Part 2: The Male Asian Identity in the Post-Bruce Lee Era

This article is the third part in the “East Asian Representation in Mainstream American Cinema & Television from 1970-2013” series. 

Part one can be found here.  Part two can be found here. 


Despite Bruce Lee’s success, Hollywood still reverted back to the image of the emasculated Asian male. An example of this is Long Duk Dong in the classic John Hughes film Sixteen Candles (1984) which has been regarded as “every bad stereotype possible, loaded into one character” and another proof of the West needing to “emasculate Asian males in the process of their incorporation into American society”.  Mainstream teen films as a genre is a predominantly “white, and usually middle-class, affair”  and most of the time, Asian characters are only visible in roles as “nerdy science student, kung-fu fanatic, or delivery boy” [Hillenbrand, 63.]. Therefore, the inclusion of Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles was the first time an Asian character was integrated into a teen film and generated such a strong reaction and criticism from the audience.

Long Duk Dong is introduced in the film as a Chinese exchange student living with Sam’s (Molly Ringwald) grandparents. He is portrayed as a bumbling fool, unable to communicate properly with other characters and so exotic to the point of being a social ‘weirdo’. This portrayal is emphasised by the family dinner scene where Long Duk Dong is stared at for a long period of time by the white characters. He is constantly referred to as “the weird Chinese guy” or the “China man named after a duck store” and the like. His name itself is a mockery of the Chinese language and the exoticism of his heritage is further mocked by the oriental gong sound effect which accompanies his every appearance. Also, throughout the film, Long Duk Dong begins to be portrayed with a perverse side in an attempt at comedy; his catch phrases are ‘What’s happening, hot stuff?” and the drunken screech of “Sexy girlfriend!” from the top of a tree. He is taken to the school dance by Sam and is used as another misfortune which befalls the lead female character.

Later, he encounters a similarly ‘abnormal’ American girl who calls him “the donger” and whom he goes home with. Then, a scene is shown of the two of them half naked on an exercising machine. His ‘wild’ night ends, derogatorily, with him passed out on the lawn, licked by a dog, and kicked by Sam’s grandmother. Till this day, the role has been termed “stereotypical, racist and part of a long history of Hollywood’s depictions of Asian men” and, as explained by writer Mike Wong, becomes material for bullies at schools to use against their fellow Asian peers [Macadam, 2008.]. It was in contrast to these kind of comedic roles that Jackie Chan emerged in the 1990s, almost taking the torch from Bruce Lee and introducing a new East Asian identity for the West to get accustomed to.

Long+Duk+Dong+-+The+Donger+Needs+Food+-+Sixteen+Candles+-+Gedde+Watanabe

Jackie Chan, who started out as a stuntman on Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon, establishes a different representation of Asians than his predecessor. Unlike in Lee’s films, Chan’s characters are mostly “active, passive, ambiguous, subversive, creative and disarmingly playful” and the stories he tells are mostly of “Asian values” schooling the Westernised “democracy run amok” [Ford, 58.]. It is a conscious decision by Chan to present himself as an opposite of Lee:

“When I was making films in Hollywood during the 1980s, American directors commented that I did not appear to be as powerful and invincible as Bruce Lee, because Lee usually defeated his opponents with one punch. My character falls down, gets hurt and fights back. I incorporate people and objects in my choreography as to attack and defend. When making films in Hong Kong, I learned to adapt my fighting skills to the medium of film. I am not only a martial artist, but also a choreographer, director, producer and editor. Comedy is what makes me different.” [Szeto, 234.].

In Jackie Chan’s Hollywood films, he strives to deconstruct the stereotype of the traditional and conventional Asian through interactions with a Westernised environment and Western sidekicks while also trying to communicate a sense of national pride. His two most famous Hollywood franchises, the Rush Hour  trilogy (1998) and Shanghai Noon (2000), are perfect example of such attempts.

Shanghai Noon and its sequel Shanghai Knight (2003) made Chan a global superstar. In both films, Chan plays Chon Wang, an imperial guard to the Chinese emperor who comes to America to rescue the kidnapped Chinese princess, played by Lucy Liu. There, he meets Roy O’bannon played by Owen Wilson, a rogue cowboy who becomes his friend and sidekick. Shanghai Noon addresses one uncommon storyline, which is of the Chinese immigrants working on the western railway. It is a historical event which is hardly ever explored in Hollywood films and garnered praise for the film’s attempt to “multiculturalise” [Ford,55]. the American west. When Chan’s character arrives in the West, he is labelled “the China man”, “the Shanghai kid” or even “that yellow fella”. He is often viewed as the outsider, being discriminated against and stared at in the streets. Chan, in typical martial art film star fashion, eventually defeats them all with his kung fu skills or, if the insults are made unintentionally by a ‘good’ character, with his comedic comebacks.

