OUR FATHER WHO ART IN HOLLYWOOD DECREES: As God the Father gave up a son in the image of the perfect white man, to lead whites to walk the path of righteousness toward salvation, and praise God, so the White Man gave up a son in the image of the perfect Chinese American to lead the yellows to build the road to acceptance toward assimilation. Ah, sweet assimilation. Charlie Chan was his name.
NEW LINE OF ORNAMENTAL ORIENTALS ON TCM: HOW TO CRITICIZE WHITES WITHOUT OFFENDING THE STEREOTYPES AND GETTING YOUR SAG CARD PULLED.
Wayne Wang, director, and Amy Tan, the writer, and famous actors George Takei, Rosalind Chao, James Shigeta, Miko Taka gush on the joys of accepting the stereotypes, writing the stereotypes, being the stereotypes, acting the stereotypes on-screen and living white off-screen, over TCM previews their upcoming movies . John Wayne, as Genghis Khan, Katherine Hepburn with slanty eyes and choppy English in a Pearl Buck story of Christians saving Chinese orphans, after the Christians have killed their parents.
Separate your false on-screen persona from your off-screen true self as Mike Masaoka distinguished between his public identity as the leader of the JACL, and champion of Japanese American history and culture against white racism of WWII, from his secret, his real identity his Superman identity as an official Intelligence Agent of Army G-2, an official Confidential Informant of the FBI code named T-11 to spy on the JA’s, and SLC-147 to spy on the JACL.
Being a Hollywood insider is like a white secret agent wearing his yellow skin as a disguise. You’re not completely white, but whites recognize you as knowing more than the yellows know about themselves.
But the actors and agents of white supremacy and the trappings of their white success are only half the story of white racist love and hate so visible in the movies. It’s not how the agents and actors behave that counts. It’s what the white characters say that really counts.
From GUNGA DIN HIGHWAY"GEE, POP!"
It's a long long flight from Hollywood to China on Pan American Airways' China Clipper. I never made it, never went back to China to fight the Japanese before they bombed Pearl Harbor. My publicist's Hollywood myth about me says I was about to catch the Clipper back to China and make my way to the Chinese air force to fight for China against the invading Japanese. No such thing. But people enjoy thinking of me as a hero of my people. Everyone agrees, my people need a hero.
The flight from Hollywood to Honolulu via United Air Lines is long enough for me, though I have another flight to another island to make yet to make exteriors for HAWAII FIVE-O. There's word of a new Charlie Chan movie in the air. NBC Vice President David Tebet is on a much publicized round the world search for a Chinese actor who speaks English well enough to be understood by American audiences to become the first Chinese to play Charlie Chan the Chinese detective. The sons of Charlie Chan, Keye Luke, Benson Fong, Victor Sen Yung and me all feel the magic of the movies we made, setting us aglow. We strike casual poses by the phone, waiting for the thing to ring, just in case God happens to walk from one room to another with a camera.
I've come to meet my movie father, Anlauf Lorane the Charlie Chan to my Number Four Son. We are old men when we are the money stars in the B's of twenty years ago, though I always look, and photograph younger, much younger than my actual age. And we are older old men now. He's too old to play the new Charlie Chan, and probably looks it, and doesn't want to. I don't understand.
I don't look too old, of all the sons of Chan I look the youngest still, and want to be the first Chinese to play Charlie Chan on the screen. Keye looks and acts too old, and the older he gets, the more foreign he seems. Not Chinese foreign. Some kind of European foreign with a pseudo-British accent. Benson is just too rickety. And Victor looks awful and has lost it. Of the four sons who've lived to take over the part of Pop in a Hollywood movie, I'm the only one. My time is near. Big screen or little screen: I want to be the first.
I land in Honolulu in one of those island rains with drops of falling water as big as eggs breaking on everything. The air is so thick with water it seems United Air Lines has landed me under the sea and I'm breathing watery goo, and can't tell if the mud is falling on me or it's splashing up at me. All I hear is water and squawking muck. Through the water washing sweat and hair in my eyes all I see are blobs of grays and blues and vague greens and bluish reds. What is airplane and what is airport, what is slipping rainwater and what is glass and steel, I can't see. Five blobs distinguish themselves from the mass by calling my name and vague aloha shirts come into view.
A very wet toasty brown skinned hula girl in a plastic hula skirt and toothpaste smile drops a wet orchid lei around my neck that immediately makes my nose run, and presses her wet gooey lips against my wet gooey cheek. The hula girl disappears and the five vague aloha shirts pat me on the back and laugh.
