Jun 7, 2019 in Sociology
The Chinese Immigration on the Big Screen

Two centuries of the immigration from China to the United States created the world of controversy, beauty, and economic development. Research related to the Chinese immigration discusses an issue of racial identity and economic development. This overlapping connection is studied primarily through the means of cinematography. The current paper describes the main models based on the Hollywood images that illustrate people`s attitude towards the Chinese and various economic alterations of the American dream. This research paper will show a direct link between the racial identity and economic development of many that migrate into the country, creating a sense of belonging within the country on the example of cinematography.


The research is limited to items that are relevant to understanding the experiences of the Chinese in the United States. In order to achieve this purpose a few categories that represent elements of racial identity need to be distinguished. The patterns are culture and history. In particular, the patterns are studied within racial, economic, and cultural models showed in films. Films have a great influence on society. One of the reasons is the basic physiology of human beings – people receive more than 80 percent of information about the world through their sense of sight. A nice picture is even more valid than words. Hollywood is good at creating nice pictures and revealing stories. The  film industry “has been notorious in disseminating images of racial minorities which establish for audiences what people from these groups look like, how they behave, and who they are”. Chinese immigration is a story of racial and economic discrimination at the beginning, and successful cultural identity at the end.

Curriculum Vitae of Chinese Immigration

In order to develop a deeper understanding of reasons for immigration, historical and socio-economic backgrounds need to be established. Chinese immigration to the United States is represented by the largest group of individuals, who came to the country.  Approximately 3.3 million Chinese individuals came to the United States to find new opportunities.  


The immigration of people from China to the United States of America started in 1848. The first official Chinese immigrants were two men and one woman, who “arrived in San Francisco on the American brig”. It was the time of the gold rush in California; it was one of the main reasons to move to the country. According to the earliest official records, the Chinese appeared in America in 1820. However, the gold rush of 1849 was a moment of a dramatic increase of an immigration stream. In the 16-19th centuries, apart from people`s desire to become gold miners, they wanted to work for the Central Pacific Railway and in mines. At the beginning, when there was enough gold and work, the Chinese were tolerated. However, as the number of the Chinese in the United States increased, they were considered to be a danger to the American way of life. 


The growing Chinese presence resulted in a fierce racial discrimination with public protests. The hardworking Chinese represented cheap human resources that America needed in order to develop. Still, they were the target of racism on different levels. There were acts of violence as a response of society, and an official violence of the government in a form of the “Chinese Execution Act” of 1882. Under the threat of deportation or imprisonment, the Chinese were prohibited to enter the country, unless for non-labor goals. The Chinese were considered to be inassimilable because of their unique culture, customs, and language that were too distinct for Americans to embrace at that moment. It is because of the racial unwillingness to accept the Chinese, there were not much economic opportunities for them. Thus, the “yellow peril” racial term was rooted in people`s mind. That was the time when the thought about something that represents China as an object of admiration and respect was inconceivable.

The Chinese on the Big Screen in the United States of America

A historic torrent of events produced stereotyping of the Chinese and was emphasized by the means of mass media. The mass conception of the Chinese as “threatening to negatively “Asianize” American society and culture” dominated. The archetypal depiction of the Chinese as “bad guys” was the only way for the film industry to use Chinese characters. One of the most crucial and influential characters was Dr. Fu Manchu. 


Dr. Fu Manchu was introduced by British writer Sax Rohmer. Fu Manchu was a fictional character introduced in a novel in 1913. The film industry used this character and showed him as an evil genius. The author himself described Dr. Fu Manchu as “the yellow peril incarnated in one man”. His image consisted of a set of vivid negative features. The focus was placed on him being a political, economical, and sexual danger. It did not matter that Fu Manchu was smart and intellectually strong. These attributes seemed to be neglected on the basis of his sinister nature and the country of origin.

We may illustrate the attitude towards the Chinese, produced by movies, in a model where:




On the basis of racial conflicts and economic boundaries drawn for the Chinese, the Americans treated them as a threat. This stereotype is a part of a binary opposition completed by another character, Charlie Chan. Charlie Chan illustrated the Chinese minority from a different point of view. He was considered sympathetic and heroic. However, this Asian character was portrayed by white actors only, or the society would refuse to accept him. The film The House without a Key with Asian actors was not accepted by the American audience. The so-called “yellowface” could not be the hero on the screen as the real life rejected to see the Chinese as something positive in the United States. Thus, racial intolerance was strong, and the film industry was coping with this perception of Chinese people. It is particularly interesting that on the background of racial intolerance, economic and political dismissal, the Chinese continued to immigrate to the United States, looking for a better life, and hoping to be accepted.

Further Immigration

Discrimination and legal difficulties did not stop the Chinese on the way to the American dream. Thousands of people were looking for opportunities in America, because they did not see the bright future in China. The seventieth and eightieth of the last century were a period of unprecedented movements in the United States. The American society was changing and evolving. The African-American Civil Rights Movement and other cultural and economic movements echoed in Chinese minority and started the process of revaluation of their identity. Issues of race were at the stage of reassessment. The Immigration Act of 1965 was the end of the anti-Asian immigration official boundaries. The Chinese were appointed to work in different places and had more economical freedom. They could own property. Consequently, the “Asian population in America more than doubled from 1.5 million in 1970 to 3.7 million in 1980”. The Chinese population was embraced with a moderate level of tolerance and the new racial identity started to develop. The Hollywood was linked to these events and responded to the change in an unexpected manner – it created a new star, one of the brightest stars in its history, Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee emerged fast and challenged the stereotypes of racial identity of the Chinese. He was followed by a number of Chinese actors, like Jackie Chan, who managed to realize their potential and fulfill people`s expectations. 

