Two contemporary audio books I recently listened to while commuting surprised me with antiquated Chinese stereotypes. One of the odd things about this was that both were fantasy books. The characters, names, and concepts which stand out to me this way were not Chinese. They weren’t even Asian. They weren’t on Earth. What they were was “yellow-face.”
In Hollywood near the middle of the last century, Chinese were specifically excluded from permanent immigration to the US, except in miniscule numbers. Most immigration from China was limited to working men. This created a bachelor society that, along with its multigenerational effects, have been well-depicted in literature, especially Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls, Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (also a movie), and Wayne Wang’s movie, Eat a Bowl of Tea. These books and movies fill in the missing Chinese side of the Chinese-American experience in mid-century and after.
However, because Chinese were missing, and yet so fascinating to non-Chinese Americans, something was required to fill the gap. The Chinese were missing because they were barred, but in movies (as in audio books), non-Chinese could temporarily become Chinese. Parallel to Anglo-Americans’ adoption of “blackface” to depict black characters (not black people) to audiences segregated by Jim Crow laws, white film actors donned “yellow-face” to depict Chinese characters (again, not Chinese people) to audiences segregated on the spot by Jim Crow-type laws and remotely by the Chinese Exclusion Act.
The most conspicuous Chinese protagonist in American films of the 1930s and ‘40s was designed to counteract negative stereotypes, but was not played by a Chinese actor. Earl Derr Biggers, who has too many r-controlled vowels in his name (a sound appearing, as far as I can tell, only in American English, Mandarin Chinese, and Korean, go figure), may have intended Charlie Chan to counteract the negative stereotypes of Chinese villains prominent in American depictions. These are so comical today that we hardly think of them, so good work, Mr. Biggers.
What we’re left with is a different range of stereotypes, including reflexive subservience, docility (or stoicism, or fatalism), unthinking adherence to tradition, and bad English skills. These featured prominently in Charlie Chan films, and yet the actors in those films were, at first, Japanese and Korean Americans, and later Swedish and Anglo Americans. The Japanese and Korean actors got one turn each, but the films were not successful. Then a Swedish actor, Warner Oland, took on the role and made it a succes. A series of Anglo actors took on the role in subsequent films (after Oland’s death and in radio dramas.
What does that matter for contemporary fantasy fiction? I’ve never seen a “Charlie Chan” film, read one of Biggers’ novels, or heard one of the derived radio dramas, and yet I am familiar with the character because the stereotype is pervasive. I know it through ripples and echoes. All the information above was in my own memory, with the exception of specific names. This is how stereotypes work – participants in a culture transmit them to each other, without reflection.
The two audio books I recently found echoing and rippling with Charlie Chan stereotypes were David Gemmell’s Hero in the Shadows, the ninth in a series I’d never paid attention to before, but not necessarily following on the eighth Tales of Drennai book, and Terry Pratchett’s Snuff, an otherwise entertaining and carefully knit-together continuation of the story of Detective Sam Vimes’s aspects of Discworld, also not required to be read in order.
In both cases, the authors made forceful points against prejudice, and yet included the Chinese stereotypes (rather, stereotypes of Chinese) of subservience, poor speech / understanding, and overadherence to tradition, and in each case the reader multiplied that by choosing vocal characterizations that fit the “yellow face” stereotypes associated with Charlie Chan.
One of the supporting characters in Snuff is a constable whose mother was born overseas, and who therefore has different language and food customs to draw on. Everybody is very complimentary of the mother’s cooking, but Pratchett makes a recurring joke of describing dishes that have very similar sounding names, and generally include the sounds “suck” and “dog.” So we get the dog-eating stereotype, along with mockery of Chinese names. I listened patiently throughout the book for Pratchett to use the names of the food, or the foods themselves, as a plot device, but as far as I can see he just returned to them time and again for what I consider to be a cheap laugh.
What would it be like for Pratchett to have joked about people who eat pickled fish and have names like Weinberg and Silverstein having long noses and being avaricious. Would readers think, “Oh, those merry Jews” and feel good about it?
The oddest thing about this is that overcoming prejudice is the major theme of Snuff. Pratchett introduces an icky characteristic (vessels for collecting substances removed or extracted from the body) of an unloved people (goblins) and makes his alter-ego Sam Vimes and the readers not only come to accept them, but appreciate them.
David Gemmell is less focused on combating prejudice in Hero in the Shadows, but oddly, his three Asian-ish characters (all from a land called “Chiatze”) all face discrimination by the locals, and get some form of revenge or satisfaction against that. It’s a strong minor theme. These important supporting characters are: Matze Chai (a reliably greedy merchant with “almond-shaped eyes,” an effeminate lifestyle, and a fatalism that helps him endure what he can’t overcome), Kysumu (a small-statured “rajnee warrior,” bred through extremes of technical proficiency and self-denial to carry on an ages-old tradition), and Yu Yu Liang (a “ditch-digger” the reader played like a Hong Kong movie comedy role).
Part of the characterization that made me think of Charlie Chan (though that was from ignorance – Warner Oland speaks quite loudly and clearly in the little scene I just looked up online) was the voice actor’s breathy speech for all of these three “Chiatze” characters. More than the other two, he represents Yu Yu as a bit buffoonish, his speech halting over Ls, Rs, and consonant blends, and his vowel sounds cut back to just five or six. I think the voice characteristics are more in keeping with Gedde Watanabe as Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles than with Warner Oland in the Charlie Chan films.
Both authors are pretty much off the hook for stereotyping complaints – Pratchett because the focus of Snuff is overcoming prejudice, and Gemmell because his three Asian-ish characters overcome prejudice, and the voice actor is not the same as the author. However, it feels odd to encounter stereotypes about Chinese in literature that doesn’t have any Chinese in it.