In a style similar to Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown, Australian author Siang Lu has written a sobering and satirical novel, The Whitewash, to shed light on the ways Hollywood has misrepresented Asians in film, going back more than a century, all while he pays homage to the rich history of the Hong Kong film industry and how it and Hollywood have entwined over the decades.
There is really one book, two stories. Lu uses a fictional account of a Hong Kong spy thriller gone wrong to frame a loquacious history of Asians in film. The fictional account is entertaining, but it’s the historical story and the way Lu tells it that makes this book noteworthy.
The book is divided into sections according to chronological events. At the beginning of each, Lu includes a timeline of true events. In the first, Lu writes:
1882: The Chinese Exclusion Act is signed by President Chester A. Arthur, suspending the migration of all Chinese labourers to the United States.
1913: British novelist Sax Rohmer kicks off the craze with the serialized novel, The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu.
1923: The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu debuts as a film of the silent era.
In addition to a portrayal of Chinese as evil outsiders, Fu Manchu was played by white actors, like Warner Oland, a Swedish actor who made a name for himself acting in yellow face and who also starred in a number of Charlie Chan films as the eponymous character. This custom of white actors playing Asian characters—”whitewashing”, as it has come to be known—would continue for decades as the United States engaged in wars in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
Not surprisingly, this era of near-uninterrupted military conflict with Asian nations also saw the most egregious portrayals of whitewashing in Hollywood history, starting with 1956’s triple hit of The Conqueror, The Teahouse of the August Moon and The King and I, and reaching new lows with the A-bomb of whitewashing, 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. America’s real-world enemies have always been reflected on the silver screen.
It wasn’t just the film industry that perpetuated these racist stereotypes. American television did the same. Lu writes about a script for a television show called The Way of the Tiger, the Sign of the Dragon. Bruce Lee was the most famous Asian actor of that time in the US, but the studios had other plans.
It was a genius premise: a Shaolin monk roams the American frontier, in search of his American half-brother. Along the way, he dispenses peace and wisdom, engaging in violence only as a last resort. Sensing a hit on its hands, Warner Bros green-lit the show and renamed it Kung Fu. The studio bosses concluded, correctly, that America was ready for an Asian hero. But hold your horses now. The casting had to be just right. Not any old Asian would do. They had to get the right Asian. In other words, another white guy.
The Hong Kong film industry comes into the book as Bruce Lee brings it onto the world stage with his martial arts movies. After his death, Hong Kong cinema turns to what Lu calls “wire fu” or the practice of actors flying in the air on all but invisible wires in wuxia action flicks. Then came the high stakes action movies of John Woo and Tsui Hark. Through the narration of a fictional character in the book, Lu introduces a Hong Kong favorite who brought this genre to the world stage.
Back then he was called Donald Chow. Before he was truly big. I’d first seen him in reruns of The Bund, the Hong Kong television show they called the “Godfather of the East”. Holy hell what a star. What a man. He was tall, he was dapper, he was a rogue.
Yes, that was Chow Yun-fat. He and some Hong Kong directors like John Woo went to Hollywood, but didn’t last long there. Lu wonders if their novelty wore off or if the money to be made in China brought them back to Asia.
The non-fiction part of the book ends on a hopeful note.