Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young in The Hatchet Man (1932)

A Book Review Essay by Matthew Sorrento.

Author Philippa Gates doesn’t excuse or shy away from the racist stereotyping of the Chinese but pinpoints issues of complexity.”

Though this ambitious study doesn’t mention the issue by name, Philippa Gates’ Criminalization/Assimilation: Chinese/Americans and Chinatowns in Classical Hollywood Film (Rutgers University Press, 2019) has an eye on confronting cancellation culture. Gates wants readers, and film studies, to confront yellowface (and other racist typecasting) in cinema history head-on – not just shove it in the drawer as a regretful topic. In addressing the book’s overdue subject, Gates analyzes the different cycles of U.S. Chinatowns onscreen through a comprehensive assessment of the films available and those documented in publications but, quite often, sadly lost. Gates writes of the complexity in Hollywood’s representation of the Chinese in the U.S., both immigrants and those born in the States. She also clarifies how the power structure regarded groups in the population differently:

The slash in the book’s title (in Chinese/Americans) indicates the difference between (but also a connection) in American film between Chinese-born immigrants and American-born citizens…. The other slash in the book’s title (in Criminalization/Assimilation) parallels that of Chinese/Americans: in other words, Hollywood identified Chinese-born immigrants with criminal activities while regarding American-born Chinese as assimilable citizens.” (7)

Naturally, she doesn’t excuse or shy away from the racist stereotyping of the Chinese but pinpoints issues of complexity. With her thorough review of sources, both primary (mainly newspapers) and scholarly, the author reveals numerous examples of such complexity and works off other historians and scholars that have touched upon the topic.  

With her thorough review of sources, both primary and scholarly, the author reveals numerous examples of such complexity….

I noted such complexity when first viewing William Wellman’s The Hatchet Man (1932) some years back, even if the film was named for a racist stereotype related to Chinatown’s “Tongs.” Though Edward G. Robinson wasn’t fond of playing the title role (according to his autobiography), he shows great sensitivity in his performance. His makeup shows the common “yellowface” practice of taping back the eyes, but it doesn’t alter his appearance to the extent of other actors’ (including Loretta Young, in this film), although it’s unclear whether this was his choice or one by the Warner Bros. to avoid obscuring his likeness, since Little Caesar brought him stardom. Won Low Get, Robinson’s character (regretfully poking for at Chinese languages), must honor-kill his friend, in following the Tong code. As I’ve written previously,[1] it’s a heart-wrenching moment of shock and devotion, stemming from Robinson’s role acting in a state of agency, like what Okonkwo experiences when he must kill Ikemefuna in Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart (1958).

Gates clarifies her focus with attention to both Chinese and Chinese Americans as they have been “screened” in the U.S. While Hollywood had its own agenda “constructing” Chinatowns (which appeared on the West coast first in the 1800s, then in Eastern cities), Gates discusses how the cities that housed the neighborhoods made them into shows for tourists. The cities were homes for displaced laborers (mostly railroad workers) who had lost employment due to restrictions (the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which also significantly lowered the number of Chinese women in the U.S. [68]). Meanwhile, Chinatowns had become local attractions of intricate mystery (of secret doors, tunnels, and Tong activity) for white spectators visiting for a “taste of the Orient.” Popular culture’s handling of the content certainly made the neighborhoods seems vile in emphasizing opium dens and rat eating. Though her focus is Classical Hollywood, Gates cites Polanski/Towne’s 1974 film as a famous example of whites projecting their fears onto a local “other” (3), even in a film that barely concerns the culture.

Chapter 1 details historical context, how Chinatowns were established through paths of emigration then restrictions for the Chinese to work, leaving them overcrowded in the urban neighborhoods. This population growth was met with panic in the white public, and “yellow peril” in popular culture – othering of Chinese, their presence but also ideas, as a dangerous threat (19). The migration to cities inspired whites to create “slumming tours,” bus/car rides for sensationalism-seeking whites: by World War II, a significant portion of tourism dollars in San Francisco (where most of the Chinatown films are set [16]) were spent in Chinatown. The tours would dramatize criminal activities – prostitution, slave girls, tong activity – that were more legend than based on some actual evidence. The façade became well known: Gates recounts, rather humorously and tellingly, how shopkeepers (regularly feminized, like all Chinese men in pop culture [25]), when seeing a tour coming, would signal others to begin performing scenes of opium smoking and Tong activities. This practice was reflected in pop culture: Gates notes Williams Wellman’s Chinatown Nights (1929) depicting a slumming tour with a white male, at the start of the tour noting that “Chinatown’s all fake”; a Chinese herbalist, in on the ruse, says, “Americans very dumb” (59). And yet, such depictions were a way to view Chinese American stereotypes through a standardized white gaze.

