Sax Rohmer’s series of novels, and the films that they inspired, are the subject of much controversy. But we need to see them in context to understand them.
Just over a week ago, I took part in an audio commentary track for Jess Franco‘s 1968 film The Blood of Fu Manchu, about to be released as part of a box set of the Fu Manchu series made during the second half of the 1960s. This release has not been universally welcomed – the whole Fu Manchu idea is shrouded in controversy, perhaps now more than ever. At a time when films and TV shows are being pulled from assorted platforms over accusations of ‘blackface’, regardless of context, a collection of films in which caucasian English actor Christopher Lee plays a Chinese supervillain is bound to cause eyebrows to be raised in some circles – and that’s not to even get into the wider accusations of racism aimed at the Sax Rohmer novels.
The outrage over the novels and the films is understandable. But I think Fu Manchu, as a character, is more interesting than we have been told, and the films that feature him – all of which have white actors made up to appear Chinese as the title character – need to be seen in the context of their time. Let’s deal with those first.
As described in the novels, Fu Manchu is a man of advanced years and towering height who has discovered the formula of youth. He holds doctorates from four Western universities (which ones depend on the book or film in question) and speaks perfect English. Now, it seems unlikely that low budget films being made in the 1960s were ever going to cast a Chinese actor in the role. The best part of a decade later, Bruce Lee was still being rejected as the lead for the TV series Kung Fu because the idea of an Asian star at that time was unthinkable – and that was a show that he’d originated. The sad fact is that there were relatively few Chinese actors in the UK in the mid-Sixties, and none of them was close to being a star. These low budget films depended on a name actor – and a genre icon – to pull in the crowds. Yes, we can look back at them now and cringe at the idea of Lee playing a Chinese character (and he had form on this before the Fu Manchu films, in both Terror of the Tongs and The Devil’s Daffodil) but at the time, it would have been considered unremarkable.
And let’s be brutally honest here – I’m not sure that actually we’ve progressed that much. ‘Yellowfacing’ might be frowned on now, but the presence of ‘Oriental’ (to use the old, now also controversial word as shorthand for differentiating between people from the Far and Near East who might all otherwise be referred to as ‘Asian’) faces on British screens is still something so rare that you will notice it. There are few actors – and even fewer in leading roles – and barely any newsreaders or TV presenters. If this was the case with any other minority race, there would be understandable outrage, yet here it seems to go unquestioned. There is still, it seems, a weird level of acceptability towards a level of racism towards people of Chinese/Japanese/Korean origin – one that would certainly be denied and explained away, but which is definitely noticeable. Don’t take my word for it – watch British TV for a week and count how many Oriental faces you see (US films and TV shows excluded).
Under the circumstances, Lee does his best with the Fu Manchu character. He was, of course, familiar with the novels beforehand, and doesn’t play the role as a caricature – his Fu Manchu is dignified and serious, and there are no hokey accents at play. He is no Charlie Chan or Benny Hill. If Lee’s Fu Manchu is less nuanced than the character in the novels, then that is almost certainly down to producer and frequent writer Harry Alan Towers – his films took the characters of the novels but junked the stories for some godforsaken reason, and his own tales were not an improvement. But Lee was not the sort of actor to sit back and allow his characters to become empty stereotypes if he could avoid it, and even if the later Fu Manchu films sat alongside the later Dracula films in his list of disappointing sequels, the character that he established in the first film – a powerful, ruthless and sophisticated villain – continues throughout the four follow-ups.
Fu Manchu was, of course, played by Western actors throughout his film and television incarnations, from Boris Karloff to Peter Sellers (whose Fiendish Plot of Fu Manchu ended the character as a cinematic figure – by 1981, the idea of actors ‘yellowing up’, even for a satire, was already beyond the pale). Although new Fu Manchu projects have been mooted from time to time, it seems ever more unlikely that the Doctor will return to the screen – even if a Chinese actor was to take the role (and with China now a major box office force, there’s thankfully a lot less resistance to casting Asian actors in lead roles), the character would be seen as far too problematic and saddled with far too much imperialist baggage.
