Posts Tagged 'the thief of bagdad'

Wick-Quoting #7: Asians & Hollywood


How did the increase in digital technology (media) and film influence people’s views on immigration?  Did the views increase the general acceptance of immigrants or rather put them in a negative light?  More specifically, what message did Hollywood convey about Asian immigrants in America through the motion picture industry’s creation in 1910 up to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965?  Before the Immigration and Nationality act of 1965, Asians were generally portrayed negatively in Hollywood cinema.  Even after World War II, Asians were shown in an unfavorable light, and not until recent decades did a positive shift occur.  In Hollywood, the more recent the film, the less racism is practiced towards Asians, thus allowing Asian immigrants in nowadays to be more generally accepted and tolerated by the American public.  Even so, some current films still display Asian Americans as second class citizens, in a subtle, non-offensive way.  Underrepresentation of people of color in Hollywood studios is a major problem (Park, 1).  A key example of underrepresentation of people of color in Hollywood films is the exclusion of Asian actors of where they should actually belong; such as the recent film based on the popular Japanese Manga, Dragon Ball, where a White actor replaces the lead role, thus failing commercially and critically.  Overall, with Hollywood being one of the main influential factors in America, along with big corporations and the government, it is only natural that Hollywood has had such a large part in racial interaction in America.

Wtf is this?

Hollywood does have a role in how Asian immigrants and citizens are viewed in the United States, with more recent productions being more accepting towards Asians, causing the general public to also become more tolerant as well.  However, it is mainly the early films during the 1930s in which Asians were blasted with racial stereotypes and negative connotations, causing the public to also share prejudice views on Asian immigrants.

In his paper, “Representation of Asians in Hollywood Films: Socialcultural and Industrial Perspectives,” Ji Hoon Park states, “Hollywood has relegated Asian men to play stereotypical roles, such as frosty killers, martial artists, cunning villains, and the “sexless wimp.”  Films, according to Park, “are cultural texts constructed in specific sociohistorical contexts.  The sociocultural approach embraces the notion that in cultural representation racialized bodies are organized and constructed within specific power relations (Park, 3).”  The power relations in Hollywood are, more specifically, racial power relations.  White supremacy, although not apparent, is the main representation in Western culture and media.  This treatment makes Asians, and other minorities, to be viewed and treated as second-class citizens by not just movie audiences, but by the general public as well.

Chinese Immigrants

Chinese immigrants, the first group of Asians to reach American soil in large numbers, received a great amount of racial hatred from Caucasian Americans.  At one point, the United States went against their own constitution, which states that justice and liberty should be for all, in order to ban Chinese immigrants from America for a short period through the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.  Even though Chinese immigrants were welcomed as cheap laborers for the transcontinental railroads, they were considered as “yellow peril” coolies.  Many people feared job loss because Chinese immigrants worked for much less than the average American, and were thus hired vastly by companies.  As a result, White Americans’ hatred toward the Chinese was projected in films through the inclusion of Chinese characters as antagonists, such as Fu Manchu and the evil Mongol prince in The Thief of Bagdad.

The Villain

One of the common stereotypical roles that Asian Americans portray in Hollywood is as the villain.  From the early films in the 1920s and to current day James Bond films, along with Russian villains, Asians fit the evil mastermind quite well through the eyes of White society.  In 1924, the silent film, The Thief of Bagdad, starring Douglas Fairbanks, was released.  This film contained a Mongol Prince as the antagonist of a White Douglas Fairbanks.  First of all, the actor who played the evil Mongol was a Japanese actor, an indication of how much people care about the differences in the Asian subpopulation.  Asians are all the same to mainstream society, as also shown by the non-Korean actors in M*A*S*H who could not even properly speak the Korean language.

The Thief of Bagdad came out at the time of the passing of the 1924 Immigration Act (or National Origins Act), which “denied admission to all aliens ineligible for citizenship, thus practically excluding all Asians except Filipinos” (Chung, 63).  The 1924 Act perfectly matched the attitude of Asians portrayed in Hollywood films such as in The Thief of Bagdad.  With Asians shown as the villains in Hollywood movies, Americans were more willing to view Asian immigrants as evil, anti-American residents.  Anti-Chinese xenophobia was on the rise at this time, with an increasing amount of Asians depicted in cinematic images as the archetypal enemy to the White race, like Dr. Fu Manchu (Chung, 63). Fu Manchu is a fictional character created by English author Sax Rohmer.  The character is an evil master criminal of Chinese descent.  He wears the Fu Manchu mustache, a mustache commonly drawn on cartoon type Chinese characters in American cartoons at the time, further implying racial stereotyping.  The picture below is a film poster for The Face of Fu Manchu.  Racial stereotyping can easily be seen by the slanted eyes and facial hair.  Fu Manchu gives the Chinese a negative light, as shown by the catchphrase on the poster.

