“One Of Us Is Yellow”: Doctor Fu Manchu and The Talons of Weng Chiang (Guest Post by Kate Orman)
In light of recent controversies in and around Doctor Who Magazine about The Talons of Weng-Chiang, it is our pleasure to reprint Kate Orman’s essay from Lindy Orthia’s collection Doctor Who and Race, which is, for my money, the best and most comprehensive take on the story’s racism out there, and something that absolutely needs to be seen by a wider audience. Massive thanks to both Kate and Lindy for agreeing to our republishing it.
“Maybe we wouldn’t get away with it these days.”
– Philip Hinchcliffe
As a Chinese doctor who fan, I just want to say Talons of Weng Chiang was so horrible for me that I didn’t manage to finish watching it… Why did I even try to watch it, knowing there’re evil Chinese stereotypes? I should have known better. I love my show and it’s painful to watch.
The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1977), a long-standing favourite, has only two real flaws in the eyes of Doctor Who fans: the casting of white actor John Bennett as Chinese villain Li H’Sen Chang, and an unconvincing giant rat. While the rat can be smiled at, the story’s use of ‘yellowface’ has to be explained away. Paradoxically, the intense moral opprobrium attached to calling something ‘racist’ helps to obscure the presence of racism. If racism is anathema, then when a story we cherish contains racially charged elements, we must show that it’s not really racist – and neither are we for loving it.
The rat and the yellowface are both forgiven by fans on the same grounds: the exigencies of seventies television production. Neither technology nor attitudes were as advanced then as they are now, and maybe Asian actors were rarer in those days.
I think the fan discussion around Bennett’s casting misleads us. Even if, say, Burt Kwouk, Anthony Chinn, Robert Lee, Kristopher Kum, or Cecil Cheng had been cast as Chang, it still wouldn’t have fixed Talons. The yellowface is only the most conspicuous component of a collection of contemptuous clichés in which Talons is involved – up to its epicanthic eyebrows!
The Devil Doctor
Jago: You mean to say the Celestial Chang was involved in all these Machiavellian machinations?
The Doctor: Yes, up to his epicanthic eyebrows.
Hostile racial caricatures don’t just appear from thin air: they’re created for a reason. Politicians and the press may be trying to justify a war or scapegoat immigrants. However, the early twentieth century English novelist Arthur Sarsfield Ward, better known as Sax Rohmer, had a different reason: to make money. As his biographers note, “Conditions for launching a Chinese villain on the market were ideal […] The Boxer Rebellion had started off rumours of a Yellow Peril which had not yet died down. Recent events in Limehouse had again drawn public attention eastwards.”
Drawing on the anti-Chinese stereotypes which had long been promoted by British newspapers, boys’ magazines, and politicians, Ward conjured up not the first but by far the most influential Oriental criminal mastermind bent on world domination: Fu Manchu. The ‘Devil Doctor’ made his first appearance in 1912, reaching the pinnacle of his fame in the 1920s and 1930s. Thanks to Fu, Ward became “one of the most widely read and highly successful authors of popular fiction in the world.”
Plenty of Doctor Who stories share the general pulpish conceits of the Fu Manchu milieu. Ward, who confessed “I know nothing about the Chinese”, drew heavily on western ideas, such as secret societies with esoteric knowledge (as do, for example, Tomb of the Cybermen (1967), Invasion of the Dinosaurs (1974), and Torchwood) and mesmerism (both Fu in The Face of Fu Manchu (1965) and the Master in Terror of the Autons (1971) leave a hypnotized substitute to die in their place).
Unlike those stories, however, The Talons of Weng-Chiang is an intentional Fu Manchu pastiche, featuring multiple elements borrowed from Fu-land: superscience, hypnosis, fanatical cults, secret lairs, exotic drugs and poisons, and white women in peril. While many Doctor Who stories have some of these elements, only Talons has them all – and only Talons puts them into the context of colourful, deceiving, opium-smoking Chinese villainy.
Producer Philip Hinchcliffe remarked, “I’d never read any of the Sax Rohmer stories, but I sort of vaguely knew that it must be Chinese, Limehouse, and skulduggery, opium dens and things.” Most probably, then, he and script writer Robert Holmes drew on the sixties Fu Manchu movies starring Christopher Lee (the BBC had screened Face in March that year), much as they had drawn on Hammer Film Productions versions of the Mummy, Frankenstein, and Dracula for The Pyramids of Mars (1975), and The Brain of Morbius (1976), and the postponed vampire story that eventually became State of Decay (1980). In The Face of Fu Manchu, Fu’s henchmen infiltrate the ‘Museum of Oriental Studies’ via the sewer tunnels beneath London; in Talons, the Tong of the Black Scorpion use London’s sewers to sneak around from one secret lair to another. The nefarious plan in Face involves a poison made from a rare Tibetan flower; in The Blood of Fu Manchu (1968), the poison comes from a rare snake. In Talons, the Tong of the Black Scorpion prefer to hatchet their victims, but carry around “concentrated scorpion venom” in case of capture. In The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), Fu’s elaborate, exotic lair is an Ancient Egyptian temple; in Talons, it’s the House of the Dragon, “ornately furnished in the style of a Chinese temple” and sporting a four-faced, eight-armed golden idol.
For Talons, the character of Fu Manchu has been split between Magnus Greel, aka Weng-Chiang, and his acolyte Li H’Sen Chang. Greel is a time-travelling Dr Mengele from the 51st Century. He provides the story’s fantastical elements, including the cult of fanatical followers ready to kill or die at his command, and the ‘Peking Homunculus’, aka ‘Mr Sin’, a miniature killer robot. However, Greel’s ethnicity is never made clear; it’s Li H’Sen Chang who provides the Fu Manchu look, with rubber eyelids, the eponymous moustache, and, for his performances on stage at the Palace Theatre, ornate Chinese costume.
As Greel’s servant, Chang’s chief job is to procure young white women for his master. This being Doctor Who, Greel’s intention is only to distil the women’s “life essences”; the sexual implications are left to the viewer’s imagination. (Well, mostly left to their imagination. Perhaps Brides provided Talons with its imagery of helplessly hypnotized women in their underthings.) Lines perhaps not surprisingly cut from the script include Greel explaining that “Maidens at the point of puberty are ideal material” for distillation, and ordering his victims: “take those clothes off!”
Throughout the West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Chinese men greatly outnumbered Chinese women. A horror of the inevitable liaisons – which could “lower the white type” by creating “a mongrel race” – became a major element of the ‘Yellow Peril’. Unlike the US and Canada, Britain did not pass laws to keep Chinese men and white women apart; but, as in those countries, the UK press ran baseless stories that Chinese men were kinky sexual predators on the lookout for white women to dope, seduce, and/or sell into ‘white slavery’. Surprisingly, however, this racial paranoia has seldom been a major part of the Fu Manchu oeuvre. In both the novels and the sixties Lee movies, Fu seems sexless; despite their deshabille, the Brides of Fu Manchu are not ‘brides’ but hostages. As in Talons, the sexual content is always available to the viewer, but is never addressed outright.
