The Spectacle of the Other: Representations of Chinatown in Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon (1985) and John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Selma Siew Li Bidlingmaier

"Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown" — is one of the most memorable lines in Roman Polanski's masterwork Chinatown (1974) which blatantly reveals and represents America's incomprehension of the Chinese enclaves that mushroomed within major cities in the United States throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Chinatowns have been politically and socially rendered as ambiguous, unique spaces throughout history. In the early nineteenth century, Chinatowns were mostly depicted as places of social and moral decay. George G. Foster describes the burgeoning enclaves in New York as "fearful mysteries of darkness in the metropolis — the festivities of prostitution, the orgies of pauperism, the haunts of theft and murder" (qtd. in Tchen 276). In the midst of mass migration, urbanization, industrial expansion, and the increase of poverty-stricken ghettoes, the middle and working classes saw the swarming immigrants as a threat to their social order and religious values, as well as competition in the labor markets.

Chinatowns in major port cities like San Francisco and New York were often presented as examples of the growing 'problem' brought on by mass immigration to the United States. Social advocate and photographer Jacob Riis observes in his celebrated How the Other Half Lives how Chinatown was "overawed in isolation," infested by cellars filled with the "pungent odor of burning opium and the clink of copper coins on the table" that lured their many victims who became "white slaves of its dens of vice and their infernal drug" (121). Moreover, during the economically unstable 1870s, Chinese laborers, strangers with queues, were convenient scapegoats as they were willing to work for less than the average American and thus favored by the growing manufacturing industry. These are merely a handful factors that had hefty repercussions on the perception of the Chinese living in the United States as well as the ethnic enclaves. At the same time, Chinatown had a captivating effect on young middle class men and women seeking thrills and entertainment of the mystical, exotic Chinese quarter. To ensure that they stayed away from Chinatowns, some authors, journalists, religious authorities, and politicians perpetuated the representations of Chinatowns as being a place of danger shrouded in shadows and mystery, moral ills, diseases, and heathen worshipers.

Even back then, Chinatown had been a cinematic spectacle. Images of debased and ludicrous Chinese laundrymen were common characters in short motion pictures such as Fun in a Chinese Laundry (1894 and 1901). Sociologist Jan Lin describes the "Yellowman" image being often portrayed by "white actors who wore Chinese shirts, baggy pants, and Qing-era queue hairpieces […b]umbling and prone to opium addiction […] staged as pagans unable to accept Christianity and western morality" (176). In the 1910s and 1920s, Tong wars and Chinese criminal syndicates became popular themes. Cinematic representations of Chinatown always utilized visual cues such as smoky interiors, shadowy figures with long fingernails and daggers, heightening the public's perception of Chinatowns as mysterious and dangerous. Without detailed explanation, merely the titles of these early motion pictures give us an insight of Chinatown depictions: The Chinatown Mystery (1915), Chinatown Villains (1916), Chinatown Nights (1929), Captured in Chinatown (1935), Shadow of Chinatown (1936), etc. Even though the "yellow peril" began to abate, anti-Chinese sentiments lingered and found its outlet in more subtle forms in twentieth-century popular media. Movie characters such as Fu Manchu, the devilish doctor whose personal vendetta is to destroy the Western world, and Charlie Chan, the gawky detective, attracted a large audience to the silver screen in the early part of the twentieth century.

Despite the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement and the model minority rhetoric in the 1960s and 1970s, the representations of Chinatown continued to resonate earlier messages. Several movies released in the 1980s included scenes shot in Chinatown (e.g. Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop, Gremlins, etc.) and two movies were based entirely in Chinatown: Michael Cimino's Year of the Dragon (1985) and John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China (1986). This study attempts to scrutinize the representations of Chinatowns in these two movies, while addressing the question whether these representations have changed over the years.

