Anna Cabe, a English Literature-Creative Writing senior, presented her topic “This is not China: Images and Ideology Surrounding Chinatown” early in the SpARC day, but her film presentation which included video clips from films engaged the audience early for our Thursday presentations.
Focusing on two films, Flower Drum Song (1961) and The Year Dragon (1985), Cabe discussed the historical context of Chinatown as well as the images of the cities in the movies themselves. Chinatown historically was viewed as a tourist spectacle, a “piece of China transplanted to the west,” or a way for American tourists to travel to the east without going to China. But it was also seen as the “other” lawless space of a city, which allowed Eurocentric thinking to display their anxieties about themselves. Thus, Chinatown had gambling, drugs and sex work, while the European “main” part of the city had morals and cleanliness. Chinatown is both “corrupted and corrupting.” The two films which Cabe presented manipulated or worked with this older stereotype.
The quote from Cabe’s project’s title comes from Flower Drum Song and speaks to the agency of self-identification with that film allows. A romantic musical involving a love quadrangle including an illegal immigrant from China, Mei Li. The film was based on a novel by a Chinese immigrant C.Y. Lee. The film is the first major feature film to an all Asian-American cast (except for one white mugger), and while some of the Chinese characters have seemingly transgressive morals, they are allowed to settle down in the neat romantic plot. The film does other the immigrants, but they are the othered to the Chinese-Americans who have achieved hybridized identities, which is expressed as an option. In the film, characters seem to be allowed to choose between being fully Chinese, fully American, or in a hybrid liminal spaces.
There is ethnic destabilization throughout the film, including when Chinese women dress up as women of the world in stereotypical garb during a musical number. But according to Cabe, this speaks to the malleability of the characters’ identities which is allowed in this fully Chinese community.
In contrast, The Year of the Dragon, set in New York’s Chinatown, and centers around Chinese drug gangs. The hero of the story is a police officer named Stanley White who attempts to root out the corruption in the city. Chinatown, unlike in Flower Drum Song, is highly orientalized and looks like the seedy underbelly described in the 1800’s stereotypes. The main concern of the police officers is the safety of the “tourists” in the city, which means the white tourists. White blames the crime on “thousands of years” of culture, implying that the Chinese culture is one that is refusing to change, opposed to one that is oppressed. The film also deals with the new “yellow peril” of the 1980’s, which was the importation of drugs from these exotic locations. Also instead of engaging with racial dynamics, the majority of the main Chinese characters are dead at the end of the film.
Cabe concluded that while Flower Drum Song, Mei Li, the immigrant heroine has every choice in how to construct her identity, including how to reveal she is an illegal immigrant while remaining in the United States, which she does with an idiomatic phrase from China. Cabe was able to explicate the circumstances of the different deceptions of Chinese-American culture in the two different years with Flower Drum Song coming out during the height of the civil rights movement, while The Year of the Dragon was released during the war on drugs under President Reagan.