There is no difference between air and water, land and sea until I am in the dry quiet insides of the limousine the brothers from the tong hired to meet me. Old time Honolulu brothers of the good time Boom Boom tong are more good time Charlie American than my Boom Boom brothers on the mainland. Not that they don't own and run honkey tonks, bottle clubs, and see girls run through their business and take their share during the war, but there was law in Seattle, and San Francisco and Los Angeles. In Hawaii the war is the law and boys of the Boom Boom tong are happy soldiers, judges, juries and executioners of the law.
The brothers from the good time Boom Boom tong tell me sometimes late at night when they get home from their business and turn on the TV and flip the channels through the old movies, looking for one to watch awhile, not often, but sometimes, around four or five times a year, a movie I die in is broadcast from every station in Hawaii. The brothers think of me as a bigshot star of opera and movies still. Though I am here as a Guest Star on a two part episode of HAWAII FIVE-O and expected McGarrett would send a limo for me, the brothers were only too pleased to meet me at the airport and escort me to my Waikiki hotel, and too happy to let HAWAII FIVE-O publicists take pictures, and write stories about the old tongs of Honolulu looking on Chang Apana, the detective sergeant in the Honolulu police and the fat Charlie Chan the detective as the creators of the happiest memories of childhood and wartime businesses in their Honolulu Hotel Street Chinatown, on the piece of island real estate that suddenly is the bleeding end all be all of American honor. And in the movies of the time, I was, I am Charlie Chan's Number Four and most American born and Americanized son. In real life, whatever that is, I am born in China. The South. Tang People. Cantonese. It all blends into a nice story about me the newspapers and publicists blurbing me want to believe. I love it.
"The part I've come to Honolulu to play is nothing special," I tell the brothers. "But it is paying my way to party with my brothers in Hawaii, and visit the last white man to play Charlie Chan still alive."
"You mean he's on the islands?" the brothers ask. "We had no idea!"
"I seem to be the only one he trusts with his address. He craves anonymity," I say. "He wants his privacy. I have several offers from advertising companies for him to put on the white duck and Panama straw hat of Charlie Chan again and sell a few products for them. I'm going to try to talk him into coming out of hiding and make a little money."
They're impressed at my humility and loyalty and still want to know about my part in HAWAII FIVE-O. Do I live? Do I die? Am I Chinese? Am I Japanese? Am I southern artist? Am I northern bureaucrat? Does it make any difference? Am I squinty? Am I swishy? Am I bald? Do I have big eyebrows? We laugh a lot, stirring up old laughs, old short sleeved Hawaiian shirts, old memories of old movies and happy days in the war. This ceremony over, the brothers grin at me, open mouthed as catfish, their old bottomfeeder's eyes shine as if they'd swallowed strong drink, in the eye of their swirling wait, they're ready to know about my part on HAWAII FIVE-O.
I tell them, "I'm another cultured slimey warlord smuggling drugs into the United States through Hawaii who runs afoul of McGarrett, Chin-ho, Danno, Zulu and the whole Five-O show, and, of course, I die in the shadow of Diamond Head."
They love it. HAWAII FIVE-O has really perfected the Charlie Chan formula, they say. They love the villains from WWII movies finding new life on the show. It's a breath of the old days.
"And it gives me work," I say and we all laugh.
On the way to the hotel I see that Tora! Tora! Tora! is still playing in a big first run Honolulu movie palace. "Ah, yes," I say, "A peace movie."
"A peace movie?" a brother asks.
"A war movie made in peacetime. I remember playing in war movies made during the war, with John Wayne, Van Johnson, Cary Grant."
Yes, the Hawaiian brothers remember the names and the stars who partied here after Pearl Harbor. The brothers ran restaurants or bars, or honky tonks during the war and remember me flying over from Frisco or L.A. to play an ugly Japanese spy or sadistic Japanese officer who screams "Aiiieeeee!" when I die then head down to Chinatown for dinner and rice before painting Honolulu red, with the other sons of Chan and Willy, and Kam chasing the tails of our fame and all the Chinese and Japanese women we can find from club to club from Chinatown to Waikiki. And the soldiers and sailors on the town and off-limits recognized us, grinned and laughed, put their arms around us, and we put our arms around them, they patted us on the head and we patted them on the head and watched them totter away to the whores or back to their bases.
