By Max Millard
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Written for Cameron House Bilingual Youth Program
San Francisco, California, summer 2004

  1. What is a stereotype?
  2. Effects of stereotyping
  3. Brainwashing
  4. Anti-Chinese stereotypes of the 1800s
  5. Origins of anti-Chinese stereotypes
  6. Results of anti-Chinese stereotypes
  7. Stereotypes in the movie industry
  8. Anna May Wong
  9. Fu Manchu
  10. Charlie Chan
  11. Relaxing of stereotypes
  12. Model minority

1. What is a stereotype?

a. Origin

According to the encyclopedia, a stereotype was originally "an impression taken from a form of movable lead type and used for printing instead of the original type." In other words, a stereotype was something produced by a machine, and was identical to all other products from that machine. The term is still used today in engineering.

b. Modern meaning

About 200 years ago the word developed a new meaning as a set of widely held beliefs about a particular group of people, such as those of the same profession, from the same region, or of a particular ethnic or racial group. Although many stereotypes began with a grain of truth, they have the negative effect of letting an entire group of people be prejudged, with no regard for the individual. They are often based on misinformation and ignorance, and in many cases are far out of date. Stereotypes simplify things for people who don't know any better.

c. Common stereotypes

- the absent-minded professor
- the dumb blonde
- the crooked lawyer
- the pirate with a wooden leg, eye patch and parrot
- the doctor with bad handwriting

d. Negative racial stereotypes

- the lazy Mexican
- the drunken Irishman or American Indian
- the crafty Jew
- the cheap Scotchman
- the cruel German
- the Southern redneck ("white trash")
- the black athlete who succeeds only by "natural ability"
- the exotic and mysterious Chinese

e. Anti-American stereotypes

According to stereotypes in other countries, Americans:

- get divorced easily
- drive big cars
- are overweight and out of shape
- watch a lot of TV
- love to eat pizza and fast food
- like to make war
- are self-centered and don't care about their families
- take drugs
- are conceited and have bad manners
- are rich


2. Effects of stereotyping

a. Negative effects

Stereotyping is almost entirely negative. The U.S. Constitution says that every American has the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." This means that everyone should be allowed to live where they want, marry who they want, go where they want, and work at any type of job they want. But when they are stereotyped, they lose some of these opportunities because someone else does not give them a chance.

In some cases, people who might have great skills and abilities in a profession will not be considered for a job because of a stereotype that works against them. Under American law, people cannot be discriminated against because of their race, ethnic group, religion or age. But it is hard for people to prove that they are the victims of stereotyping and prejudice, and job discrimination is still common.

b. Positive effects

In some cases, people will get more opportunities than they normally would because of a stereotype in their favor. For example, white Americans have a stereotype in Asia of speaking better English than Asian Americans. Even if an Asian American speaks perfect English without an accent, the white American will probably have a better chance of being hired as an English teacher in Asia. Asian Americans have a stereotype of being more reliable workers than black workers, so some stores give preference to Asian Americans who apply as sales clerks.


3. Brainwashing

a. Stereotyping, prejudice and brainwashing are all closely related. Brainwashing is an extreme form of stereotyping in which people are force-fed a set of ideas that are usually false. Then these ideas are drilled into them over an extended period of time until the people believe them with complete confidence.

In Japan during World War II, the residents of the island of Saipan were brainwashed into believing that the Americans were devils who would torture them. When the Americans invaded the island, many Japanese civilians committed suicide by jumping off a cliff, rather than surrendering to the Americans. But the Americans were not planning to harm the civilians.

In some religious cults, the members are brainwashed into believing that their leader is God, or has magical powers. Once the members believe that, they will do anything for the person.

Sometimes the mass media are so influential in spreading a stereotype that the effect is almost the same as brainwashing. This is what happened during World War II, when 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were taken from their homes and moved to internment camps in the desert, and many Americans hated and feared them without knowing them personally. It turned out that the Japanese Americans were innocent people. The U.S. government admitted this while apologizing to them almost 50 years later.


4. Anti-Chinese stereotypes of the 1800s

When the Chinese first arrived in America in large numbers in the early 1850s, many stereotypes sprang up about them because of white Americans' ignorance about the Chinese language and culture. Here are some of the stereotypes, followed by the truths:

a. Stereotype: the Chinese would eat almost everything, including rats.

