Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Dr. Fu Manchu vs. the Model Minority

I recently finished reading Professor Lee’s book Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture, and it got me to thinking about the relationship between Mr. Han and the character played by Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon. Both, we learn, were trained in the same Shao Lin temple and traditions. Yet, one represents corruption and the other stands for virtue. One is Dr. Fu Manchu and the other falls within the Model Minority stereotype (although, the Lee character is Chinese rather than Chinese American).

In true Fu Manchu-mode, Han is an urbane, evil genius who aims to infiltrate Western society and bring about its moral collapse. Like the original Fu Manchu character, Han even maintains his own museum and opium is also his tool of destruction. As others have pointed out, Han is the modern-day equivalent of the opium den master stereotype. He inhabits a space characterized by overindulgence and exotic excess. I’m thinking of the banquet scene with its food, acrobats, sumo wrestlers, caged birds, music, women, etc. Like the opium den of Broken Blossoms, it is a space were sexual restraint is abandoned and once good women become sex slaves.

In contrast, Bruce Lee’s character is the model of honor and restraint. When offered alcohol, he refuses. He uses his brain before his brawn. (I LOVE the scene where he teaches the cocky New Zealander the “art of fighting without fighting.”) And, he also refrains from sex with the women while on the island. Does this latter fact make the character less masculine as some have claimed? I don’t think so because: 1) having been briefed by British intelligence, Lee knows that the women of the island are captives; so by resisting their charms he is refusing to participate in their subjugation, and 2) he offers an alternate model of confident, controlled masculinity.

This said, his character can still be read, particularly in contrast to Han, as akin to the model minority. Professor Lee notes in his book that the 1970s were a time when white America felt that it was in moral, economic, and hegemonic decline. In this framework, he argues, Asians were both the “gook,” a hidden but omnipresent enemy of the state and spectre of US failure in Vietnam, but they were also the model minority, embodying economic success through hard work, traditional family values, goal orientation—all the areas where white America felt it needed to recapture its edge. Throughout the movie, Lee’s character stands in contrast to American men who have no control over their appetites. Roper can’t restrain his gambling and has debt problems; Williams is portrayed, according to the usual stereotypes, as being over-sexed. So, in part, the Han and Lee characters can be seen as white America’s attempts to grapple with its sense of waning power at home and abroad.

R.I.P. Bruce Lee.

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