A blockbuster set to change the world

“That whole story definitely embodies a ‘Lotus Blossom’ stereotype, which is a submissive, fragile and servile Asian woman whose sole purpose is to pleasure the white male lead and sacrifice herself,” says Yuen. This type of character can also be seen in works such as musical Miss Saigon and novel-turned-film Memoirs of a Geisha. Another toxic stereotype when it comes to portraying East Asian women is the so-called “Dragon Lady”: an “exotic” femme-fatale who is deemed deceitful and villainous for using her sexuality to manipulate others. It’s a dangerous cliché seen in Western films from Kill Bill to Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, where a Vietnamese sex worker coins the infamous lines “Me so horny” and “Me love you long time”. “I’ve been propositioned in the street by people using quotes from that film….,” says Wang Yuen, “It does subconsciously have an impact. It’s very complex but I think popular culture plays a huge role and has an effect on how people perceive ethnic groups.”

Hollywood’s first Chinese-American star and icon, Anna May Wong, was typecast and required to portray both the Lotus Blossom and Dragon Lady stereotypes on screen in films during the 1920s and 1930s, with her characters often dying. Then on the occasion where she had hoped to play a romantic lead role, as O-Lan in the 1937 adaptation of novel The Good Earth, the role was infamously given to German actress Luise Rainer, who appeared in yellowface.

By contrast, if Asian women have fought sexualised stereotypes, in Western popular culture, “South East and East Asian men are completely emasculated,” says British-East Asian actor and writer, Daniel York Loh. “When you watch Western TV, you’d think Asian men don’t procreate. Asian male characters are often portrayed as either passive nerds or “evil villains, and these are really damaging stereotypes,” he says.

Going back in Western popular culture, the quintessential Asian villain was Dr Fu Manchu, who in fact was Shang-Chi’s problematic nemesis and father in the original Marvel comics, but has been replaced for the film by The Mandarin. Fu Manchu first appeared in 1910 in British author Saxon Rohmer’s novels centred on the character, and imagining him as a master of disguise, master of chemistry, and all-round evil genius: he clearly perpetuated and embodied “Yellow Peril”, the racist idea that Asian cultures threatened Western society. The books were published around 30 years after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act in the US prohibiting the immigration of Chinese labourers, which built upon the Page Act of 1875 that banned Chinese women from entering the country. 

“Fu Manchu is an interesting one because on screen he has never been portrayed by an East Asian Actor,” says York Loh, noting how instead he has always been portrayed by a white male actor in yellowface and with an over exaggerated accent and mannerisms. Memories of York Loh’s childhood, he says, include “watching Fu Manchu films on Sunday afternoons with Christopher Lee in yellowface and wondering ‘do Chinese men not act?'”. It’s clear that Marvel’s decision to shun Fu Manchu’s racist history and bring in a new antagonist is a wise one, as journalist and Asian Movie Pulse reviewer Grace Han notes: “In the context of current global affairs and realising that the world is different now, I think it’s a very smart move.”

The wider context

The big question that Shang-Chi raises is: when it comes to South East and East Asian representation, has Hollywood reached a tipping point? If so, it could be perceived as, above all else, a commercial move on the studio’s part. Han sees Shang-Chi as part of a general trend for superhero movies to market themselves as something other than another production-line franchise film so that more people buy into them, whether that is through “diversity casting or trying to represent minority stories” or otherwise. In this respect, Marvel also has an advantage “because they have the storylines already written out to play around with,” she adds. Indeed, the late Marvel figurehead, Stan Lee, was praised for the multiculturalism of the characters he created.

That is now being reflected on the big screen in a raft of more diverse Marvel movies, including Black Panther, Shang-Chi and the upcoming Eternals, directed by another Asian-American filmmaker, Oscar-winner Chloe Zhao, and featuring a team of superheroes with a variety of ethnicities (unlike the original Avengers). However, while they may offer a vision that reflects Lee and the original Marvel creators’ values, the ultimate reason for their existence is “to make money”, Han says, and in that respect “Black Panther [with its huge box office success] really paved the path for all these other films”. In Shang-Chi’s case, with the cast being made up of some of Asia’s biggest stars, including Leung and Michelle Yeoh, Marvel is making a smart branding decision to not just consider the American audience but to appease the “diaspora and international audiences too”, she believes.

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