Chinatown ★★★

The Western world's collective fantasy of Eastern cultures has rarely been projected into a filmic depiction of a single kind of geographical location as frequently as it has with the Chinatowns of American cities. Indeed, Chinatown, as a setting, has been essential when it comes to the creation of myths of the Orient - fabricating an image of Eastern cultures, especially those from China, that can be documented, studied, and reproduced in service of the art and entertainment industries of the Western world. Although there exists a clear fascination towards Chinese culture that has been used to rationalize the myth-making, it has produced caricatures, stereotypes, and harmful images that exoticize and denigrate not just Chinese people but also those of Asian descent. Generations of xenophobic messages in mainstream media have also altered Chinatown's image as a site that, as Shan Qiang He puts it, invokes the fears of the Yellow Peril - stories of opium dens, brothels, gambling houses, tong wars, and all other forms of criminal proceedings paint Chinatown as a location of all the so-called "Chinese evil." Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974) does contribute to the pernicious imagery of the eponymous neighborhood, yet despite the various ways the film perpetuates caricatures and stereotypes, Chinatown repurposes the aforementioned myths to assist in the deviation of traditional elements of the hard-boiled detective story. Myths of Chinatown and the hard-boiled detective collide with and give ways to each other to reveal the inadequacies and eventual destructiveness of subscribing to myth-making.

To begin this version of demythologization, Chinatown requires the traditional model of hard-boiled detective stories in film noir. Tim Dirks best describes film noir as a style or genre marked by feelings of fear, mistrust, bleakness, loss of innocence, despair, and paranoia, a prevailing mood that reflects the tensions and insecurities of the period. Dirks also describes that the anti-heroic qualities of the hard-boiled detective were metaphoric symptoms of society's evils, yet the heroic qualities that were hidden beneath his hard-boiled persona ultimately motivated him to pursue his quest for true justice. Los Angeles in the 1930s serves as an archetypal setting for a noir, and it should be expected that the tough, cynical, and wisecracking Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) embodies the period's fears. The casual references to the racial stereotypes of Chinese people, symptomatic of a dominant Anglo culture, reveals one of those fears: the Western world's xenophobia towards Asians. Racist views and treatment of Asians persist even beyond the period and setting of the film, but Chinatown establishes a demythologizing relationship between its depicted racism and its hard-boiled detective.

In the barbershop scene, for example, the barber attempts to placate a hostile Jake from violently confronting another patron by telling him a racist joke, one about a white man who discovers his wife had been unfaithful by sleeping with a Chinese man. Racism diverts the angered detective to something else entirely. The scene then transitions to Jake asking the female secretary to leave the office so that he can jubilantly retell the joke to his male associates while ignoring their efforts to inform him that another woman is listening right behind him. After finishing the joke, Jake laughs hysterically and turns around to discover the woman, who turns out to be the real Mrs. Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway). In both instances, racism has been loaded with a thematic function to illustrate Jake at multiple stages of ignorance. For one, he's unaware of the fact he had been tricked into taking photographs of an innocent man, a victim who ended up in the newspaper headlines the barbershop patron referred to as he was taunting Jake. He's also unaware that Evelyn is a victim of sexual abuse - the ignorance is even more ironic considering Jake felt embarrassed not because of this fact, as he couldn't possibly know at this point, but because he felt ashamed for telling a vulgar joke in the presence of a woman. Furthermore, Evelyn, with a level of articulation and wit that undoubtedly surpassed Jake's, momentarily dismantles the myth of the hard-boiled detective he represents by having him gradually morph his image of a tough, cynical, and wisecracking protagonist into that of a clueless, ignorant fool. The racism here embeds itself as an extra layer to Jake's character flaw - that his misunderstandings, his ignorance, mislead him about the truth.

Despite being egregious examples of the caricatured Asian accent, the "bad for glass/grass" scenes play crucial roles in the story. The myth, of course, is that all Asian languages mix up the "L" and "R" sounds when, in reality, they each handle the sounds differently. Regardless, the "L" and "R" mixup is a linguistic stereotype that has been irresponsibly applied to all Asian languages in mainstream media. What's baffling about the "bad for glass/grass" scenes is that the gardener (Jerry Fujikawa) is capable of saying the "L" and "R" sounds - it's as if Polanski gave specific instructions to Fujikawa to deliberately say "glass" the first time and "grass" later on, rationalizing this bewildering switch in pronunciations with the Asian language myth. It's justified for attentive viewers to take issue with this particular invocation of a racial stereotype, but, even if it's purely accidental, there's a certain mode of demythologization involved with the gardener's mixup, especially when considering Jake's involvement. When Jake visits the Mulwray residence for the first time, he mocks the gardener's remark with the typical Anglo impatience of conversing with people with foreign accents. "Yeah. Sure. Bad for the glass." His misinterpretation of the gardener's "bad for grass" suggests he had ignored a major clue regarding the saltwater in the pond and its connection to the murder of Hollis Mulwray, and he continues to leave this detail as something insignificant until he later revisits the residence. It's because of this very misinterpretation based on his reliance on an Asian language myth that misleads him yet again. Had he connected the dots sooner, the outcome of the story would most certainly be less tragic, but Jake, due to his racism, is repeatedly deflecting himself away from the major clues of the mystery.

As an embodiment of the predominant xenophobia towards Asians, Jake's series of misinterpretations, misunderstandings, and pure ignorance appears to gradually develop Chinatown as a symbol heavily associated with the "Inscrutable Oriental." However, it is important to realize that the underlying difference between the inscrutability of Chinatown in the film and that of the trope is that the film ensures the fault of the inscrutability belongs to Jake's blindness of the key mystery - that he thinks he knows what he's dealing with, but in reality, he doesn't. It's irrefutable that Chinatown represents a moral enigma, and while Chinatown, as a general setting, has been utilized as a mythological locus of the "Chinese evil" in a multitude of stories, the central aspect of the film's Chinatown is not that of an incomprehensible site of corruption or violence, but that it is a microcosm of a world where the unintended outcomes of external forces and the misguided actions intended to stop them, best encapsulated by those made from Jake, are not only past comprehension but also control, effectively demythologizing the Chinatown and hard-boiled detective myths. Ultimately, Jake's racism and, as an extension, his acting further on his misunderstandings, condemn him - to some degree, he realizes the myth of the inscrutability of Chinatown he has subscribed to can be applied to the world beyond its boundaries. His only response to this revelation, as he suggests with his final lines, is to do as little as possible.


Sources and Recommended Supplements:

John G. Cawelti – Chinatown and Generic Transformation in Recent American Films

Shan Qiang He - Chinese-American Literature

Tim Dirks – Detective-Mystery Films (

Vox - Why some Asian accents swap Ls and Rs in English (

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