Cimino's Year of the Dragon was released on August 16, 1985, amidst brewing controversy among Chinese American activists and New York's Chinatown community leaders. In the movie, police captain Stanley White, a self-proclaimed "Asian" hater since the time he served in Vietnam, teams up with Trazy Tzu, a brassy, ambitious anchorwoman, to "clean up" New York City's crime-infested Chinatown. White, a telling name, is pitted against the eloquent, smooth-talking Joey Tai who has taken over the reigns of Chinatown's underground organization. Stanley White is blatantly racist, yet at the same time he is a self-proclaimed Chinese history expert. In a scene where he tries to persuade Herbert Kwang, a vice squad rookie, to go undercover for him, White goes into a two-minute monolog of how courageous and selfless Kwang's ancestors were in their labor to build the transcontinental railroad. He also brings up the transcontinental railroad during a conversation with Tracy Tzu where he lectures her about the forgotten legacy of the Chinese in America. Despite his attempts to look sympathetic to the cause of the Chinese in Chinatown, he is callous and disregards the welfare and feelings of the two 'good' Chinese he works with. Ironically, White defeats his Chinese antagonist, Joey Tai, at the end of the movie on railroad tracks.

In the course of his endeavors, White willingly sacrifices his relationship with, and the lives of, his wife, his best friend, and his Chinese colleague, Herbert Kwang, who is assassinated when Tai realizes that he is White's agent. While White is depicted as the prototype of a masculine WASP, Joey Tai is portrayed, at the surface, as a caring family man and a community leader who is concerned with the needs of his people. Despite the fact that he is a ruthless, murderous thug, he is depicted as being nurturing and caring towards his family and close friends — the feminized oriental — in line with popular stereotypes that Chinese men are either feminine or asexual.

White's female counterpart, Tzu, is ethnically Chinese, but clearly makes a point to be identified as an ABC (American Born Chinese). In contrast to other women portrayed as residing in Chinatown, Tzu is cultivated, successful and, being in the media, has her share of power of speech. She almost passes off as white but as soon as she gives in to White's sexual advances she is subdued and her character becomes weak and exotic — a "china doll." Moreover, she loses her power of speech as White begins to speak on her behalf by telling her exactly what to report in her stories and he also begins to take over her personal space. He moves into her apartment and later uses it as his operations base.

Year of the Dragon represents Chinatown as a ghetto run by organized crime syndicates which keep Chinatown under control by isolating the enclave from the outside world, thus creating a place where residents are dependent upon its corrupt leaders to provide for their needs. Chinatown becomes inscrutable to outsiders, a place plagued by dangerous gangsters. The play of visual cues, such as lighting, also enhances the representation of Chinatown as sinister, exotic and other. Almost all the scenes shot in Chinatown occur at night. Darkness combined with neon lights gives Chinatown a mysterious and malevolent tone, ready to explode into bloody violence at any given time.

One year after the controversial release of Cimino's crime drama, horror film producer John Carpenter released his action-packed fantasy Big Trouble in Little China. The movie tells the story of a truck driver, Jack Burton, and his friend Wang Chi whose fiancι Miao Yin is kidnapped by Lo Pan. Lo Pan is an immortal ghost under the "no flesh curse" in Chinatown's underworld who needs to sacrifice a woman with green eyes to break his curse. In the course of the movie, Jack teams up with friends and a 'good' Tong to defeat the "most evil spirit."

Jack Burton is portrayed as a true modern-day cowboy riding into Chinatown in his beloved white truck. When trouble starts in Little China, his friend Wang begs him for assistance and the success of the mission is attributed to Jack, the "one who saved us all." Despite the fact that he is accompanied by martial arts experts, Jack, the cowboy, takes center stage and leads his troops to victory. The female characters, especially Miao Yin, are depicted as damsels in distress, exotic, and as objects of sexual desire. All female characters do not have a voice in the movie and take orders from Jack.

Chinatown in Big Trouble in Little China is depicted as having two separate spheres — the surface and the underworld. The surface of Chinatown is the visible, the supposed reality that tourists, or as Jan Lin puts it, armchair voyagers are familiar with. However, the reality of Little China's surface is governed by underground spiritual powers, invisible to those not belonging to the 'neighborhood.' Ghosts, spirits, Chinese black magic, and sorcery are depicted as everyday occurrences, hardly a spectacle for those who live in Chinatown. Carpenter is not alone in his fascination with and depiction of Chinese mysticism. There are also a few movies released in the 1980s that depict Chinatown as the source of evil magic and sorcery, for instance, Joe Dante's Gremlins (1984) and Michael Ritchie's The Golden Child (1986). Chinatown in Big Trouble in Little China is portrayed as exotic, mystical, supernatural, and dangerous, a blend of adjectives that promised to draw crowds to the opening night.

