Fates Worse Than Death: Shadow of Chinatown and Big Trouble in Little China

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“China is here, Mister Burton.” –Uncle Chu (Chao Li Chi), Big Trouble in Little China

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Like most fans of John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, I didn’t see it during its 1986 theatrical release, but came to love it through its repeated airings on cable and home video. Starring Kurt Russell as Jack Burton, a clueless trucker drawn into a supernatural battle in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and full of martial arts action, special effects, and comic banter, it was one of those movies that if I ran across it on TV, I had to watch to the end (so I’ve seen the middle and ending many more times than the beginning). It was probably the beginning of a fascination with Orientalism–both the legitimate history and art of the Far East, but also those hybrids of detective, occult, and political fantasy produced in the West and collectively referred to as “Yellow Peril.”

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Although always questionable from a perspective of accuracy and cultural sensitivity, stories set in Chinatown have proven irresistible to pulp and comic book writers and filmmakers alike (one collection of pulp stories bears the memorable title It’s Raining Corpses in Chinatown). The idea of an enclave of exotic, unknowable foreigners at one’s doorstep, perhaps possessed of uncanny abilities and ancient wisdom, was catnip for writers who needed simple, lurid story hooks and artists who were tired of drawing white guys in fedoras.

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And of course, a story set in an Asian enclave in the West has a very different dynamic from one set in a purely Asian culture: one gets the sense of a hidden world, the door to which just happens to be a cab ride or subway stop away. Such stories are inevitably told from the perspective of a white (or at least non-Asian) outsider drawn into the web, pulling back the curtain to discover whatever is really going on behind the curio shops and chop suey palaces, be it the opium trade, “white slavery” (i.e., human trafficking), or a brewing tong war. A 1909 article about New York’s Chinatown summed up this juxtaposition of the exotic and the familiar in language that could have been pulled from any number of pulp stories or movies of later decades:

There it lies, unfathomed and unknown, in the very ear of the city where all things come to be known–where a pin dropped on the other side of the world is heard an instant afterward–contemptuous, blandly mysterious, serene, foul-smelling, Oriental, and implacable behind that indefinable barrier which has kept the West and the East apart since the centuries began. Within the boundaries of the three acres which it occupies, five thousand slant-eyed children of Cathay and three or four hundred whites, who have cast their lot with them, order their existence like rabbits in a warren.

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Really, it’s all there: physical stereotyping, the “inscrutability” of the Orient, even the “foul” smells of another culture. Hinted at in this excerpt, and persisting throughout the article (“Slumming in New York’s Chinatown,” reprinted in the book Tales of Gaslight New York), is the unshakable belief that the Chinese population is up to something, that they hide their real intentions and loyalty, and that their influence on whites can only be a corrupting one. Framed as an exposé, “Slumming in New York’s Chinatown” presents many of the same arguments that were used to justify the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and which today target other immigrant populations. In this point of view, summed up nicely by the quotation with which this article began, Chinatowns and other ethnic enclaves are really extensions of the Old Country: step in, and you are effectively in foreign territory.

So how can I justify being a fan of a genre frequently steeped in ugly stereotypes and often pointedly racist in its political undertones? Were I of Chinese descent, I am sure I would not be so blasé about such issues, and I would surely take them more personally. Here, at last, I must address an issue that I have circled and sometimes approached in this series, but never taken head on.

The serials (and the other pulp fiction and comics that I write about) were made during a time in which racism was not only a tolerated but an actively endorsed part of life–not by everybody, of course, as even in the days of Jim Crow laws and the kind of housing discrimination that led to the formation of Chinatowns and other ghettos in the first place, there were brave voices willing to speak up for equal treatment of their fellows–and their content often reflects prevailing attitudes, some of which seem merely quaint today and some of which were downright ugly. I hope it is clear to my readers, however, that I don’t bring up these attitudes to burnish my own image or simply congratulate myself for living in a more enlightened time. I genuinely enjoy the entertainment of this period, and while I may take a good-natured poke at the sillier contrivances I encounter, I wouldn’t bother with it if I didn’t find that it rewarded the time I’ve invested in watching and researching these films. If the writing, production, and cultural context of serials are worth taking seriously, then so are the issues of representation they bring up.

