Spy Noirs Contradict Film Historians' Conceptions of a Unitary "Asia"
In what follows, I examine discussions by two historians who treat "Asia" in film noir as a single geographical entity and, consequently, as inhabited by people without differences, such as political and military. However, spy noirs (as well as other spy films) contradict this treatment. These historians fail to recognize that during the WWII era Hollywood represented the "East" not as unitary but as binary. That is, there were consistent positive portrayals of China and the Chinese versus extreme negative depictions of Japan and the Japanese.
As Rana Mitter explains in Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945, there has been a loss to the public’s historic memory of China’s war with Japan.
"Most Westerners have scarcely heard of the bombing of Chongqing [formerly known as Chungking]. Even for the Chinese themselves, the events were concealed for decades. Yet they are part of one of the great stories of the Second World War, and perhaps the least known. For decades, our understanding of that global conflict has failed to give a proper account of the role of China. If China was considered at all, it was as a minor player, a bit-part actor in a war where the United States, Soviet Union, and Britain played much more significant roles. Yet China was the first country to face the onslaught of the Axis Powers in 1937, two years before Britain and France, and four years before the United States. And after Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941), one American goal was to “keep China in the war.” By holding down large numbers of Japanese troops on the mainland, China was an important part of the overall Allied strategy."20
Spy noirs about China include all five of the plot types that I describe above. They feature the Japanese armed forces bombing, machine-gunning and raping Chinese civilians. The opening of China Girl says, “The Jap invaders bring the New Order into China - - with bullets.” Spy noirs in which the Japanese viciously assault Chinese cities include: Bombs Over Burma (Chongqing), China Girl (Luichow, Kunming), China (Meiki), North of Shanghai (Shanghai).
Today, Americans are unlikely to know either that Chongqing was China’s wartime capital or the importance (and perils) of supply trucks traveling there. In the WWII era, Hollywood was a source of this information. For example, Burma Convoy opens with a “Foreword” that scrolls on the screen.
"Through the teeming heart of Asia, halfway between Rangoon and Shanghai, twists the hand-hewn Burma Road, lifeline for the embattled Army of China, headquartered at Chungking. Over this seven hundred mile highway roars a stream of trucks - - hell-drivers at their wheels - - trucks loaded with fuel, munitions, guns - - blood and sinew of the defenders of the ancient soil of China."
It was vital to Japan to close the Burma Road, which it did in April 1942. Besides Burma Convoy, films about the “lifeline” to sustain China’s resistance include: A Yank on the Burma Road, Bombs Over Burma, Half Way to Shanghai, China Girl, Night Plane from Chungking.
In most spy noirs about China, Anglo-Americans are the lead characters. Asian Americans, however, are not limited to being villains. For example, Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first Chinese-American film star, is the hero in Bombs Over Burma and Lady from Chungking. Several Asian-American men are frequently cast in roles, varying from film to film, in which they are either good Chinese or bad Japanese. These actors include Korean-American Philip Ahn and Chinese-Americans Richard Loo, Keye Luke and Victor Sen Yung.
In Lady from Chungking, Anna Mae Wong kills the Japanese General, Harold Huber, who heads the occupation of her village. Before her execution, she says, "You cannot kill me. You cannot kill China!"
In the sub-chapter, “Asia,” of his book, Nothing More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, James Naremore inaccurately sees a unitary Asia as represented in film noir. Furthermore, the basis of his error is that he considers film noir as derived from hardboiled fiction. As I explain below, this is a "myth" of the origins of film noir that spy noirs contribute to debunking.
"The Asian theme [in film noir] can in fact be traced back to Dashiell Hammett’s earliest hard-boiled stories for Black Mask, which are saturated with a low brow Orientalism reminiscent of the Yellow Peril years before and after World War I. In ‘The House on Turk Street,’ the Continental Op encounters a gang of killers led by Tai Choon Tau, a wily Chinese man who wears British clothes and speaks with a refined English accent. According to the Op, ‘The Chinese are a thorough people; when one of them carries a gun he usually carries two or three or more,’ and when he shoots, ‘he keeps on until his gun is empty.’