Truth: the Chinese did not eat rats, but ate many other things that were unfamiliar to Americans. That's because they came from a culture in which cooking was considered a high art, and they had much more knowledge about what is tasty and healthy to eat, and how to prepare it. The Chinese were able to create magnificent meals using ingredients that seemed strange to white Americans, such as abalone, soy sauce and bamboo, which have since become part of the American diet.

b. Stereotype: the Chinese could work all day long without getting tired.

Truth: the Chinese got as tired as anyone else, but were willing to work very hard because they knew they would have few chances to get any kind of job. They had to be better than the white workers, or they wouldn't be hired. Also, the Chinese knew more about medicine and health than most white Americans, and they generally took care of themselves better, so they were less likely to become sick, and more likely to get proper treatment if they did.

c. Stereotype: the Chinese workers did not care anything about the United States. They hurt our economy by sending all their money back to China instead of spending it here.

Truth: the Chinese felt unwelcome in the U.S. and did not think their families would be able to live here. They had no reason to spend money at white-owned businesses, especially considering that they would never be hired to work for those businesses. The Chinese didn't necessarily want to live in Chinatowns, apart from American society, but they were forced to, for their own protection. For this reason, they formed their own economy, and did need to buy many things from white merchants.

d. Stereotype: the Chinese were heathens who didn't believe in God.

Truth: the Chinese came from a long spiritual tradition of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, and were just as religious as any other group. They had many gods, not just one God, as the Bible teaches.

e. Stereotype: the Chinese were dirty and diseased.

Truth: the Chinese placed more importance on bathing and personal hygiene than most westerners. When they worked in places with access to plenty of water, they bathed frequently, sometimes every day. But when they were forced to live in the crowded conditions of Chinatown, they didn't have the same access to water, and bathing became more of a luxury. Some of their diseases, such as tuberculosis, stemmed from the crowded conditions that they had to live in.


5. Origins of anti-Chinese stereotypes

a. American magazines and newspapers

Most of the information in English on the Chinese American communities of the 19th and early 20th century comes to us via books, periodicals, newspapers, and other written records, as well as through original source documentation such as manuscripts and photographs and drawings. These materials are often filled with caricatures and derogatory designations. Yet these sources are often used even today because of the scarcity of written documentation on certain aspects of Chinese American history.

One of the richest sources of documentation can be found in such magazines as San Francisco's The Wasp and The Wave and New York's Harper's Weekly and Monthly. They flourished in the late 1800s and early 1900s, providing comment on the political, economic and social events of the period. Though often overtly distorted or opinionated, these documents tell us the history of what immigrants faced coming to the American West and the inter-ethnic tensions that were present.

These publications also recorded the specific contributions of the Chinese to commerce, architecture, and cultural and social life. By documenting specific locations, such as San Francisco Chinatown, they revealed the historic significance of those buildings and places, while providing valuable information about patterns of early Chinese American life.

The illustrations in this magazines document how important the Chinese communities in California were in building the industries that enabled the West to develop. They are depicted as picturesque contributors, or more often problematic, misunderstood workers in a variety of scenes, reflecting their prominent roles in the building of the transcontinental railroad, the mining industry, agriculture and fishing, and a variety of important manufacturing areas. Often what is depicted in the periodicals reflects a complicated history of relations and reactions that the Chinese experienced in coming to the American West.

b. Chinese employment

Chinese men saw opportunity in jobs that were considered undesirable by white men. Setting up makeshift restaurants to sell hot cooked food, doing laundry, and later taking care of children -- all services that were traditionally considered women's work -- helped create a stereotype of the Chinese as servants, which would persist long into the future.


6. Results of anti-Chinese stereotypes

The stereotyping of Chinese by American government officials and the media was one of the main reasons why Chinese Americans were forced to live in a separate society. Some whites did not consider the Chinese to be fully human.

a. The Chinese had no protection under American law.

b. They were not allowed to testify in court against white people.

c. They were not allowed to become naturalized citizens.

d. They could not attend school with white children.

e. They could not work for white-owned corporations or for any branch of government.

f. They could not bring their wives and children to America.

g. If they left the U.S., they were not allowed to return.

h. They could not live outside of Chinatowns.

i. They could not work at certain professions, such as lawyers, medical doctors, teachers and engineers.

j. They could not vote or run for political office.