A New Model of the Racial Identity

Bruce Lee is a cultural figure of the last century. The discovery of Bruce Lee’s talents was a major contribution to amendments of the racial identity, along with culture and economic development of the Chinese in American consciousness. People know Bruce Lee and his country of origin. Bruce Lee is one of the main creators of the Chinese-American self-awareness that corresponds to the model:




In relation to Bruce Lee, we distinguish a basic model, according to which, people from China are perceived as strong with knowledge and power. This model is a part of the cultural pattern of the Chinese identity.


Bruce Lee brought power and philosophy to the screens. One of the first movies, Fist of Fury represents a statement made by Lee that “Chinese are no longer the sick men of Asia”. The main idea of his films was to show strong and knowledgeable Chinese individuals. Bruce Lee is an image of the masculine and powerful Chinese. He was the hero on the screen and the hero in real life. He inspired other people from China to immigrate to the United States of America, and to become a part of the identity, established by Bruce Lee. What is more, Lee showed that the Chinese should be proud of their cultural heritage and share it with the Americans. He was an element of equilibrium that helped to establish a racial equality for Asian people living in America and changed the way the Chinese were depicted by the film industry.


Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco in 1940 to Chinese parents. He spent most of his years in Hong Kong. He trained there in the art of Wing Chun. Lee was already a popular actor as a child. He migrated to the United States in 1958 in order to study philosophy at the University of Washington. The time at the university was also spent on practicing his unique style of Chinese Kung Fu. His mastership in this art allowed him to open a few schools in America. In 1964 there was the Long Beach International Karate Championships where Lee was noticed by a Hollywood agent. After this, he was chosen to play Charlie Chan’s son in a new series titled the Number One Son. The idea did not find its particularization. Instead of playing the son, Bruce was filmed as Kato in the show The Green Hornet. This show presented Bruce Lee with an opportunity to edit the way the Chinese were depicted on television in the USA.


Bruce Lee became a role model for millions and inspired others to come and seek happiness in America. The new identity of the Chinese as strong heroes was further developed by Jackie Chan. 


Jackie Chan has literary followed Bruce Lee. Chan was a stuntman in the films Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon. Chan managed to bring new colors to the model, established by Lee. The model, according to which the Chinese were strong, had a great influence on people. It was accepted as truth with a little appeal of exaggeration. Thus, we may hear the following dialogue in a popular film with Jackie Chan:


“I thought all your people know karate. – Not everybody Chinese is Bruce Lee”.  


Jackie Chan created a hero who was strong and reliable and who assimilated into the American way of life. That hero also was careful with the Chinese heritage. History and culture are of great importance to the Chinese and films with Jackie Chan convey this idea. For, example in one of the movies, the main character explains his actions in the following way:


- You robbed the Bank of England? 

-  Not for gold or money, but for the Jade Buddha. It was stolen from our village.

-  …This was his only way to get home.


The Jade Buddha is a valid religious artifact for the Chinese. It is believed to be a symbol of protection. Such things are more important for the Chinese than money or gold; they are sacred. This approach used to see the Chinese made it easier for other people to successfully immigrate to the United States. However, one should never forget that the Chinese are not completely trusted in America, and there are still some racial and economic issues that need to be resolved: “I am not an American. My daughter is not an American” (Rush Hour). Even the counsel in the movie understands and emphasizes this situation. 


Jackie Chan created a hero who was strong and reliable and who assimilated in the American way of life. We may reflect this new identity in the model, according to which:




This model is trimmed by a woman’s part that belongs to Lucy Liu. Lucy Liu is an American actress of Chinese origin. Her parents are from Shanghai and Beijing. She takes an active part in the life of the American society, and she is an example of an immigrant living her special American dream. She is famous as a comic and drama actress known from such movies as Charlie's Angels. Moreover, she played in such famous movies as Kill Bill, Kung Fu Panda, Chicago and other projects. In addition, Lucy Liu starred in Shanghai Noon together with Jackie Chan. Lucy Liu has an outstanding personality. She raises money in order to help to cure breast cancer and she is also U.S. Fund for UNICEF Goodwill ambassador (the United Nations Children's Fund). She was able to come to America, make a career, earn money and use this money to help others. People think that if she did it, they can do it as well.


Finding an opportunity is often related to migration to another country, specifically to further develop one’s lifestyle and become successful. This wave of ambitions is reflected in Hollywood films. Movies managed to capture the mood of the society and reflect the elements of the racial identity and economic development. A few Chinese representatives were able to use the film industry as an economical and racial way out of the uncertain future. Lee, Chan, Liu and others established positive models of the racial identity representing the Chinese as strong, friendly and successful people. These models continue to develop today.



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