To me, this is an appropriate place to deploy the word “problematic:” it may be overused, but I think it accurately describes art that provides substantial entertainment or edification but which has issues that can’t simply be dismissed. After all, if a work has no redeeming value at all, that’s not really a problem, is it? It can be safely dismissed as racist trash. Rather than perform mental gymnastics to prove to myself that a given representation isn’t really offensive, just because I happen to like the work it is a part of, it’s probably healthier to simply acknowledge that we can enjoy works without endorsing every part of them or the politics that underlie them. (And here I’m not so much referring to Big Trouble in Little China, which I consider a knowing riff on Chinese fantasy themes, as I am the pre-war serials and stuff like Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels; however, others may draw those lines in different places, and that also comes with the “problematic” territory.) For fans of the pulp era, that requires some self-examination to ensure that we’re not nostalgic for the wrong things (or for a world which was largely a simplified, fictional construct in the first place).

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Anyway, this is all preamble to this week’s serial: knowing that I would be attending a theatrical screening of Big Trouble in Little China (thanks to Big Screen Wichita’s Return of the Cults series) last week and that a remake of the film starring Dwayne Johnson is scheduled for 2016, it seemed like a perfect time to look back at a serial on a similar subject: Victory’s 1936 serial Shadow of Chinatown, starring Bela Lugosi. It turned out to be an even more illuminating comparison than I expected.

Lugosi, of course, needs no introduction: he’s an icon for his performance as the title character in Tod Browning’s Dracula, a role that fit him so perfectly he never really found another one to match it. The story of his decline is also well-known, as changing styles and his own drug addiction forced him into smaller, tackier films, including some truly awful garbage (and I’m not even referring to his final films with Edward D. Wood, Jr., which at least have their own kooky charm). Lugosi escapes Shadow of Chinatown with his dignity intact, however: while it’s not high art, the serial provides him with a role that allows him to purr seductively, rage and monologue, and employ the famously intense gaze (“more sinister than sinister” in the words of one character) that made him such a compelling vampire.

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Lugosi is first billed, but as the villain of the piece; the hero is played by Herman Brix (who would later change his name to Bruce Bennett). This is the third serial with Brix that I have watched, and the first one in which I was acutely aware of his shortcomings as an actor. Although John Taliaferro characterized Brix’s performance as the title character in The New Adventures of Tarzan as “stiff,” I thought he was fine in what was primarily a physical role; in the same vein, Brix was part of a trio of leads in Daredevils of the Red Circle, and had more stunts and fight scenes than spoken lines. Shadow of Chinatown gives Brix much more dialogue than either of those films and asks us to believe that he is simply a writer, unwillingly dragged into the action; and, much worse, gives him the task of engaging in “playful” banter with his female co-star, Joan Barclay, that would sound mean-spirited even if delivered by Cary Grant. Needless to say, Brix is no Cary Grant.

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As Shadow of Chinatown begins, Sonya Rokoff (Luana Walters), the representative of a European department store syndicate, is scheming to eliminate competition from the merchants in San Francisco’s Chinatown. She hires Victor Poten (Lugosi), a “Eurasian” scientist in need of funds, to help her destroy the merchants (at first by hiring white gangsters to dress up as Chinese and riot in the streets of Chinatown, scaring tourists away; later, the plans get more elaborate). It isn’t long before Poten is running things, controlling Rokoff through intimidation and (later) hypnosis. Although her plan was to put the Chinese out of business for her employers, Poten is motivated by hatred of “both the Oriental and Occidental races;” his ultimate goal is to begin a race of his own.

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It’s an interesting transformation for Lugosi’s character: in the first chapter he is little more than a henchman, with Rokoff calling the shots, and he wears a telephone repairman’s coveralls as he sneaks from place to place executing Rokoff’s orders. As his power and confidence grows, so do the abilities he displays: his technology becomes more like magic; he’s a master of disguise; he controls people by hypnosis. By the last few chapters, he has miniature spy cameras planted in the homes and offices of every prominent person in Chinatown: nowhere is safe from his prying gaze. In effect, he grows into a particularly intense version of the all-powerful, all-seeing mastermind of paranoid fantasy, Fu Manchu in all but name.

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The central joke of Big Trouble in Little China is that Jack Burton, for all his John Wayne swagger, is actually the comic relief sidekick: it’s his friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) who understands what is going on and has the connections and skills to rescue the damsels in distress and defeat the evil Lo Pan, while Burton loses his knife, forgets to take the safety off his gun, accidentally knocks himself out, and struggles to move after the one bad guy he kills falls on top of him. Burton has his moments, to be sure, but his role is summed up by an exchange in which he complains that he feels like an outsider and is told in no uncertain terms, “You are.”