"…[In 1942, John] Houston filmed Across the Pacific, a [Maltese] Falcon spin-off, in which Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor battle Japanese spies in Panama. This film was, of course, produced during World War II, when images of deceitful and violent Asians from earlier pulp fiction were easily incorporated into anti-Japanese propaganda."21
What Naremore sees as consistent, from hardboiled fiction to film noir, is how “Asians” are deceitful and violent – first the Chinese in “earlier pulp fiction,” then the Japanese in WWII film noir. Given that Hollywood politically polarized the bad Japanese against the good Chinese in the WWII era, “Asians” are not always deceitful and violent. Naremore’s mistake is inherent in his interpretation of film noir. He posits an “affinity” between film noir and “modernism.” His discussion of the latter focuses on literature. Modernist literature, he says, is “masculine.” Thus, film noir derives from a literary tradition exemplified by hardboiled fiction.22 He ignores Hollywood’s representation of the Chinese in the historical context of World War II. Instead, he takes a literary tradition (“hard-boiled stories”) as the basis of a single theme about Asians – they are deceitful and violent – and because film noir is derived from this literature, Naremore concludes that this “Asian theme” was extended (“easily incorporated”) into film noir.
A related error in treating “Asian ethnicities” as a single collectivity is committed by Dan Flory in his essay, “Ethnicity and Race in American Film Noir, in the anthology edited by Andrew Spicer and Helen Hanson, A Companion to Film Noir. Florey’s sole focus in the essay’s subsection, “Ethnicity in Classic Film Noir,” is about different “ethnicities” and “whiteness.” He begins as follows:
“Issues of ethnicity are often taken up constructively in works of what might be termed ‘progressive noir’ in the classic period, especially in the years immediately after World War II. In some cases the origins of these films are in literature concerning ethnic prejudice itself. Hierarchies of whiteness that determined disadvantages for ‘borderline whites’ in the United States, such as Italians, Greeks, Poles, and Hispanics, play crucial roles in novels and short stories that serve as the foundation of several noir films….”23
Flory says that some ethnicities (such as Italian Americans and Greek Americans) could have a “positive portrayal” in film noir because “US audiences” (i.e., WASP Americans) “now possessed a less restrictive sense of whiteness in the wake of their wartime experiences.”
“During and after World War II, when millions of US citizens were pulled from their neighborhoods, communities and regions to serve in the armed forces or train far from their places of origin, dedication to a common cause and the mixing of diverse individuals instigated a breakdown of ethnic prejudice and greatly expanded people’s sense of who should be included in the category of whiteness.”24
In short, these “hyphenated Americans” benefitted from an “enlargement of whiteness.”
Flory then considers problematic ethnicities.
“Americans of Hispanic descent and Mexican nationals benefitted as well, but in a noticeably reduced fashion. The former were classified as ‘white’ by the armed forces and unstably joined the dominant racial group. Increasing numbers of both Mexican American and Mexican national characters in film noir reflect this uneasy accommodation….25
“Asian ethnicities present a slightly different constellation of problems. Like the status of Hispanic ethnicity, being Chinese, Japanese or some other Asian group proved more difficult to absorb into whiteness. However, as the noir classic period progressed, some positive characterizations of these groups arose, even if that seemed unlikely at the outset. Early in the noir cycle The Shanghai Gesture (Josef von Sternberg, 1941) conveys a sense of moral panic concerning the ‘yellow peril,’ with the film representing decadence as peculiarly ‘Oriental.’ [Alain] Silver and his fellow authors rightly describe the film as ‘nightmarish,’ but they fail to note that the film roots this quality in racist conceptions of the ‘Orient’ as decadent and something to be feared. What counts as the East here, stretches from Persia to Shanghai and represents exotic, forbidden pleasures and illicit desires….”26
What "Shanghai" is Flory talking about? Flory acknowledges the "racist conceptions" at the "root" of Josef von Sternberg's film. And, it is worth noting, von Sternberg's "Shanghai" was a "heavily bowdlerized" version of the original in John Colton's 1918 play, also called, The Shanghai Gesture. From theater to cinema, "Mother God Damn became Mother Gin Sling. The brothel became a casino. Poppy, instead of being a drug-and-booze-addled nympho, became a compulsive gambler." The Hollywood version eliminates "a scene of a white girl being auctioned off as a sex slave to lascivious Chinese coolies." (In the play, the seller is Mother God Damn and the girl is her daughter, who grows up to be Poppy.) No wonder that it was a "controversial play, with protests from the Chinese embassy and accusations of morbid racism."27
At a dinner party in The Shanghai Gesture, Mother" Gin Sling (Ona Munson) surprises tycoon Walter Huston with his dissolute daughter, Poppy (Gene Tierney), before being shocked to learn that she is the other parent.
