Jan. 8, 2018
In 2012, I received an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for my research project “Detecting Chinatown: Criminalization, Assimilation, and the Code in the Hollywood B-Film.” My research project traces the various ways that American filmmakers presented Chinese people and Chinatown communities in response to social issues (for example, immigration and racism) and perceived related problems (such as drug trafficking and prostitution) in American films before 1950.
Two papers related to the project have been published recently. “The Wild (North)West: Chinese Immigration, Crime, and the Canadian Border in Film” in the book Screening Justice: Canadian Crime Films and Society (Fernwood 2016) and, more recently, “Crossing America’s Borders: Chinese Immigrants in the Southwesterns of the 1920s and 1930s,” in the Journal of Film and Video.
The book chapter examines the treatment of Chinese immigrants in relation to Canada: the institutional racism of government policy towards Chinese immigrants, journalism’s role in connecting Chinese immigration to crime, and film’s exploitation of crime stories taken from the headlines. In that paper, I discuss American films including The River’s End (1920) and Dangerous Trails (1923), as well as the Canadian-produced film Secrets of Chinatown (1935), in terms of their depiction of Canada as a crime-ridden neighbour out of which both opium and immigrants are smuggled into the U.S.
The journal article published in December explores the representation of Chinese immigrants in B-westerns set in the Mexican-American borderlands, including Sky High (1922), On the Border (1930), and Border Phantom (1937). Famous, big-budget A-westerns tend to focus on conquering the frontier through settlement, the military, the railroads, and the displacement of Native Americans. In contrast, westerns set in the borderlands explore the problems in defending the borders of twentieth-century America that the nineteenth century established. The borders with which southwesterns are concerned were as much racial as territorial, and the presence of Chinese immigrants assisted these westerns in confirming the borders of American national identity.
The most surprising aspect of the project is how the archival research I completed changed the breadth of the project. My original goal was to focus on about 40 sound films (~1930-1960) that featured key Chinese characters; however, as I completed research in archives in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., I uncovered more and more films concerned with Chinese American immigration and, in the end, my project expanded to the examination of over 200 films.
The majority of those films are silent (1985-1929) and have been lost or forgotten; however, in the archives, I found materials related to the films—including outlines, drafts of scripts, film reviews, promotional materials, industry correspondence, newspaper articles, and stills from the films—and, on rare occasions, I even found copies of the films themselves. In the end, my research project morphed in keeping with my archival discoveries and has grown into two distinct book projects—the first, on the representation of Chinese immigrants in Chinatown-set melodramas and crime films and, the second, on the representation of Chinese immigrants in westerns. I am just finishing up the first book entitled, Criminalization/Assimilation: Chinese/Americans and Chinatowns in American Film to 1950. It is scheduled to be released by Rutgers University Press in 2019. Then will continue my research for the second book tentatively titled, Yellow Hands across the Border: Chinese/Americans in Classical Hollywood Border Westerns.
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