“This is Fu Manchu. Once again the world is at my mercy. I have conquered not only the mysteries of the continent but now of the oceans too. In the tropical waters of the south Atlantic my hand stretches out to turn water into ice – and to transform safety into the deadliest peril. In a few moments the proof of my mastery will be complete.”
– Fu Manchu in The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969)
In the 1986 cult classic Big Trouble in Little China, starring Kurt Russell, San Francisco’s Chinatown is stereotypically portrayed as a dark and exotic space where danger lurks around every corner and a two-thousand-year-old Chinese sorcerer named Lo Pan, played by legendary Asian-American actor James Hong, is a mystical, evil entity who has his underlings kidnap young women with green eyes, so he can become mortal once again. It is this trope of Asian-American evildoers intent on conquering the world, or at least San Francisco’s Chinatown in this case, lurking in the shadows and disposing of anyone who gets in their way, that is a continuation of the Dr. Fu Manchu stereotype and still persists today. From his inception, the figure of Fu Manchu has survived and evolved in one form or another over the course of time. In Christopher Nolan’s recently concluded Dark Knight trilogy, the memory of Fu Manchu is invoked and the Asian-American presence in the trilogy is similarly depicted as an evil and insidious “yellow peril” who threatens the Eurocentric world order and (white) society at large.
The term “yellow peril” initially referred to Chinese immigrants or “coolies” during the mid-nineteenth century and later to the Japanese in the early twentieth century after their defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 and again during the 1980s with the rise of Japanese corporations in various industries. The term connoted the belief that Asian (mainly Chinese) immigration to the U.S., and later the military and economic expansion by the Japanese, threatened a Eurocentric worldview and standard of life. Anti-Asian sentiment was prevalent during these periods as Asians were lumped together under the banner of the monolithic moniker of the “yellow peril”: “The newly constructed ‘yellow peril’ scare did not distinguish among Asian ethnicities – all of Asia collapsed into one yellow horde in the American imagination” (Moy 83). The anxiety over the perceived “invasions” manifested in discriminatory legislation meant to prevent naturalization (i.e., the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the Immigration Act of 1917, etc.) as were viewed as undesirable, non-white immigrants who were a menace and threat to white society.
This hysteria over the invading yellow horde manifested itself and found its way into popular culture through the character of Dr. Fu Manchu who became the embodiment of the yellow peril and personified this anxiety over an Asian mob who threatened white wages and culture: “The Yellow Peril came in the form of immigrants who resided in the Chinatowns of the white world. This Yellow Peril as given a face and a body in Dr. Fu Manchu, the fiendish mastermind created in the novels of Sax Rohmer” (Lee 113). The character of Fu Manchu was widespread in various forms of media and millions of followers became acquainted with his misdeeds over the course of forty years: “In the forty years that spanned Fu Manchu’s career in evil, millions read the books, listened to stories about him on the radio, watched him on film and television, and followed his crimes in the comics” (Lee 114). Consequently, the character of Dr. Fu Manchu unequivocally had an effect on society and influenced the popular opinion of Asian Americans as a dangerous, shifty group.
Fu Manchu has the unfortunate distinction of being the “first universally recognized Oriental and became the archetype of villainy” (Lee 114). Throughout the various incarnations of the character, Fu Manchu remains mostly hidden while his minions execute his evil plans and threaten the white world and Eurocentric ideals:
He is the epitome of the abject outsider who is a menace, threatens a way of life, and “is the very definition of the alien, an agent of a distant threat who resides among us” (Lee 116). For Rebecca Wingfield, not only was Fu Manchu the yellow peril incarnate but he also reified stereotypes of Chinese immigrants, which still linger today:
Fu Manchu lives on in the cultural imaginary and still exists, to quote Morpheus from The Matrix, “like a splinter in the mind.” The figure of Fu Manchu and his legacy as an underhanded and devious menace have been re-appropriated and re-positioned in this century in the recent Christopher Nolan adaptations of the DC Comics’ character of Batman.