Aiiieeeee! Aloha! Gung ho! Goong hay fot choy! The movies and Chinatown were exciting then. It had a future waiting for it after we won the war. There was an electric light night life. There was a Chinatown class and style. Padded shoulders. Wide lapels. Double breasted suits. Straw hats. They were happy days for me too.
"There are people in Hawaii who object to the Charlie Chan movies and John Wayne war movies, and WWII movies on the late night TV," the brothers tell me. "No sense of history."
"The younger generations don't remember when Americans thought all Chinese were sex perverts, opium smugglers and torturers of women," I say.
"That's right, you and Keye, and Benson, and Victor were a more positive and real life like image of the Chinese," a brother says.
"As was our father, Charlie Chan," I say.
Yes, turn on your TV late at night to any old Charlie Chan the Detective or WWII in China movie and you are reading my life story. Every night from some tower over Honolulu or New York, or Chicago one bit of my life or another unspools like smoke. I still like turning on the TV to get away from it all, in another town and being pleasantly surprised with the best days of my life.
For nearly fifty years, half a century, I am the most famous Chinese in America: an actor. I am Charlie Chan's Number Four Son; the Chinese nicknamed Die Say or Say Die. Yes, I am the rhythmic Christian of Charlie Chan's movie sons; the martyr, the one famous for saying nothing but "Gee,Pop!" and "Gosh, Pop!" I am The Chinaman Who Dies.
Fifty years of acting movies and TV has washed out a better me, a bigger name, a set of brighter memories from the mundane, ordinary facts of my life. I am no longer born in a village in south China and apprenticed to a floating opera company on the Pearl River, I am born and last seen being carried off by Hollywood alleycats into a dark soundstage. I cry bald and naked in a bombed out railroad station in a Shanghai air raid scene. William Bendix stumbles in the rubble of a Chinese village during another Japanese air raid in my next movie, and hears me wail. The baby is a doll. The closeup is me with my cheeks stuffed with cotton and my eyebrows shaved off. Movie magic! I'm at my dead momma's withered tit. I wail high long long wails that end in sputtering lungs. The movie is China. The baby in the wideshots is a doll. The closeup of the wailing baby is me.
I am the symbol of helpless, struggling China in the arms of William Bendix. He says I'm a "cute little fella." He names me "Donald Duck."
Alan Ladd and William Bendix leave me in the arms of a Chinese convert to Christianity played by a white woman who looks me in the face and coos, "Who but monsters would want to kill one such as this?" and from this shot on, I am known forever to people who go to the movies, as the Chinaman Who Dies.
I take a breath. Then another wail from my endless lungs goes from movie to movie, Jap air raid somewhere in China scene to singing America the Beautiful with Kate smith on the radio into the homes of Americans who cherish the memory of me dying when they buy one more War Bond.
Kate Smith smelled as sugary as she looked, and a little spicy, like a hot pan of huge friendly cinnamon rolls fresh from the oven.
I sing "My Old Kentucky Home," in Cantonese and am adopted by Gary Cooper and his girlfriend, the Red Cross nurse, in a missionary movie, a Japanese officer with slime on his teeth, slicks the long straight blade of his samurai sword into me, jolting me to scream, "Maaaaaaamaaaaaaaaa!" and slick on through my body into my mother's body heaving screech and out of her back, as the camera turns to see my face just behind the blinding gleam of the pulling of the long sword slurping out of us. It sucks against lips of our long wound. I scream the one word the poet from the Office of War Information says crosses all languages, all ages, all time, "Maaaaaaaaaaaaaa!" until the sword is all the way out of my little body, and unpinned from my mother China, I thump to the ground at the officer's feet like a large broach. And there we are, the triplet, the poetic form of the war movie as emotional weapon: A bloody dead Chinese mother. A bloody dead Chinese son. A leering Jap wiping his blade clean of blood.
The Japs torture me into giving up John Wayne's secret position, throw me into a truck and bounce the little life of me left in my little battered body over bumpy roads. Out to get the jump on John Wayne, leading my missionary teacher from Indiana and all of my Filipino guerrilla friends through the jungle. I grab the wheel of the truck. The Jap soldiers scream. I wail in the key of tears and pull the truck off the edge of the world and down we go into the darkness.
My body rolls out of the burning truck to the feet of John Wayne and all my surprised friends working their stealthy way through the jungle with Anthony Quinn. America sees my face by the flamelight of the burning truck full of burning Japs. They see me trying hard not to cry out in pain. Tears stream down my cheeks.