Resembling Year of the Dragon, Chinatown in Big Trouble in Little China is clearly portrayed as a foreign space, segregated from the larger society. The 'othering' is obvious from the title of the movie — "Little China" — and is further reinforced in the movie by Uncle Chu's insistence that "China is here" and that Tongs have brought their evil to Chinatown. The implication of the statement does not merely evoke a sense of exoticism in play but also a sense of dread and danger as China seems to represent all that is evil. If China and Chinese traditions and customs represent all that is destructive, uncanny, and immoral in the movies then its binary opposition, as represented, is the exaggerated staging of 'whiteness,' of genuine 'Americanness.' Both Stanley White and Jack Burton epitomize the ideal of goodness, normality, purity, and thus superiority and power. Intriguingly, the character, Stanley White was renamed by Cimino when he adapted his story from Robert Daley's novel Year of the Dragon. Robert Daley's protagonist was named Robert Powers.

In summary, there are two main correlations between Year of the Dragon and Big Trouble in Little China. First, both movies associate Chinatown with the Wild West. In a scene where Stanley White is reporting to his superior concerning a shootout in Chinatown, the police commissioner refers to the incident as "the Wild West show." Moreover, White storms into the office of Chinatown's powerful godfather Harry Yung and announces: "There is a new marshal in town: Me. New marshal means new rules. New rules mean no more street violence." Similarly, despite the fact that the original Wild West theme was changed in Big Trouble in Little China, Jack Burton is portrayed as a trigger-happy, gun-toting cowboy. While the original screenplay would have had Jack riding into town on his horse, the contemporary protagonist rides into Chinatown in his fetished gargantuan white truck. The Wild West is a prominent theme throughout the whole movie and is especially lucid during a standoff scene of rival Tongs in one of Chinatown's many shadowy alleys. Members of both gangs donned in sackcloth and headbands are armed with batons, kitchen cleavers as well as elaborate Western gun holsters casing gold veneered revolvers and ammunition belts.

In both Year of the Dragon and Big Trouble in Little China, New York's and San Francisco's Chinatown is represented as a space untamed, dangerous, exotic, outlandish, isolated from the wider society, and a heterogeneous microcosm that seems to be reeling out of control. Both movies allude to the idea of Chinatown being the Wild West, the last frontier that has yet to be civilized and brought under the reigns of the dominant ruling class. Frederick Turner's exceptionalist thesis claims that despite being a free land, the frontier, the 'Wild West' is in a state of "continuous recession" and needs to be civilized (1). Both protagonists, Stanley White and Jack Burton, are depicted as iconic American cowboys, eradicating the immorality and evil that pervades Chinatown and restoring social order. The Wild West, like Chinatown, is represented as a savage, perilous space that needs to be restrained, domesticated/civilized, and controlled by white, Anglo-Saxon cowboys.

The American cowboy is an iconic figure that has played a significant part in the shaping of American culture and identity since the late nineteenth century. The American cowboy personifies American masculinity; he represents power, independence, freedom, democracy, the law, and morality. However, this role is gendered (male) and racialized (white) and is thus privileged (cf. Lee 231). Both characters, Stanley White and Jack Burton, epitomize the ideal cowboy and in juxtaposition, their Chinese counterparts Herbert Kwang and Wang Chi become the 'other.' They play the feminized sidekicks who merely follow the lead of the protagonists. Contrary to the popular imagination of the cowboy as the embodiment of white masculinity, and with it the privilege of power and autonomy, the Chinese characters depicted in both movies do not possess these qualities and freedom. Their mobility is restricted within the boundaries of Chinatown, they do not have an authoritative voice, and even their unique history in America is usurped by outsiders claiming to be 'experts.' Kwang and Chi are not empowered and exist merely for the purpose of enhancing the role of the true cowboy by representing the 'other.'