By contrast, exotic drugs are front and centre in Rohmer’s stories; Fu himself is an opium addict. Stories of the corruption of white women in Chinese opium dens made sensational content for early twentieth century British newspapers. This fitted into a journalistic and literary tradition of voyeuristic visits to London’s multicultural, poverty-stricken East End – the site of “the vilest scenes of depravity and degradation”, as pathologist Professor Litefoot warns the Doctor. Limehouse, with its tiny but conspicuous Chinese population, became a particular site of fascination – and fantasy: its depiction in fiction and newspapers “veered from glamour to the Gothic […] as appealing as it [was] frightening.” Limehouse is the natural site for Fu Manchu’s HQ – and for Magnus Greel’s lair. Although the drug itself makes only a brief, medicinal appearance, Greel sneers that his followers are “opium-sodden scum”; he also uses ether or chloroform to incapacitate Leela, and two kidnapped women are knocked out by the unidentified “broth of oblivion.”
“More Mickey Finn than shark’s fin.”
Introducing a 1997 reprint of The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu, editor Douglas G. Greene remarks, “Rohmer’s novels remain popular not because they say anything about what was going on in the world in his time or in ours, but because they are almost pure fantasy, appealing to the armchair adventurer.”
Derived from racial paranoia and propaganda, Rohmer’s novels actually tell us a great deal about ‘what was going on in the world’. Talons, too, may seem like mere escapism, but contains elements which refer to the everyday world of British viewers in 1977.
The print Fu Manchu prolongs his life with an “elixir vitae”, which, like Greel’s “secret of life”, requires what the Doctor describes as “cannibalism.” The Doctor quips of Greel’s catalytic extraction chamber, “I’ll have the Bird’s Nest Soup… isn’t this where you do the cooking?” He explains that the narcotic “broth of oblivion” is “a Chinese soup.” Lines were dropped expanding on both of these gags, with the Doctor additionally ordering “Foo Yung with noodles” and describing the “broth of oblivion” as “more Mickey Finn than shark’s fin.” These jokes about Chinese food connect the story to the British institution of the Chinese takeaway – and especially to the perennial western suspicion of its ingredients. (As recently as 2011, a Yorkshire restaurant’s business was badly damaged by false rumours about dog meat in its dishes.) The British Chinese experience more racial harassment and property damage than any other ethnic minority – and the “contact zone” of the isolated, conspicuous takeaway is the most likely target..
Set well before the takeaway boom of the sixties and seventies, Talons instead features its predecessor, the Chinese laundry, which serves as a front for an opium den and criminal hideout. (Rather than putting poison into Litefoot’s food, the Tong put Mr Sin into his laundry.) This was another panic of seventies Britain – the exaggerated dread of the Tongs and Triads, of Chinese immigrants seeming to meekly wash clothes or serve food while secretly importing drugs and crime.
Though fans might defend the Fu Manchu tales or Talons of Weng-Chiang as fantasy, Ward’s own defence was the opposite – he claimed that he was being realistic.
Of course, not the whole Chinese population of Limehouse was criminal. But it contained a large number of persons who had left their own country for the most urgent of reasons. These people knew no way of making a living other than the criminal activities that had made China too hot for them. They brought their crimes with them.
This description is another product of Ward’s fertile and malicious imagination. In fact, the Chinese were described by their British neighbours as “perfectly well-conducted citizens” noted for their peacefulness and honesty. Chinese migration at the time was driven not by crime but by the economic chaos resulting from war and natural disaster. The bulk of the Chinese population of Limehouse, which never totalled more than a few hundred, were sailors in the employ of the East India Company. Few had planned to settle; some were laid off, some were “dumped” by “unscrupulous ship-owners”, and some chose to jump ship rather than continue to endure “extreme exploitation.” But the myth sold.
Writing in 1977, the year Talons was broadcast, sociologist James L. Watson described the Chinese as “the least understood of all Britain’s immigrant minorities”, overlooked by researchers and government bodies:
The mass media have simply exacerbated the problem: after completely ignoring the Chinese for over a decade, British newspapers have begun a series of sensationalised reports focusing on gangland activities in Soho […] In the last two years, dozens of newspaper articles and at least two prime-time television programmes have focussed on these problems.
Though the offenders in these cases were few, and were as likely to be non-Chinese as Chinese, the papers still reported the crimes as the work of “secret Chinese triad societies”, creating “a new stereotype of the Chinese restaurant worker as an infiltrator and a dangerous purveyor of drugs” – or rather, resurrecting the old stereotype of the dangerous Chinese immigrant.
These links would be less significant if there had not been so few images of Chinese people available on British screens around this time, and if those images had been more realistic and/or more varied. Viewers could titter at the halfwit immigrant caricatures of Mind Your Language (1977-1986), including Pik-Sen Lim as Chung Su-Lee, always ranting about “capitarists”; or the It Ain’t Half Hot Mum episode Pale Hands I Love (1976), in which the usual Indian stereotypes are varied by dog meat gags and the poisonous threat of – no kidding! – the Tong of the Black Scorpion. Action lovers might tune in to see the New Avengers episode Trap (1977) and the bizarre, laryngitic performance of Terry Wood as sweaty criminal mastermind Soo Choy. (As our heroes drag their defeated foes away, they can’t resist joking: “Chinese takeaway!”) Or, if viewers preferred real Chinese actors, Gangsters (1976-1978) featured the exotic rituals of the drug-smuggling Triads.
For British TV in the late seventies, the Chinese were comical at best, dangerous at worst, but almost always peculiar outsiders. Talons did not break this pattern.
Men behaving inscrutably
However, Talons does deviate in some ways from the Fu Manchu template. As destructive as the story’s villains are, they are not “a menace to the civilized world” like Fu Manchu, whose plan for a “giant Yellow Empire” threatens the survival of “the entire white race.” The Doctor does say that the Tong of the Black Scorpion expect Weng-Chiang to “rule the world”; but all Greel seems to want to do is to restore his “protenoid balance” and depart to “some distant time and place.” His use of the malfunctioning time-travel cabinet will cause a “huge implosion”, but the Doctor says only that this will destroy Greel’s lair; there’s no mention of a threat to London or Earth. Though there isn’t even a token Chinese goodie, this is not a race war.
Also notable about the Chinese characters in Talons is that none of them are ‘inscrutable’. John Bennett could easily have reproduced the blank cool assumed by Lee as Fu Manchu, or Joseph Wiseman as Dr No (1962). To his credit, he instead gives us a sympathetic performance which humanizes Chang, undermining his resemblance to the inhuman, demonic Fu, who “belongs to some significantly foreign category of being, toward which the reader need feel little or no responsibility.”
Of the two chief villains, “the crafty Chang” (as the novelization’s blurb calls him) is by far the more interesting character. While Greel lurches around his lair, bellowing, Chang the illusionist negotiates the surrounding hostile alien culture – brilliantly, by turning its own assumptions against it. Chang, who speaks immaculate English, drops into his stage patter whenever he needs to convince someone he is a harmless and comical ‘Chinee’. At the police station in episode 1, he is debonair: “Not at all, Sergeant. I’m always happy to be of service to the police. What can I do for you this time? […] You seem remarkably well-informed, Doctor. Alas, I know nothing of these matters.” But on stage, Chang plays to his audience’s assumptions and prejudices, speaking stilted English, exaggerating his accent (“First tlick velly simple!”), and, when the Doctor strolls out of the “cabinet of death”, quipping, “The bird has flown. One of us is yellow.’’ There is sometimes an edge of satire to Chang’s remarks: when the Doctor asks “Don’t I know you?”, Chang smilingly answers, “I understand we all look the same.”