7. Stereotypes in the movie industry

a. In the early 1900s, when the Hollywood movie industry began, Americans had a new mass medium that was just as powerful as newspapers and magazines in influencing public opinion. Chinese Americans had a very limited role in creating the images of themselves that were shown to millions of Americans.

b. In the movies, Chinese were seldom given lead roles, but were forced to play cooks, servants, laundry workers, slave girls, evil "dragon ladies," exotic beauties, or diabolical criminals. They were shown speaking broken English mixed with Chinese, or "Chinglish." They were never portrayed as Americans who spoke fluent English and had the same hopes and dreams as white Americans.

c. When a movie had a main character that was supposed to be Chinese, it was common for a white actor to wear heavy makeup and play the role. During much of the "Golden Age" of Hollywood, scores of big-name actors had no hesitation to play roles that required them to "slant" their eyes, do a "funny" walk, and speak in an embarrassingly bad "Oriental" accent. The result was something that looked and sounded ridiculous, but the white audiences didn't seem to mind, so Hollywood kept doing it until the 1980s. Although most actors put on "yellowface" as a one-shot deal, a handful of white actors, such as Yul Brynner (star of the musical The King and I, in which he played the king of Thailand), spent much of their careers unashamedly accepting such roles.

d. The same thing happened to black actors. Blacks were mostly forced to play minor roles in movies, usually portraying servants or entertainers. White performers sometimes wore heavy makeup called blackface and portrayed black people, both on stage and in the movies.


8. Anna May Wong

a. The first Chinese American movie star was Anna May Wong. Born in Los Angeles Chinatown in 1905, the daughter of a laundryman, she became fascinated with movies while a child. There was plenty of filming going on in the streets of Los Angeles, and Anna May loved to hang around the sets on location. She landed her first small acting role at the age of 14, then began appearing in many films, including some roles opposite famous American white actors such as Lon Chaney and Douglas Fairbanks.

The height of her film career came in 1932, when she played a supporting role in Shanghai Express with the great European actress Marlene Dietrich. But she couldn't get lead roles because none were given to Asian American performers until the 1960s.

b. American writer Pearl Buck, who grew up in China, wrote a best-selling novel about China with Chinese characters titled The Good Earth. When it was made into a movie in 1937, Anna May Wong was tested for the female lead. But once a white actor was chosen as the male lead, Wong knew that she would not be chosen to play his wife because Hollywood had a rule of never showing any romance between a white person and a nonwhite person. The three biggest roles were all given to white people. Chinese American actors were hired to play all the smaller roles in the film.

c. Anna May Wong got tired of her lack of opportunity in Hollywood, so she went to make movies in Europe. She eventually returned to the U.S., but had no better luck than before. She never achieved the success that her talent deserved. When she reached her late 30s, it become hard for her to get any movie roles. She died at the age of 56, from cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcoholism. Several biographies of her have been written, and a recent documentary about her life was broadcast on public television. Some of her movies are still available on video.


9. Fu Manchu

According to a study done in Chicago in the early 1900s, many white Americans feared the "criminal appearance" of Chinese laundrymen, whom they believed "did all kinds of sinister and mysterious things in their back rooms," such as kidnapping little boys in their laundry bags and hiding them in rooms behind secret sliding panels.

From such stereotypes and misconceptions came the character of Dr. Fu Manchu, created in 1913 by British author Sax Rohmer and eventually appearing in 13 novels and many films and radio programs. Described as "the yellow peril incarnate in one man," Fu Manchu was characterized by a long black mustache, flowing Chinese-style robes, long fingernails and a cruel smile. He was threatening, violent, powerful and masculine, and spoke impeccable English. He was coldly intelligent, seemingly possessed no soul or emotion. He was the embodiment of evil -- a master criminal bent on taking over the world. He contrasted sharply with his white opponents, who were shown as being much more human and sympathetic.

Sax Rohmer made millions of dollars writing about the evil and cunning Fu Manchu, and his stereotyped stories thrilled readers for more than 40 years. Many other white writers did the same thing, such as Ian Fleming, the author who created the superspy James Bond. One of the Bond novels was titled Dr. No and was about a deformed and depraved half-Chinese mastermind living on a forbidden island where he put people in bizarre death traps, and made a pet out of a giant squid.


10. Charlie Chan

Charlie Chan was a character created by American writer Earl Derr Biggers in 1925. He was a Chinese detective who worked for the Honolulu Police Department. Unlike Fu Manchu, Chan was overweight, clumsy and very polite, and spoke grammatically incorrect "fortune cookie" English.