In opposition to Tim Burton’s gothic version of the Caped Crusader, Batman (1989), part of the brilliance of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) is that the film delves into and revels in the origins of Batman (which is always the most interesting aspect of any superhero) and what motivates Bruce Wayne to dress up like a bat to fight the criminal underbelly of Gotham, including the anger and guilt he felt over the death of his parents at the hands of Joe Chill. While Burton’s film certainly touches upon the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, it largely glosses over his backstory in favor of shots of a brooding, melancholic Bruce Wayne and the trademark acting theatrics of Jack Nicholson as the Joker. From his genesis, the character of Batman has since become the embodiment of anger and a symbol of the will to extinguish injustice and crime from the streets by any means necessary, aside from cold-blooded murder: “Bill Finger and Bob Kane had created a character so elemental and so true that he could be easily turned into an embodiment of the doubt, anger, and yearning for explosive freedom inside a generation fifty years distant from their own” (Jones 331).
Batman Begins opens with Bruce Wayne as a child chasing Rachel Dawes through the gardens of Wayne Manor just before he falls down an old well where hundreds of bats fly out of what later becomes the Batcave and engulf a young Bruce. A jump cut finds an unkempt, scraggly adult Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in a prison in Bhutan where evil, shadowy Asian faces leer at him in his cell and in the next scene as he walks toward the line for food. While in line, he is attacked by six Asian prison inmates and after disposing of them single-handedly, Bruce is then put in solitary confinement. While secluded from the other prisoners, he first meets Ducard (Liam Neeson) who mysteriously appears in an expensive suit and tie in Bruce’s cell, which sharply contrasts with the surroundings of the prison, Bruce’s tattered prison clothes, and the uniforms of the other Asian prisoners and guards. In this scene, Ducard represents white privilege because he has the power to enter and leave the Asian space of the prison. Ducard tells Bruce that if he can bring a rare blue flower that grows on the eastern slopes to the top of the mountain he may find what he is looking for. Intrigued by the proposal, Bruce travels to the mountains after picking the blue flower to find the League of Shadows. While on his journey to the lair of the League, he encounters a young boy and an old Asian male telling him to turn back. The old man is viewed through a lens that judges him as primitive and superstitious as he lives in fear of the League and in squalor atop the mountain away from civilization.
As Bruce enters the monastery occupied by the League of Shadows, members of various races/ethnicities emerge out of the darkness before seeing Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) sitting atop an ornate throne like a Chinese emperor. Ra’s Al Ghul is essentially the character of Dr. Fu Manchu transposed to the twenty-first century in the film; he even sports a Fu Manchu-esque gray beard. As Ra’s Al Ghul, which appropriately means “head of the demon” in Arabic, Ken Watanabe is given scant screen time, minimal dialogue, and basically plays a stereotypical monk figure who is serene, wise, and speaks in Zen koans. In one scene, Ra’s holds a panoptic gaze on his followers as he applauds Bruce’s abilities after Bruce outsmarts Ducard during a final test to purge and control his fears. While embodying Ra’s Al Ghul, Watanabe is representative of the yellow peril as he plans to lead the League of Shadows to Gotham in order to destroy it, and Bruce is ideally placed to head this destruction since he is a prominent citizen of Gotham.
Through flashbacks, we see Bruce travel the world to understand the criminal mind and conquer his fears where he is collaborating with an Asian criminal element before he is arrested by Chinese police officials. Intercut with Bruce’s training sequence during his time with the League is a scene depicting an Asian criminal who has been captured by the League and is portrayed as meek and groveling in this scene as he whimpers and pleads for his life in a bamboo cage. The pitiful and submissive Asian subject in this scene acts as a counterpoint to the imposing and daunting Ra’s Al Ghul who embodies the yellow peril. During his training, Bruce is told that “men fear most what they cannot see,” and the other members of the League of Shadows are taught to be “invisible” which evokes a politics of invisibility that Asian Americans struggle to defy and be seen through.
While the League of Shadows has members of various ethnicities, it is tied to Asianness as some members are clearly Asian, and it is secluded in the mountains of the Himalayas. As a collective, they are depicted as mysterious and inscrutable, and Bruce must travel to a far-off, exotic space to find them, all traditionally stereotypes of Asian Americans. While the ethnicities of all the members of the League of Shadows are not easily discernible, since most of them are wearing masks and largely bathed in darkness throughout the film, their hideaway is located in Asia and seemingly led by an Asian male, which also links the League to a certain Asianness. Ninjas, ninjitsu, and the martial arts in general are all closely associated with Asianness as well. According to Jane Park, while the imagery in the second half of the film is not as explicitly Asian as the first half, “the specter of the Orient implicitly continues to drive the narrative. Specifically, the technologies used by the League to attempt its destruction of Gotham and by Bruce to protect it are linked to East Asia and the Middle East” (Park 32).