Though once a “humble peasant”, Chang is neither a credulous bumpkin nor a mindless zealot. Chang is no superstitious dupe; he simply believes his own eyes. The Doctor dismisses Weng-Chiang’s legendary powers, such as the ability to kill “with a white light that shone from his eyes”, as “superstitious rubbish.” This attitude is a perennial trap in Doctor Who for those who consider themselves superior to the “superstitious savage.” The Doctor neglects Chang’s warning to “Beware the eye of the dragon”, and is struck down by the white light from the statue’s eyes – in this case, a laser weapon.
Chang argues with his god about the risks involved in going out to search for his lost time machine, and in kidnapping more and more women. Though devoted, Chang is also motivated by self-interest: with Greel’s help, “Next month, the Great Chang would have performed before the Queen Empress at Buckingham Palace. I, the son of a peasant.” When his benefactor turns against him, shaming him before his theatre audience, he in turn betrays the “false god.”
The character of Li H’sen Chang presents us with layer after layer of illusions: a white actor dresses up to play the role of a Chinese man, who in turn dresses up to play the role of an entertaining ‘Chinaman’ (as did numerous white stage magicians of the time, such as William Robinson, aka ‘Chung Ling Soo’). Chang’s stage mesmerism is actually real mesmerism, “mental powers undreamt of in this century” bestowed on him by Greel. His ventriloquist’s ‘dummy’ is actually alive.
This layered illusory nature crops up throughout Talons. The holographic ghost in the theatre cellar hides a genuine phantom (of the opera). The Doctor dresses up as Sherlock Holmes, but then actually does play the role of the detective assisting the police. Weng-Chiang, as a mock god, is the ultimate in fakery – but his powers are no less real. No surprise, then, that the story’s very first image is of the Palace Theatre stage, and its last image a poster of Li H’Sen Chang advertising his “Amazing Artistry.” Chang never resembles Fu Manchu more than when he is on stage in glittering mandarin costume, putting the ’fluence on the young ladies and smilingly deceiving his audience.
But unlike Christopher Lee’s Fu Manchu, who was blown up at the end of every movie only to promise he would return (with increasing comic effect at each iteration), and unlike Greel’s bathetic collapse in his own extraction machine, Chang’s death is played as tragic. His career destroyed by Greel, he flees into the sewers, and we hear his cry as the giant rat attacks him. For many villains, this poetic justice would have been the last we saw or heard of them. However, a badly injured Chang returns for a melancholy final scene, our only visit to the opium den. The pipe he is smoking to relieve his pain gives him lyrical visions of his ancestors coming to greet him: “They are smiling and carry gifts of fruit and flowers.” Chang’s last act is to struggle to tell the Doctor the whereabouts of Greel’s lair. As it turns out, this bit of information is irrelevant to the plot. The scene is there not to give our heroes a vital clue, but to give the character of Chang a proper exit.
Excursus: Chin Lee, Fu Peng, and The Mind Of Evil
It’s striking that six years earlier, Doctor Who portrayed the Chinese in such a completely different way. In The Brides of Fu Manchu, the evil genius plans to destroy an international arms conference with a death ray and take over the world; in The Mind of Evil (1971), the Master plans to destroy an international peace conference with a nerve gas missile and take over the world. The Chinese delegates to the conference are just as much the Master’s victims as everyone else. Was scriptwriter Don Houghton’s story a deliberate inversion of Brides, or a more general response to recent the-Chinese-take-over-the-world movies such as Battle Beneath the Earth (1967) and the James Bond franchise?
As well as giving its Chinese characters a more sympathetic role, Mind of Evil accomplishes something that Talons fails to: it satirizes British ignorance of Chinese culture by contrasting it with the Doctor’s broader understanding:
Brigadier: We are going to see the new Chinese delegate, Mr Fu Peng.
The Doctor: Fu Peng? He must be Hokkien.
Brigadier: No, no, no, Doctor, he’s Chinese. Now, come along.
While the Brigadier naturally wants to get down to business at once, the Doctor does what any guide to Chinese business etiquette will advise you to do: he makes a bit of small talk first. Even better, he does it in Fu Peng’s own language. (Later, he speaks to Chin Lee in Cantonese.) While there’s the inevitable joke about weird Chinese food – Fu Peng promises the Doctor a dinner of “dried squid and stewed jellyfish” – the punchline here is that the Doctor is entirely comfortable with this menu.
Houghton had a considerable advantage: he was married to Pik-Sen Lim, who played Chin Lee. (She continues to appear on stage and TV and in movies to this day.) Lim assisted him with the Hokkien dialogue, and coached Jon Pertwee in his delivery. She may have had other input into the script: the ill-fated delegate Cheng Taik was presumably named for her father, Lim Cheng Taik.
In Talons, the Fourth Doctor shows off his knowledge of Chinese, boasting that he knows “all the dialects”, then – with no Pik-Sen Lim on set to coach Tom Baker in his lines – speaks gibberish. More significantly, his little speech is no more effective than police Sergeant Kyle’s pidgin: “Him jaw-jaw plenty by and by, eh, Johnny?” There’s nothing that contrasts the Doctor’s wisdom, manners, or attitudes with those of the Englishmen around him.
And that brings us to the awkward problem of Professor Litefoot.
The awkward problem of Professor Litefoot
Unease about contamination or retaliation by the colonized – “reverse colonization” – manifests itself as exotic threats such as ‘voodoo’, the mummy, and aliens such as the Wirrn in The Ark in Space (1975), who, driven from their home by human colonists, in turn literally colonize human bodies. As historian Stephen Gong explains: “It’s about the British people reflecting back the fears that the people they had subjugated would do their best to take them down.”
Although China was never fully colonized, the threat of conquest by the ‘Yellow Peril’ was a “complete inversion of the actual power relations between East Asia and the West.” China’s attempts to stop the illegal importation of opium by British merchants, which had created millions of addicts, resulted in Britain’s repeated, successful wars against China, forcing it to do business.
The loveable Professor Litefoot suggests Sherlock Holmes’ offsider Doctor Watson, but is more likely drawn from the Lee movies’ pathologist and sidekick, Doctor Petrie. Professor Litefoot tells us that his father was part of the “punitive expedition of 1860”, part of the Second Opium War; Litefoot senior, then, was part of the joint British-French force which engaged in arson and looting. Was this the source of some of the Litefoot’s collection of valuable Chinese objet d’art?
Litefoot’s father “stayed on as a palace attaché” after the war, and young George was brought up in China. Yet despite this long exposure, he remarks, “they’re a mysterious lot, the Chinese. Enigmatic. I never got anywhere near to understanding them.” The young George Litefoot was akin to the son of a conqueror, growing up in a defeated, humiliated and economically damaged China. Perhaps it’s not so surprising, then, that he looks down on the inexplicable Chinese – and that he casually refers to two corpses as “a couple of inscrutable Chinks.”
Fans who can happily tolerate great amounts of implicit racism balk at its explicit statement, especially by a favourite character. Litefoot’s use of what is still the standard anti-Chinese insult in Britain is excused as either depicting or satirizing the attitudes of less enlightened times. And yet, there’s nothing parodic about it. Had the line come from the theatrical Henry Gordon Jago, we might understand it as the blustering of a comic dimwit; but Litefoot is sensible and matter-of-fact, a sober, educated man.