Charlie Chan was the main character for six popular novels, all of which were made into movies or Broadway plays. More than 40 Charlie Chan movies appeared from the 1920s to the 1940s. All of them starred white actors in yellowface.

The formula was, for the most part: Charlie Chan, brilliant detective and worldwide celebrity, happened upon a good case of murder in an interesting or exotic locale, usually not Honolulu. One or two of Charlie's sons (usually identified as #1 son or #2 son) offered "Pop" their assistance. They would then spend the rest of the film getting in the way and providing comic relief, until Charlie solved the case in spite of them. The minor roles were played by Asian Americans. Along the way, Detective Chan could be counted on for numerous "Chinese proverbs." A typical Chan statement: "Man without enemies like dog without fleas."

The last Charlie Chan movie was made in 1980, and was filmed partly in San Francisco, starring British actor Peter Ustinov. Titled Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, the film would be entirely forgettable except for the commotion it created. Asian American activists marched in protest of the stereotypes, the fortune cookie dialogue, and the use of a white actor to play Chan. As journalist Scott Newhall described, Ustinov "found himself at bay, like a startled fox who has blundered into the kennels of an English country estate."

The protest drew national attention, even becoming the subject of an op-ed column in the the New York Times by humorist Russell Baker. "Unfortunately, I did see some Charlie Chan movies 40 years ago," he mused, "But I was too young to know better. For the same reason, I went to see Hamlet in 1947. However, I have never seen it since, and never intend to, now that Danes have told me it gives a very bad impression of life in Denmark."

In an Asian Week interview, the film's producer, Jerry Sherlock, explained: "For any Chinese person to think that Charlie Chan is a representative of Chinese culture is asinine. That's what the whole joke is. It was never purported to be a representative of the Chinese character. It's a farce. It doesn't belittle or denigrate anyone."

The Chan incident was echoed in the 1992 protest against Miss Saigon in New York City, over the casting of a white man in the role of a Eurasian. But unlike in San Francisco, the New York protesters backed down and let the show proceed.


11. Relaxing of stereotypes

a. Flower Drum Song. This was a novel about Chinatown, written by a Chinese American author named C.Y. Lee, who worked for many years as a reporter for Chinese-language newspapers in Chinatown. When published in 1957, it became a surprise best-seller. Then the famous musical comedy team of Rodgers and Hammerstein made it into a Broadway musical, which premiered in New York in 1958 and was a hit. After that, the musical was made into a popular movie with a cast of all Asian Americans. Although the movie contains a lot of stereotypes, it is significant because it represented breakthrough for Asian American performers.

b. Although Asian Americans are still stereotyped in newspapers, movies, TV and radio, they have made a lot of progress since the 1980s. Yellowface has disappeared, and Asian Americans now commonly star in big-budget Hollywood movies.

c. Asian American authors are becoming common. The trend-setter is Amy Tan of Oakland, who has written several novels that became best]sellers, starting the The Joy Luck Club, which became a popular film.

d. Martial arts films, first popularized by Bruce Lee and later made into comedies by Jackie Chan and others, have become a major genre in the U.S. and worldwide.

e. Asian Americans still have a long way to go on television. So far, only one network television show in prime time, All-American Girl starring Margaret Cho, has had an Asian American as the lead character. The show was on for just one season in the mid-1990s.


12. Model minority

Ever since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Asian Americans have gradually become part of the American mainstream. Based on such factors as academic performance, low crime rate, reliability as employees, and low divorce rate, Asian Americans have gotten a new stereotype: the "model minority."

According to Chinese American writer and activist Helen Zia, "This whole notion of model minority is a fantasy that Chinese Americans didn't create."

Throughout American history, says Zia, "The image of Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans has veered from positive to negative and back again. Too often, these images have been grounded in stereotypes. The most recent stereotype to emerge is that Asian Americans as a whole are a model minority, achieving success in record numbers due to some inherent cultural characteristics. The stereotype is a myth."

The whole concept of a model minority, says Zia, "only emerged in 1966 in the middle of the civil rights era. ... Suddenly this enemy was being treated as though we were the good minority. We were the quiet minority. We were the ones who would work quietly just for our own advancement without accepting a welfare check. That's what the newspapers and magazines at that time said. The whole notion of model minority was a social and political construct to place Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans in complete contradiction and conflict with African Americans and the civil rights movement."

But Henry Der, a California civil rights activist and educator, has a simpler answer to the "model minority" question. He says: "Why not just call them model Americans?"