This movie poster is filled with stereotypes. Can you find them all?


The one good thing that came out of The Thief of Bagdad in the Asian American perspective was the rise of the first Asian American to become an international star.  Anna May Wong, who portrayed a Mongol slave in The Thief of Bagdad, was the first Chinese American movie star.  Although she represented the Asian American population in America, she was only cast in stereotypical supporting roles, usually as a scantily-clad “dragon lady.”  This image of the Asian woman as a sex object for a White-dominant country further reduced the equality of Asians in America.  Hamamoto “asserts that the representation of Asian female bodies as objects of sexual conquest in American popular culture is a manifestation of white colonial desire known as ‘Asianphilla’ which means ‘Euroamerican expressions of fondness and attraction to Asian and Asian  American women’” (Park, 6).  Therefore, Hollywood hypersexualizes Asian women in mainstream media (Park, 6).

What does this mean for how Asians are viewed in America?  Firstly, Asian women are increasingly viewed as sex objects by White society.  Even if Asian American women do not associate themselves with the Asian actors shown in films, they are still subjected to a derogatory view as a sex object.  It is impossible for people to be respected when they’re just viewed as “meat.”


The top Asian actors of the 1930-40s carried a lot of influence in how Asians were viewed.  Philip Ahn was a key Asian idol during this time period.  Throughout his career, he was paired with Anna May Wong in films such as Daughter of Shanghai and King of Chinatown.  Their pairing in films, and drama created by the media, resulted in speculations of a romantic coupling.  After both denied an engagement, many people assumed it was because of Ahn’s sexual orientation.  The roles which he was often placed in had a lot to do with how Americans viewed Asians – “Ahn often shuttled between two extreme stereotypes of Asian male sexuality (the beastly yellow rapist and the Oriental eunuch)” (Chung, 77).  Ahn’s sexuality caused contradictions to arise within Asian American masculinity and image (Chung, 77).  His speculated sexual orientation skewed the publicity of how Koreans were viewed, causing the Korean press to strongly “rule out the queer potentiality of Ahn’s celibacy to keep their hetero-normative nationalistic imagination intact (Chung, 77).  With Asian women viewed as sex objects and Asian men viewed as homosexuals, obvious problems arose for the image of Asian Americans during the 1930s.


However, despite the many negatives spins put upon Asian stars by the media, Asian stars also brought positive images to Asian Americans.  Anna May Wong made a huge impression, proving that Asians can reach stardom as well, an event that would have never happened only twenty years before.  Even so, Hollywood’s racial prejudices prevented her from reaching her full potential; hence, she moved to Europe where there existed a higher tolerance of racial differences.  Wong believed that her skills as an actress were not being fully respected and that the roles offered to her were not challenging or help her career to grow in any way in the States. This is not to say that Asians never had roles that displayed their acting skills that were beneficial to their careers and image.  In 1936, the way Asian Americans were portrayed in Hollywood was changed ever-so-slightly to a more positive view.  Philip Ahn played the romantic lead in both Daughter of Shanghai and King of Chinatown, which was considered groundbreaking due to the fact that he not only “gets the girl” but also plays the man in power (Chung, 73).  Below is a still from Daughter of Shanghai showing Ahn and Wong.

Because of the lack of Asian stars during the time, it's no wonder that people speculated a romantic interest between them

Another example of films that portrayed Asian Americans in a positive light are the Charlie Chan mysteries about an Asian detective.  This series not only centered on an Asian lead, but also on an Asian protagonist.  The Charlie Chan mysteries branched off into multiple series including the Wong and Moto versions, featuring leads of different Asian ethnicities.  Even so, the popularity of these series, along with Ahn’s starring roles in a couple of films, was only a minor improvement to how Asian Americans were portrayed in Hollywood.  The Charlie Chan series was considered a B movie production, meaning it was second to A movies.  B movies are usually shown back-to-back along side an A movie in order to gain popularity.  Not only that, but Charlie Chan was not even played by an Asian actor, but rather, a Swedish man.  Also, Ahn continued his career in minor, stereotypical roles.