More importantly, the Doctor, who would normally be our moral guide, doesn’t bat an eyelid at Litefoot’s comment, any more than he does at Sergeant Kyle’s taunts. More than one opportunity is missed to suggest to the viewer that Litefoot’s attitudes are questionable: later, when the Professor ruefully remarks, “Things are coming to a pretty pass when ruffians will attack a man in his own home,” the Doctor replies, “Well, they were Chinese ruffians.” This line could have been delivered as impatience with, or mockery of, Victorian prejudice; but it, too, is played straight. Nowhere in the story is racism portrayed as anything but normal. Only Chang’s clever reflection of the assumptions surrounding him draws any attention to them at all.
The man with the yellow face
‘In a perfect world, we should all be able to play anything we want,’ said [actress Kim] Miyori, ‘(but while) it’s acceptable for Caucasian actors to play Asians, it is not acceptable for Asian actors to play Caucasians.’
Why didn’t the Doctor Who showrunners cast an Asian actor as Li H’Sen Chang? Perhaps they were simply following a so far unbroken tradition: no Asian actor has ever taken the part of Fu Manchu. In fact, they may have been trying to specifically recreate the look of Christopher Lee’s rubber-eye-lidded Fu: John Bennett’s makeup as Li H’Sen Chang included rubber prostheses which were attached to his face in a three-hour process, paralleling the rubber mask of many a Doctor Who monster. From an acting perspective, this had a definite disadvantage: Bennett had to be careful not to blink beneath his rubber forehead while on camera, lest the prosthesis become obvious.
Like blackface, yellowface – the playing of Asian roles by white actors in makeup – began on stage long before the origin of cinema. However, Hollywood made an institution of it: anxious about making their money back, they would cast established white stars in Asian roles. Early British films followed the same practice. As insulting as this was to Asian moviegoers, from the point of view of Asian actors, the real damage was that they were denied the chance to break out and become stars – creating a vicious circle.
Interviewed about the breakthrough series in which he starred, The Chinese Detective (1981-82), David Yip remarked:
But for me it really was a question of getting a chance as an actor, instead of just being offered walk on parts as a Chinese waiter. I suffered as a lot of ethnic minority actors do – that they can go for months, years in fact taking small parts and then something huge comes along because a writer has either written a part which suits them down to the ground or some enlightened director has given them a lead.
In 1992, a decade after The Chinese Detective, David Yip ran a drama workshop; its “several dozen” Chinese participants were as frustrated as he was about “the stereotyped image that he, as an actor, was expected to perpetuate.” At the launch of a civil rights organization in 2002, Yip pointed out that in twenty years British television had not produced another Chinese “role model”, remarking, “In no shape or form has there been seen on television a person of Chinese extraction doing anything of real importance.” At a 2004 theatre seminar, Asian British actors expressed their frustration that white actors continue to “yellow up” for Asian roles.
These protests are not just the product of recent, more enlightened times. The stereotypes of the Fu franchise were criticized “from the very outset.” In the 1910s and 1920s, Chinese students in Britain vigorously protested numerous stage productions such as Mr Wu and The Yellow Mask; these plays, which featured secret societies, poison, torture, and imperilled white women, also drew official diplomatic protests in 1913 and 1928 for their “vicious” representation of Chinese people (as did The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) in the United States).
No-one listened. Decades later, reviewing The Face of Fu Manchu (1965), Time magazine remarked that the filmmakers “are clearly aware that the nonsense of yesteryear taps a jumpy vein of contemporary anxiety – all those diabolical Chinese, seeking ways and means to make western civilization heel to the Yellow Peril”. And in 1982, Canadian educational network TV Ontario declined to broadcast The Talons of Weng-Chiang after privately showing it to members of the Chinese community for their comments. This was only five years after the story’s original UK broadcast.
Actress Elizabeth Chan points out that:
although we are the fourth-largest minority ethnic group in the UK, we are virtually invisible in public life, principally the arts, media and politics […] Chinese characters rarely appear on our television screens, but when they do, you can bet they’ll be DVD sellers, illegal immigrants, spies or, in the case of last year’s Sherlock, weird acrobatic ninja types.
While yellowface would be hard to get away with on British TV today, the stereotypes that Fu Manchu embodies and Talons is based on – the weird, treacherous, cruel, and criminal Chinese – are still alive and kicking. British Chinese people continue to be portrayed as importers of organized crime, “only deemed newsworthy if they conform to acknowledged negative stereotypes – whether as members of ‘triads’ or as mass victims of gangs or gangmasters.” A visit to criminal Chinatown has become a stock element of movies and police TV shows. As recently as 2010, Sherlock (2010-) featured an assassin who strangles his victims with lengths of cloth (perhaps borrowed from the deadly ‘Tibetan prayer scarves’ of the Christopher Lee movies) and a fiendish slow-torture device which would not have been out of place in TheMask of Fu Manchu.
Ultimately, the problem is not in front of the camera, but behind it. The British television industry is still overwhelmingly white, giving non-white Britons little chance to represent themselves.
Perhaps the only way to rehabilitate Talons would be to have Chang step off the stage of the Palace Theatre, retire to his dressing room, and remove his eyelids and makeup – much as Chung Ling Soo (and John Bennett) would have done after each performance. There’s no reason a white man could not have met Greel in China and become his servant. After all, Fu Manchu is not a Chinese character, but a western one. But what would be the point of a Fu Manchu pastiche without Fu?
I seriously doubt that Philip Hinchcliffe, Robert Holmes, David Maloney, John Bennett, or any of the production team had any intention to denigrate or demonize the Chinese. Nonetheless, in making The Talons of Weng-Chiang, they reproduced stereotypes which were created with exactly that intention. Because realistic Chinese characters are even now scarce on British TV, such stereotypes still have the power to harm the Chinese British community, with non-Chinese Britons absorbing suspicion and distrust, and young Chinese Britons absorbing a “negative self-image”. Stereotypes “are particularly damaging for a small and dispersed population, with few counterexamples of their own in popular culture.” The high level of racial abuse and attacks experienced by British Chinese people – including street harassment, school bullying, vandalism, assault, arson, and murder – is on the increase.
Writing in 2008, researchers Gregor Benton and Terence Gomez noted: “Resentment at media transmission of offensive images of ‘orientals’ – as inscrutable, exotic, cruel, mysterious, and so forth – is a recurrent theme of British Chinese writing and creative output.” Nearly a century after Fu’s creation, his shadow still hangs over the British Chinese.
When fans downplay or defend the racism in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, we, too, are helping to keep Arthur Sarsfield Ward’s cruel creation alive. But because we are fans, we’re capable of being sophisticated, thoughtful viewers, able to see both a story’s successes and its failings. If we can still love and laud Talons while ruefully acknowledging the rubbish giant rat, I think we can acknowledge the racist elements of the story too.
 Steve Broster (director), The Last Hurrah (supplementary documentary on The Talons of Weng-Chiang DVD release), BBC, 2010.
 myfavouriteplum, comment to “Talons of Weng-Chiang: racist?” (9 July 2010), Doctor Who (Livejournal community). Retrieved 19 August 2012 at http://doctorwho.livejournal.com/6464482.html?thread=96569058#t96569058.
 This is a sample of male Chinese actors, of comparable age and career length to Bennett, who were working in British TV at the time. In this essay, ‘British Chinese’ (or simply ‘Chinese’) is an umbrella term for people of Chinese ancestry living in Britain, including British-born Chinese people, people born in China and Taiwan, and ethnic Chinese people from former British colonies such as Hong Kong and Singapore, and from other countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia. As you can see, British Chinese identity is complex. Britons self-identifying as Mixed Race add further complexity to the picture.
