Fu Manchu to you too

| June 23, 2015 | 0 Comments
Sir Christopher Frayling’s book, Yellow Peril: Dr. Fu Manchu & the Rise of Chinaphobia, digs deeply into the story of Sax Rohmer.

Sir Christopher Frayling’s book, Yellow Peril: Dr. Fu Manchu & the Rise of Chinaphobia, digs deeply into the story of Sax Rohmer.

Here’s a story that’s been passed along in my family — which means that it’s most likely not true. The story is that my grandfather met Sax Rohmer, probably in San Francisco in 1919. Rohmer (real name: Arthur Henry Ward) was the British author of the Fu Manchu short stories and novels that did so much to spread discrimination against Chinese people in Western countries, including, I’m sad to say, Canada as a whole and British Columbia most of all. Grandfather, who was much interested in what was then called the Orient, is supposed to have said: “Nice chap, Rohmer, but you knew after talking to him for only a moment that he’d never been any closer to China than NW6.” Translation: Rohmer was hardly an expert on Limehouse, the old Chinese section of London where much of his fiction took place (its postal code was EC). Rather, he was a lower-middle-class suburbanite probably living in some decidedly non-exotic, all-white enclave such as West Hampstead.
Sir Christopher Frayling, a pop-culture historian and former chairman of the Arts Council of England, digs deeply into the story of Rohmer in The Yellow Peril: Dr. Fu Manchu & the Rise of Chinaphobia (Thames & Hudson, $40). “Yellow Peril” was a term, going back at least as far as the California Gold Rush of 1849, implying that waves of Chinese immigrants would flood and somehow pervert Western society and its values. The notion had been current for at least two generations when Rohmer created the fictional Fu Manchu, the precursor of all those evil geniuses in James Bond novels who are bent on taking over the world.
Fu Manchu was dreamed up in 1912, the same year that China deposed its last emperor in order to become a republic, leading to decades of political and social turmoil — a time when, as Frayling points out, China “was in chaos, divided against itself, victim of successive famines and utterly incapable of being a ‘peril’ to anyone, even if it had wanted to be….”  Now, more than a century later, Fu Manchu remains “by far the dominant and best-remembered fictional personification of the merciless, inscrutable, vengeful and cunning Chinese — of ‘Chineseness’ — all over the world, thanks to countless books, comics, cartoons, series and feature films….” The character was most popular in the period between the two world wars, when Rohmer (whose books were banned by the Nazis, who thought his name sounded Jewish) made a fortune, had a country estate and drove a Rolls. But a fondness for roulette and a weak head for business erased his status long before his death (of “the Asian ’flu”) in 1959.

Sax Rohmer

Sax Rohmer

Rohmer a racist?
Frayling is careful to pause once or twice in his lengthy attack on Fu Manchu (“the second most famous Chinese person in the world”, after Mao Zedong) to speak a little more kindly of Sax Rohmer’s intent. In Frayling’s words, Fu Manchu was “an archangel ruined and often likened to Milton’s Satan. He always kept his word, to the letter. He bears no personal grudges. He speaks ‘the purest English I have ever heard.’ He is a nobleman, appalled by the chaos of contemporary China. He wanted China to be someone on the world stage again.” That seems like backpedalling. One question is whether Rohmer was a racist who reflected the society in which he lived or one who inspired perhaps even worse racist views in others.
Like fictional detective Charlie Chan (whom Frayling, perhaps forgetting about Number One Son, calls “asexual”), Fu Manchu was always played on stage and screen by white actors. This has long been a sore point to people of Chinese ancestry, though Frayling tells us that recently a new generation of young ethnic Chinese have revised this image of Chan (perhaps because he was always so much smarter than the white cops). Frayling wonders whether Fu Manchu might one day undergo a similar reassessment. Already there are indications that he has become somewhat camp. But that’s irrelevant when one considers how damaging the stereotype was and how long it lingered in certain circles.