By the end of the film, however, in standard Eurocentric fashion, The League of Shadows is actually led by a white male in the form of Ducard, who turns out to be the real Ra’s Al Ghul, and the bats are used “literally and figuratively, to defend Gotham (read the United States) against foreign invasion by an invisible, insidious, and technologized Orient in the film’s climactic revelation of R’as Al Ghul’s true identity as Ducard, an amalgam of East and West gone horribly wrong” (Park 33). Although Ra’s Al Ghul is transmogrified from Asian to Caucasian in the narrative, the viewer still believes he is Asian throughout the majority of the film, thereby firmly connecting him to Asianness before the reveal. At the end of the film, the League of Shadows is an evil horde/yellow peril descending upon Gotham after they first burn down Wayne Manor. During the climax, Batman swoops in to face Ra’s Al Ghul before he can board the monorail with the microwave emitter, which would vaporize the Gotham’s water supply and release the neurotoxin. Faced with two of his henchmen in The League of Shadows, Batman rhetorically asks, “I can’t beat two of your pawns?” This reference to the henchmen/ninjas as “pawns” links Asianness, and minorities in general, with being disposable, incapable, and of little value.
The sequel The Dark Knight (2008) is a tale of good vs. evil, morality vs. corruption, and order vs. chaos, which plays out in the narrative with the symbolic battle between Batman and The Joker over the morals and principles of Harvey Dent. The character of Lau (Chin Han) is the epitome of greed, corruption, and treachery as he evades the authorities and later double-crosses the mob, and he is the embodiment of the yellow peril/Fu Manchu who poses an economic threat similar to the ways in which Japanese were perceived during the 1980s when the yellow peril again took the form of the Japanese who posed an economic threat to the U.S. As the world saw the ascent of Japanese corporations in the electronics and car industries, the media began “reactivating World War II stereotypes of the Japanese as less human and more machinelike” (Park 7). Japan became inextricably linked with technology in the cultural imaginary, and this legacy still persists and continues to be exhibited in imagery today.
Through their possession of economic capital, the Japanese appeared to be appropriating American culture while, through their expert manipulation of technology, also questioning what it meant to be human. The combination resulted in new stereotypes of the Japanese as dangerous agents of a new economic and technological yellow peril that threatened to destroy the authenticity and legitimacy of American culture. (Park 8)
These stereotypes were subsequently transposed to any and all other East Asian-American categories and manifested in popular culture imagery in films from Blade Runner to Black Rain.
Lau is first introduced as a foreigner with a heavy accent as he is seen giving a presentation to the board of directors of Wayne Enterprises. In the next scene, Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) explains to Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) that Lau Security Investments’ revenue stream may be illegal, and Lau along with his corporation are almost immediately associated with criminality. As the accountant for the mob, he is portrayed as the dual stereotype of the geeky Asian nerd who is “good with calculation” and as the sneaky, sinister, and greedy criminal waiting behind-the-scenes to take over Gotham economically.
During the meeting of mob bosses to discuss the plight of The Batman, Lau only appears as a disembodied face on a television screen and as a mediated image. The Joker (Heath Ledger) refers to Lau as the “TV screen,” which deprives him of any subjectivity and as a “squealer,” which conflates him with snitches, swine, or rodents. Lau lacks presence in this meeting, which renders him invisible, and he later shuts off the video feed, which further punctuates his absence and represents the cowardly act of running away to avoid conflict.
The very fact that Lau cravenly flees to Hong Kong due to their extradition laws evokes the stereotype of Asian Americans being ethnically loyal to one another regardless of circumstances, in this case involving criminal behavior. He is an abject body who is not part of the body politic in Gotham City and returns to the foreign space of Hong Kong in order to seek asylum, but is also abjected in Hong Kong as he stays secluded in his office building apart from the rest of society. He is depicted as having no agency as he is forcibly brought back to Gotham City by Batman. Also, after the Joker sets off a bomb in the offices of the Major Crimes Unit to get his hands on Lau and escape, Lau is shown timorously cowering in his jail cell, similar to the prisoner of the League of Shadows in Batman Begins discussed earlier.