 Cay Van Ash and Elizabeth Sax Rohmer, Master of Villainy: A Biography of Sax Rohmer, Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972.
 George Orwell’s 1940 list of foreign stereotypes in boys’ weekly papers includes “Chinese: Sinister, treacherous. Wears pigtail.” George Orwell, Essays, London: Penguin, 2000, 78-100. Schools taught almost nothing about China, so the boys’ and girls’ magazines went uncontradicted by fact: “these images were to breed fear and righteous indignation in generations of British youth.” Kathryn Castle, Britannia’s Children: reading colonialism through children’s books and magazines, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996, 146.
 This essay focuses on the United Kingdom, but there was similar hostility to Chinese immigrants in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and my own country of Australia – including harassment, discrimination, race riots, and anti-Chinese immigration laws, fuelled by an inimical press.
 Jess Nevins, “On Yellow Peril Thrillers” (2001), Aunt Violet’s Book Museum. Retrieved 19 August 2012 at http://www.violetbooks.com/yellowperil.html.
 Karen Kingsbury, “Yellow Peril, Dark Hero: Fu Manchu and the ‘Gothic Bedevilment’ of Racist Intent”, in Ruth Bienstock Anolik and Douglas L. Howard, eds., The Gothic Other: Racial and Social Constructions in the Literary Imagination, Jefferson: McFarland & Co, 2004, 104-119.
 Thomas J. Cogan, “Western Images of Asia: Fu Manchu and the Yellow Peril”, WasedaStudies inSocial Science, 3, 2 (2002), 37-64.
 Quoted in Douglas G. Greene, “Introduction”, in Sax Rohmer, The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu, New York: Dover, 1997, i-vii.
 Ward himself may have been a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the Rosicrucians. Kingsbury, “Yellow Peril”, 107.
 Another source Ward used was himself: Fu’s intense green eyes were one of several of Ward’s “own characteristics, both real and imagined” with which he invested his villain. (Kingsbury, “Yellow Peril”, 114. One might even remark that, as a flattering authorial self-insertion, the character was Ward’s Mary Fu.) Fu’s eyes “sometimes burned like witch lamps” (Sax Rohmer, The Return of Doctor Fu Manchu, New York: A.L. Burt Company, 1916, 284); in Talons, Chang’s eyes literally flash as he hypnotizes his victims.
 Stella Broster (producer), Victoriana and Chinoiserie – References in The Talons of Weng-Chiang (supplementary documentary on The Talons of Weng-Chiang DVD release), BBC, 2010.
 Martin Wiggins, “Infotext” (commentary in subtitles), Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang DVD release, BBC, 2010.
 Fu flicks of an earlier generation may also have had some input: Mr Sin’s inhuman face resembles Boris Karloff’s in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932).
 Terrance Dicks, Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang, London: Target Books, 1977, 102.
 There is no such “ancient Chinese god”, though there is a river in Guangdong Province with this name (now more usually transliterated as ‘Wengjiang’). We might speculate that Greel arrived here and was taken to be the god of the river.
 The apostrophe in ‘H’Sen’ seems to be an error – perhaps a cousin of the variably present hyphen in ‘Fu-Manchu’. Kingsbury, “Yellow Peril”, 117n2.
 Is there a hint of sexual threat about Chang’s remark to Leela on their first encounter? “I’m sure we shall meet again… Perhaps under more pleasant circumstances.”
 Wiggins, “Infotext”.
 “Australia objects to them [Asians, Africans, and Pacific Islanders] because they introduce a lower civilisation. It objects because they intermarry with white women, and thereby lower the white type, and because they have already created the beginnings of a mongrel race, that has many of the vices of both its parents and few of the virtues of either.” The Bulletin, 22 June 1901, 6. Quoted in Bill Hornadge, The Yellow Peril: a squint at some Australian attitudes towards Orientals, Dubbo: Review Publications, 1971, 33.
 By contrast with, for example, Ming the Merciless’ lust for the white Dale Arden in the Flash Gordon serials (1936).
 Kingsbury, “Yellow Peril”, 110.
 There are notable exceptions, such as the pre-Hayes Code The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), in which Fu rallies his troops thusly: “Then conquer and breed… kill the white man… and take his women!” In both that film and the Lee films of the sixties, Fu Manchu’s daughter is a disturbing sexual sadist with a taste for the whip. (This female equivalent of Fu, the alluring but treacherous ‘Dragon Lady’, is thankfully absent from Talons, but she did crop up in the new series story Turn Left (2008).) For an example closer to the time of Talons, see Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967) and its ‘white slavery’ storyline.
 Julia Lovell, The Opium War, Sydney: Picador, 2011.
 Stella Broster (producer), Limehouse – A Victorian Chinatown (supplementary documentary on The Talons of Weng-Chiang DVD release), BBC, 2010.
 Greene, “Introduction”.
 Wiggins, “Infotext”.
 Anon., “Chinese restaurant bankruptcy fear after false dog meat rumour”, The Daily Telegraph, 13 October 2011.
 David Parker, “Rethinking British Chinese Identities”, in Tracey Skelton and Gill Valentine, eds., Cool Places: Geographies of Youth Cultures, London: Routledge, 1998.
 Sue Adamson, Bankole Cole, Gary Craig, Basharat Hussain, Luana Smith, Ian Law, Carmen Lau, Chak-Kwan Chan and Tom Cheung, Hidden from Public View? Racism against the Chinese Population. London: The Monitoring Group, April 2009.
 Van Ash and Rohmer, Master of Villainy.
 Gregor Benton and Edmund Terence Gomez, The Chinese in Britain, 1800-present: Economy, Transnationalism, Identity, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, 292-293.
 Kingsbury, “Yellow Peril”.
 Broster, Limehouse.
 Benton and Gomez, The Chinese in Britain, 24-26.
 James L. Watson, “The Chinese: Hong Kong Villagers in the British Catering Trade”, in James L. Watson, ed., Between Two Cultures: Migrants and Minorities in Britain, Blackwell: Oxford, 1977, 181-213.
Doctor Who would return to the same theme two decades later: Chang Lee, the decent but misguided kid in the 1996 television movie, is a member of a San Francisco gang.
 Meanwhile at the cinema, there was One of our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975), a sort of comic Disney Fu Manchu packed with British stars, including a yellowface Peter Ustinov gabbling gibberish at his criminal gang. Action movies imported from Hong Kong did offer an alternative view of Chinese culture for seventies Britain, albeit creating their own stereotype in the process.
 Rohmer, Insidious.
 Anthony Then, who plays Chang’s assistant Lee, is well worth keeping an eye on throughout the story: with no lines and no closeups, he nonetheless gives a thoughtful performance. Then was an accomplished musician, teacher, dancer, and choreographer who would go on to co-found the Singapore Ballet Company. Bill Henkin, The Rocky Horror Picture Show Book, New York City: Hawthorn/Dutton Books, 1979.
 Kingsbury, “Yellow Peril”, 112.
 This is Professor Scarman’s dismissive remark to his fleeing Egyptian assistant in The Pyramids of Mars (1975). Scarman ignores Achmed’s warning and is promptly killed.
