Flashback Friday: “Chan is Missing”, an Asian American Film That Made a Difference

The chapter of “Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video” by Peter Feng, titled “Becoming Asian American” is an analysis of the 1982 film Chan is Missing, arguing that it is a pioneer in showcasing the multiplicities of Asian American identities in American cinema and therefore challenges the idea of a fixed Asian American identity. Instead of trying to spread awareness of the presence of a Asian American identity, the movie focuses on “the process of becoming.” (155) This quote means that the characters are not defining or becoming any definition for the Asian American presence in film, but are simply an example of guys who happen to be Asian in American trying to figure out their racial identity. Obviously, the movie does this through its multiple Asian American characters: Steve, Jo, etc. who all have their own personalities and the main characters of the film rather than villains, sex symbols, or comic relief. Like Rae said already, this is very similar to Flower Drum Song in this sense and is notable for this aspect in a period of film that was very much lacking this representation (let’s not debate the present fact of the matter…)

But in this chapter, Feng also articulates certain thematic elements of the film of symbolism that tackle other aspects of the Asian American identity (crisis.) Feng argues that the entire plot of the film, which is to find Steve and Jo’s friend Chan Hung. By looking for Chan, they must face the prevailing stereotypes of Asians in American media, such as Charlie Chan. “The video cassette’s “self-mocking” label seems appropriate; the characters themselves seem aware that they are trapped in a pop culture stereotype–trapped, not in the sense that they have been placed there by the dominant, but in the sense… of sense of strange kind of critique, purveying, and challenging their position.” (158)

I thought that this reading of the movie illuminates the craft of the movie in a clever light– trying to find the true meaning of “Charlie Chan” or the percieved Asian American idenity, but instead (depending on whose perspective, whether it be Steve, Chan Hung’s wife or the police officer.) seeing what they themselves percieve in him/it (and because some of these characters are Chinese American themselves, they see what they do not want to see in themselves.) So Feng is also highlighting that heterogeniety in the Asian American identity can be defined through the perspective of other Asian Americans (and this a different perspective.)

This direct confrontation of the stereotype reminded me of the Das Racist music video “Who’s that Brown” we watched in class on Tuesday. That music video featured so many stereotypes, such as the game that the rappers played which involved dodging arranged marriages, a Grand Central station filled with “yuppies (young professionals) who are gentrifying the neighborhood” and the black guy that one of the rappers has a dance battle with. This is also an example of an interaction: definitely a satire, but also a critique of not only stereotypes about South East Asians, but of other races too.

The whole plot of the movie, especially the conclusion of the movie, which is that they never find Chan Hung and the fragments/pieces of evidence that they find out about him paint an even more confusing picture of him is beautiful because it’s such a truism. The problem with defining anything in general is that you, often times, are never wholly correct and are therefore wrong; it’s the perpetual problem with history, isn’t it? You always leave something out because it would be impossible to tell the entire story/experience (but as Lowe/Feng argue, they are not asking that the ENTIRE story be told, but the important parts.) Whenever you’re writing about a group of people– theres’ a pretty good chance that you will be unable to accurately generalize them. This idea is the essence of a quote from the Philip Roth novel American Pastoral, which relates this idea we have read in an example of Asian American media, but is applicable to pretty much all media and life as well.

What’s especially interesting is that Feng (and Wang too, since it is our media for this article), draws the conclusion that these attempts to analyze/define (and therefore, understand) are more indicative of the person who is trying to do it rather than the actual subject of study. Not only is the analyzer human, but the act of analyzing opens a void in which we can view them, rather than who is being analyzed. Which is really quite ~meta~ if you think about this blog post in the context of this class.

Starting Asian American Media: Ono & Pham

Ono & Pham‘s chapter “The Persistence of Yellow Peril Discourse” details the definition, history and media portrayal of the yellow peril stereotype. They write that media discourse “serves as the basis by which ideas are formed and knowledge is produced and, ultimately, for how people relate to other people and how societies are formed and structured.” Just saying, I think that this is true for the most part, but especially when people do not actually interact with the ethnic groups that media depicts in real life. I went to a conference this summer and Reza Aslan said that the number one factor in changing people’s prejudices against Muslims was if they actually knew a Muslim.

Ono & Pham go on to write about how media is so important because it allows the “certain privileged externalizations [to be] disseminated widely… and may become part of public memory.”

Then they delve in the history of yellow peril, which was thought to have originated from the fear of mongoloid Genghis Khan, general xenophobic from the Western world, and the fear of Anglo Saxon race suicide, to name a few. Offensive stereotypes such as “wearing pigtails, speaking with exaggerated dialects” and “seeking white women for physical and sexual labor.” I was horrified to see that current periodicals such Harper’s Weekly (and from what we saw in class, though not as harshly or vulgar, Time and The Atlantic) purported these horrific images to their audiences. Who even reads Harper’s Weekly anyway?

These stereotypes (some of which are incorrect, all of which in association with each other are incorrect and offensive) get scary when they influence United States policies, such as The Angell Treaty of 1880 (which limited the immigration of Chinese workers who hoped to come to America) and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. This is completely offensive when my great-grandfather and many other Cantonese people came to America to help build the First Transcontinental Railroad.

And getting to the main idea of the essay, it gets even MORE dangerous when yellow peril translates into cinema through the movies of the 18th century. The movie that we watched in class “The Cheat” (1915) was exemplary of the typical storyline of movies that focused on Yellow Peril: an unrequited Asian man steals a white woman from a white man for his own illicit/evil/sexual desires. More movies guilty of this moral injustice is “Broken Blossoms” (1919) and the Fu Manchu franchise. Though I had known that the typical name for a Chinese style mustache was named after this character, I didn’t realize until now how damning that really is. A Chinese mustache should NOT have an inherently evil connotation, though that really might be the perception that people may have of Chinese men with mustaches on their upper lips.

Something that I found fascinating about the article is that highlighted the relationship between yellow peril media works and the historical context of Chinese American relations at the time. Darrell Hamamoto wrote an entire paper about how Asian American media representation is directly linked to US foreign policy: for example when there was anti-Chinese resentment during 1800-1950s, which explains the offensive Chinese stereotypes detailed in the beginning of their chapter. However, this changed in the 1940’s when Americans began to direct their hatred towards the Japanese because of Pearl Harbor and caricatures of Japanese began to crop up, portraying them as rodent-like, barbaric and evil. World War II caricatures of the Japanese followed suit, but after the war ended, Chinese directed yellow period began to rise again. Could another form of yellow peril start with the negative portrayal of middle easterns/south east asians in the media because of the current fear of Islamic terrorist group ISIS with movies such as “American Sniper” (definitely not as bad as the previous examples)?

The introduction of Ono & Pham’s essay describes that “contrary to the popular media story that well all live in a post-racist society, yellow peril has not faded away into the depths of history.” This totally reminded me of an Onion article called “I Don’t See Race; I Only See Grayish-Brown, Vaguely Humanoid Shapes“. This humor article ALSO satirizes this claim made by people who think that racism (and probably global warming) are myths of the past (“Wasn’t slavery like a billion years ago?”)