The national identity aspect of the movie is further shown by Chan’s role as an imperial guard, a servant of the nation. Like in many of Chan’s other films, his character’s main objective is to regain a highly important national artefact or symbol. In the case of this film, that national symbol is the Chinese princess. The gender politics here are something which will be explored later in this series of essays. The film, however, not only tries to establish some dignity for Chan’s character, but also strives to create another type of Asian character – one which differs strongly from characters played by Bruce Lee.

shanghai-noon

To an extent, Shanghai Noon shows China as a country of oppression; the role of the imperial guard is compared constantly to that of a slave and Chon Wang’s initial straight-guy character is attributed to him being from the East. As the film progresses, this identity is slowly being deconstructed. The princess rejects returning to China, they burn the emperor’s royal decree, and Chan’s character rises up from his bowing position to declare, “This is the West, not the East. The sun may rise where we come from…but here is where it sets”. By doing so, Chan is establishing himself both as a Chinese man, but also as a Chinese man who is capable of surviving in a Westernised environment. He is no longer the stereotypical Chinese governed by logic and rules, but he is able to have fun, has his name changed to “John Wayne”, and be a lovable everyday guy.

In similar fashion, Chan’s character in Rush Hour follows the same path. In the 1998 film, Chan plays Lee, a Hong Kong detective who is sent to Los Angeles to help retrieve the kidnapped daughter of a Hong Kong consul. In this film, Chan is paired with Chris Tucker and their comedic partnership relies heavily on Chan’s action chops and Tucker’s jokes. Both are seen as society’s underdogs and both started out being fooled by the figure of the white man in authority.  Lee plays with stereotypes by pretending not to speak English and again contradicts the straight-laced and emotionless Asian role by engaging in lighthearted banter with Carter; a prime example of this is Carter being astounded when Lee puts on the Beach Boys and dances to it in the car. Lee also introduces Carter to Chinese food and his ignorance of American culture is constantly used as a source of comedy. 

Most importantly, however, Rush Hour deals with the handover of Hong Kong from British rule. The first scene of the film is the last day under British rule and the characters toast to “Hong Kong forever”. The consul, Han, is portrayed as a good and honest Asian politician while the main villain Juntao turns out to be a British man who has been hoarding Chinese national artefacts. The presence and continued influence of colonialism is emphasised through Han’s initial friendship with Juntao and the image of Han giving a statement with Juntao, still unmasked as the villain, lurking over his shoulders. Lee and Carter eventually defeat Juntao but unlike Bruce Lee in his films, the main story arc of Chan’s films does not put as much emphasis and climatic value to the end fight and the defeat of the ‘evil’ opponent. Rather, the main draw and significant storyline that the audiences are invested in is the buddy relationship between the sidekicks – Chan with Wilson in Shanghai Noon and Chan with Tucker in Rush Hour. These two friendships are a straight reflection of Chan’s own image and the image he wishes to present of Asians.

rushhurtv

In his on and off-screen persona, Chan strives to portray only the ‘good’ side of Asia, primarily of China and Hong Kong. Chan, who is also Hong Kong’s ambassador of tourism since 1995, often plays the role of his nation’s civil servant – he is an emperor guard in Shanghai Noon and a policeman in Rush Hour. Chan’s heroism is not only shown through his defeat of the films’ villains, but also through the roles’ ”undeterred loyalty to a master” which are the true “low-key” heroism of his characters. His screen image is one of a “docile neighbourhood boy who will fight in fanciful way only when pressed” [Pang, 206.]; he is funny, lovable and good-natured with an edge of the modern. He presents “qualities that commend Asian Americans to the dominant culture” [Hillenbrand, 58.] He is honest, unobtrusive and diligent.

In Shanghai Noon, there is a strong contrast between his character and the promiscuous nature and the ladies’ man persona of Roy O’Bannon. Chan’s ‘wholesome’ Asian man image is shown through his disapproval of the brothel and his bewildered and traditional approach to sex, especially in his interaction with his Native American ‘wife’ and the girls he encounters with Roy at the salon. Similarly, in Rush Hour 2, Carter and Lee spy on a woman who is undressing. Lee shows his fun-loving image by engaging in the action with Carter, but also maintains a sense of being the good and honest guy by saying, “this isn’t right”, and eventually ends up getting the girl at the end of the film. While Roy’s character is driven by money in Shanghai Noon, Chon Wang is driven by duty and honesty. While Roy teaches Wang to be more relaxed, the ‘moral lesson’ Roy seems to learn from their partnership is one of generosity and honour. Therefore, this onscreen persona is a direct result of Chan’s own public statements that the Asian people, especially those of his home country, have to present only their best image to the world and act in a self-respecting way [Pang, 207.].