Secondly, the prominent use and thus perpetuation of stereotypes associated with Chinatown occurs in both movies. Interestingly, these stereotypes do not differ from those used in the early twentieth century. Chinatown remains to be perceived as chaotic, run by powerful tongs and triads, dangerous, a place of pagan worship and sinister rituals, feminine, exotic, and other. Moreover, gambling and prostitution still feature in the popular imagination of Chinatown.

Stereotypes die hard and are often resilient and stable, deeply set in our culture and our representational practices. They function to reduce our cognitive load by creating categories in our minds and through the process of classification help us to make sense of our complex world. Stereotyping is a natural and inevitable cognitive process. However, on the social and cultural levels, it constructs 'otherness' by simplifying the practice of classifying people, objects, and events that are foreign or that diverge from one's socio-cultural 'norm.' Richard Dyer asserts that one of the features of stereotyping is its practice of closure and exclusion. They function as "mechanisms of boundary maintenance, are characteristically fixed, clear-cut, and unalterable" (qtd. in Hall 258). According to Stuart Hall, stereotypes set up "a symbolic frontier between the 'normal' and the 'deviant,' the 'normal' and the 'pathological,' the 'accepted' and the 'unacceptable,' what 'belongs' and what is 'other,' between 'insiders' and 'outsiders'" (258). By representing Chinatown as 'other,' 'exotic,' 'dangerous,' and 'feminine' we pit it against our society which is 'normal,' 'safe,' and 'masculine,' thus maintaining social and symbolic order. This coincides with film scholar Gina Marchetti's observation that: "Hollywood has the power to define difference, to reinforce boundaries, to reproduce an ideology which maintains the status quo" (Marchetti 278).

Although stereotypes of Chinatown have not changed much over the years, there is a slight change in the presentation of Chinese characters in movies: Whereas earlier movies such as Drums of Fu Manchu and those mentioned above depict Chinese people as evil and threatening, movies in the 1980s include Chinese Americans who play supporting roles to the protagonists. However, they are merely wingmen or sidekicks and never take on the main role.

Chinatown has remained a spectacular spectacle in movies over the decades because Hollywood has utilized popular stereotypes and depictions of the enclave and of the Chinese in the United States that is understood by mainstream society. Through their representations of Chinatown as a space of deviance, moral depravity, danger, and 'otherness,' the Chinese enclave has been and will continue to be a space that is both America yet, not America, constructed by the public's imagination of China and everything Chinese.


Beverly Hills Cop. Dir. Martin Brest, 1984.

Big Trouble in Little China. Dir. John Carpenter, 1986.

Captured in Chinatown. Dir. Elmer Clifton, 1935.

Chinatown. Dir. Roman Polanski, 1974.

The Chinatown Mystery. Dir. Reginald Barker, 1915.

Chinatown Nights. Dir. William A. Wellman, 1929.

Chinatown Villains. Dir. John Francis Dillon, 1916.

Drums of Fu Manchu. Dir. John English and William Witney, 1940.

Fun in a Chinese Laundry. Dir. n.n., 1894 and 1901.

The Golden Child. Dir. Michael Ritchie, 1986.

Gremlins. Dir. Joe Dante, 1984.

Lethal Weapon. Dir. Richard Donner, 1987.

Shadow of Chinatown, Dir. Robert F. Hill, 1936.

Year of the Dragon. Dir. Michael Ciminio, 1985.

Works Cited

Hall, Stuart. "The Spectacle of the Other." Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage, 2003. 223-90.

Lee, Steven M. "All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes." Across the Great Divide: Cultures of Manhood in the American West. Ed. Matthew Basso, Laura McCall and Dee Garceau. New York: Routledge, 2001. 231-49.

Lin, Jan. Reconstructing Chinatown: Ethnic Enclave, Global Change. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1998.

Marchetti, Gina. "Ethnicity, the Cinema, and Cultural Studies." Unspeakable Images, Ethnicity and the American Cinema. Ed. Lester D. Friedman. Chicago: Illinois UP, 1991. 277-307.

Riis, Jacob A. How the Other Half Lives. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1996.

Tchen, John Kuo Wei. New York Before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture 1776-1882. Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1999.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1947.