Monday, March 10, 2014

The Yellowest of Perils

Fu Manchu
Sax Rohmer
(Arthur Henry Sarsfield Ward)

Although Sax Rohmer (1883-1959) wrote many different novels and short stories, from eerie mysteries to epic adventures to philosophical musings, he will forever be remembered as the creator of the oriental arch-villain Dr Fu Manchu, a criminal genius with immense wealth and occult powers whose goal was world domination and the subjugation of all other races. It can be argued (and has been by people who have never read any of the fourteen books) that Fu Manchu is a deliberate racist creation, a focus for white angst, and a manifestation of the "yellow peril" of the times, a cheap attempt to capitalize upon fear and hatred. Rohmer did not see his creation in quite that same jaundiced light; when asked about the person of Fu Manchu, he always claimed his character was based on a real individual, a crime lord he named "Mr King," whom he would at times see while working as a journalist in the Limehouse district, which was London's Chinatown at the time:
"Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, ... one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present ... Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man."
Whether or not Fu Manchu was based on reality (Mr King never went to jail and some now doubt he was ever more than a marketing ploy for Rohmer) he was much more popular than the other sinister orientals that skulked and menaced their way through pulp magazines, for he remains with us today, and they are but mounds of crumbling paper pulp. Unlike them, the Devil Doctor, as he was sometimes called, began his literary life between hard covers (The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu [The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu in America] in 1913), and when he did appear in a short story it was in a slick magazine like Colliers or Liberty, not one of the dime pulps. While that gave him a better literary pedigree, he has outlasted the others because he really is a towering literary creation, much like Professor Moriarty or Dracula.

From the very beginning, there were critics of the stories, those who believed that Rohmer was vilifying all orientals, that he was portraying Limehouse as a vice-ridden cesspool when its crime rate was lower than other areas of London because the Chinese were in general a very law-abiding race. In actuality, crime in Limehouse was much higher than other parts of London for certain kinds of crime, such as forced prostitution and extortion. However, no matter how much someone groused, the rumblings were rather small because it was just a character in a book, and in a literary setting it is much easier to transform a caricature into a living, breathing person, especially for a writer as good as Rohmer.

The first real opposition to the image of Fu Manchu came when he moved to Hollywood. When MGM's The Mask of Fu Manchu, with Boris Karloff, hit screens in 1932, it prompted an official protest from the Chinese embassy. In 1940, Republic Studios released one of its best serials, The Drums of Fu Manchu, which brought a smack-down from the United States government, China being one of our allies at the time. Hallam Productions/Constantin Films made some great films in the 1960s with Christopher Lee, but by then the counter current was against them, and everyone gave up. Now, it's impossible to screen an old film without someone getting their knickers in a twist, and as far as making a new film...not going to happen, not even in satire. Fu Manchu thwarted the efforts of the world's best policemen and criminologists for a century, but was done in by busybodies with picket signs.

On the other hand, a character who cast such a long shadow as Fu Manchu, who was as popular with readers for so long (Rohmer's last novel was in 1959), is not about to fade away because some people find him an uncomfortable image. In 1973, a collection of Fu Manchu short stories was published as The Wrath of Fu Manchu. Cay Van Ash, Rohmer's assistant and biographer, went on to write two authorized books in the series, Ten Years Beyond Baker Street (1984) and The Fires of Fu Manchu (1987). More recently, William Patrick Maynard has taken up Rohmer's pen to write three authorized novels, The Terror of Fu Manchu (2009), The Destiny of Fu Manchu (2012), and The Triumph of Fu Manchu (scheduled). In addition, Fu Manchu has made all sorts of unauthorized appearances in novels or has been alluded to, from Sherlock Holmes stories to a Man From U.N.C.L.E novel, to Dracula novels. So, despite the best efforts of the well-intentioned, it does not seem we will be rid of Dr Fu Manchu anytime soon...and that's a good thing.

Cover by Christine Clavel
A parting word about Fu Manchu, his impact upon society, and the portrait by the talented Christine Clavel which appears on William Patrick Maynard's second book from Black Coat Press. You may be asking yourself, "Hey, where's the mustache?" Despite how Fu Manchu has been portrayed on book covers and in films, the Devil Doctor is actually a clean-shaven gent. Bear in mind, Fu Manchu was a master of disguise (many encountered him without even knowing it) and you can't be a master of disguise with an immovable mustache on your lip or a beard. So, what about all the gangstas proudly sporting their spurious Fu-Manchu Mustaches? They look silly, and even sillier if they include a "soul patch" (what an unfortunate name), but I doubt it's likely to change anytime soon, not with law enforcement using it in descriptions so often and it being a style recognized officially by the World Beard & Moustache Association (yes, it's real). Personally, I'm going to start calling it the "Devil-stache."

About Ralph E Vaughan: I have written several pastiches dealing with the world of Sherlock Holmes, and am credited with writing the first Sherlock Holmes/Cthulhu Mythos crossover in The Adventure of the Ancient Gods. I am the author of Shadows Against the Empire, an interplanetary steampunk adventure novel set in 1882, and I enjoy reading and writing pulp-style adventures. I am also the creator of the Paws & Claws series of young adult novels, which chronicles the exploits of the Three Dog Detective Agency. For further info about me, visit my Face book page and click "like." And, yes, I have a mustache (but not a Fu Manchu [AKA Devil-stache]), and have often been described, much to my chagrin, as a "friendly walrus."