A Flaw in the Eye: Race, Male Toxicity and the Enduring Impact of Polanski’s Chinatown

Movies Features Chinatown
A Flaw in the Eye: Race, Male Toxicity and the Enduring Impact of Polanski’s Chinatown

I guess I shouldn’t have been taken aback, but I was. I don’t remember if the conversation started with Polanski’s infamous personal life and whether it should or could be separated from his work, but that seems likely. Famous creatives in hot water for sexual misconduct has been … a bit of a thing this year, and lots of the writers at the conference were talking about it. But when I said, “Chinatown is still a masterpiece,” poet Garrett Hongo looked at me like he’d just seen me for the first time and wasn’t impressed.

“What?” I said. This white person was rapidly turning into a bright-red person because I had a feeling I knew what he was going to say and I had not given it one second’s thought.

“You don’t have a problem with Asian stereotypes in that movie? Screw like a Chinaman? All that shit?”

I had a problem with stereotyping anything, unless it was mindful and deliberate and served a clear artistic purpose. But did it? I hadn’t seen the film in years, maybe decades; I’d been college-age. So had Hongo, as it turned out. My film studies prof had been an auteur-worshipping aesthete who really didn’t give two shits about identity politics. At the time, that was probably fine with me—if I’m honest, even a welcome relief from what seemed like a relentless and pedantic obsession with it: I was from Oakland and unsure why the cosseted campus of Mount Holyoke insisted on acting like “feminism” and “race equality” were new and in need of urgent and constant ’splaining. Eighteen-year-old me had no issue with separating Polanski the statutory rapist from Polanski the genius director. At 45, I still actually don’t, but this made wonder if I’d perhaps not seen the film through an unbiased lens? Was there even such a thing as an unbiased lens? I doubted it, and so did my friend, once we really talked about it. We both kind of scowled at possibly having to accommodate an imminent attitude adjustment, but we were also more curious than crotchety, in the end.

“Maybe we should both watch it again,” I said.

And we did.

Amy Glynn: When was the first time you saw Chinatown, Garrett? When it came out? And have you seen it again before this week?
Garrett Hongo: A long, long time. 43 years? I saw it when it came out in Ann Arbor in 1974 in a theater I went to with about half-a-dozen other Asian-American graduate students. They were mostly Chinese Americans who were studying economics, law, political science, medicine, and, like me, East Asian studies. We all went as we’d seen the trailer, and we’d planned it as a kind of group outing. They were outraged. I was, too. Probably we were prepared to be. I’ve not seen it again until this past week.

A.G.: I hope this doesn’t sound like a clueless question, but can you expand on what specifically outraged you at the time?
G.H.: It was hard, in those days, after so many generations of anti-Asian messaging in mainstream culture that denigrated us regularly, to take from that initial viewing anything but offense at the caricatures, stereotypes, and racist jokes embedded in the film. Remember, we all might have been among the first of our families not only to go to college, but to graduate and professional schools. The parents of my friends owned laundries or restaurants or were blue-collar and clerical workers who lived mainly in Chinese-American communities. We were the generation that was integrating more fully into mainstream American culture, and we were always mocked for it. I remember an English professor saying to me when I was an undergrad, “A Japanese American as the next great American poet? Sure. I believe that.” At Michigan, our predominantly Asian intra-mural softball team, for which I played centerfield and shortstop, was regularly taunted with racist remarks on the field by players from other teams. It wasn’t easy to think past the racist motifs in Polanski’s film at the time.

A.G.: I think I first saw it in a film studies class at Amherst College in the early ’90s. I remember the prof as being a white Korean War vet who had some serious problems with women and ruthlessly disadvantaged them in his classes. I don’t recall him making racist remarks, but I can tell you we explored the film without really talking about the meaning of race at all. Our discussion was totally limited to esthetics. I wonder about that now, since there are both race and gender tropes Polanski uses that might or might not be “okay” but certainly ought to be unpacked a bit. But I concede that I didn’t give it much thought at the time, not in the way you’re talking about. I guess I didn’t have to! Which never occurred to me until this conversation, I will be honest.
G.H.: I watched the film again just three days ago. My view has expanded considerably, actually. My reaction wasn’t so viscerally negative, but I was able to see, prodded by your view, how the racism was a conscious strategy to leverage not only the plot, but the theme of blindness, folly and hubris among not only Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), his two detectives, and the police, but the entire population being manipulated by the Manichean evil of Noah Cross (John Huston), who is making a land and water grab while they pursue half-clues and false mythologies about themselves around the LA basin. Racism is an entertainment and a distraction for what was really going on and, Nicholson, the Oedipal detective at the center of the plot, is absolutely blinded by it throughout the film—until a crucial moment when he gets it. You pointed this out to me. “Bad for gl/rass,” the Japanese gardener says—an explosively racist caricature of the Japanese accent—and it becomes the clue that turns the narrative. It had always only pissed me off before.

