Benshoff, Harry M and Griffin, Sean. America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.
In chapter six of America on Film, Benshoff and Griffin provide commentary on the representation of Asians in Hollywood films during the silent film era and the “classical” 1930s Hollywood films. The chapter suggests that immigration legislation, like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1924, were indicative of pervasive Western prejudices and fears that were then perpetuated in popular film. Asians in movies were almost never represented as Asian-Americans but rather, as exoticized “orientals” living in exaggeratedly aestheticized foreign landscapes. Also, the roles of Asians in most films were filled by Western actors in “yellowface,” as was the case with General Yen’s character in Bitter Tea. The chapter also discusses at length two well-known Asian characters of early film history – Charlie Chan and Fu Man Chu. Both are characters of detective-genre film played by white actors, and both embody what is known as the “inscrutable Oriental” stereotype. Charlie Chan is akin to the classical Holmesian detective, but is more comical and often spews “old Chinese wisdom.” Fu Man Chu, similar to Chan in many regards, is an evil genius who exacts obscure and ghastly forms of “Chinese” torture on his unfortunate victims.
This chapter provided contextual information that is important to understanding the kinds of preconceptions viewers of the 1930s might have had about Chinese, or more generally Asian, culture. Was General Yen a character unique to film at the time of Bitter Tea’s release? He’s seems not to have been. In fact, his character fairly well suits the “inscrutable Oriental” stereotype discussed by Benshoff and Griffin, in that he is both shrewdly perceptive and intelligent, and at the same time, subtly menacing (as demonstrated by his brutally pragmatic indifference about executing his prisoners during times of economic crisis and famine). Yen, like Chan, says several cryptic “fortune-cookie” type maxims throughout the film. Even Mah-Li’s character, the wily concubine, seems to fit the description of another stereotyped character mentioned in the chapter called the Dragon Lady, a seductive and treacherous female spy who fools men with her sexual wiles.