By the 1920s...Fu Manchu made his debut in Saturday afternoon matinees...Arthur Sarsfield Ward had introduced the diabolical Fu Manchu in a series of pulp fiction thrillers, describing the character as "the great and evil man...whose existence was a menace to the entire white race."
The Fu Manchu Character had its female counterparts. Films depicted Chinese women either as victims, fragile China dolls, compliant and sexually available to white men, or villainesses, dragon ladies, cunning and dangerous seductresses.
By the 1930s...The images of the Chinese [Americans] saw on the screen did not reflect reality, but instead the taboo sexual desires or hidden anxieties of white audiences about a people they did not fully understand. The demonization, or oversexualization, of Chinese character in films was akin to the presentation by lazy novelists and filmmakers of Italian Americans as preponderantly Mafia henchmen...
Because the best dramatic roles went to whites, it was difficult for Chinese American actors to depict their people as genuine human beings. The whites' practice of adopting yellowface in Hollywood not only robbed ethnic performers of starring roles but also promoted Chinese caricatures. Smothered in heavy makeup and wearing prosthetic masks, many white actors—including top stars such as John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn—had no qualms about slanting their eyes and speaking with a fake accent. While some were delighted to assume exotic personae to expand their artistic range, it was often forgotten that Chinese American actors were being deprived of similar opportunities, and not just because no one would have seriously entertained the notion of a Chinese actor's donning whiteface to play a Caucasian.
At the pinnacle of her career, Anna May Wong failed to land he starring role of O'Lan in The Good Earth...one of the few films that depicted China favorably to American audiences. The role went to Luise Rainer, who won an Oscar for her performance. When the studio offered Wong the part of Lotus, the wicked concubine, she protested: "You're asking me—with my Chinese blood—to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture, featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters."
Chapter Twelve: Chinese American During the Great Depression