The character of Fu Manchu was created 111 years ago in 1912 by author Sax Rohmer. He’s appeared in books, comics, radio, television and in motion pictures. However, the world is not the same place it was more than a century ago. In fact, the world has changed significantly since the last time we saw the evil mastermind on the big screen in 1980. So, does Fu Manchu even fit into the modern 21st century?
Before that personal opinion is offered up, it must be acknowledged that Fu Manchu has always been a problematic character. His very appearance was immediately feeding into a stereotype that all Asians were evil, a common belief at the time of his creation better known today as the “yellow peril”. The problem of cultural typecasting has always existed in Hollywood but as Black actors have been able to shed some of the racial stereotypes over the decades, the journey for Asian actors has been a longer one. In early films, they were always seen wearing slippers and silk jackets with long braids. They were servants or seen in manual labor roles. If they owned a business, it was always doing laundry for the white man or running a Chinese restaurant that was more often than not a front for criminal activity. By the 1960s, the concept of seeing blackface was mostly abandoned by Hollywood but there was still nothing wrong with Mickey Rooney’s character of I.Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), a very painful characterization to watch today.
One of the roughest aspects of the Fu Manchu films is that he is always portrayed by a white actor. The level of racism is certainly uneven as you work your way through the various film and television incarnations. My brief experience with the silent films witnessed actors in blackface, which is something I personally find disgusting and have a very hard time getting past as I watch an old film, even understanding its age and the mindset of individuals at the time. Warner Oland’s version of Fu Manchu is more bent on revenge and is missing the blatant racial overtones. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Boris Karloff’s performance in The Mask of Fu Manchu, which was deemed offensive even in 1932. A planned re-release in 1972 was met with even more protests.
Despite its popularity, the U.S. State Department requested no sequels be produced after the release of The Drums of Fu Manchu in 1940 due to China being an ally in World War II. Then, there is the case of Christopher Lee and his five films in the 1960s. His goal was world domination and while racist views against the white man are virtually unheard of in these films, the presence of a white man playing an Asian character with makeup is still front and center. Some historians have claimed that finding Asian actors who could speak English sufficiently enough were rare at the onset of sound films. However, that argument is thin at best when you see Myrna Loy on screen in 1932 playing the daughter of Fu Manchu after Anna Mae Wong had appeared in a similar role just one year earlier.
Sax Rohmer would always contend that Fu Manchu was based on villainous Chinese criminals he saw in the Limehouse district during his time as a reporter in London. There are those that profess that the racism in the original books is actually less prevalent than the film representations. Having never read any of the original novels, I honestly can’t speak to this but I am interested in reading some of the series, which have thankfully remained in print. I say thankfully because I strongly believe that these original novels and films should never be censored. They are representations of a time when many were not as sensitive towards their fellow human beings as they should have been. Many today would use the word “woke” but I absolutely despise that word and all of the negativity that comes with it. I prefer to see that the human race has entered an age of enlightenment. A time that we recognize everyone for their diversity and strengths. Many will welcome these changes with open arms while others will resist. I firmly believe time will prove who is right and who is clearly in the wrong.
Despite the changes that have occurred that are absolutely necessary for the betterment of humanity, I do believe that books, radio programs and films of the past should never be erased. They should be available for those to view and to judge for themselves. I would welcome the screenings of these films with panels that encourage discussion and open dialogue as a means to educate everyone on the past and what we can accomplish together in the future.
As for whether or not the character of Fu Manchu should be used in new books or films, I believe the only way that it could work would be to greatly rewrite the character. He would have to re-created in a way that would erase the obviously racial stereotypes. There were reasons beyond copyright issues that Fu Manchu was absent from the recent Shang-Chi movie from Marvel. Essentially, the new Fu Manchu would be a new character but with an old name and all of the historical baggage that comes with it. Although this goes against the grain of how Hollywood typically works, I would then present the greater challenge of simply creating a new character for the modern age. It would free the project from the past and leave the door open for new possibilities going forward. In other words and in my opinion, the writers should be creative as they move forward and leave the old character of Fu Manchu in the past.
Fu Manchu may not have a place at the dinner table in the 21st century but the memory of his stories should never be forgotten to ensure the insensitivities of the past never be revisited. Admitting one was wrong is never a sign of weakness but repeating those wrongs would be. It’s only through discovering the past and talking about those wrongs that we can truly move forward. This is just as true in real life as it should be for that magical world known as Hollywood.