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Surprisingly, Shadow of Chinatown plays with that dynamic as well, although not to the same degree. When Rokoff’s and Poten’s schemes start causing trouble in Chinatown, the mayor of San Francisco invites author Martin Andrews (Brix) to consult with the merchants on the basis of a book Andrews has written that makes him an authority on Chinatown. In reality, everything Andrews knows has been gleaned from his Chinese man servant, Willy Fu (Maurice Liu), who has been feeding him gossip (and his own fabrications) for use as story ideas.

Willy is the most clichéd character in the serial: he speaks with a heavy accent, addresses Andrews as “honorable master,” and is given to pseudo-Confucian aphorisms (“Detective instinct bloom like beautiful chrysanthemum in your honorable head!”). Willy is capable (especially at pushing Andrews to doing the right thing when he rather sensibly balks at getting involved with things the police should handle), but he never meets a stereotype he doesn’t lean into with gusto. In a final irony, Rokoff and Poten draw the methods of their attacks on Chinatown’s merchants from Andrews’ book, causing a suspicious police captain (Forrest Taylor) to treat the reluctant author as his number one suspect.

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The fact that most of the lurid preconceptions about Chinatown turn out to be false largely passes without comment, but it’s hard to miss. When eager reporter Joan Whiting (Barclay) tries to pump a police officer for information, she’s certain she’s on the trail of the kind of sensational story quoted above, rattling off the thrilling scenes she (and the audience) expect to see: “I want to know who started the trouble, which tongs are fighting, are there any hatchet men, how many people killed. . . .”

As the audience already knows, the “hatchet men” are impostors, and the troubles are completely the work of the Russian-sounding Sonya Rokoff (who may wear a “dragon lady” dress, but who doesn’t look Asian at all, and is described as being of “mixed blood”) and the “Eurasian” Victor Poten. In fact, the message (typical for the inter-war years) seems to be that the Chinese people want only to live in peace without trouble, but must remain vigilant against “foreign” agitators. Of course, this message of brotherhood with the Chinese comes at the expense of demonizing those of mixed heritage (and as I have argued, “Eurasians” and other unnamed foreigners were often code for powers with which America was not yet at war, left conveniently indeterminate), but baby steps, I guess.

In fact, the serial’s treatment of its female lead is more striking (and not always in a good way) than its Chinese window dressing (although again I don’t expect it to stand up to twenty-first century gender norms). Joan Whiting is a fantastic character, a gutsy woman who’s determined to get her story with a combination of chutzpah, gumption, and moxie. She pushes her way into rooms where she thinks she can get information, doesn’t take no for an answer, and, like Willy Fu, isn’t afraid to push other people into danger if it means getting to the bottom of the mystery. She and Martin Andrews have a combative relationship, with him continually insisting she should stay out of danger (even convincing the police and her editor to order her to stay away) and her finding ways to get back into the action, even as they secretly worry for each other’s safety.

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The banter between the pair (and this serial as a whole has a lot of memorable dialogue, including some absolutely cold put-downs) aspires to the irreverent and breezy, but too often it veers into mean-spirited: when Joan wonders if Poten is a mind reader, Martin says, “He’d draw a blank if he tackled you.” Boom, roasted! There’s a lot more where that comes from, and with Brix’s whitebread personality and rather flat delivery, it comes off like Bing Crosby at his most paternalistic, shutting down the little woman for her own good.

The His Girl Friday dynamic is much more successfully pulled off in Big Trouble in Little China, in the characters of Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) and Margo Litzenberger (Kate Burton), a crusading lawyer and reporter (with the Berkeley People’s Herald) looking for her big break respectively. Rewatching the film again this week it was clear how much Cattrall’s Gracie is a direct descendant of the brassy, fast-talking reporters of which Joan Whiting is a prime example. John Carpenter in his director’s commentary mentions his desire for a Howard Hawks-like “pop” to scenes where Gracie and Jack spar verbally, and expresses admiration for the speed with which Cattrall could spit out rapid-fire exposition. (It’s Margo who gets the real mouthful, however: “You mean David Lo Pan that is chairman of the National Orient Bank and owns the Wing Kong Import/Export Trading Company, but who’s so reclusive that no one’s even laid eyes on this guy in years?”, one of many moments that call attention to the film’s B-movie heritage).