In the film, Lau deviously goes behind the backs of the authorities and gangsters by leaving the country and moving the mob’s money without telling them. After Batman brings him back to Gotham and he is being interrogated by Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), he becomes a “rat” as he is more than willing to turn on the mob without any real resistance in exchange for immunity and his return to Hong Kong. With this sequence of events, Lau becomes conflated with a rat and the accompanying imagery in a similar way that the Chinese were associated with rodents during the minstrel period.
In the era of minstrelsy, the Chinese were depicted as “eating mice and rats, animals considered filthy and disease-carrying and therefore dangerous and polluting” (Lee 39). Cuisine is a central signifier through which a society determines identity, resulting in one symbolically becoming what they eat. Numerous songs on the minstrel circuit made reference to the Chinese eating rodents. One song in particular, “Hay Sing, Come from China,” had a refrain which stated:
In a similar vein, Lau is turned into a polluting and menacing figure in the film through this relation to being a “rat,” and he is portrayed as being dangerous to both law-abiding society and the criminal element.
Later in the film, Lau is tied up with duct tape over his mouth, rendering him voiceless and invisible as he sits atop a mountain of mob money representing both his greed and the extent of the criminality of the mob. Lau is toyed with as the Joker throws stacks of money at him, further degrading and humiliating him. The Joker proceeds to burn the money along with Lau while he is still alive as he again has no agency or ability to act on his own behalf, and he suffers a violently spectacular death. In Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman is concerned with the “spectacular nature of black suffering and, conversely, the dissimulation of suffering through spectacle” (22) and how slaves were utilized as “vehicles for white enjoyment” (23) that articulated the master’s power and authority. The viewer is meant to derive satisfaction from Lau’s suffering as The Joker’s power is realized through Lau’s spectacular death in this scene, and the yellow peril is symbolically eradicated. In The Dark Knight, Lau embodies the yellow peril who leads to the downfall of the mob by serving as the catalyst for the RICO case against the mob and is an economic threat to Gotham who poses a foreign danger of invading Gotham (U.S.) and taking over the city.
Unfortunately, The Dark Knight Rises is ultimately only notable for reinscribing a politics of invisibility for Asian Americans who are underrepresented and almost entirely absent in the film. Let me be clear, in no way am I suggesting or implying that the producers, writers, or Christopher Nolan have any obligation to include an Asian American presence in their Batman films, but I was disappointed at the pronounced lack of any Asian Americans in the film especially after such a prominent presence in the first two films in the trilogy. The only Asian-American character of any note was played by Reggie Lee and acted simply as a go-between for John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the police force trapped underground in the tunnels after Bane sets off his explosives in the sewers. The character was basically an overvalued supernumerary who simply passed notes from Blake to his superior and never spoke a single line of dialogue in the film. Gotham seems to be completely devoid of any Asian Americans with this one minor exception. It appears as though during Bane’s war on Gotham he issued his own version of Executive Order 9066 and any and all Asian Americans were interned just like Japanese Americans during World War II and were nowhere to be seen. For me, the film was a major letdown and disappointment for this reason.
Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is undeniably a part of popular culture, which is viewed by a large portion of society. For this reason, what I find disturbing is who these films are targeting and marketed toward and just who, in fact, is watching these films. As is the case with many films based on comic books whose viewers are fans of the source material, these works appeal to younger adolescents who are at an impressionable age and easily influenced by what they are viewing. These visual idioms affect society and continue to perpetuate false perceptions of Asian Americans that have endured since their immigration to the U.S., which I find to be extremely deleterious.
As culture is refined through criticism and critical theory exposes what is underlying seemingly harmless forms of entertainment, these continual depictions of and allusions to the yellow peril must be noted and revealed. While on the one hand, I enjoyed all of Nolan’s batman films; on the other hand, images of the Asian American as the sneaky, polluting, and invading yellow peril contained within these filmic narratives were immediately striking and disturbing. This stereotype of the Asian American as Dr. Fu Manchu is still alive and well and continues to marginalize and inflect how Asian Americans are perceived by society as a danger and threat to the “American” way of life.
Batman Begins. Dir. Christopher Nolan. By Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer. Perf. Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, and Katie Holmes. Warner Bros., 2005.