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One of my favorite television shows growing up was Batman.

Perhaps it was because I was a somewhat unusual little girl who hated dolls, adored a cast metal Tonka Truck to the point of almost taking it to bed with me (Mum said no, on the not unreasonable grounds that a dump truck wasn't very cuddly), and used to tie silk scarves around my stuffed animals' necks since they were superheroes and of course needed capes.  I might, might have had a very mild crush on Adam West, who was suave and good looking and really rocked the "filthy rich capitalist with a cravat" look despite needing a corset to give him the requisite svelte figure to play the Caped Crusader.   And of course, who wouldn't want a Batmobile that shot flames out of its tailpipe, or Stately Wayne Manor?  Or an Alfred?  

Regardless of the exact reasons, I absolutely adored Batman, to the point that I insisted on playing "Batman and Robin" with my aunt Betty.  That Betty and I clashed later over politics and societal changes to the point that we nearly stopped speaking over the 2004 election is nothing more than the sad and simple truth, but her willingness to pretend to be Batman even though she thought the show was ridiculous and Adam West was a "big big goof" is proof positive that she loved me in spite of it all.

I also loved every other superhero or vaguely superheroish show that I could find, from Underdog to Space Angel, The Lone Ranger to Johnny Quest.  Powers or lack thereof made no difference;  I adored John Steed and Emma Peel, whose only superpowers were their own intelligence and training, just as much as I loved the Last Son of Krypton, and had a boffo time watching Wild Wild West and Honey West with my delighted father.  

Some of these shows were successful - Emma Peel, anyone? - others were training grounds for later stars  - Ralph Bakshi's Spider-Man, anyone? - while others were merely ridiculous - the Marvel series that deployed Jack Kirby's art in animation so crude that it's a wonder Kirby didn't strangle Stan Lee in his sleep, anyone?  It didn't matter, for I loved them all, wanted to be as much like the brave and the bold as possible, and would play superheroes to the point where my mother finally had to order me to stop watching Saturday morning cartoons and read something decent like Rabbit Hill, for heaven's sake!  That even today, just short of 53 years old, I have something of a fetish for black leather boots and shoulder-length, swept back hair a lá Emma Peel, speaks to the influence of these shows and this type of storytelling on my mind and spirit.

Among my favorites was one that many of you probably have never heard of.  It only lasted a season, but the hero and his sidekick were so dazzling that it's little wonder I wanted to rush right out and take karate lessons.  That my parents resisted turned out to be all to the good - I recently learned that I was born with only one kidney, which means no contact sports that could threaten this most precious and necessary organ - but I can't help smiling when I hear the famous theme music or see a particular shade of rich, velvety green.

I refer, of course, to the Van Williams/Bruce Lee version of The Green Hornet.
On the surface, The Green Hornet is a typical piece of pulp fiction:  a rich man (newspaper publisher Britt Reid), fed up with criminals and the local police, decides to fight crime.  To do this without threatening his position in society or industry, he takes on the nom de guerre "The Green Hornet," wears a green topcoat, hat, and domino mask to avoid being recognized, uses a non-fatal weapon (either his fists or a gas gun), and tootles about town in a non-standard vehicle, the souped-up limousine known as the Black Beauty.  Aided and abetted by his houseboy/car mechanic, Kato, and an astonishingly compliant police force, the Hornet is a less brooding, grim, and psychotic take on Batman, with the added fillip that he is supposed to be the nephew or great nephew of John Reid the Lone Ranger.

As I said, this is all very typical of the pulp superhero; it's been used successfully by everyone from Batman to Iron Man, Batwoman to Iron Fist, Green Arrow to Hawkeye II to the Wasp.  If anything, filthy rich vigilantes are far more common than working class heroes like Luke Cage or Superman, so there is nothing particularly unusual about Green Hornet himself.  