 Jim Steinmeyer, The Glorious Deception: the Double Life of William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, the “Marvellous Chinese Conjurer”, New York: Carrol and Graf, 2005.
 In a sense, Greel too is in yellowface, in that he’s impersonating a Chinese deity, his real face hidden not by rubber or makeup but by a mask. (Jonathan Blum, pers. comm.)
 Andrew Pixley, “The Mind of Evil: Archive”, Doctor Who Magazine 208, 19 January 1994.
 A Chinese Australian friend of mine mentioned that this reduced his family to helpless laughter.
 Broster, Limehouse.
 Arthur Dong (director), Hollywood Chinese, Deep Focus Productions, 2007.
 Kingsbury, “Yellow Peril”, 108.
 The other usual epithet is ‘yellow’, also used matter-of-factly in Talons, in this case by Leela who refers to Chang as “the yellow one.” Adamson, “Hidden From View”.
 Yayoi Lena Winfrey, “Yellowface: Asians on White Screens” (2011), IMdiversity.com. Retrieved 19 August 2012 at
 John Bennett, commentary to Episode 1, Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang DVD release, BBC, 2010.
 Robert B. Ito, “A Certain Slant: A Brief History of Hollywood Yellowface”, Bright Lights Film Journal, 18 (1997), online.
 Mark Duguid and Ling-Wan Pak, “British-Chinese Cinema” (n.d.), BFI screenonline. Retrieved 19 August 2012 at http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/475755/index.html.
 Dong, Hollywood Chinese.
 Alan Clarke, “Interview with David Yip, the Chinese Detective”, Marxism Today, October 1983, 19-23.
 Benton and Gomez, The Chinese in Britain.
 Ian Burrell, “Chinese actor blames racism for lack of role models”, The Independent, 16 April 2002.
 Benton and Gomez, The Chinese in Britain.
 Kingsbury, “Yellow Peril”, 105.
 Benton and Gomez, The Chinese in Britain, 313.
 Darrell Y. Hamamoto, Monitored peril: Asian Americans and the politics of TV representation, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994.
 Anon., “Cinema: Chinaman’s Chance”, Time Magazine, 19 November 1965.
 Anon., “Overseas Overview”, Doctor Who Monthly 71, December 1982.
 Elizabeth Chan, “Chinese Britons have put up with racism for too long”, The Guardian 11 January 2012.
 Adamson et al., Hidden From Public View.
 Maria Noëlle Ng, “Representing Chinatown: Dr. Fu-Manchu at the Disappearing Moon Cafe”, Canadian Literature, 163 (Winter 1999), 157-175.
 Parker, “Rethinking”.
 Owen Gibson, “Diversify or die: equality chief’s stark message to broadcasting industry”, The Guardian, 17 July 2008.
 Stuart Brown, Isobel Hawson, Tony Graves and Mukesh Barot, Eclipse: Developing strategies to combat racism in theatre, London: Arts Council England, 2002.
 Parker, “Rethinking”.
 Adamson et al., Hidden From Public View.
 Benton and Gomez, The Chinese in Britain, 349-50.
August 23, 2018 @ 3:26 pm
August 23, 2018 @ 3:30 pm
I really need to pick up this book. This is a fantastic article.
August 23, 2018 @ 11:58 pm
Oh, Sarracenian. And I took seven thousand words to say it. XD
August 23, 2018 @ 8:45 pm
Exceptionally good. I’m glad this got posted somewhere that it can be easily read right now.
John G. Wood
August 23, 2018 @ 9:51 pm
Great stuff – thoughtful, covering the specifics and the wider issues that feed into it, and I appreciate the references. It’s also not afraid to give credit where it’s due, which cuts off the possibility of a kneejerk “yeah, but” response and actually serves to highlight just how bad the rest is.
Here is a post about an experiment where a TEFL teacher showed the first half of Talons to students learning English in China.
There’s a lot of other stuff before the relevant section; search for “Mario” skip that. It provides a fascinatingly different perspective – it certainly doesn’t invalidate anything said here (or elsewhere), but it does deserve consideration. I know I haven’t figured out what I think about it yet. (Note he went on to show them the rest later, but hasn’t posted the results to date).
Hope it’s of interest to someone.
John G. Wood
August 23, 2018 @ 9:59 pm
A few extra notes.
August 23, 2018 @ 10:33 pm
Tom Baker does have a very handsome nose.
August 23, 2018 @ 10:32 pm
See, I don’t think the problem is how it affects Chinese people living in China, but how it affects Chinese Brits, from actors who lose out on jobs to young people who can’t get to see themselves on tv. In Britain, this would have been the only type of representation Chinese kids would have. We can afford to have white male characters be evil or stupid or both, because there are so many of them on television and in film anyway.
August 24, 2018 @ 10:02 am
Also, if you’re a Chinese person living in Britain, British people associating Chinese people with gangsters is potentially threatening or disadvantageous to you. If you’re a Chinese person living in China, you don’t need to worry too much about what British people think.
John G. Wood
August 24, 2018 @ 2:09 pm
Yep, I reckon that’s the key difference too. It still surprised me, and I still have a bit of trouble getting my head around it. Sorry to be so vague!
August 24, 2018 @ 12:08 am
That’s a fascinating perspective, especially the part about gangsters being cool (I just watched “The Game Changer”).
John Walter Biles
August 23, 2018 @ 10:16 pm
That’s a really exceptionally good essay on this topic. Excelsior!
August 24, 2018 @ 7:11 am
I was totally prepared to argue against what Ms Orman wrote, but I can’t. She is completely correct.
August 24, 2018 @ 8:05 am
High praise indeed!
August 24, 2018 @ 8:23 am
A couple of small things I wanted to note. Firstly, the quote near the start, “Conditions for launching a Chinese villain on the market were ideal…” are Arthur Sarsfield Ward’s own words:
Also, re footnote 18, I was wondering about that “H’Sen”. The old Wade-Giles romanisation of Chinese uses apostrophes to mark aspirated consonants, for example chang vs ch’ang; and for some reason it uses “hs” for the sound “sh”. But no romanisation uses “h’s”. Anyway, see for yourself:
Finally, regarding the Doctor’s pronunciation, it’s included in a compilation called The Hollywood Guide to Speaking Chinese:
(It’s funny whatever your language skills. 🙂
August 28, 2018 @ 1:53 am
Graeme Burke and Robert Smith?’s book Who’s 50 has more detail on the TVOntario non-screening. The community group was the Chinese Canadian National Council, still extant; their criticism was direct and harsh, characterising the story’s stereotypes as not just “offensive” but “dangerous”.
August 24, 2018 @ 4:26 pm
Thanks for sharing, this is a superb article.
August 24, 2018 @ 5:24 pm
A fascinating comparison to make here, with regard to orientalism and racism, is with Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado. Obviously, Light opera is some distance from 20th Century Telefantasy but bear with me (as well as a love of Who, I also have a deep admiration for Gilbert and Sullivan, so sue me).
Nominally, the Mikado is set in Japan, and does have some genuine Japanese elements adapted to European Victorian tastes. On the positive side, the “Miya Sama” tune is distantly connected to genuine Japanese music, Gilbert famously invited some of the TeaRoom/Geisha girls visiting Knightsbridge to demonstrate Japanese customs to the cast.