A.G.: For me, it matters that it’s a conscious device, as are the dramatically doomed and helpless women in the story (but we’ll get to that).
G.H.: By the way, I later met Jimmy Hong and Beulah Quo, Evelyn Mulwray’s (Faye Dunaway’s) Chinese butler and housekeeper in the film. They spent their careers playing stereotypes, and Quo became the #1 Hollywood agent supplying the industry with a stream of Asian actors playing buck-toothed, slant-eyed and kow-towing fools and actresses playing exotic courtesan and femme fatale roles.

“Polanski “weaponized” American racism against the Chinese by deploying it as a tar baby that Jake and others get stuck in.”

A.G.: Looking at the movie now as an adult with some experience under your belt, do you feel that Polanski’s strategy of using Chinatown as a symbol of everything “inscrutable” and unfixable and traumatizing (which for Jake it obviously is) is inherently racist? Do you think the movie is racist or just the character?
G.H.: I think Polanski “weaponized” American racism against the Chinese by deploying it as a tar baby that Jake and others get stuck in, trying to punch it, feeling a kind of antagonism and disdain towards the Chinese and invoking the whole house of anti-Chinese sentiment in American history from the chasing of the Chinese railroad workers after the Trans-Continental Railway had been built to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to the hate campaigns against the Yellow Peril ginned up by William Randolph Hearst and his cronies in the 1920s and ’30s. Polanski “diverts” it, if you will, as both a plot and thematic device, quite brilliantly but quite provocatively also.

A.G.: Just like the characters are diverting water, which as an Angeleno you already know is the symbol of power. Water is everything in California politics. Even today I think. A Taiwanese-descended friend also told me a long time ago that in many Asian cultures, water is considered the power element. It can extinguish fire, move earth, suffocate air. So there’s a cool … well, a confluence there.
G.H.: Water, wealth, and narratively weaponized racism all flow together in the film.It seems Polanski perpetuates the slurs and stereotypes by re-invoking them, but they’re cinematically loaded with the smart weight of other bombshells—they’ve a doubled purpose in the film, to distract the lead character, Jake Gittes, and us as well, from what’s going on behind the scenes. We’re all being manipulated—Jake by Noah Cross’s evil puppetmaster and us by Polanski. As for “everything inscrutable and unfixable and traumatizing,” it’s a misdirection again. Chinatown as symbol, as the locus of Jake’s mysterious prior tragedy and loss, is a kind of aura of palatable dread compared to the dread that actually unfolds in the film.

A.G.: Absolutely.
G.H.: Jake’s initial and past loss is nostalgic loss, contained and somewhat conquered, but the one in the film is horrific, devastating and permeates the lives of innocents, symbolized by both Evelyn Mulwray and her daughter/sister. There is “Orientalism” here, but it is canny, doubled, loaded with Polanski’s ticking bomb of reversal/perepeteia and, once Jake gets the clue that reveals who the murderer of Mulwray is, it unveils that the true spectre of evil throughout is white, wealthy and ravenous for power and forbidden sexuality. I no longer believe that the movie is purely racist, but that it is an uncomfortable critique of the way racism plays out in American culture and society such that it becomes a beguiling, self-flattering pastime, entertainment and theater for those (normatively white) who cannot see through to their own subaltern standing and how they are undervalued, mocked and manipulated by the wealthy and the powerful.

A.G.: I don’t think I could have put it in those words but that’s how I see it as well. The real evil in the film is male lust for power, and Polanski uses racism almost the way we’d use metaphor in poems. Personally, I think he does it masterfully, but I didn’t grow up freighted with the tonnage of cruelties that were common for people who grew up in Asian and Asian-American families. It’s impossible for me to know how I’d read the film if I were, say, Cantonese-speaking and from a family who went from railroad work to restaurants and laundries and the like. Here’s what creeps me out, then and now. The final scene. The streets are deserted and then after Evelyn is shot all of these silent Chinese men and women (ostensibly Chinese; I’m sure in fact the extras were of many ethnicities) flood the street like the water in the river. They say nothing. Their faces are expressionless. What do you make of that? Are they judges? Are they window dressing? Are they symbolic? They seem something a little other than human. And it does feel like an echo of the scene in the beginning of the film when the angry rancher runs his flock of sheep into the courtroom. I don’t know if the echo is deliberate, but I think it must have been: It was such a striking choice, the courtroom full of sheep. For the rest of the movie there’s a lot of fast snappy talking, and then at the end another scene with a bunch of almost interchangeable beings just walking through the streets like they’re being herded. Do you think that’s deliberate?
G.H.: It made me very uncomfortable, even angry, at how that crowd of Asians (there were Japanese-American actors and a Filipino-American one in that group shot) were used to “symbolize” mysterious, irredeemable and morbid “fate” at the end of the film. “Here comes Chinatown, here comes Chinatown, hopping down Chinatown Lane,” you know. The Yellow Peril sweeping through and making of the horrors that have just happened a mordant ephemerality, aestheticizing, minimizing, and creating forgetfulness. It still bothers me mainly because it gives a literary excuse to those who would minimize the racist views and treatment of Asians in the film. “Can’t you take a joke?” and all that. It confirms a baseline racism in the culture, in other words. It is indeed a coda for what it’s done with the racist thematics throughout, but it’s also a simplistic, lyrical reduction of the baroque reversals and twists of racist devices embedded in the film.