No, what enchanted me as a child and fascinates me still is Kato, the alleged sidekick.
I was too young to realize what a horrible stereotype was behind the whole "rich white man employs an Asian cook/housekeeper/chauffeur/subordinate" trope.  All I saw was two men, best friends, solving crimes and fighting evil side by side.  Kato may have worked for Britt Reid, but like so many servants in literature and film, he was there because he wanted to be.  He was nobody's fool and nobody's tool, and the fact that he didn't even need a gas gun to obliterate the bad guys with a few spectacular kicks, punches, and leaps, that he was a hero with no weapon but his own flesh, was heady stuff indeed.  

That he was played by the then-unknown Bruce Lee, who executed his own stunts with an elegance and precision that would have made the angels weep, was what had me glued to the TV set week after week.

It was only after I became an adult, years after the show I loved was cancelled, that I realized how The Green Hornet must have looked to my parents.  They'd both lived through World War II, after all, including the propaganda about evil Japs bombing our Navy, massacring our Marines, and threatening our soldiers.  Worse, both had grown up during the time when popular entertainment, whether radio, comic strips and books, films, theater, or popular fiction, traded in racial and ethnic stereotypes like stolid Swedes, stupid Poles, shiftless blacks, and inscrutably evil Asians of all nationalities.  My parents were reasonably enlightened for their time period, to the point that one of the reasons we left Virginia after two years was the racism that lay thick as the fallen dogwood and redbud blossoms in May, but it's a reasonably safe bet that seeing Kato outshine his boss must have given them at least a second or two's pause.

It's also not out of the realm of possibility that one of the reasons why The Green Hornet only lasted a season while the much sillier but all-white Batman lasted almost four and spawned a hit movie was because an older generation raised on tales of houseboys, tragic half-caste girls rotting in opium dens, wily Lascars kidnapping pretty blondes for white slavery, Dragon Ladies menacing all-American boys, evil Oriental potentates and scientists trying to take over the West, and Fifth Columnists so dangerous they had to be plucked en masse from their homes and interned at Manzanar after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, was less than entertained by the sight of an Asian man kicking the living daylights out of white men while the best his boss could do was throw the occasional punch.  

The Sixties were a far more enlightened time than what had come before - just look at the cast of Star Trek - but were they enlightened enough to overcome half a century of thrilling, chilling, utterly ridiculous, ridiculously entertaining stereotypes about the Yellow Peril sweeping in from the Mysterious East, hellbent on destroying Western Civilization.

That America's invincible war machine was having the living daylights kicked out of it by the indisputably Asian and avowedly Communist Viet Cong probably didn't help.

Few people today remember how pervasive the Yellow Peril was in popular culture, and a good thing, too.  The term seems to have originated in the late 19th century when Chinese workers were brought to the United States as cheap labor to work on the railroads and in the gold fields of the American West.  That many of these workers not only looked strange to America workers, but wore unfamiliar clothes, spoke unintelligible languages, ate foods that bore no resemblance to traditional American meat-and-potatoes, and often worshipped what appeared to be idols was bad enough, but that they worked for a pittance of what a white man might expect was seen as a direct threat to the American way of life.  

That all too many of these menacing "heathens" were virtually enslaved by the (white) men who brought them to America was either not known or discounted by the working class men who saw the Chinese as despised competitors with "devilish" ways.   Soon there were laws restricting Chinese immigration, anti-Chinese riots in the Pacific Northwest that rivaled the horrors of the Tulsa and Rosewood tragedies, and attempts to prevent ethnically Chinese children born in the United States from claiming American citizenship.  Matters only got worse in the early 20th century, when rising prejudice and the popularity of eugenics resulted in a series of increasingly restrictive immigration laws that targeted all Asians, not just the Chinese, making it all but impossible for Asian immigrants to become naturalized citizens and stripping American women who married Asians of their citizenship.  There were a few exceptions - what became known as the "Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907" exempted the Japanese from many of the anti-Asian laws - but it's no coincidence that the phrase "Chinaman's chance" was coined around this time.

If this wasn't bad enough, the idea that despite laws restricting their immigration and popular hatred that forced them into what were effectively ghettoes, the evil Oriental hordes would somehow combine to overcome the gallant, doomed West thanks to conspiracy and military conquest became a staple of popular culture.  

