Representations of Asians have been at the center of US film history from its inception. At the turn of the twentieth century, interest in the Spanish-American War was met with both "actualités" (documentary or news footage) and "reenactments" (staged depictions of key events). These early representations drew from US attitudes toward other races: early cartoons depicted Filipinos as vaguely African in appearance, for example, and a 1899 film, Filipinos Retreat from Trenches , employed African American actors to portray Filipino insurgents. Throughout film history, cinematic portrayals of Asians and Asian Americans have shifted in response to world events and US foreign policy on the one hand, and have drawn from a legacy of Western attitudes toward the "Orient" on the other.
Edward Said's influential 1979 book Orientalism had a major impact on postcolonial studies, cultural studies generally, and literary studies specifically. Said argued that orientalism was not a politically neutral field of knowledge, but rather a system of governing the so-called Orient. (Note that in Europe the term "Orient" has traditionally referred to North Africa [the "Middle East"] and the Indian subcontinent [the "Near East"], whereas in the United States "Orient" typically refers to the "Far East.") While Said was specifically concerned with representations of the Middle East, scholars interested in East Asia and in Asian Americans have appropriated the term. Said argued that European writings did not illuminate the Orient so much as they revealed European attitudes about neighboring lands. After Said, then, to label a text as "orientalist" is to imply that it is culturally biased, trafficking in stereotypes of sensuality, decadence, and weakness.
Said touched briefly on the sexual aspects of orientalism, but did not fully develop these arguments. Said's conception of orientalism as the will to dominate and possess is entirely congruent with patriarchal sexuality. The "white man's burden" (the title of an 1899 poem by Rudyard Kipling, subtitled "The United States") justifies imperial domination under the guise of uplift, but is then faced with a dilemma of integration and assimilation. In Gayatri C. Spivak's formulation, the white man's burden is specifically inflected as "white men saving brown women from brown men" (287), thus allowing for simultaneously repressing Asian masculinity and celebrating Asian femininity.
Rapidly changing geopolitical circumstances, such as shifting attitudes toward US colonialism in Asia, produced complex and contradictory representations. Shifting US relations with China offer another example: in the 1920s and 1930s Hollywood depicted Chinese as despots or warlords, most famously in the figure of Fu Manchu. As China developed into an ally, the Charlie Chan figure gained ascendance, but when the Communists came to power in 1949, Hollywood shifted its attention back to Japan and Korea, where US military presence was bringing Americans into closer contact with Asia.
Fu Manchu, created by Sax Rohmer (1883–1959) (Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward) in the 1910s, is the prototypical despot bent on world domination. Fu Manchu's criminal successes are dependent not just on his position as king of a criminal underworld, but also on his tremendous intellect and scientific genius. Fu Manchu is simultaneously ascetic and sexually threatening, which is to say that his Scotland Yard foes suppose his deviance to extend to misogyny even as he seems repulsed by virile masculinity. In seeming polar opposition to Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan represents law and order. Created by Earl Derr Biggers (1884–1933), the Chinese detective from Honolulu was portrayed by Warner Oland (1879–1938) in a popular series of films produced by Fox from 1931 to 1942. Upon Oland's death in 1938 the role was taken over by Sidney Toler (1874–1947), and when Fox ended production Toler continued to play Chan in a series produced at Monogram starting in 1944. Upon Toler's death, Roland Winters (1904–1989) took on the role until the Monogram series ended in 1949. (In total, Fox made twenty-seven films, Monogram made seventeen.) Accompanied by his "Number One Son" (played with all-American vim by Keye Luke [1904-1991]), who did much of his legwork, Chan traveled the globe, and his reputation as a brilliant detective preceded him and typically won over racist skeptics. Chan is perhaps best known for his aphorisms, witty sayings that have been derided by his detractors as "fortune-cookie philosophy."
Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan are seeming opposites, but both were known for their keen intellects and weak bodies (both men delegated strenuous activity to their children—Fu Manchu to his vamp daughter, Chan to his eldest son). Another curious point of similarity is their paradoxical sexuality: Fu simultaneously asexual and predatory, Chan seemingly shy but blessed with dozens of children. In Hollywood films, such paradoxes were typical for Asian masculinity. The "chink" in Griffith's Broken Blossoms (1919), played by Richard Barthelmess (1895–1963), is a noble figure in large part due to his refusal to act on the sexual desires that inspire his devotion; General Yen (Nils Asther) in The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933) commits suicide and thus spares the missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) the need to resolve her own anxieties about miscegenation.
The situation for Asian femininity was somewhat different. The roles accorded to Asian and Asian American women in the studio era were of course constrained by Hollywood conceptions of gender. Career women, regardless of race, were portrayed as homewreckers or dragon ladies of a sort. Nevertheless, US attitudes toward miscegenation cannot be discounted when considering cinematic depictions of gender. Romantic relationships between Asian women and white men were far more prevalent than those between Asian men and white women, in accordance with US perceptions about cultural difference and assimilation (men posed a threat of ineradicable foreignness while women had the potential for absorption into US culture). In the years following World War II, when US gender roles were being redefined in large part due to the legacy of Rosie the Riveter, the popular representation of working women during the period, the perceived traditionalism of Asian cultures (an orientalist perception) marked Asian women as domestically oriented and subservient. Concurrently, the US occupation of Japan and Okinawa following World War II, and US involvement in the war in Korea (1950–1953), were responsible for significant numbers of interracial marriages (between US servicemen and foreign nationals) as well as, perhaps, an association of Asian women with prostitution. In the 1957 film Sayonara , Marlon Brando (1924–2004) portrayed an Air Force officer stationed in occupied Japan who falls in love with a Japanese woman (Miiko Taka) after much soul-searching. The film's message of racial tolerance is put in service of a conservative affirmation of the sexist ideology of romantic love. The apotheosis of romantic melodrama in this mode was The World of Suzie Wong (1960), adapted from a Broadway play that was in turn adapted from a best-selling novel by Richard Mason (1919–1997). An American expatriate (William Holden) falls in love with a Hong Kong prostitute (Nancy Kwan) and (again, after much soul-searching) asks her to follow him (presumably, back home to the United States). While Sayonara 's heroine was a woman of some social standing, Suzie Wong transmitted the notion that Asian women are inherently submissive, even to the point of depicting Suzie's friends complimenting her for inspiring violent jealousy in her lover.
These romantic melodramas differed from pre-1940 tragic romance narratives by allowing the interracial attraction to be consummated. Movies made under the Production Code generally ended with the death of one of the lovers (with the white partner surviving more often than not). Furthermore, the Asian characters were typically portrayed by a white actor made up in "yellow face" makeup (minimally, minor prosthetics to alter the shape of the eyes). Cultural conventions dictated that if the characters were of different races, it would be preferable if the actors were both white. Thus the practice of "yellow face" casting was driven not solely by economic concerns (casting a film with established white stars in favor of unknown Asian American actors), but also by responsiveness to societal taboos.