Free «The Representation of Asian Americans in Seven Faces of Dr. Lao» Essay Sample

The dynamics of the American ethnic history can be learned from different sources that can be divided into those describing the relationships between ethnic groups in a direct way (historical documents, economic statistics, laws and so on) and those indirectly demonstrating how the majority perceive the minorities (the images of the American ethnic minorities represented in art). As long as art is produced by the dominant discourse, it helps to understand the major beliefs and prejudices of the prevailing group towards other groups. In the case of Asian Americans’ representation in art, most of the images depicted, for example, in cinema, are based on some stereotypes that demonstrate rather the lack of understanding between the dominant ethnic group of the Americans of European origin and the minority of Asian Americans. The use of these prejudices based just on the absence of relevant information concerning Asia and Asian Americans was especially notable before the rise of the Asian American Civil Rights Movement in 1960s-1970s. However, even today many of such stereotypes occur in cinematographic narratives exploiting the image of exotic, mystical and unknown Asia as well as the image of Asian Americans (especially those of Chinese origin) who everyday philosophize in Taoist or Confucian style, and practice Chinese martial arts and ancient magic in their mysterious Chinatowns. Seven Faces of Dr. Lao produced in 1964 is a brilliant example of cinematographic use of such stereotypes: the main character, an ancient Chinese magician, travels throughout the world and demonstrates different miracles in his circus. The fact that the role of the Chinese magician is performed by Tony Randall, an actor of European origin who used makeup in order to look like an old Chinese man, demonstrates how poorly Asian Americans and the Asian culture in general was accepted by the White American majority that determined the main rules of filmmaking. The representation of Asian Americans in Seven Faces of Dr. Lao as mystical and strange migrants rooted into the ancient culture of myths and magic illustrates the main stereotypes of the early sixties when Asian immigration was still limited by the American Government and the American society was in general segregationist.

The Image of Asian Americans Depicted in Seven Faces of Dr. Lao

Asian Americans as Constant Migrants Who Have no Place in the American Society

The film Seven Faces of Dr. Lao begins and ends with the same scene: Dr. Lao, the main character, rides on his golden ass keeping a fish in his hands and smoking his pipe. He leaves the town of Abalone, and while his activity has changed lives of its citizens, Dr. Lao himself does not feel any difference. It seems that it is natural for him to constantly ride from town to town changing peoples’ ways of thinking and at the same time remaining unchanged. As Dr. Lao claims, “the whole world is a circus if you know how to look at it” (Pal, 1964), and in fact this phrase has not only a philosophical, but also a sociological sense because it can help to understand the unstable position of Chinese Americans of those times. For Dr. Lao all the towns and cities are the same because nowhere he feels himself as at home, but only as in circus. In fact, the main character whose native Chinese city does not exist for a few thousand years, is a generalized image of all those Chinese immigrants who left (and thus lost) their native land but did not get something in lieu of it on the American lands. In addition, t is clear from the film that some of the people of Abalone despise Dr. Lao because his nationality. For example, on the meeting where Mr. Stark tries to convince others to sell him the town’s land, one woman demonstratively takes another seat when Dr. Lao enters and sits close to her. Another interesting scene is the dialogue of three men of Abalone (those who increase the comic effect of the film) concerning the origin of Dr. Lao, who mixed all Asian Americans into one category: one of them considers him to be Japanese, while another one claims that he is Chinese. As the result all three men agree that Dr. Lao is a stranger who has no place in Abalone. Furthermore, it seems that Dr. Lao (who is, by the way, 7322 years old) keeps this migrating way of life for many years: thus, he rides with a fish taken by him from Loch Ness (the fish actually is a Loch Ness monster as the watcher realizes in the end of the film). Moreover, it is reasonable to suppose that all the ‘faces’ of Dr. Lao (Apollonius of Tiana, Merlin, Medusa, the Giant Serpent, Pan, and the Snowman) were collected by him in different places of the world during his travels. Therefore, the main character appears as the image of Chinese migrants in general: they may transfer some interesting and exotic things from some places to others, as well as they are able to entertain people as Dr. Lao does with his circus. On the other hand, they always remain strangers without any possibility to become accepted by people of some town or city. In this way, Seven Faces of Dr. Lao demonstrates the prejudice towards Asian Americans (on the example of a Chinese man) who have no roots and no chance to become naturalized in any society of the Western world.