But that’s a shame, because although Rohmer’s novels certainly reflect the racial attitudes of their time – and are absolutely awash with ideas of ‘the yellow peril’ and imperialist British fantasies, even though Rohmer seems to have a genuine admiration for China in many ways – there is an idea at the heart of them, and within the central character, that is worth exploring. The Fu Manchu novels are a lot more than simple racist tracts. As well as often being cracking adventure stories, they also show the title character to be a multi-faceted and often decent character. Certainly, Fu Manchu is determined to gain world power for himself and his Si-Fan organisation like any Bondian supervillain – but he is also a nationalist who is determined to return China to world power, free of the influence of a pernicious and Empire-hungry West. We might not admire nationalism much these days, but within the books, there is the sense that Fu Manchu’s motives are not entirely selfish – he is acting out of a perhaps misguided love of his country. In later novels, he fights against Fascism and Communism (depending on the threat of the time) – partly out of self-interest, but also because he recognises these movements as a threat to his own country. In many ways, Fu Manchu is a freedom fighter – though of course, the freedom he plans for the Chinese people is one where he is firmly in charge.
In this, he is reflected in his British nemesis Nayland Smith. Both men act out of a love of their country, and both often seem equally obsessed and fanatical. These are novels by a British writer, aimed at a Western audience and written when Empire was still a thing, so of course, the narrative sympathies are with Nayland Smith – but an objective look at the stories suggests that both characters are driven by the same thing, and both believe themselves to be acting in the interests of their home nation, for a cause they are absolutely convinced is right. It’s entirely possible that Nayland Smith – defending a country that has a global Empire – could just as easily be the books’ villain if you care to read them that way. Certainly, if you are from a country that had been conquered and colonised by the British, you might have more sympathy with Fu Manchu’s point of view than Nayland Smith’s.
And Fu Manchu has a definite sense of decency and fair play. Far from a demonised one-dimensional villain, he has a certain code of ethics, caring little for the crude assassination methods of guns and explosives, and has a certain admiration for those who fight against him – when defeated, Fu Manchu accepts defeat with dignity, even congratulating his opponents. Somehow, I don’t think that Nayland Smith would be so magnanimous.
Significantly, the films – certainly the 1960s series – very much downplay the nationalism of Fu Manchu, instead presenting him as simply a megalomaniac supervillain, similar to those fought by James Bond. Perhaps by the mid-Sixties, his grander nationalistic desires were already something of a hot potato and it was easier to simply present him as a self-serving villain, complete with death rays and bizarre schemes for global domination. Even in 1932, Asian-American groups protested the release of The Mask of Fu Manchu, not because it featured white Englishman Boris Karloff in the lead role (this film, in fact, extended the ‘yellowface’ to the supporting cast as well, including Myrna Loy – who was somewhat typecast for a while as ‘exotic’ foreigners – playing Fu Manchu’s daughter), but because the film and the novels perpetuated the ‘yellow peril’ stereotype. It made sense to dial back some of Rohmer’s more racist obsessions within the films made in the 1960s, and instead go for a Bond-flavoured tale full of secret lairs and grandiose plans.
In the end, we have to accept that Fu Manchu is a product of his time – not beyond criticism, certainly, but not to be condemned and cancelled because novels written a century ago, or films made fifty years ago do not reflect modern concerns. We should not whitewash the past, and we should not confine works to the dustbin of history because they display attitudes that no longer seem acceptable – when you start down that road, it risks losing everything from the past – including the very recent past. If we accept the idea that people are not simply empty vessels to be filled with whatever bad ideas are poured into them while somehow ignoring the vast amount of modern culture surrounding them, then we have to believe that people can still appreciate and enjoy works of decades ago that might have difficult, cringeworthy or outrageously offensive portrayals and ideas within them – offence is subjective and does not, despite what some people would have you believe, cause actual harm. And to say that the attitudes shown in these books and films will somehow ‘deprave and corrupt’ the reader or viewer, making them racist in themselves, is every bit as ludicrous as the idea that watching violent or sexy movies somehow warps the mind of the individual. It’s entirely possible to enjoy these works without somehow buying into a wholesale acceptance of their more dubious aspects.
Fu Manchu is certainly a character with excess baggage – but if you can work through the issues of the work reflecting the reactionary ideas of a certain class or a certain nation at a certain time, then there is still much to appreciate within them. Let’s not ignore the racist stereotyping and crude language that is found in them – and found in huge swathes of other 1930s novels and films, if we are to be honest – but equally, let’s not pretend that Fu Manchu is not one of the great supervillains of the 20th Century, and a multi-faceted character that is ripe for reinvention.