Cover of book: The Yellow Peril

Christopher Frayling
The Yellow Peril

In 1912-13, with the serialised publication of The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, Arthur Henry Ward, a one-time London bank clerk and music hall lyricist who wrote stories under the pen name Sax Rohmer, breathed life into one of the 20th century’s most enduring and potent fictional villains. Fu Manchu was a master poisoner, fiendish plotter against the “white race” and an all-round genius of menace. He was nothing less, Rohmer warned, than the “yellow peril incarnate in one man”.

Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu stories, despite trashing every rule of good crime fiction (beginning with basic plausibility), proved explosively popular in Great Britain and beyond. They spawned films, comic books, imitations, parodies and tributes – and perpetuated a stereotype of the cruel and cunning “Chinaman” that has persisted to the current day, as Christopher Frayling shows in The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu & the Rise of Chinaphobia, an entertaining but serious-minded romp through the history of a controversial pop culture icon.

In Fu Manchu, Rohmer distilled all the racial and imperial anxieties of the West at the turn of the 20th century. Less than 200 years earlier, during the Enlightenment, China had inspired almost universal admiration in Europe for the refinement of its arts and the philosophic ideals of its system of government. The 19th century changed all that with its muscular imperialism and crackpot theories of racial hierarchies. The military and political weakness of the late Qing dynasty provoked pity and contempt, and the violently xenophobic Boxer uprising in 1900 kindled the fear of being overwhelmed by Mongol hordes: “When by-and-by the Chinese know their power,” warned Admiral Lord Fisher, a veteran of the Second Opium War (1856-60), “they have only to walk slowly westwards” and they will “smother Europe”.

A conversation in 1995 between Frayling and Edward Said, the author of Orientalism, inspired the writing of this book. Said’s path-breaking work had examined how high culture and scholarship in the West had projected Western fantasies, fears and prejudices onto the people and cultures of the Middle East (the “Orient”). Said agreed with Frayling that it was time to broaden the definition of the Orient and examine the role of popular culture as well. He confessed that his own first impressions of China came from the Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan movies he watched while growing up in Egypt.

In those films, Caucasian actors (including Harry Agar Lyons and Warner Oland) played Fu Manchu in “yellowface”, much as Elizabeth Taylor would later play the Egyptian Cleopatra and Yul Brynner the Thai King of Siam. When Frayling interviewed Rohmer’s elderly widow in 1971, he had asked her if Rohmer ever thought about casting a Chinese in the part. She responded that there were no Chinese film stars around to cast. In any case, she insisted, he would have preferred Basil Rathbone, “who could be sinister even in his pyjamas!”

Fu Manchu was, after all, the expression of an idea of China rather than China itself: it is telling that he has “cat-green” eyes and a mansion full of “Chinoiserie”. His true homeland was the English pantomime stage and his honourable ancestor Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. Although he haunted Limehouse, London’s earliest Chinatown, it was not the actual humdrum streets where several hundred Chinese lodged, worked, ate and played, but a teeming “zone of peril” (as one contemporary newspaper report described it), where “John Chinaman” waited to lure men and women alike into the depravity of the opium den.

One of Rohmer’s English characters, upon visiting Limehouse, hyperventilates: “Oh my God! ... can this be England?” This brought to mind Tim Blair’s fraught visit to Lakemba (“Sydney’s Muslim Land”) for The Daily Telegraph earlier this year: in the rooms at the Lakemba Hotel, he reported, “There isn’t even a Gideon’s Bible.” (OMG! Can this be Australia?) The Islamic State-deployed “Ebola bombs” conjured up by parliamentarian Jacqui Lambie, meanwhile, are a weapon worthy of Dr Fu Manchu himself. Between the likes of Blair and Lambie on the one hand and the IS on the other, ordinary Muslims are left scrambling to recover the narrative of their own lives and faith – much as Chinese, caught ’twixt Fu Manchu, Suzie Wong and the Communist Party, have been doing for nearly a century. Tellingly, Fu Manchu’s dastardly deeds are primarily aimed at assassinating or kidnapping specialists in Asian Studies: there is a level at which, Frayling writes, “the novels are about a struggle … over the meaning of the Orient”.

But while in the novels and early films this meaning was fairly unambiguous, there is another stream of popular culture in which the response has been far more nuanced, critical and irreverent: the Surrealists, Jack Kerouac, Ian Fleming, the Goons, the Beatles, Doctor Who and the American playwright David Henry Hwang are among the many artists who tackled the theme of the “Yellow Peril” in their own work and in their own way. The earliest writer to satirise Yellow Peril obsessions outright was possibly P. G. Wodehouse, whose The Swoop! or, How Clarence Saved England (1909) was published several years before Rohmer’s The Mystery: “China, at last awakened, had swooped down upon that picturesque little Welsh watering place, Lllgxtplll …”

When the US and Great Britain allied themselves with China in World War II, Rohmer retired Fu Manchu, as he’d become a bit awkward. He reappeared in 1948: the Communists, who took power the following year, gave him new purpose. Rohmer died in 1959. But the ghost of Fu Manchu lingers: Frayling detects the old villain’s shadow in contemporary books about China that have the words “power”, “threat” and “rise” in the titles and some of the more hysterical anti-China rhetoric of Republican and Tea Party politicians in the US. He had always proved rather difficult to kill off.  CG

Thames & Hudson, 360pp, $49.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 1, 2014 as "Christopher Frayling, The Yellow Peril".

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Reviewer: CG

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