Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

The Assimilated Asian American as American Action Hero: Anna May Wong, Keye Luke, and James Shigeta in the Classical Hollywood Detective Film

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Film Studies

The Assimilated Asian American as American Action Hero: Anna May Wong, Keye Luke, and James Shigeta in the Classical Hollywood Detective Film

Article excerpt

Résumé : Plusieurs recherches ont été consacrées au cas de Charlie Chan, ce personnage de détective asiatique souvent interprété par un comédien blanc (Yellowface) dans de nombreuses adaptations cinématographiques. Moins d'études ont été vouées aux personnages de détectives américains d'origine asiatique interprétés par des comédiens de la même origine. Les films provenant des grands studios que sont Daughter of Shanghai (Paramount 1937), Phantom of Chinatown (Monogram 1940), et la production indépendante The Crimson Kimono (1959) sont remarquables par leur utilisation d'Asiatico-américains dans le rôle principal. Cet essai montre comment, pour Hollywood, la question de l'origine ethnique asiatique ou américaine était moins l'affaire de l'origine du comédien interprétant le détective que celui du personnage interprété. Alors que les détectives asiatico-américains - tout comme les détectives asiatiques - étaient considérés plus attrayants et/ou moins menaçants lorsqu'ils étaient assimilés, ils étaient identifiés - contrairement aux détectives asiatiques - aux idéaux américains d'héroïsme, étant représentés non seulement comme de meilleurs limiers mais aussi comme d'authentiques combattants du crime.

In Hollywood film, there is a distinction made between "Asian" as a racial category and "Asian American" as an ethnie one-the former often being criminalised for their cultural autonomy while the latter were lauded when they assimilated into mainstream American culture.1 While Charlie Chan embodies the former, he is one of the rare examples of an Asian character at the center of a Classical Hollywood film who was the hero of his films, namely the protagonist who the mainstream (read: white) filmgoer followed. Chan appeared in forty-seven Hollywood films in the 1930s and 40s (as well as a handful of Spanish and Chinese language remakes) and his popularity led other Hollywood studios to produce series featuring imitators Mr. Wong and Mr. Moto. There has been much scholarly debate as to whether or not the Asian detective represents a positive image of Asian masculinity: Chan is a hero, unlike the infamous villain Dr. Fu Manchu, and works to reinstate social order on the side of the law. However, he appears as a servant to Western interests and in fact a white actor portrayed him in "yellowface." Chan, Wong, and Moto are notable for being some of the few Asian detectives to be featured in Hollywood film and, even more so, for being popular enough to sustain a series. Indeed, there has been only one Asian series detective in Hollywood film since the Classical-era, Detective Inspector Lee of the Rush Hour films (Brett Ratner, 1998, 2001, and 2007) played by Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan. While much scholarship has addressed the prolific but problematic figure of Charlie Chan in terms of his embodiment of Asian subjectivity and Hollywood's racial politics, far less attention has been directed to the Asian American detectives played by Asian American actors. The aim of this paper is not to debate whether or not the Asian detective played in "yellowface" by white actors is a racist caricature as that has been explored thoroughly in Asian American studies scholarship.2 Instead, in this paper, I will explore the representation of the Asian American detective played by Asian American actors in the same era of Hollywood film that saw the popularity of Asian detectives Chan, Wong, and Moto.

Paramount's Daughter of Shanghai (Robert Florey, 1937) starring Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn, and Monogram's Phantom of Chinatown (Phil Rosen, 1940) starring Keye Luke and Lotus Long are notable for their casting of Asian Americans in the leading roles, thus foregrounding Asian American subjectivity as central in decades when it was all but absent from the American screen. As Hye Seung Chung argues, "In Daughter of Shanghai, Ahn and Wong dismantled Oriental stereotypes''3 and I would argue, in a similar way, so too do Luke and Long in Phantom of Chinatown. …

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