Monday, September 6, 2010

"...the Chinese are extremely bright...and wonderful....!"

When Propaganda Succeeds.

Few subjects inflame the Asian-American community more than the issue of stereotypes in film and literature. In the view of Asian-Americans, stereotypes promote violence against Asians, serves to desensitize the mainstream to dehumanization of Asians, and trivializes our struggles with bigotry. One of the most well-known and, for some Asian-Americans, the most hated stereotype is the Charlie Chan character. The bigWOWO blog recently presented a podcast of Yunte Huang debating Frank Chin on the very subject of the Charlie Chan character and the stereotypes that went into the creation of this character. Here's the link to the podcast, and here's the link to the bigWOWO blog post, check it out - it's interesting.

The podcast was especially interesting because of the comments and attitudes of the (apparently) non-Asian callers to the show. Remarkably, despite the fact that many Asian-Americans perceive the Charlie Chan character to be negative, most (if not all) of the non-Asians that called in to the show felt that the character was a positive depiction of the Chinese people and their character. This raises some questions about what constitutes a "good" or "bad" depiction and even calls into question the notion that "positive" stereotypes can create a shift in social conditions of a given group.

The paradox of Charlie Chan is that despite being apparently adored by non-Asians and the reported sense of goodwill the character generated amongst mainstream fans, there was very little shift in attitudes towards Asians within American society. Anti-Asian prejudice and discrimination continued unabated for decades. So, if we accept that in the minds of Chan's non-Asian fans his depiction was positive for their perception of the Chinese, then the question arises; why didn't these warm fuzzy feelings amongst these fans lead to a discernible social improvement for Chinese-Americans?

The answer lies in the nature of the character itself. An accented Chinese immigrant, the character of Chan is set in a time in American history when it was almost illegal to be Asian. Chinese immigrants in this period experienced immense institutional and personal racism. Restrictions on citizenship, employment, inter-marriage with white women, and land ownership meant that Asian immigrants were forced to live and work in ghettos (aka "Chinatowns") where they couldn't contaminate the local white populace. Xenophobic hostility to Asians led to regular random acts of violence and harassment to such an extent that simply walking along the street became an act of immense courage that could end in violent death. This was the common experience of pre-war Asian immigrants.

What does this have to do with Charlie Chan? Well, absolutely nothing! And that's the point. As wise and clever as he is portrayed, the life of Charlie Chan would have been unrecognizable to the Chinese immigrants of the time. Denied rights and considered barely human, Chinese immigrants could have been killed for attempting to enter many white owned establishments which makes the notion of one of them being given jurisdiction over white criminals competely preposterous. Certainly there are situations where Charlie Chan encounters racism but he is always able to brush it aside with a Confucian quip.

That's why Chan is so beloved - he allows America to brush aside its history of brutality toward its Asian immigrants in a way that makes racism seem almost harmless. Chan is a proto model-minority - he doesn't need any help because he has all this wisdom and culture to draw upon and because he doesn't need help, there's no need to examine anti-Asian racism. Fortunately, this also means that the mainstream gets to deny that prejudice towards Asians can and has been so brutal, and it allows them to hide behind the propaganda that things aren't so bad for Asians because "they do so well" and they're "really smart!"

The biggest irony is that Charlie Chan's existence gives the mainstream an alternate view of themselves and not of the Chinese. This "positive" depiction did not contribute to social progressiveness because what he depicted wasn't real. That's why he was so popular - he allowed manistream America to believe that they hadn't acted like savages toward their Asian minorities.


  1. Ben, brilliant post! It's really interesting to see non-asians defending their beloved "model minority played by a white man pretending to be asian and speaks in a pretended weird accent" character that is Charlie Chan.

    And no, of course there's no discrimination against the Asian americans, just look at their high marriage rates with white people! (Sorry man, that comment on your earlier post was just too funny not to re-visit it).

  2. N

    Thanks! In a way Charlie Chan is a way of re-writing history where people get to express how fondly they felt towards the Chinese whilst not having to face the ugliness of the institutional prejudice facing the community.