You can’t bury something that hasn’t died… unless you’re a serial murderer or political despot.

That’s the closest I come to aphoristic. I do not spout proverbs in my daily life, and while I frequently give advice, I don’t talk like a walking fortune cookie.

According to the character Charlie Chan, Asians do.

Recently I was alerted to the New York chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences — the organization responsible for the Emmy awards — and their honoring of the Charlie Chan films.  As if that wasn’t enough, embedded in the mass invitation to the ceremony and screening were pseudo-‘Oriental’ aphorisms, presumably lifted from the book Quotations of Charlie Chan.

What is wrong with a character that is a figment of the past? The past is something we have to pay specific attention to.

In 1924 hostilities shifted away from the Chinese and toward the Japanese. The Gentlemen’s Agreement failed in its attempt to limit Japanese immigrants and Japanese invasion and wars between Japan and China compelled FDR to aid China in the 1930s. This shift was evident in the filmic images of the time: the Fu Manchu that symbolized the yellow peril up to the 1920s was supplanted by the ‘good’ Chinese character Charlie Chan as China allied with the US against Japan.

But the “good” character was emasculated and asexual, a clumsy buffoon replete with repetitive bows and apologies. And of course there was the implementation of the silly proverbs in broken English. Additionally, he was always played by a white man in what Eugene Franklin Wong aptly calls “racist cosmetics.” So, in order for Chinese to be “good,” we would have to be non-threatening: clownish, unable to grasp American concepts, subservient, and neutered.  Because if we were allowed to show any sense of masculinity or hint of aggression that would signal world domination which is what Fu Manchu wanted.  But we were the ‘good’ Chinese.  And our goodness would be offset and our presence would be placated by the fact that “Psst, it’s really a white man underneath all that makeup.”

Whether good or bad, filmic images were used against us. And continue to be.

During the 1990 Miss Saigon/Broadway controversy, the point reiterated was that APIs were being displaced by the implementation of yellowface. It was also the never-dying theme of the prostitute Asian, the evil soldier Asian, the sacrificial Asian, the suffering, utterly-devoted-to-a-white knight Asian.

FOX Movie Channel came under fire for its Charlie Chan tele-festival in 2003. But FOX Film has greenlit a 2011 Charlie Chan movie — this time with his granddaughter.

In my performance art career, I created a character named Charlene Chan, a drag queen who was the great-great granddaughter of Charlie in order to combat the stereotypes propagated by Chan and his ilk. I doubt that the movie has similar aspirations.

Racism sells. Like the white fantasy of coming to the rescue of all things color, it makes people feel better about themselves.

We have seen from three of this year’s Oscar Best Picture nominees that the white savior theme persists in Avatar, The Blind Side, and District 9. Being that their stories and not our stories are not only present but persistent, these are the images that define us. Unfortunately, these images embed themselves into our self-construct as well as the beliefs of others about who we are. And that does not die easily.

We should however know our history, good and bad. The Chinese American Museum Los Angeles continues its Hollywood Chinese exhibit. It was created in conjunction with Arthur Dong’s Hollywood Chinese documentary which, like Slaying the Dragon, is important testimony of what we’ve been through. By knowing what’s behind us, we can be the ones to create something better.

Disclosure: As a community producer, Ken Choy has a relationship with FOX Diversity which aims to increase employment and opportunities for diverse communities.  This relationship does not impact his ability or desire to critique FOX Entertainment Group’s endeavors. Avatar was released by FOX. Note: Hyphen Editor made a mistake and/or this was carried over from a previous draft. I believe she was referring to The Last Airbender which was distributed by Paramount.

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