Scare tactics
Frayling quotes John Foster Dulles, who was the U.S. secretary of state at the end of the Korean War, giving lip service to the idea that the U.S. had not yet completely rid itself of “images of yellow hordes sweeping south to turn all of Asia communist.” Margaret Thatcher, we’re told, required “some persuading” by staff to stop using the word “Chinaman.” In the author’s view, even the handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic in 1997 “contained distinct echoes of fears about the Yellow Peril,” a statement that some readers may have difficulty swallowing if only because it takes up the book’s whole first chapter. But then Frayling is unrelenting — and long-winded and disorganized — in rooting out every instance of anti-Chinese diction he can find. One example is the term “bowling a chinaman,” which was coined in 1933 and is more or less the cricket equivalent of throwing a curve in baseball. At some points, Frayling’s observations take on the tone of a tirade. For example: “Paperback thrillers about snakehead gangs cast the Chinese gang masters as their sole villains, rather than the supermarkets, which insist on the cheapest possible products of their slave-like labours.”
In his introduction, he tells us that he wrote his book with the encouragement of Edward Said (1935–2003), the wildly influential Palestinian/Egyptian scholar and public intellectual whose 1979 work, Orientalism, changed the way many in the West think, speak and write about Islam in the Middle East and North Africa. Frayling appears to hope that his own book will have a similar effect on how the West views East Asia. For all his research, however, he is, to be kind, far from being another Said. In the case of this book at least, he is a collector of information rather than a thinker. For a broader understanding of the matter, one might turn to another new title, Yellow Peril: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear edited by John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats (Verso, $34.95 paper).
And yet Frayling’s work is certainly not without a serious purpose. The author asks whether the idea of the Yellow Peril “has survived the rise of China as a global superpower and the opening up of China to foreign tourists? Has Dr. Fu Manchu remained the ultimate personification of exotic villainy, in an age which still likes to give a single face to diffuse terrorist threats? Scare stories about Chinese perfidy continue to fill broadsheet newspapers, financial pages and tabloid headlines alike. Some right-wing politicians, especially in the United States, use the rhetoric of China-bashing to gain populist approval. Strategists talk and write of the ‘Coming China Wars’ over Taiwan or South Korea or the islands off South Japan or even Africa. There’s the cliché that ‘China must learn to become a respectable world nation,’ like — it is assumed — the other members of the World Trade Organization. Buried just beneath the surface of acceptable discourse lies the deep, long history of the Yellow Peril — like a reflex.”

