that need to be considered in a broader context.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 KPBS film critic Beth Aka Mondo is co hosting a screening of the 1932 film, The mask of Foo man shoe as part of a pre-code Hollywood film series. It stars Boris Karloff as the evil Asian title character and that raises issues of racial stereotypes to place the film in an historical context. Beth spoke with Brian who artistic director of PAC arts, San Diego Asian Film Festival.

Speaker 2: 00:31 Brian, I'm going to be co hosting a screening of the mask of Fu Manchu, which stars Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy as Asian characters. This is a pre-code Hollywood film. Can you provide a little bit of a context in terms of when this film was made? What was the social and political climate like for Asian Americans or Asians coming to America? This is at the heels of the Chinese exclusion acts, which were enacted in the late 19th century as a result of fears that Chinese people were taking American jobs and as well as the fact that they were afraid that Chinese people were bringing certain kind of immorality. They were not Christians and they were in Indie CD Chinatowns where we're not really sure what's going on. They were afraid of trans people bringing women because they might be prostitutes. And if there aren't women here, then they're not going to have families.

Speaker 2: 01:21 And now how can I have children? These are laws that were enacted to try to keep the Chinese out. And so these films which treated Chinese people as villains trying to take over the world kind of fit within that ideology of wanting to, to maintain a certain kind of racial purity in the United States. To put that master across his wicked eyes in debt, got shimmer into his bony curoil and all your writers, you're gonna declare himself gangas can come to life again and he lead a hundreds of millions. Amanda, sweep the world, not my friend. Just watch you. We've got to prevent the mascot. Fu Manchu was based on a book and this is one of many film versions of the book. What does this kind of reveal about Hollywood and about American in terms of how they were looking to Asians? Well, I mean, I think first of all that the pre-code period is a period where the forbidden was able to find its way to the big screen somehow.

Speaker 2: 02:17 And we used to think about the forbid in terms of sex and violence, but also race was a part of this. There was some kind of ratio of forbidden racial types and storylines including miscegenation. So this stops sexual relationships between white people and Asian people in this case. So yeah, these were forbidden topics, but they also created a certain bit of forbidden satisfaction and enchantment. So yeah, you would have people who were crazy about these movies and food man Manchu was very, very popular in this time. This is a period of time where there was prejudice against Asians. People were afraid of them on certain levels, but the Hollywood films also reveal a certain fascination for them. And this kind titillation about something exotic. So how does that play into this? What's also important to note that as stereotypes work just more generally, you always have positive and negative stereotypes.

Speaker 2: 03:11 So in this time we have, um, sort of the evil Fu Manchu, but we also have like the docile, sweet Asian-American men like [inaudible] Kyla, who was the, probably the biggest Asian star other than Bruce Lee in history of Hollywood. So it wasn't just the Asians were always the bad guy. So, but both the positive and the negative stereotypes were reinforced. Asians as different, as exotic, as perpetually foreign, but also just the object of fascination. There's also the period in where just Americans started to know the world better. National Geographic and cinema was the way in which you could see in 24 frames per second the rest of the world. So yeah, these, these representations were often very negative, but it was part of a general desire to know and then perhaps to know and to kind of own the rest of the world. If we know it, then we can better travel there, we can better to trade with them. And we could better just in our own sense, in our own heads and kind of control the seemingly uncontrollable, the inscrutable. That was the Asian, this is the 1930s. So we have white actors playing Asian characters.

Speaker 3: 04:13 10 to be my father. My daughter explained to this gentleman 30 ward. That might be his point out to him. The d light survived a lovely country. The promise about beautiful women

Speaker 2: 04:29 a certain level. You can kind of understand in the 1930s this happening, but Fu Manchu is a film that's remade repeatedly and on into the 60s you still have these white actors playing these Asian characters. How do you view that as someone who's a scholar of film? It doesn't surprise me. In the 1930s the at a time in which even in California, um, there were anti miscegenation laws. By having white actors play the Chinese, you can, it makes it for the audience a little bit more acceptable that Asians are meeting with white people or having sex with them. So casting white people as Asians has always had this, has, has long history of making Asians acceptable. And we see that throughout the 1950s and sixties and even to today, you have cases of Scarlett, your Hansen making her eyes a certain way to play. An Asian person goes in the shell, you'll have to, in the case of Emma Stone with Aloha.

Speaker 2: 05:22 So, so these things are still happening today so that it happened in 1960s and seventies it's not at all surprising to me. So in looking back at these films, should we ban these movies? Should we not let them be shown because they have controversial elements or or negative stereotypes? Or should we be able to watch them in some sort of context and learn from them? Because on a certain level, I feel like if we erase these films, we don't know where we've come from and we don't know how far we've traveled. We should not ban these films. These films reveal so much about how we think about America as and how we would try to maintain a certain kind of racial purity in America is so relevant today. These films are setting the stage for a lot of the ways we think about race today.

Speaker 2: 06:02 There's so much we can learn from them. And yeah, these are very exaggerated versions of fear of the other. But today we have more subtle versions that are still kind of part of the same ideological desire for racial purity that we see in these films. So what's important to me is understanding that history, knowing kind of the production context that what, what did, what was it in Hollywood that created these kinds of films? So the context is is is most important. And then of course we shouldn't just play these songs anywhere. These songs can play in a certain kind of context that would be incredibly destructive for America even to today. There's certain kind of white supremacist contexts where down I would not want this film to be shown. So finding the right audience for them, an audience that is receptive to understanding that history.

Speaker 2: 06:44 I think that's the best way for us to continue to remember these movies. To counter the images portrayed in these films. Would you have a couple of films that you'd recommend that people go out and watch to provide some balance to this? Well, so, so around the same time that we met, she was happening. There was also Charlie Chan, so that, so Charlie Chan was also created all kinds of stereotypes for Asian Americans growing up in the 1960s and seventies so I think it's especially cool that in the early 1980s there was a film called Chan is missing checked out by Wayne Wayne, who is inverting a lot of these stereotypes of Charlie Chan into a bizarre little comedy indie film set in San Francisco Chinatown that is very much about giving voice to Asian Americans and Chinese Americans in this period. Still phone like that obviously is as a nice corrective to to these Hollywood representations.

Speaker 2: 07:32 But Charlie, China's missing also is given a certain status as inaugurating an Asian American independent cinema, um, that after that film, Asian Americans realize, wait, we can tell our own stories too. And that are miles away from the kinds of either pitiful characters in the good earth or these treacherous villains in the, the Fu Manchu films or these like dragon ladies that you see throughout the history of Hollywood were sexual oversexualized Asian woman. All right, well I want to thank you very much for talking with me anytime. Thank you. That was KPBS film critical backpack. Armando speaking with PAC arts. Brian, who about the mask of foo man show which screen Sunday at 1:00 PM at digital gym cinema.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.