Asian Americans as Mystical and Strange People Who Oppose the Ordinary Way of the American Life

From the beginning of the film Dr. Lao is depicted as a mystical and strange person who totally opposes everything ordinary in the town of Abalone. This image contains some grotesque features (for example, when Dr. Lao gets some fire for the pipe from his big finger just like from a lighter, or when he fixes the posters of his circus sticking the pins into each poster’s corners), and thus achieves a comic effect. Along with those characteristics connected with Dr. Lao as a magician, there are also grotesque elements that characterize him as an Asian American person: he speaks with an accent, wears traditional Chinese clothes, smokes a Chinese pipe, and his appearances are followed by Chinese ethnic music. Besides, the analysis of this image may help to understand the major American prejudices towards Asian American immigrants. Through the elements listed it seems that nothing American had influenced Dr. Lao since he appears as a personification of Chinese traditions in its archaic form. As he characterizes himself, “I, sir, am a major mystery” (Pal, 1964), and thus he in fact expresses the main feature of White Americans’ perception of Asian immigrants. It is very important that in the same episode Dr. Lao advises Mr. Cunningham to believe him and overcome all the prejudices about a wandering magician; he asks: “do you suppose this garrulous intruder may be a… a swindler, perhaps, an assassin, a charlatan plotting some curious disaster for your town?” (Pal, 1964). It seems, besides, that Dr. Lao’s question concerns not only wandering magicians in general, but rather Asian Americans who are not dangerous and cunning despite the general prejudices of the White American majority. The main character comes as a mystery, but thus he helps the local people to change their ways of thinking and saves them both from the worldview rigidity and from the inability to live in harmony and peace appreciating each moment of life (as the examples of that can serve the transformations of Mr. Stark, Angela Benedict, and a woman who saw Medusa’s face). Besides, while Dr. Lao appears as a positive character, in general it means that Asian Americans were considered to be totally different from other ‘ordinary’ Americans. Furthermore, the mystical powers of Dr. Lao along with his philosophical worldview and migrating way of life seem to be characteristic of Asian Americans as strange and mysterious people whose way of life and thinking may cure the Westerners with their ‘perverted’ values. Therefore, it is clear that such differentiation is based on the acceptance as an undoubted fact of the prejudice that Asian Americans are mysterious people who bear some archaic culture and worldview challenging the White American majority as well as the modern world in general.

Asia as a Mythical Land of Irrational Beliefs and Miracles

The archaic portrayal of Asian Americans personified by Dr. Lao implies the supposition that for the Americans of those times when Seven Faces of Dr. Lao was produced, the Chinese culture was synonymous to ancient culture while the American culture was considered to be modern. The plenty of Asian wisdom expressed by Dr. Lao verbally, when he, for example, claims that “Every time you pick up a handful of dust, and see not the dust, but a mystery, a marvel, there in your hand” (Pal, 1964), or nonverbally, when he is fishing in a dry riverbed, demonstrates that Dr. Lao as an Asian immigrant lives in terms of traditional worldview that existed before the ‘cynical capitalism’ personified by Mr. Stark. In fact, besides, it is clear that the main character represents not only the archaic Chinese culture, but the archaic culture in general. Thus, this makes possible the assumption that for the Americans the Chinese culture seemed to be rigid and stable, unable to accept such characteristics of Western development as capitalism, industrialization, etc. This prejudice towards the Chinese culture allows Dr. Lao to look like a source of some wisdom lost by the Western culture but still achievable for Asian people. Moreover, this supposition can be proved by the fact that all the faces of Dr. Lao in fact belong to the archaic Western culture, but not to the Chinese one: Medusa, Apollonius of Tiana, and Pan belong to the Greek culture; Merlin, and the Loch Ness Monster belong to the British culture; the Giant Snake in the grass seems to be an allusion to the Biblical snake that seduced Eve. After all, only the Snowman from Himalayas may be regarded as a part of Eastern culture, but, in fact, it may also be considered as a part of the Western popular culture. In other words, the Chinese culture seems to be synonymous to the general archaic culture lost for the developed Western world but preserved in stable Asia. Dr. Lao serves as a source of the main ancient myths and irrational beliefs that help the ‘developed’ Westerners to reconsider their ways of lives, to recall some lost values. Hence, he is capable to perform miracles denied by Western people who mostly follow the rationalist way of thinking and oppose everything that cannot be explained in terms of common sense. Therefore, all of these specific features of Dr. Lao’s portrayal may serve as evidence that the Chinese culture and those who shared it (Chinese immigrants) were mostly considered as archaic and mystic and follow senseless beliefs and have uncommon behavior. Furthermore, the fact that the film attempts to persuade the spectatorss that Chinese people are not evil despite their mysteriousness and irrationality serves as the best proof of such prejudices because otherwise there would be no need of Asian people’s justification provided in the film. In this way, Seven Faces of Dr. Lao produced in 1964 demonstrates that in the early sixties most of the Americans considered Asian immigrants to be dangerous, archaic, mysterious, irrational, and mostly unpleasant people without their own place in the world.