Diplomat_0615_0077The ISIS crisis
It’s difficult to remember now that only a few years ago, the name Isis referred either to the ancient Egyptian goddess (of magical healing and domestic arts) or the song by Bob Dylan. Once the word took on its current meaning, a publishing floodgate opened. Just as happened with the John F. Kennedy assassination or the Great Recession, scores of people who knew a little bit about the topic, or thought they did, or at least held strong opinions about it, sat down at their keyboards and began typing.
As publishing serious writing for serious readers takes a long time, the first wave of ISIS books in the summer of 2014 included some pretty hasty affairs. In July, Charles River Editions, which churns out anonymous books such as The Weird Wild West: Tall Tales and Legends about the Frontier, released The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria: The History of ISIS/ISIL in both printed and electronic form. E-books, short ones in particular, are well suited to ranting, as with ISIS: In Satan Islam Salutes, a 17-page work by an author whose previous efforts include Israel: Wipe Them Out; Death: What Happens Next?; and Tattoos: Questions & Answers.
As the months rolled by, the field became quite congested and, in a few cases, open to confusion. For example, two similarly named e-books — ISIS: The Rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria by Joy Lincoln and ISIS: Terrorism and the Rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria by C.J. Knight — appeared within 24 hours of each other. Others of this type, some worthwhile and some probably not, have rather provocative titles. For example, among them are The Rise of ISIS: The West’s New Crusade by Andrew Sharp, ISIS Taking Over the Middle East: The Rise of Middle Eastern Supremacy  ISIS/ISIL by Joseph Spark, and The ISIS Solution: How Unconventional Thinking and Special Operations can Eliminate Radical Islam by Jack Murphy and Brandon Webb.
Not surprisingly,  several ISIS authors are evangelical Christians. One example is Robert Jeffress, a Baptist pastor in Dallas. He is the author of Countdown to the Apocalypse: Why ISIS and Ebola are Only the Beginning, a book that interprets our current situation in terms of Revelations in the Bible. It is part of the big second wave of ISIS writing, and is published by the huge and solidly mainstream Hachette Canada ($15, paper). As I’m writing this, many others, frequently more serious than their predecessors, are set to appear from publishers associated with conservative and progressive ideologies. Regency, the large and well-established Chicago publisher of right-wing literature, has Victory Undone: The Defeat of al-Qaeda in Iraq and its Resurrection as ISIS by Carter Andress and Malcolm McConnell (US$29.95). For its part, Verso, a press associated with liberal causes, has Patrick Cockburn’s The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution ($16.95 paper). They use different lenses to look at the same set of foreign policy failures, and this is certainly healthy.
An even healthier sign is this: The longer the ISIS mess goes on, the more it is written about by individuals with impressive credentials in the field — people who haven’t picked up their laptops at the first sign of trouble and rushed to draw conclusions. For example, Jessica Stern, a Harvard lecturer, and J.M. Berger, a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, have written ISIS: The State of Terror (HarperCollins Canada, $17 paper). Similarly, Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan, well-known commentators, have collaborated on ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (Simon & Schuster Canada, $17 paper). Simon & Schuster also publishes The Rise of ISIS: A Threat We Can’t Ignore by Jay Sekulow, Jordan Sekulow and others ($15.50 paper). The first-named Sekulow is chief legal counsel for two law-and-justice NGOs, one in the U.S., the other in Europe, and writes for the New York Times. A bit bizarrely perhaps, he’s also the leader of a rock band, one that seems to specialize in tunes about the Middle East crisis.

In the previous issue of Diplomat, I wrote about the anguished and never-ending controversy over the genocide inflicted on Armenians by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th Century. In doing so, I made mention of the Armenian plan to exact revenge on some of the Ottoman leaders. This operation, code-named Nemesis after the ancient Greek goddess of retribution, involved killing a number of the genocide’s instigators, who had dispersed to various European cities. Since I wrote about that, two new books on the subject by Armenian-Americans have appeared: Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot that Avenged the Armenian Genocide by Eric Bogosian (Hachette Canada, $31)  and Sacred Justice: The Voices and Legacy of the Armenian Operation Nemesis by
Marian Mesrobian MacCurdy (distributed by UBC Press, $59.95). MacCurdy draws heavily on previously unpublished letters by her grandfather, who was one of the Nemesis leaders.
The subjects of ISIS and the Ottoman Empire can be neatly tied up with twine, as the Turks were regional players on the German side in the Great War. When they lost, much of their territory was divided up between the French and the British, particularly the latter: an indelible insult to Muslims. Such figures as Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell and, of course, T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) conspired to create the map of Iraq that ISIS is now busily rubbing out. A splendid new book, The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, by Eugene Rogan (Basic Books, $40), describes how Lawrence became involved.

Eugene Rogan

Eugene Rogan

In 1915, Field Marshall Horatio Kitchener, the British secretary of state for war, “asked British officials in the Cairo Military Intelligence Office to give him their best man … to raise a popular rebellion [against the Turks] and to bribe the Ottoman commander. With none of the higher officers willing to risk their reputations on such an ill-conceived assignment, the commission fell to a low-ranking intelligence officer, Captain T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence spoke Arabic, had extensive contact with Arab officers of the Ottoman army held in British PoW camps in Egypt … and the self-confidence to believe he could succeed in such an improbable mission.” How did he acquire such self-confidence? Slowly, as it turns out, as explained in careful detail in The Young T.E. Lawrence by Anthony Sattin (Penguin Canada, $21).

George Fetherling is a novelist and cultural commentator.

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George Fetherling is a novelist, poet and cultural commentator

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