On the much more negative side, the initial history and subsequent performances have too often been performed in “yellowface” or local equivalent, with caucasian actors looking uncomfortable in kimonos, with a certain degree of “aren’t Japanese strange people”. Some of these negative elements are in the script and it would be foolish to deny their existence. I’ve read of a number of complaints in recent years, mainly in the USA if memory serves me, where local asian communities have objected to a bunch of white people singing century-old songs that insult the Japanese. (I simplify a tad here, and I haven’t fully researched how common this is).
To these objections, the rejoinders are usually “but it’s so funny and well-written” and “this performing group doesn’t have any Asian actors”. You can make a direct link between these comments and the quality of the Talons script and the availablility of Asian actors in Britain in the 70s. That is, the rejoinders at best mitigations and don’t really address the underlying issues of racism.
As GK Chesterton pointed out a century or so ago, “I doubt if there is a single joke that fits the Japanese. But all of the jokes fit the English.” The Japanese elements are veneer, as is often the case of Gilbert, that allows him to poke fun of his own society while dressing up as something else. Change half a dozen words at most, and overlook the pentatonic scales in the Mikado’s theme, shift the scene to somewhere else, and the work stands on its own merits without yellowface or oriental mockery. Jonathan Miller’s production went a long way to showing how this can work (I can still do without Miller’s “slant-eyed” mime in the opening chorus, mind you, even if it is only intended in sarcasm).
Throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the work as been adapted into Hot/Swing/Cool Mikado versions. Productions set in Japanese-owned British car factories. English Seaside resorts. The Bronx. The little list song has been re-written thousands of times. The thing is nearly indestructible and, when interpreted sensitively and with a touch of common sense, is a fantastic way to spend two hours in the theatre. OK, that’s an esthetic call. There are people who hate G&S and who hate Doctor Who, and it’s all part of life’s rich tapestry. Point is that the Mikado just needs the yellowface removed and it’s good to go.
As an amateur actor/singer I’ve “done” the Mikado many times and may well end up doing it again one day, but I’ve resolved never to do a version in yellowface. Period.
Moving on from this, you can make further comparisons with “Utopia Limited” by G&S which attempts mockery of English society by way of a South Seas Paradise framing. Of course, no one cares as much because frankly it’s not their best work. And you can also look at the slightly later “Chu Chin Chow” by Asche/Norton from 1916; it has it’s own problems but is no masterpiece.
I think I’m saying that the Mikado, like much of Victorian popular culture, carries these taints of Empire, revenants of racism, and general thoughtlessness. For the Mikado, it’s redeemable with a light touch and thoughtful production. We’re not quite at the level of #NoAllVictorians, though. Talons has fewer excuses and deeper problems. It was written a century after the Mikado. Yes, it does set up Europeans for some criticism, but the Fu Manchu elements are much deeper in the script and much harder to excuse.
On reflection I don’t quite know where I’m going with this, but thank you for reading.
August 24, 2018 @ 5:30 pm
One detail I missed is that the original script contained the N-word in the “punishment fit the crime” song. It was presumably considered acceptable in the English productions, but I believe the line was rewritten because for once the US audience were ahead of the sensitivity training curve. I don’t think it was completely expunged from English D’Oyly Carte productions until something like the 1930s, although I’m open to challenge on that point. In any case racism towards persons of colour in a single phrase was more conspicuous than any generic oriential racism spread across the script as a whole.
August 24, 2018 @ 8:13 pm
I’m not familiar enough with it to be certain, but it sounds like you could do the same sort of thing uncontroversially today just by using aliens. In which respect modern times have a distinct advantage.
August 24, 2018 @ 9:26 pm
Inasmuch as virtually no victorian theatregoer had first hand experience of Japanese people, and to my knowledge no modern person has met an alien, that might work. However, “Japanese” already represented a set of tropes of otherness, and effective “alien” worldbuilding is different from one setting to another. Interesting idea tho.
As yet another aside, HMS Pinafore often gets a Star Trek makeover, precisely because ST is built around a quasi naval structure.
August 25, 2018 @ 9:22 am
In terms of plot drivers, a crucial point about the faux-Japan of the Mikado is that is governed by a sole ruler with absolute authority and eccentric edicts. This is undercut for comic purposes, but it’s part of the premise. In that respect, there are contemporary resonances with North Korea. However, a Mikado relocated there as a light comedy would be in poor taste.
August 26, 2018 @ 4:36 am
What’s funny about the idea that the ‘Mikado’ is ‘a sole ruler with absolute authority and eccentric edicts’ is, of course, that it has almost never been true of Japan. Even when you take the pragmatic view of considering the Shogun as the Emperor of Japan (which many European visitors did, remaining ignorant of Tenno).
So in practice there’s nothing against setting the opera in any location, alien or otherwise, which establishes that there is an absolute ruler.
August 26, 2018 @ 2:40 pm
I’m sure you are right, and clearly your knowledge of the real Japan in the 19th century is well ahead of mine. This may be a spur for me to do a little research of my own.
August 27, 2018 @ 9:25 am
Mikado. ALIENS. Portland. Brought to you by the power of complete coincidence.
August 24, 2018 @ 9:51 pm
What a thought-provoking comparison!
August 26, 2018 @ 2:30 pm
Thank you, Kate.
One more comparison point. Gilbert event attempted a written retcon and additional backstory, therefore lining up with Target novelisations.
The open chapters to his children’s book “The Story of the Mikado” written some decades later. (Readable here: https://library.uoregon.edu/ec/e-asia/reada/miktale.pdf in the public domain)
In which he states
* Modern Japanese people are lovely
* Japan is a powerful country – look how they beat the Russians in Manchuria just recently
* I’m sure YOU aren’t scared of Japan, dear reader, being stout British yeoman and all that, but our government seems to be nervous of upsetting them
* So for the record my story is set a long, long time ago when the Mikado was regarded as an absolute ruler and partly a god, absolutely not like he is thought of now.
* And yes, this particular Mikado was a bit of a nutter who punished all wrongdoing with instant death.
It’s hard to tell how much of this is Gilbert reacting to actual criticism and how much is Gilbert trolling (anachronisms again) his critics. He was certainly capable of both.
August 24, 2018 @ 5:35 pm
Great essay – I’ve not yet seen Talons, but I’m really interested in what all the fuss is about. Although this is an eloquent discussion of the racism within that (and other) episodes and other media, it’s mind-boggling that anyone would argue against even the most crude description of why it is problematic. It’s not difficult to see, and the mental gymnastics required to claim there’s no racism must be spectacular.
Regarding the “of it’s time” claims and the rebuttal of it still not being ok, this should actually alert the viewer to the fact that it’s likely to contain prejudices from the era in which it was made – and that we can actually see this as a positive: while it was of course unacceptable at whatever point in history, acknowledging racism in media from the past adds an extra element to the story. It tells us about our own story and the way that society and media are linked and influence and change each other. To deny its existence is narrow-minded and delusional.
I have a stack of Dennis Wheatley novels that I acquired from my elderly father, who raves about Wheatley’s storytelling and rails against the political correctness that would see it “banned” these days. I’m slowly working my way through the pile, and let me tell you they are racist and sexist as hell. But they are also good stories, told well, and they provide a window into the psyche of the original readers of these works.
We need to accept our media with warts-and-all or we risk losing important information about it. Essays like this one expose the problem to sunlight, and actually highlighting past wrongs instead of covering them up allows us to learn far more. I firmly believe we should consume and teach media that falls short of today’s standards for inclusivity and respect – we can see not only the bad parts, but also develop an understanding of why they were popular in the first place. If one denies the racism in such works, then they demonstrate that they’ve not understood it.