Gates also provides some much-needed context on Tong activities, to separate the facts from myth and Hollywood representation. While some scholars, like Peter Stanfield, have elaborated on the culture,[2] Gates offers a detailed guide to how Tongs grew and were intertwined with the screen. What started out as six Chinese companies/guilds (bachelor-oriented, with a number of displaced Chinese railroad workers now residing there) soon grew into criminal gangs, Tongs – essentially, secret societies (62). While not all were crime-related, Tongs often housed criminal activities, which fueled yellow journalism and screen interest. In the case of The Hatchet Man, the torn-from-the-headlines material was folded into the gangster film genre, in which Robinson’s character – a sensitive rendition of a master warrior throwing a hatchet – is a hitman who experiences a kind of incestuous interest in the girl he has adopted.

Gates, in fact, describes The Hatchet Man as a yellowface film (64), though Robinson had relatively little makeup and facial alterations applied. This example addresses the intricacy of the term, in that it goes beyond the common taped back eyes and demure demeanor that we see in Loretta Young’s role in this film (29-30), and regularly by stars like Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff. With more of a range to the practice than viewers suspect, yellowfacing deserves the analysis for which Gates argues.

The Flower of Doom (1917), notable for casting actual Asians (Japanese actors) in lead roles.

The book also reveals productions that challenged the constructions of the Chinese on screen. The silent The Flower of Doom (Rex Ingram, 1917), while showing white imperialism of Chinatown society, was notable for casting actual Asians (Japanese actors) in lead roles, Frank Tokunaga and Goro Kino (64). Though the film also cast a white actor in yellowface, due to a romance with a star white actor, to avoid anti-miscegenation laws (64). Gates also cites Tong Man (William Worthington, 1919) in which Yutake Abe, as Lucero, is portrayed as strong and human, instead of one of the binary clichés (egghead wimp or heartless master warrior) (66).

Chapter 4 takes on the “whitening” of Chinatown, which is essential in understanding the theme. Soon, white heroes started battling the vices of the onscreen neighborhoods, usually villains in Yellowface though, in some cases, white underworld figures that control crime and profit in the neighborhoods (i.e., Wallace Beery’s role in Chinatown Nights). This trend surged after the Immigration Act of 1924, denying Japanese Immigrants citizenship, which urged Japanese actors, who often had roles in silent films, to leave (29). Gates also describes the legal push to police Chinatown, based on demographics and a lot of othering, which also led to this whitening. Though prostitution and opium were of concern to white policing, their main target was gambling, while films incorporating it played up the usual Chinatown stereotypes. With so many whites avenging wrongs in Chinatown, the setting became a place to recycle out damsel-in-distress plots.

Gates impressively tackles other issues, such as “White Downfall in Chinese Melodrama,” “Assimilation and Tourism,” and the rise of “The Chinese American as Action Hero” with extensive treatment of stars, like Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong, who on occasion played roles not “belonging to one side of the other, [but] mediators between East and West, the traditional and the modern, and Asia and America” (204). Overall, the book sports impressive primary research (the extensive kind seen in Gary D. Rhodes’s Birth of the American Horror Film (2018), also dedicated to many works long lost) to illustrate a complex theme in need of rediscovery. Regularly incorporating top researchers like Gina Marchetti, Gates’s book shows a narrowing in from the wider concern of Projecting the World, edited by Anna Cooper and Russell Meeuf (2017). Sadly, Gates leaves us yearning to see the many lost silent films discussed, but as is true so often, reading about them can be just as wonderful.


[1] See http://filmint.nu/from-gangster-to-master-edward-g-robinson-matthew-sorrento/.

[2] See Stanfield, Peter (2005), “‘American as Chop Suey’: Invocations of Gangsters in Chinatown, 1920-1936,” in Lee Grieveson (ed.) (2005), Mob Culture: Hidden Histories of the American Gangster Film, New Brunswick: Rutgers UP.

Matthew Sorrento is Co-editor of Film International and Editor-in-chief of Retreats from Oblivion, a journal of noir, crime, and mystery fiction/culture. He teaches film and media studies at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ, USA and is on the advisory board of the Law, Culture, and Humanities series at Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. His forthcoming books include David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation (co-edited with David Ryan) and Outcasts: Film Noir and the Blacklist (co-authored with Dean Goldberg; both with Fairleigh Dickinson University Press), along with several book chapters and contributions in Film & History, Critical Studies in Television, and The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.

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