This seems to have started early in the 1900s, soon after the Russians learned courtesy of the Battle of Tsushima that the "Japanese monkeys" were more than a match for the Imperial Navy.  Suddenly there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of stories about ruthless Chinese and/or Japanese armies invading and destroying the West.  Jack London was probably the best author to take up this theme, in a 1914 story that has a vengeful Western alliance stopping Chinese expansion with a ruthless campaign of biological warfare, but he was far from the only one; Philip Francis Nowlan's seminal pulp novel Armageddon 2419 AD, which introduced Buck Rogers, has the original sleeping superhero wake to find that America has been colonized by evil Chinese invaders, while HP Lovecraft's works depict "slant-eyed immigrants [practicing] nameless rites in honor of heathen gods by the light of the moon."  Robert Heinlein, one of the first SF writers to feature a non-white hero (Johnny Rico of Starship Troopers), wrote Sixth Column, the tale of a "PanAsian" empire that was so rife with stereotypes that Heinlein later apologized.  

And there were more, many, many, many more, from movie serial villain Ming the Merciless to comic villain the Yellow Claw.  So powerful and pervasive was the stereotype that as late as the 1960's superhero Iron Man fought evil Asian sorcerer the Mandarin and his evil minions in the Ten Rings, Batman battled the evil Asian Ras' al Ghul,  the 1970's version of Hawaii 5-0 pursued  the evil Wo Fat, and Doctor Who was menaced by Weng Chiang and his Peking Homunculus

And then there was Sax Rohmer's massively popular, massively influential, massively bigoted series about the gallant Briton Nayland Smith and his ongoing battle against the irredeemably evil, utterly inscrutably walking stereotype named Fu Manchu.

Rohmer, born Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward in 1883 in Birmingham, was not quite the aristocratic writer one might expect from reading his fiction; the scion of a working class Irish-Catholic family, he originally trained as a civil servant before chucking it all to work writing comic songs and sketches for that quintessentially working class English form of entertainment, the music hall.  Eventually he chucked that as well and started writing horror fiction for middlebrow magazines like Pearson's.  He soon was rubbing elbows with the likes of more established horror and "weird fiction" authors like Arthur Machen, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Algernoon Blackwood.  Also like Machen and Blackwood (though not Conan Doyle), Rohmer claimed to be a member of one of the numerous quarreling factions of the Order of the Golden Dawn, an enormously influential magical organization that included the likes of William Butler Yeats and Aleister Crowley in its ranks.  That Rohmer might, just might have appropriated a family friend's actual occult connections is only speculation.

Rohmer enjoyed enough success as a horror writer that he was making his living entirely from novel and short story sales by 1911.  It was then that, possibly inspired by an earlier Yellow Peril novel by M.P. Shiel, that Rohmer created the character that made him rich, famous, and renowned.  

That character was, of course, the evilest of evil Oriental villains:  the one, the only,  Dr. Fu Manchu.

Despite not being the first, Fu Manchu was unquestionably the most important and influential Yellow Peril villain.  Intelligent, ruthless, utterly amoral, and evil to the core, this descendant of the Mongol Emperors of China was determined to achieve nothing less than the complete conquest of the West in revenge for the degradation of Chinese civilization by European conquerors.  His chief antagonists, the gallant British hero Dennis Nayland Smith and his sidekick Dr. Petrie, thwarted the insidious and inscrutable Fu Manchu in a series of fast-paced, exciting, bigoted, immensely popular, and increasingly ridiculous adventures between 1913 and, God help us all, 1957.  There was even a posthumous collection of Fu Manchu short stories published in 1973, not to mention authorized sequels as late as 2012.

Yes.  A Fu Manchu novel was published last year.


For all his success, Fu Manchu was far from Rohmer's favorite character.  The first three books in the series were so popular that Rohmer, like Conan Doyle before him, felt smothered by his own success.  And though he stopped writing Fu Manchu books after three bestselling novels, and wrote about other heroes such as Moris Klaw, "Red" Kerry, Gaston Max, and Paul Harley, plus plenty of short stories and novels about such delights as reanimated Egyptian mummies, the public clamored for Fu Manchu and only Fu Machu.