"Don't try to talk," John Wayne says softly. Anthony Quinn turns away, sniffles, and loads his Tommy gun. And John Wayne and the missionary teacher who failed to teach me how to properly spell "America" A-M-E-R-I-C-A instead of A-M-E-L-L-I-C-A exchange looks and shake their heads. All the soldiers and all my friends are getting down on their knees around me. The music also rises.
"I failed," I gasp. "I guess I'll never be promoted to sergeant now," and my eyes roll back into my skull and my breath, shrieks like tearing sheets in a windstorm. My lungs sound like a man filing a steel girder on a steel bridge with a long file. I cough. A half pint of blood rosebuds out of my mouth. By the light of burning Jap bodies sizzling, sputtering and bursting like sausages in the background, women in the shoppers matinees with their papersacks and red meat tokens, see tears in John Wayne's eyes. He removes the bird colonel bird insignia off his collar and pins it on me.
"You didn't fail," John Wayne says, and has to lower his eyes and gulps down a sob before he can say, " He-yeck! You get that promotion!" He adjusts the little bird on my bloody shirt and says, very low, very soft, "I got orders from the President himself to promote you all the way to colonel!"
My eyes open. I struggle for breath. The music rises just so.
"Teacher?" a tiny voice climbs up out of me. "I can't see!" And I can't see.
And the missionary teacher from Indiana has to put her ear to my mouth to hear me agonize my last words out.
"Ayee!" I say, "Emmm!" My eyes come open and shine gleaming silver like something crazy. The missionary teacher wipes blood from my lips, from my eyes and arranges my hair, a bit at a time, avoiding the patches of matted blood and open wounds, as I continue. "Eee!"
"Easy, champ," John Wayne soothes. He shrugs violently and looks back into the flames of the burning trucks.
"Ell! Ell!" I scream from out of my croak. My chest heaves like the back of a mating dog. "Eye! See! Ayyyy!" I cry triumphantly and struggle up to my elbows. "AMELLICA!"
The missionary teacher screams.
John Wayne says, "At ease, colonel," and I fall back into a shot of John Wayne sighing and furrowing his brow and am dead dead dead in his arms.
John Wayne turns to the missionary teacher from Iowa and says, "I oughta shootya for not teaching him how to spell America with an 'R'."
"Cut!" the director shouts and directs me to spell "America" properly with an "R" and no "L" I think of wishing him a joyeux Noel too, but contain myself.
The brothers of the Hawaiian branch of the tong like my stories of making the movies they see me in.
They want to know if I ever played the part of a pilot. Did I ever fly in the movies.
I tell the brothers I always played children much younger than my real age, in the movies. I had to fight to play young men, except when they think it will be funny to play me against my type, and I am a fanatic treacherous babyfaced Jap pilot.
The old men want to hear about that. Stories of Chinese who fly in Hollywood movies are rare.
One day flying my Zero low across the water in a fog, I see Cary Grant's American submarine the USS Copperfin sailing toward Destination Tokyo. I drop a bomb on the sub but it doesn't go off. I turn around and rake the sub with my machine guns, sew a line of bullets across the conning tower and knock down Alan Hale, Jr.
John Garfield shoots me down with the deck gun. I trail smoke and sing a nasal swan song into an out of sight crash, only the yanks in closeup see as something wonderful. They blink in the light of an explosion that washes me over to the side of Cary Grant's submarine. A sailor jumps off the deck into the water to pull me in. I flash my eyes, show my teeth and knife the American sailor in the back.
The skinny full lipped pharmacist's mate who will disarm the bomb I dropped then perform an appendectomy on a very nervous Elisha Cook, Jr. on a mess table with a boning knife and a potato peeler during a depth charge attack, is fresh from the bacon and eggs, sunrise to sunset three squares a day Iowa where he has obviously never come across anything so rude, impolite and ungrateful as someone like me stabbing my rescuer in the back. "Welcome to World War Two, kid," I say at the kid's stupid look, and scream "Aiiieeeee!" as the kid's first bullets crash into my body. The same William Bendix who found me as a baby in the rubble of my village watches the skinny kid machine gun me into goo floating on the sea. My ad lib becomes gutteral nasal gibberish in the release print, and the kid's good Christian Thou shalt not kill upbringing is sick with Freudian shadows from having tasted real hate and enjoyed killing a man.
