My recent trip to the Formosa Cafe inspired me to watch the 1940 film “Phantom of Chinatown,” starring Keye Luke and Lotus Long. I wanted to see how American cinema portrayed Asian Americans at the time. The short answer is it’s complicated.
In Phantom of Chinatown, Keye Luke stars as Detective Jimmy Wong, brought in to solve a mystery in which an American professor, just returned from an archeological dig in China, is about to reveal the powerful secret of a Ming Dynasty emperor’s tomb when he dies horribly of poisoning. Lotus Long plays the professor’s beautiful secretary with a plot-twisting secret.
There are the usual amusing yet cringe-inducing stereotypes that one might expect of the period. A Caucasian actor in yellowface plays a Chinese sage dispensing wisdom in Confucius-like parables. The comic-relief Chinese house servant named Fu (nicknamed Phooey) speaks bad Pidgin English. He pursues a suspected intruder with a meat cleaver.
Most cringe-inducing is when the professor shows a film of “Mongolians” performing a “native dance,” involving crazy leaping and wild gesticulations, which invokes laughter from his university audience. My jaw dropped.
That said, Detective Jimmy Wong is the decided hero of the story, and his Sherlock Holmes-like detective work earns him the genuine respect of Police Captain Street. Sadly, he’s a bit bland in his personality. Still, he’s kind, astute, and brave, placing himself in the dangerous decoy position that results in a fist brawl before capturing the murderer.
The film clearly portrays Jimmy Wong as American. When there’s a potential conflict of interest between the U.S. and Chinese governments, he says, “Naturally, my sympathies follow my heritage, but after all, I am an American.”
I also appreciate that the depiction of the historic San Francisco Chinatown Telephone Exchange appears accurate. Chinese Americans appear throughout this scene.
Lotus Long as the professor’s secretary, Win Len, is a two-dimensional Hollywood cinema female typical of the period, but she is lovely and stylish without being a caricature. Notably, she was Japanese-Hawaiian, and she changed her maiden name of Lotus Shibata to Lotus Long for acting. Because of this stage name, people thought she was Chinese, and she was able to avoid incarceration in internment camps during World War 2.
Other stereotypes and classic tropes include the Irish American cop named O’Grady, the suspicious butler, the shadow of window blinds falling across an actor’s face during a suspenseful scene, and the hard-boiled police captain who barks things like, “Now scram!”
Beautiful secretary Win Len plaintively beseeches Jimmy Wong, “I can’t explain now, but you have to trust me,” as she dashes out of his car to perform a mysterious task in a darkened room where we can’t quite see what she’s doing.
Speaking of cars, wow! I loved all the gorgeous cars shown in the driving and car chase scenes. Car design and fashion were so lovely back then.
Phantom of Chinatown was the sixth and final episode of the Mr. Wong detective series. Unfortunately, the first five films starred Boris Karloff in yellowface. This sixth film was written for a younger actor and presented as a prequel to the five previous films. Phantom was the only film in which Keye Luke starred.
Still, Keye Luke was the first Chinese-American contract player signed by RKO, Universal Pictures, and Metro-Goldwyn Mayer and was one of the most prominent mid-20th century Asian actors in American cinema. He played Number One Son in the Charlie Chan films, the original Kato in the Green Hornet film serials, Brak in the Space Ghost cartoons, Master Po in the Kung Fu television series, and Mr. Wing in the Gremlins films.
So often, in vintage theater and cinema, Asians are portrayed as servile, asexual (the men), hypersexual (the women), inscrutable, exotic foreigners, or the butt of jokes. Phantom of Chinatown contains some of these elements. However, Jimmy Wong’s heroic, intelligent, handsome, and stylish character is a pleasant surprise.
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