Rohmer finally gave up thanks to the combined efforts of Paramount Pictures (which wanted to film a series starring, I kid you not, Swedish actor Warner Oland), Collier's (which wanted to publish a serial), and a newspaper syndicate (which was gearing up to produce a daily comic strip), and by the late 1920s was once again churning out Fu Manchu books.  He wasn't especially happy about it (which showed in a volume which tried to shift the evilness and villainy onto Fu Manchu's daughter and her fight against one Drake Roscoe), but finally gave up and brought back both Fu Manchu and Nayland Smith in 1930's Fu Manchu's Daughter.

If this weren't enough, Rohmer decided to recycle Drake Roscoe, the intended replacement for Nayland Smith.  This he did in one of the few Yellow Peril series to feature a female villain, the evil Sumuru, which lasted for five books and was made into a film series in the late 1960s starring former Bond Girl Shirley Eaton.  And of course he kept writing short stories, many of them about cursed Oriental objects, writings, and people, very, very few of which bore even the slightest resemblance to actual Asians (not that this made any impact on sales)….

Needless to say, the Chinese government was less than pleased by Fu Manchu, his daughter, or his adventures; his depiction of Limehouse, the main Chinese community in London, as a hotbed of crime, conspiracy, opium, and white slavery, was particularly outrageous given that the Asian community Limehouse was actually one of the most law-abiding ethnic enclaves in London.  Chinese communities in the United States were equally upset.  They already faced huge legal obstacles to fair treatment, and having Fu Manchu on the silver screen, in the Sunday funnies, and flying briskly off the shelves at the Heck Piazza Yarnes & Mobile didn't help one little bit.  That Fu Manchu was only one of many evil Oriental villains in the pulps and the comics and the serials was no excuse; many of these characters were clearly inspired by him, and the popularity of a highbrow novel like The Good Earth, which was sympathetic to the plight of Chinese peasants, counted for little against the rising tide of racial stereotyping.

Rohmer shrugged off the criticism and continued to write books that mixed high adventure, exotic lands, paper-thin characters, and a whole heap o' misunderstood, misportrayed, and outrageously stereotyped Asian and Middle Eastern characters, customs, and religions.  He did soften some of the worst of the Yellow Peril motifs in his books by the time of his death, but less than ten years later revisionism, the Civil Rights movement, and the repeal of discriminatory immigration laws would have rendered his particular type of pulp mayhem obsolete, if not yet completely unpublishable.  

His most famous character lived on, with no less than Peter Sellers attempting a high camp version of Fu Manchu AND Nayland Smith in his last film.  And though Fu Manchu himself has resisted all efforts to revive him on-screen, there are echoes of him in everything from the Kurt Russell vehicle Big Trouble in Little China to Eddie Murphy's The Golden Child to the explosion of fanboy wrath against the recent Iron Man movie that transformed the Mandarin from a literary white man's fantasy of an evil Asian villain into a literal white man's fantasy of an evil Asian villain.  That a stereotype like the Mandarin, who was very much a relic in the early 1960s and has gradually faded from view as society has evolved, was literally unfilmable today doesn't seem to have occurred to the most vociferous critics.

As for Sax Rohmer himself…

After a few years in New York just after World War II, he moved back to London in the 1950s.  There he continued to write until his death, which came about not from old age, cancer, smoking, drinking, or any other traditional writerly vice, but from…

…wait for it…

…are you sitting down?…

Asian flu.

Yes.  Really.

I swear, I couldn't make this up if I tried.


And any of you have a Fu Manchu novel lurking sinisterly in your attic?  A pastiche?  An homage like The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril?  The Christopher Lee movie series?  The Peter Sellers comedy?  Don't be's Saturday night, so let the fun commence....


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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Sat Jul 27, 2013 at 06:09 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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