August 24, 2018 @ 11:16 pm
Brilliantly thought out and argued, Kate. Also marvelously timed, as my sons and I, who started Doctor Who together years ago with “Castrovalva” and went well into the New Adventures range, just backed up and began watching 4th-and-Leela (because after enough NA 7th, it’s nice to have a Doctor on perpetual vacation again). We’re doing “Talons” next; I enjoyed it uncomplicatedly at age 11, but shall probably complicate it some for my offspring.
I love your novels, btw, as do my sons. They haven’t read “Year of Intelligent Tigers”, which may be my favorite Who story ever (and which at minimum finally gets the Silurian story right). But we were reading “Blue Box” when a close male friend of ours decided to become a female friend; read “Set Piece” when they were beginning to take an interest in their Jewish heritage (the first two chapters are a startlingly good analogue to Nazi death-camp sonderkommandos); read “Walking to Babylon” in time to get to some ideas about female sexuality right before they hit puberty; and also enjoyed them all as just cracking good stories. There’s always been an implied essayist in your books, an undertone of “no, THIS is how you get these characters to work”.
“Human Nature” rocks too; I understand you also get some credit there. Yep, this comment is pure fan mail. Hopefully you like that sort of thing.
August 24, 2018 @ 11:54 pm
How completely wonderful that you can share the books with your sons! 😀
If you’d like to give them an introduction to Fu Manchu, you could do worse than Google for the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 version of “The Castle of Fu Manchu”. (I resorted to the MSTed version when writing the essay as I couldn’t locate the original movie. 🙂 The fact that they’re taking the piss out of the movie invites us to laugh at the whole ridiculous franchise. I can also recommend the documentary “Hollywood Chinese”.
August 25, 2018 @ 12:52 am
Noted! MST 3K is one of those pop-culture phenomena I’ve never gotten around to; your excuse for giving it a shot sounds plenty solid. 🙂
August 25, 2018 @ 5:59 am
Just gonna warn you, it’s rough. Even the Mystery Science Theater crew has a hard time with it. The resolution of their misery makes it all worth it, though.
Kate, way back in 2014 I quoted your and El’s essays on Talons for my high school senior paper on the same topic. I had no idea you used MST3K as the reference for Fu Manchu but that adds a big chuckle in retrospect! XD
August 25, 2018 @ 6:02 am
Additionally, I’m on chapter two of “Intelligent Tigers” myself and look forward to reading more – my first novel of yours that I’ll have read!
August 25, 2018 @ 7:18 am
John G. Wood
August 25, 2018 @ 10:02 am
That reminds me – my teenage children and I are doing a DW 80s marathon at the moment, and the racism in Four to Doomsday was enough to severely damage their enjoyment (it does bother me too, but not to the same extent). They have decided that they never want to watch Talons, regardless of its quality, and despite having enjoyed several Jago and Litefoot audios.
Basically we think about the issue the same way, but they feel it more deeply than I do and have a more nuanced understanding. The same was true of myself as a teenager in the 70s – my parents couldn’t understand why I felt I was racist, since I was never nasty to people of colour, and that was basically their definition of the term.
This progression gives me hope for the future.
August 25, 2018 @ 12:36 am
I’m really grateful to both El and Kate for publishing this here. So many fascinating references and observations.
I’ll just comment (by way of elucidation of complexity rather than contradiction), that the TV world of 70s Britain wasn’t as completely anti-Chinese as the essay might suggest. Like many of my generation, I grew up loving Monkey and (especially) The Water Margin. These were Japanese TV productions of Chinese classics and while they may have been taken as supporting stereotypes, they were relatively authentic and positive portrayals of Chinese culture. There’s the problem of Japanese-Chinese yellowface, of course, but since there’s no doubt that Japanese are ethnically and culturally close to China (and the debt to Chinese culture is evident in the writing system), that is a different thing to the yellowface of Talons. Perhaps more akin to the BBC’s adaptations of The Three Musketeers?
Funnily enough, I was such a massive fan of The Water Margin that I ended up writing a role-playing game about it, and a detective novel set in the same period. I also ended up living in Japan for the last 27 years. And I still remember finding the celebrated Talons rather dislikeable when I first watched it in 1977 (a year after The Water Margin debuted).
August 25, 2018 @ 1:19 am
In Australia we got Monkey (complete with cod “Chinese” dubbed accents — when Jon pointed out to me that Monkey’s voice was David Collings, I nearly fell off the sofa), but not The Water Margin — one of those classics I still have to catch up on.
August 25, 2018 @ 1:42 am
Masaaki Sakai (who was voiced by David Collings) is still regularly to be seen on Japanese TV, as is Toshiyuki Nishida (series 1 Pigsy).
The Water Margin featured narration from Burt Kwouk, and such luminaries as Miriam Margolyes on dubbing duties. Once I had read or watched a number of other versions, I found the Japanese BDSM angle a little disturbing, and remarkably it’s probably slightly more sexist than the 15th century original, but it nevertheless retains the compelling sprawl of the original.
August 25, 2018 @ 8:40 am
Hi Kate, nothing really to contribute to the current conversation but I’m coincidentally reading ‘Walking to Babylon’ again and just wanted to thank you for your contribution to the Doctor Who mythos (loved ‘The Year of Intelligent Tigers’ and pretty much everything else you’ve written). For me, you and Paul Cornell and Ben Aaronovitch are the great Who writing triumvirate and I just wanted to thank you again.
August 25, 2018 @ 8:59 am
That’s lovely. Thank you!
John G. Wood
August 25, 2018 @ 10:26 am
I’d like to echo these sentiments. I’ve not read all your novels, but I’ve read enough to have a sense of happy anticipation whenever I get a new one. I’d like to give a particular shout out to two books nobody else has mentioned yet – SLEEPY and The Room With No Doors. Both are close to the top of the heap for me, yet I rarely hear them mentioned. Thank you for all of them!
August 25, 2018 @ 11:44 am
August 26, 2018 @ 7:43 pm
I’ll chime in with the above and say too, I’m a real lover of your work (still some to read which is a treat) – love The Left Handed Hummingbird.
Brilliant essay and thanks so much – bloody good stuff and much needed!
August 27, 2018 @ 9:11 am
Thank you! My big ambition is to get a completely original novel published. I’m working on it…
August 28, 2018 @ 4:54 pm
Great to hear and I would love to read that – even though i find your work so original anyway, but I guess you mean outside of Doctor Who – which would be really exciting.
August 26, 2018 @ 6:13 pm
Re: Kate’s books, the follow-up “The Year of Intelligent Ligers” needs to happen
The ligers need their moment
August 29, 2018 @ 11:28 am
Brilliantly written and thought-provoking. Thank you.
February 27, 2023 @ 2:07 am
Little footnote. I wrote that “And in 1982, Canadian educational network TV Ontario declined to broadcast The Talons of Weng-Chiang after privately showing it to members of the Chinese community for their comments.” This incident actually took place in 1980. It may seem a bit obscure, but it turns out that the decision to pull the story was reported in newspapers across Canada, and made it as far as the UK’s own Sunday Mirror. So, in fact, it was a widely-noted reaction to the story. (Thanks to the ever-excellent Brian Lindsay for digging in the newspaper archives!)