Chan’s role as ambassador of tourism is strongly shown in Rush Hour 2 (2001) and the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid. In Rush Hour 2, Lee brings Carter to Hong Kong for what he calls “a good time”. Hong Kong is portrayed with a movie-magic allure as the two friends tackle gangsters in what seems like the criminal capital of the world and party on luxurious yachts with beautiful women. A prominent scene is of Lee taking Carter to a massage parlour named ‘Heaven on Earth’ where Carter chooses Chinese girls from a display window, while exclaiming “I heard [getting a massage from a Chinese girl] is the bomb” and “I love Hong Kong.” Lee – acting as the “comprador” [Pang, 217.] – observes his friend bemusedly, he himself appearing a little uncomfortable but does not object to Carter’s consumption.

miyagi

In Karate Kid, Chan plays the role of the mentor Mister Han (a remake of the character of Mister Miyagi), and Jayden Smith is Dre, a young boy who relocates against his will to Beijing with his mother. China, described by Dre’s mother as a “magical, new land”,  is portrayed in full-force as a tourist destination. Dre explores the forbidden city, a Chinese festival where he is treated to a folklore by his Chinese love interest, and is taken by Mister Han to a Shaolin-like temple on a high mountain. The audience witnesses as Dre’s initial dislike of his surroundings turn to love and respect, finally accepting the city of Beijing as his home. Therefore, Chan’s onscreen image and the approach he takes in portraying Asia contrasts greatly with Bruce Lee’s. While Bruce is the figure of justified anger and defiance, Chan takes a slightly more softer approach. While Bruce appears as the threatening figure against the white man, Chan is the ideal Chinaman who thrives on quiet dignity and being the good next door neighbour.

Another similar character is Mister Miyagi in the The Karate Kid (1984). Along with George Takei’s Sulu in the Star Trek series, Mister Miyagi is one of the first positive portrayals of East Asians in mainstream cinema and television. The film first starts by establishing a very American setting that would make Mister Miyagi the exotic other once his character is introduced. The audience finds the protagonist Danny in California and on the beach surrounded by blond girls, very much engaging in a quintessential American lifestyle. Mister Miyagi, on the other hand, is introduced in his house which is portrayed as scary, strange and exotic with his bonsais, his headband, his foreign accent, and his meditation. When he rescues Danny from the bullies, he is accompanied by oriental-style music and the whole sequence is shown almost as a dream sequence in which Danny is not able to tell the identity of his rescuer. A similar sense of mystery and ‘otherness’ is emphasised by his mentoring of Danny. Mister Miyagi teaches him to find his inner peace and strength, urging Danny to use the strength that is “coming from inside you..always the right one.” 

While Mister Miyagi is all of these ‘foreign‘ things, the film also strives to give him a non-threatening image which is often reflected in roles later played by Jackie Chan. Similarly, Mister Miyagi holds a subservient role as maintenance man. He is shown to be disciplined, hardworking, and shows quiet resolution by small acts of kindness such as fixing Danny’s bike. He only fights when necessary and he remains the moral centre of the film. Not unlike Chan’s roles, he is assimilated into the Western consciousness by his sense of humour. He is able to make jokes and his interaction with American things serve as the film’s comic relief; he talks of buying belts from JC Penny, getting cars from Detroit, and one of his famous phrases is “wax on, wax off”. His unthreatening nature to the ‘good America’ is even shown through his backstory, revealing that he serves as an American soldier during the second world war. He is able to create and maintain a meaningful relationship with an American (Danny) and through this process, Mister Miyagi still remains the exotic other but one who has no real nuanced identity that can upset the ‘American’ equilibrium.

In many ways, both Jackie Chan and Mr. Miyagi are the modern Charlie Chan – “deferential to whites” [Shah, 4.] and presents the image of Asians as “virtuous, industrious, and trustworthy” [Shah, 3]. This amiable onscreen personality and comedic nature differ greatly from the wholly oppositional and anti-western stance of the Bruce Lee era. Instead, “the Asian man” they represent is one who is capable of being assimilated into Western culture and capable of existing in the modern era.

Next: Part Three – “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Cultural Purity”

Previously: Part One – “Bruce Lee: Asian Masculinity and Anti-Colonial Hero”


Notes

  • Alision Macadam, ‘Long Duk Dong: Last of The Hollywood Stereotypes?’, NPR In Character Stories,  2008 <http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=88591800> [accessed 24 December 2013].
  • Jinqi Ling, ‘Identity Crisis and Gender Politics, An Interethnic Companion to Asian America Literature [New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997], p.317.
  • Kin-Yan Szeto, ‘Jackie Chan’s Cosmopolitcal Consciousness and Comic Displacement’,Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, 20.2  (2008), p. 233.
  • Laikwan Pang, Jackie Chan, Tourism and the Performing Agency [New York: Routledge Publication, 2007], p.207.
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