A.G.: We haven’t even talked about it as a portrait of one of the cities you call home. You partly grew up in Gardena. What do you think of Chinatown as an L.A. movie? Does it feel, in spite of its many mannered and stylized touches, real?
G.H.: It’s a lovely, even loving portrait of the city, despite its emphasis on evil and corruption.The shots are of places that are very familiar to me, and I called out their locations to my daughter, who watched the first half hour with me (she got bored) as the film progressed—Lytle Creek for the upper L.A. River scene, Cabrillo Park in San Pedro for the first coastal scene, Pt. Vicente Lighthouse in Palos Verdes at night when the water rushes through the culvert, the lake at Echo Park (once featured as the cover of a Los Lobos album), Lower Van Norman Reservoir in the Valley where Mulwray’s drenched body is dragged up, and so on. It was all very “real,” and there was the added value of perfect ambient light in so many of the shots. Polanski got the spectral quality of fine grit and Kodachrome haze afloat in the L.A. air in most of his outdoor scenes.The dissonance was that so many of the actors’ accents were strongly New York and New Jersey—that was jarring.

A.G.: When was the first time you can think of seeing an Asian or Asian-American character in an American movie and feeling like you could relate to that character or feel satisfied or proud of the way they were portrayed?
G.H.: Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon (1973). Yuki Shimoda as Ko, the heroic, then tragic patriarch of a San Pedro fishing family forced into internment camp during WW II in the television movie Farewell to Manzanar (1976) based on the novel by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston.But I also liked, recognized James Shigeta and Jack Soo in Flower Drum Song (1961), as my folks pointed out that Shigeta was from Hawai?i and Soo from Oakland and both are Japanese American. And Soo played a native-born “ABC”—American-born Chinese rather than immigrant Chinese—a hip night-club owner. Also, I watched Japanese movies as a kid—samurai films galore and Toshiro Mifune was a great hero in them. I never had a problem thinking of myself, my Asian body, as inferior or “feminine” as American culture tried to say it was. As far as women go, that’s much harder and only came about later. I think it took until The Joy-Luck Club was made into a movie (in 1993) and when Lucy Liu started showing up onscreen playing real Asian women—sexy without an accent or only coveting and flattering the white male leads. For example, I was once asked to re-write the screenplay for Memoirs of a Geisha, a book I hadn’t previously heard of. After the agent sent it to me, I thought, “Ugh—more of that Oriental prostitute/courtesan stuff, baubles for the white male.” I refused.

A.G.: I remember you saying that! My first reaction was “Yeah but you could have somehow improved it or redeemed it or made it less tacky, you should have taken the gig! But honestly, I know enough about how much control a screenwriter usually has, and in retrospect, your instinct not to have your name on it was probably right.
G.H.: A completely different way to answer this is to cite the teleplays written by two Japanese American women—Momoko Iko’s The Gold Watch (1976) and Wakako Yamauchi’s And the Soul Shall Dance (1977). Both aired on PBS in the mid-1970s, and both portrayed Japanese-American farmers who were based on real-life characters, folks in the early lives of both these women. You can say they are our Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson and not be far off the mark. These were fully dimensional characters who lived through difficult times and they were portrayed nobly.

A.G.: So, do you feel like things are getting better for Asians in Hollywood, or worse, or stagnating?
G.H.: I liked the Korean Am actors in Lost a lot. A love story. Maybe I’d say it’s stagnating more than anything. No films of significant Asian Am novels since Joy-Luck Club in ’93. And that wasn’t great about Asian men.

A.G.: So, returning to our original topic—we’ve concluded that whatever else is going on, Polanski was quite a manipulator of racial stereotyping and racist attitudes.
G.H.: And Polanski himself a mirror of Noah Cross the puppet master of the movie and pedophile in life. That irony is scary as hell.

A.G.: No argument from me.

Garrett Hongo was born in Volcano, Hawai’i, and grew up on the North Shore of O’ahu and in Los Angeles. The Mirror Diary: Selected Essays was just released by the University of Michigan Press.His latest book of poetry, Coral Road, was published by Knopf in 2011. He teaches as Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Oregon.

Amy Glynn is a writer who believes everyone’s eye has a flaw somewhere.

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