Captain Cary Grant pats the kid on the back, lights his pipe, and says "You killed a Jap, not a man."
The kid's too young to shave, never been kissed, never been laid. He doesn't quite know the difference between boys and girls. He has Lana Turner's voluptuous lower lip. He doesn't understand. The machinery hums inside the tight little submarine. The steel walls sweat. Cary Grant gleams and shines, but does not sweat.
Cary Grant puffs his pipe and thinks, then takes his pipe from his mouth and says, "This is not just a war of one nation against another nation. We are in a war that will decide whether or not decency will survive in the world. This is a war of good against evil." The captain muses and puffs his pipe.
The kid's Adam's apple bobs as he swallows hard, and blinks. Alan Hale leans in to listen, wiping his hands on his apron.
"I identify with that kid," Benson says in the office of one of his Polynesian fantasy restaurants around L.A, watching Destination Tokyo, a black and white on TV "I wish I were that kid when I was a kid," he says hesitantly but without his usual stutter that slows his emotion and makes him seem less than spontaneous.. "I could have joined a fraternity. Gone to frat parties, danced with sorority girls."
An officer puts his hands on the table and bends closer to Cary Grant. It looks a little like Da Vinci's The Last Supper humming underwater toward Tokyo. Cary Grant lets out a deep breath, and says, "It makes one wonder about these Japanese who sell their daughters off at thirteen to be married -- or worse." He shakes his head and hardens his voice, "The Japs know nothing of the love we hold for our women."
The smart pert bright eyed Hyacinth teaches me that even before there is Pearl Harbor to make the difference between Japs and Chinks there is Pearl Buck sorting out the good Christian "Chinese-Americans" from the evil Chinese "Chinamen."
I was young. I converted, and the other opera men stranded here by the tide of war did not. I was too young, a mere apprentice. I shouldn't have come over. I wasn't a real star of the Cantonese opera. My sister born of a mother in America is an American citizen and helps me. The real opera stars Wong the Handsome, the Great Kwan, Lee, the voice, wait out the war going from Chinatown to Chinatown performing Cantonese opera, getting cheated and robbed, and shooting Chinese movies in the Sacramento Delta. Now, it's as if no one had ever heard of them and I was the greatest and the only star of Cantonese opera star to land in America before the war.
Unlike the other sons of Chan I have lived the part of Charlie Chan. I have crossed from Cantonese opera and Chinese movies to Hollywood. I have converted to Christianity. I have become Americanized. I have used the ear and voice trained by Cantonese opera to sound looser and more at home with jivetalk than stiff stuffy old Keye Luke trying to make his voice sound deep. I could play anything, any age, from a one year old baby in diapers to a hundred year old leper, unlike the pouting, stuttering, choking Benson Fong. For that shot of me wailing in the bombed out rubble of a Shanghai railway station they padded me in a flesh colored suit and built an oversize set, so I would look like a barebellied baby. I am more American than the very American-born Victor Sen Yung. Keye, Benson, and Victor.
Being married to the Chinaman Who Dies is not good enough for my wife, Hyacinth. She's an American born girl, fourth generation American born, and more old country Cantonese and serious about opera than I ever was. Her American born mother speaks nothing but Chinese all her life. A Kwangtung dialect so old I've never before heard it spoken. The old woman agrees with Hyacinth. She is not happy with the idea of her grandsons growing up watching me die in the movies. "What kind of example is that to set for your sons?" she asks.
"That's just what I ask him, ma," Hyacinth says.
"For our sons," I tell her, "I promise to be the first Chinese to play Charlie Chan in the movies."
"Charlie Chan?" Hyacinth and her mother ask.
"You are not Christian, but as you see, I do love you anyway. As Charlie Chan I shall lead you to your great salvation. For, it is written: As God the Father gave up a son in the image of the perfect white man, to lead whites to walk the path of righteousness toward salvation, and praise God, so the White Man gave up a son in the image of the perfect Chinese American to lead the yellows to build the road to acceptance toward assimilation. Ah, sweet assimilation. Charlie Chan was his name. "
"Of course Charlie Chan. Where would any of us be without Charlie Chan?" the brothers say and we laugh like the dreams and hallucinations of a star alone in his limousine. The privacy, the intimacy me and the five brothers feel inside the unreal quiet and cushiness of the limo turns us into laughing fools. And it's nice to feel like a movie star again.