Charlie Chan was a very popular series during it’s time and only became popular after White actors took the role of Charlie Chan.  Despite its popularity, it was rife with controversy, including some critics claiming that Charlie Chan is “bovine” and “asexual,” which are a few of the typical stereotypes of Asian men.

Martial Artist

Racial stereotypes did not end with the portrayals of Wong and Ahn.  Ever since Fu Manchu, the evil kung-fu master, was portrayed in The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu in 1923, the only lead roles which Asian males were able to receive were as martial arts characters.  Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li led the way in the portrayal of Asians as martial artists in cinema.  “Sure, Jackie Chan and Jet Li save the day and are the heroes, but do they ever get the girl…?” (Ngo, 1).  This ties back into the asexual qualities of Asian males in cinema.  Why is it so important for Asians in cinema to get the girl?  It is because Asian men are viewed as asexual if they don’t.  Also, other races would get the idea that taking Asian women is the right thing to do, because that is how it’s portrayed in cinema.  Thus, having Asian martial artists really doesn’t help in the accepting of Asian in American society, because the Asian protagonists are still placed in stereotypical roles and even as heroes do not receive the same treatment that White protagonists of typical American films do.


Asian Americans are not the only ones hurt by their portrayal in Hollywood.  All the other minorities are, at some point or another, negatively viewed in various films and media.  However, “Though people of color have been marginalized in American media, Asian Americans are substantially different from African Americans in their portrayals.  While African Americans are largely victims of misrepresentation, Asian Americans suffer from both misrepresentation and invisibility in the media (Park 1).  In The Birth of a Nation, Blacks were represented as sex offenders and greedy, sly people.  This is obviously a misrepresentation which made the KKK, an organization with a violent history of racism, look glorious in the film.  Asians are misrepresented as geeks, terrible spouses, and villains.  Not only that, but Asians aren’t even represented in films which display the generic population of America.  This gives Americans the idea that Asians should not be considered citizens of the US, due to the lack of representation in films.


Asian American actors starring in films that shaped views on Asian immigration such as Battle Hymn (1957), Lost in Translation (2003), Portrait of a Hitman (1977), and Harold and Kumar are influential up to this day and continue to shape people’s views of Asian Americans.

Thus, the change in Asian American celebrities, their treatment and roles in films, as well as the plot and content of films themselves, have been changing over time and in turn, influence audience views on Asian immigration. However, films like Pearl Harbor did cause some complications with the American’s views on Chinese and Japanese immigrants.  Due to films like China Sky (1945) and China Girl (1942), many Americans started to accept Chinese immigrants more and turn their xenophobia onto the Japanese. This provided perhaps a temporary boon to the portrayal of Chinese in film as opposed to Japanese characters, but overall did not help reverse the negative portrayal of Asian Americans in the media.

Hollywood is perhaps hesitant to portray positive Asians’ images in movies that provide White audiences with portrayals of social interaction among Americans of different races. According to a report by the Committee of 100, Americans are less comfortable with Asians holding positions of power in comparison with women and other minority groups (Park 13). Thus, Hollywood, being dominated by mostly Whites, portrays a vision of Asian Americans that has played a large role in the view of Asian Americans over the years, within the history of the United States and its constant change in demographics.

Work Cited

Asian American Artistry. “Asian Pacific American: Historical Timeline Details (1920 to 1929).” 31 April 2010.


Chung, Hye Seung. Hollywood Asian: Philip Ahn and the Politics of Cross-Ethnic Performance. 31 April 2010.


Ngo, Janet. “Stereotypes of the Asian Male in Hollywood: Anything more than Martial Arts Characters?” 17 November. 1 May 2010.


Park, Ji Hoon. “Representation of Asians in Hollywood Films: Sociocultural and Industrial Perspetives.” 2008. 1 May 2010.


Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. “Anna May Wong.” 25 April 2010


Wikimedia Foundations, Inc. “The Thief of Bagdad (1924 film).” 25 April 2010


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