The Yellow Peril

Jonathan Clements reviews a new account of Fu Manchu

The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu & The Rise of Chinaphobia (sic) is an enjoyably old-fashioned work of gentlemanly erudition, with research in dusty archives accompanied by a slew of lunches with bigwigs and interviews with associates, as our hero Sir Christopher Frayling examines the origins of the infamous mastermind from Sax Rohmer’s once-popular novels.

Despite the loftily ludicrous claims made on its jacket copy, not the least that it will prove “as influential as the Orientalism of Edward Said”, The Yellow Peril is a modest book, including several articles dating back as far as the early 1970s, and clearly a labour of fannish love, rather than donnish precision.  Taken on such terms, it is illuminating and exciting, with sections on Sax Rohmer’s career as a hack author, depictions of the Chinese in Victorian and Edwardian media, and the power of Fu Manchu as an orientalist icon, stretching all the way to Ian Fleming’s creation of Dr No, and Doctor Who in The Talons of Weng-Chiang.

True enough, the last chapter features a gabbled attempt to cram in some more modern references, not only in popular fiction but also in scholarship – quite a lot has happened since Frayling began this project, and the last twenty years or so appear to have rushed by his window in a whirl. But as with the breathless blurb and lumpen title, which seems to assume that Sinophobia is too complex a term for the modern reader, this mercifully does not affect the book’s actual content – perhaps an addition made at the insistence of a publisher that could not work out how to sell it.

Rare indeed is the reader under forty who has even read a Fu Manchu book – the “devil doctor” has been largely airbrushed from our heritage like a paedo disc jockey or a racist comedian. But this is part of Frayling’s quest: to unravel how a figure so iconic and widespread in the 20th century should seem so out-of-place now. Accordingly, he delves into the Limehouse Chinatown of the Victorian era, uncovering a spat between Dickens and Sir John Bowring about the correct use of opium pipes. He also proves to be a critical and incisive reader of the memoirs of music hall icons, investigating Sax Rohmer’s career as a lyricist and pulp author, firmly establishing Fu Manchu within the context of Edwardian Orientalism.

Much space is given to Chu Chin Chow, the musical hit of the WW1 era, later made into an engagingly atrocious movie starring Anna May Wong – a fascinating actress, not the least because the more one knows about her, the less interesting she is. But Frayling’s interest is not in Wong, who sullenly mumbles her way through the film like a plank with earrings, but in George Robey, the celebrity comedian of his day, whose catchphrases were hammered bodily into the script, and now sit limply, out of time and context, meaningless to modern audiences. For it was Robey whose musical collaborations paid the bills of a young Sax Rohmer, propelling onto a pulpy path that would eventually lead to the creation of his most famous character.

Frayling also takes a brave plunge at incorporating a sense of Chinese context, although in this he is way out his depth, and flounders around with a few things he’s picked up on junkets. He’s reduced to reading out the guide book on a trip to Beijing’s Summer Palace, and despite having an interpreter and the company of a Tsinghua professor, is unable to do much more than nod politely. He commendably begins with the Handover of Hong Kong in 1997 as a frame for consideration of the end of both empire and imperial stereotypes, but is largely silent on the history of the Chinese in, say, California or Australia, where rich veins of Yellow Peril fiction remain unmined, at least by him. But Fu Manchu was a very parochial, very British creation, dreamed up by a man in a suburban house – we might argue that Fu Manchu’s success in Hollywood rested on different foundations of American Sinophobia, which themselves are not necessary for understanding his origins.

Less forgivably, Frayling is prepared to let his investigative rigour slip when faced with an East that seems to remain inscrutable to him. Despite personally interviewing Chris Patten, he is unable to offer more than a smirk and a shrug on the matter of why the last Hong Kong governor was called “the tango dancer” by the Chinese press.

Couldn’t he just ask him? Failing that, Patten’s famous (although apparently not that famous) proclamation, that on matters of negotiating Chinese sovereignty, it would take “two to tango,” is the first hit that shows up on an Internet search, so why couldn’t Frayling just Google it? It’s smug, slapdash fudges like this that take the sheen off his otherwise learned research, which offers a robust and relevant account of Fu Manchu as seen from London and the Home Counties, but seems unwilling to consider the wider context in China or the rest of the world.

The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu and the Rise of Chinaphobia is out now from Thames & Hudson.

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