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As an aside, one of the true pleasures of revisiting so many old favorites in the Return of the Cults series after having delved into serials and learning more about the history of film in general is in making these kinds of connections and adding new layers of enjoyment to movies I thought I knew well. Big Trouble in Little China is usually cited as Carpenter’s take on Wuxia (martial arts fantasy) movies; it is undoubtedly that, but realizing that it also falls firmly into the “Chinatown exposé” genre has allowed me to see it from a whole different angle, almost like a brand new film.

To return to Shadow of Chinatown, the most striking quality of this serial is its breadth of tone: although the ingredients are not always combined completely successfully, there are elements of action, suspense, horror, romance, comedy, and noir threaded through its fifteen episodes. That in itself is not so unusual for a serial, but the degree of change many of the characters undergo is striking. Often the formulas of pulp storytelling don’t allow for much character development (except in the sense that the villain might change from alive to dead by the end of the last chapter), but most of the characters are in very different places at the end of this serial and have revealed sometimes surprising truths about themselves through their actions. According to John Carpenter, one of the complaints leveled against Big Trouble in Little China was that audiences never felt the lead characters were really in any danger: there were no stakes. The same criticism could easily be leveled against most serials, including Shadow of Chinatown, but more than one character undergoes changes that couldn’t be predicted from the first chapter, and in all of this the original motivation–the European department store trying to eliminate Chinese competition–is little more than an afterthought. Towering above it all, Lugosi gives a performance that is bigger than a mere serial can contain.

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What I Watched: Shadow of Chinatown (Victory, 1936)

Where I Watched It: This serial is on YouTube, but the audio was badly out of sync in some of the chapters, so I ended up watching it at the Internet Archive.

No. of Chapters: 15

Best Chapter Title: “Death on the Wire” (Chapter Four)

Best Cliffhanger: There are several good ones, including a few classics like the room with walls closing in (Chapter Two, “The Crushing Walls”) and a gruesome trap involving a poisoned needle embedded in a telephone receiver (the aforementioned “Death on the Wire”), but I think the cliffhanger most worthy of comment is at the end of Chapter Five (“The Sinister Ray”). Martin Andrews is knocked out in his home and Poten prepares a gruesome fate for him: he adjusts a suspended fishbowl so that the sun’s rays are focused on Andrews’ face, where it will burn him to death . . . eventually. Before moving the bowl, Potens orders his henchman, “Don’t hurt the fish!”

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Most Tragic Character: Special note must made of Poten’s henchman, Grogan (Charles King). Grogan starts out as a typical enforcer, doing Poten’s dirty work and taking his boss’s abuse when he fails to eliminate the meddling Martin and Joan. Sensing that he’s working for a madman, he appeals to Sonya, who is at first happy to have someone she might be able to keep on her side in the event of a split with Poten. When it’s clear that Grogan wants more than steady employment from her, she rebukes him and he threatens her. Then it starts getting weird: Grogan attempts to kill Poten on board a ship, but Poten manages to put Andrews in Grogan’s noose (at least temporarily). When Grogan is ready to talk to the police, Poten shoots him with a poison dart that makes him appear dead. Taking him from the ship’s sick bay, Poten revives Grogan and disguises him as an old man. From then on, he is a broken shell, susceptible to violent outbursts and nonsensical raving, but he is still in Poten’s thrall, taking orders to hurl a live grenade at our heroes or attacking Andrews on the roof of Sonya’s apartment building: a strange and gruesome fate for a character who at first seemed like just another disposable henchman.

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Sample dialogue: Grogan: “I’ll get him next time. He can’t make a sap out of me!”
Poten: “No, your parents already did an excellent job of that!”
–Chapter Three (“13 Ferguson Alley”)

What Others Have Said: “Yellow Peril . . . how can a phrase that reeks so of racism and paranoia yield a body of fiction so . . . cool?” –F. Paul Wilson, Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong (Foreword)

What’s Next: I haven’t decided. Maybe I’ll let it be a surprise. If you have any suggestions or requests for future serials, feel free to list them in the comments, or hit me up on Twitter. (Edit: I ended up covering Panther Girl of the Kongo.)

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