Anna Chen’s debut column for Asia Times, 14 August 2023
In the half-century since Bruce Lee’s early death in July 1973, the image of Chinese in western culture and business has come full circle with an added twist of spite. Prior to the martial arts deity’s explosion onto cinema screens in the 1960s, Chinese men were barely seen except as anonymous hordes reminiscent of the wave warfare that kept America at bay in Korea. Their ultimate sacrifice was presented in the west as an antlike lack of humanity rather than the collective courage we recognise from the allied storming of Normandy beaches.
Chinese characters who emerged from this primordial stew were instantly vilified as Yellow Peril, attributed with every hateful human trait. This malicious template returns periodically as Fu Manchu, Dr No, Emperor Ming the Merciless and other evil Chinese who step out of line. It was “balanced” by lovable creatures like Charlie Chan (played by Swedish actor Warner Oland in eye tape); The Pink Panther’s comical Kato (Burt Kwouk, an actual East Asian) as a sidekick even more useless than his boss Inspector Clouseau, the most useless man on the planet. And also another Kato, sidekick this time to The Green Hornet in the TV series, played by an underused Bruce Lee. So much for American original thought and innovation.
The cycle for Chinese cultural representation through the geopolitical eras goes something like this: Opium Wars – bad; gold mining in California – weak; building the Central Pacific Railroad Road for low wages – good; going on strike for better wages and conditions on the CPRR – bad!; 1870s economic downturn in the US – really bad; 1882 Exclusion Act – GTFOH!; Boxer Revolution to the Republic of China – Yellow Peril; War lord Thirties – well, ding, dong, Anna May Wong!; World War 2 – welcome, bro; 1949 – Wut?; Cold War Korea – here comes that ant wave; 1960s – the Blessed Bruce be upon us.
The swinging sixties was a great decade in which to be alive if you were a member of the post-war (preferably white) working and middle-class in America, Britain or parts of Western Europe. Not so great if you were living in China and trying to rebuild your wrecked country while staring down the barrel of foreign embargoes and a messy Cultural Revolution.
Bruce Lee was born and raised in San Francisco. He was beautiful and graceful with a body sculpted like Roman marble but most impressively, instead of submissiveness to the master race, he exuded pride in his Chinese origins. And, true to the cultural aspirations of the time, he stuck up for the little people rather than sticking it to them.
His divinity was felt keenly in the UK when his Hong Kong-made Kung Fu films came out in the 1970s, Enter the Dragon being their stunning apogee. Even my dad raised his head out of his books for long enough to praise this popular hero. For the first time, young males in the West wanted be like Lee, an Asian male, instead of wanting to kick him. Tough working-class lads of every hue sought out martial arts kwoons and dojos and stuck his posters on their walls. He was an inspiration to men of colour and they loved him for it.
If he hadn’t died on the cusp of the Nixon-Kissinger agreement with Mao that would propel China, ever so slowly, into a Golden Age, he’d probably have had his own movie empire on a par with Jackie Chan: JC to Lee’s John the Baptist.
In the glory years since China proved itself to be the rising superpower, Mandarin has been taught in schools and Beijing represented supreme cool. Ten Cent movies made mega bucks. Marvel gave us Shang-Chi, the first superhero movie to star an Asian lead, and TWO Asian main characters in the Agents of Shield TV series, played by Ming-Na Wen and Chloe Bennet. Benedict Wong and Gemma Chan escaped limited prospects in the UK and built solid careers in the Marvel universe and beyond, while Sandra Oh made the sole reverse journey across the Atlantic and busted out with Killing Eve. Michelle Yeoh was Everything, Everywhere All At Once from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Star Trek. Asians were being normalised.
However, the screech of brakes and smell of burning rubber as the West performs a doughnut spin threatening to send positive images of Chinese crashing through the windscreen, means all change. How do you persuade the public that it’s okay to have a war with people they’ve been encouraged to identify with if you keep humanising them? Are buddy movies with Chinese as equal partners doomed to history before we’ve finished our popcorn? Is whitewashed Doctor Strange about to morph into Dr Strangelove or be eclipsed by Fu Manchu redux?
The tension between an industry making bank in the two leading economies and the demand by China hawks to slaughter the Golden Goose has to be resolved somehow.
A promiscuous use of backfiring tariffs and sanctions may provide the very catalyst that transforms the greenback signs in oligarchal eyes into yuan, as dumping the global reserve currency accelerates and everyone stampedes for the exit.
One advantage China will always have in this wholly unnecessary contest is the USA’s example of a modern Ozymandias: behold my works, ye mighty, and dedollarise. Never has America needed its original eastern hero as much as now to explain the art of the martial to politicians who keep pristine copies of Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War on display but never crack the spine. You’re supposed to use the weight of your opponent AGAINST him, grasshopper. And Be Like Water doesn’t mean running into the berg that sinks the USS Titanic just becuz we can.
In 2018, the International Monetary Fund’s Christine Lagarde side-eyed President Donald Trump’s imposition of tariffs on Chinese goods, loudly announcing that we were finally emerging from a Certain Someone’s Great Crash of 2008 with Another Certain Someone’s help.
Wall Street had a conniption. Gary Cohn, Trump’s Chief Economic Advisor, fumed, “Peter Navarro ratfucked us into a trade war with China by taking advantage of Trump’s very small brain.”
We watched aghast as, in the words of the British PM whose backbone hadn’t yet crumbled, Trump “let all the air out of the tyres of the global economy”. (Including, presumably, Boris Johnson’s own family’s investments. We sincerely hope he was personally reimbursed after ripping out our Huawei 5G infrastructure at the behest of the First Certain Someone with maybe a loan or sumthin’.)
And now President Joe Biden triples down on the madness.
Ironic that the Kung Fu concept of your own actions rebounding and hurting you when you point a loaded finger and find three fingers pointing back, has taken place in real time in front of our eyes. Every poisonous character assassination, every fusillade of hurt ends up damaging the perp as the target slips further out of reach.
My blu-ray of The Great Wall, perhaps the last of the Hollywood/China blockbuster lash-ups, arrived in 2018, two years after its 2016 release. Tainted by all the ensuing unpleasantness, it sits forlornly on a shelf, still in its shrink wrapper.
I may never find out how Matt Damon saved Chinese civilisation. But we’ll always have Beijing.
We'll always have Paris
Anna's website: ANNA CHEN