The Historical Ground for the Analyzed Asian Americans’ Cinematographic Representation

The Segregationist and Racist Presuppositions of the American Society of the 1960s

Asian immigrants were treated as second-rate people in the USA untill the social transformations of the 1960s-1970s when the success of the Civil Rights Movement headed by Dr. Martin Luther King inspired the representatives of other ethnic minorities (including Asian Americans) to rise against the segregationist structure of the American society. Besides, in 1964, when Seven Faces of Dr. Lao was produced, Asian Americans were still humiliated and stereotypically categorized as mysterious and strange people by White American majority. In her analysis of this situation Woo (a researcher of Asian origin) recalls how in her childhood she noticed that while American films “portrayed the East as mystical, exotic, seductive, and evil”, her own Asian American family was “quite ordinary, boring, and anything but evil” (Woo, 2012, p. 34). On the ground of this personal experience Woo divides the Asian American culture into “inside” and “outside” worlds: the first one exists only for the representatives of the Asian American culture (and, probably, their close friends) and reflects the real features of it, while the second one exists only in the imagination of the white American majority that constructs its image on the ground of prejudices and lack of knowledge (Woo, 2012, p. 34). The bias that determine the main points of Asian American culture’s ‘outside world’ Woo traces to the late XIX and early XX centuries when “Chinese immigrants, in stark contrast to European immigrants, were viewed as being unassimilable” and thus, mystical, exotic dangerous, seductive and so on (2012, p. 34). Therefore, “the concept of foreignness” (Woo, 2012, p. 36) was applied to Asian Americans, and the idea of their natural inability to coexist with White Americans in a harmonious way became one of the main stereotypical motives that presupposed the specifics of Asian Americans’ portrayals in American cinema and other fields of American art. Furthermore, such documentaries as The Slanted Screen (Adachi, 2006) and Slaying the Dragon (Gee, 1988) provide the sufficient proof of this statement and show that in the first half of the XX century the roles of Asian people were mostly performed by actors of European origin who used makeup to look like Asians, because of White Americans’ racist prejudices concerning Asian actors. Thus, White Americans’ non-acceptance of Asian immigrants increased the use of such images in the American art.

The Phenomenon of Chinatowns as a Specific Form of Asian-Americans Protective Self-Organization

White majority of the USA perceived Asians in accordance with those prejudices that made them mostly hostile and suspicious to Asian immigrants. Therefore, Asian Americans in their turn also reacted on such relation of the American majority, creating the specific forms of their self-organizations that allowed them to live in neighborhoods and thus protect each other together against the possible aggression of the whites. Since Seven Faces of Dr. Lao provides a stereotypical portrayal of a Chinese immigrant, it is reasonable to focus on the phenomenon of Chinatowns as a form of Chinese immigrants’ self-organization where Chinese people could lead comfortable life and share the same values as in native lands without any conflicts with White American majority (Takaki, 2008). Furthermore, as Takaki claims, many Chinese people were forced to self-employment due to ethnic contradictions in American mines and factories; as the result, many Chinese people opened their stores, restaurants, and laundries mostly concentrated in Chinatowns (Takaki, 2008). In this way, the phenomenon of Chinatowns can be understood as a form of segregation committed by the minority that wants to save its identity but can not be accepted by the majority. Therefore, Chinatowns as the neighborhoods of Chinese immigrants could seem for the whites as mysterious places where its residents share their traditional beliefs and protect their culture. Along with the stereotypes concerning the Chinese culture, Chinatowns could be interpreted as the sources of everything exotic and thus mysterious. In fact, the image of Chinatown as a place of traditional Chinese mysticism is very popular in the American cinema. In this way, the segregation of Asian Americans was based both on the need to protect themselves and their identity, and on White American majority’s suspicious and hostile relation to Asian immigrants. In addition, all the prejudices concerning Asians and their culture were constantly increased by the efforts of both parts. Such a tendency was still actual in the early sixties when the Civil Rights Movement had not succeeded yet.

The Governmental Legislative Initiatives in the Field of Asian Immigration and Asian Americans’ Naturalization

The Governmental legislative initiatives concerning Asian immigration and Asian Americans’ naturalization reflect the major tendencies in the relationships between the American nation (in general) and Asian American immigrants, or, in other words, the transformations of the concept of the American nation’s interpretation. In fact, the dynamics of changes in this field demonstrates how slowly the American state realized that Asian Americans can be assimilated and successfully naturalized. Thus, the first major legislative act that limited Chinese immigration into the USA was the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) that restricted the naturalization of Chinese immigrants as well as Chinese immigration at all for ten years. This act was extended for the next ten years and then made permanent in 1892 and 1902 respectively. Then, in 1929, the National Origins Act was accepted that “capped overall immigration to the United States at 150,000 per year and barred Asian immigration” (“Chinese Exclusion Act (1892),” n.d.). Thus, until World War II Asian immigrants’ naturalization was impossible, and only due to the US alliance with China against Japan, the Magnuson Act of 1943 had liberalized Chinese immigration and naturalization (the act allowed to pass 105 Chinese immigrants per year). Moreover, the McCarran-Walters Act of 1952 provided some additional liberties to Chinese immigrants. After all, only the Immigration Act “eliminated previous national-origins policy” in 1965 and after that Chinese immigration into the USA became unlimited while the immigrants’ naturalization became more liberal (“Chinese Exclusion Act (1892),” n.d.). As long as Seven Faces of Dr. Lao was produced in 1964, the film reflects the prejudices of the last year of barred Chinese immigration. Furthermore, it is possible to interpret the attempts to show Dr. Lao as a positive character through the liberal tendencies resulted in the Immigration Act year after the film’s release.

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