Flory accepts von Sternberg's "Shanghai" as representative of the "East," but only "early in the noir cycle" (during WWII). However, the text at the opening of the film denies that this "Shanghai" can be considered part of the real "Orient" at that time.
"Years ago a speck was torn away from the mystery of China and became Shanghai. A distorted mirror of problems that beset the world today, it grew into a refuge for people who wished to live between the lines of laws and customs - - a modern Tower of Babel. Neither Chinese, European, British nor American it maintained itself for years in the ever increasing whirlpool of war. It's (sic) destiny, at present, is in the lap of the Gods - - as is the destiny of all cities. Our story has nothing to do with the present."
Von Sternberg's decadent "Shanghai" is imaginary and ahistorical because it has "nothing to do with the present." In the film an Englishman is taking over large swaths of real estate in the city. In fact, the Japanese had invaded the actual city in 1932, and they didn't wrest full control from the Chinese until three weeks before the release of the film (December 25, 1941). This Shanghai, the the one that was under siege by the Japanese, can be found in film noir – in spy noir. For example, North of Shanghai (released on January 24, 1939), is the first spy noir in which the Japanese are explicitly made the enemy. Here, the things the Chinese do aren't "illicit"; what they do is heroic.
Hollywood's uplifting depiction of the Chinese didn't occur because war-time experiences led American WASP audiences to tolerate an “enlargement of whiteness” that extended beyond “hyphenated Americans” of European descent. That is, it didn't occur because of a racial consideration – the only one that Flory is concerned with. Instead, the positive portrayal of the Chinese (and its opposite, the negative one of the Japanese) was based on political and military considerations: the Chinese were a US ally, whereas the Japanese were an enemy. Spy noirs and other spy films consistently show this dichotomy.
Flory is wrong to allege that "some positive characterizations" of Asians in film noir didn't occur until the post-war years ("as the classic period progressed"). In the WWII era – in the immediate years before and after the release of The Shanghai Gesture – Hollywood made sure audiences saw the gruesome brutality the Chinese suffered from the Japanese as well as their unbreakable resistance.
In North of Shanghai, a pistol-toting cameraman (James Craig) and a star reporter (Betty Furness) bust up a pro-Japanese spy ring and avenge the murder of his Chinese friend (Keye Luke), a fellow news photographer.
Dan Flory and James Naremore's share the same two drawbacks in their respective treatments of "Asia" and "Asians." First, they don’t understand that there is more than crime noir in the noir filmography – there is also spy noir. Second, they don't recognize the historical context of Asia in World War II, which results in their unitary treatment of Asians.
According to Rana Mitter, the influence of Cold War and post-Cold War politics on American historiography about China explains the ignorance of Americans about the China-US relationship in WWII. Although that argument is beyond the scope of this post, Mitter presents it in the Epilogue of his book. What I want to emphasize is that Hollywood was unwaveringly pro-China during the WWII era in spy noirs (and other spy films).
To see Hollywood's depiction, at that very time, of America's “forgotten ally,” as well as to see a different representation of “Asians” in film noir than is given by James Naremore and Dan Flory, I recommend watching the spy noirs that I cite above [in my website].