Thursday, February 07, 2008

On Reading Sax Rohmer's YELLOW SHADOWS

As a boy, I collected Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu novels in paperback yet never read them; I liked them for their association value, and for their evocative cover art. Much later, about ten years ago, I became interested in Rohmer's work anew and read a few titles. I started with BAT-WING -- not one of his better titles, but it was enough to make me want to read another, and the next ones were good enough to dedicate me to his work wholly: I began haunting eBay and didn't stop until I had acquired all his work in hardcover.

I read a dozen or so his novels and story collections -- finding his black magic novels BROOD OF THE WITCH-QUEEN and GREY FACE superior to the rest, and delighting at discovering the roots of Chandu and Dr. Strange in THE DREAM DETECTIVE -- before deciding that I needed a change, but the books have remained on display in my attic, where the limited space of my downstairs floors dictates I must hoard my fiction. While paying a visit to the attic the other night, a title on my Rohmer shelf jumped out at me and I simply had to read it, there and then. It was his 1925 novel YELLOW SHADOWS.

It turned out to be a Limehouse (Chinatown) variation on a locked room mystery, in which a playwright enamored of a young actress finds himself embroiled in the murder of a London Tong leader, who is discovered dead -- but still breathing, a macabre side-effect of the exotic poison used on him -- in a sealed room of his Limehouse mansion. The story wears its melodramatic stripes proudly, but there is enough of striking atmospheric value herein to make me think this might still be adapted into an entertaining film. There is an exotic femme fatale named Suzee Lo Chee who is described in ways that recalled to me the Myrna Loy of THIRTEEN WOMEN, which wasn't made until 1932 -- seven years later. To my surprise, the big scare of the book involves a character who, feeling increasingly nervous in his cottage rooms on a stormy night, suddenly throws open the curtains of the room to view the extent of the bad weather and discovers the huge, pock-marked face of a Chinese stalker mashed hideously against the outer glass, looking in. This was almost 40 years before Richard Matheson wrote the same scare into his classic TWILIGHT ZONE episode, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet." (I wonder -- did Matheson read YELLOW SHADOWS?)

After much accumulation of romance and incident, YELLOW SHADOWS ends -- abruptly, I felt, as does much of Rohmer's work that was originally written on tight deadlines for pulp magazine and newspaper serialization -- with one of the primary characters receiving an anonymous package, whose enclosure of a single jade earring identifies the sender as Suzee Lo Chee. The note invites the British lawman to return to China someday, confirming that he now has friends there. I find this ending hopeful and significant.

Whenever anyone bothers to write about Rohmer today, it's rare to find anyone able to look sufficiently past their own smug, "politically correct" times to consider him as anything other than a racist -- a writer who sensationalized the Chinese immigrant influx of his day as a malevolent, subhuman force intruding upon the purity and tradition of Great Britain in the early 20th century. While Rohmer certainly did exploit the phrase "Yellow Peril" in his earliest Fu Manchu stories, he did not originate it -- and though he described the arch-enemy of Sir Dennis Nayland Smith as an obscene caricature of every dogface's worst nightmare about the Far East, Rohmer was anything but a white supremacist. Even the most demonizing of his yarns offer tantalizing descriptions that present us with a man torn by Orientalia, a little concerned about its rising presence in his country's midst but also rapturously tempted to succumb to it.

In YELLOW SHADOWS (whose title incidentally refers to the yellowish hue of the heavy night fogs in Limehouse -- the author apologizes in advance for any other interpretation in a brief foreword), he uses the telling phrase "attractive yet repellent" in reference to the Chinese. Mind you, this is 1925: Rohmer is not using the word "repellent" as a synonym for "loathsome," but to indicate their resistance to his interest, their inscrutability. He finds them fascinating but alienating. His characters reach out to them at times, but often find that, however one may be drawn to their beauties and mysteries, they carry with them a persistent and unemotive reminder that the Western ways do not exist for them. Rohmer respects them and their right to their own cultures and traditions, which makes me to see him as more of an anti-Imperialist than a racist. Racism works from a position of power to denigrate and disempower, and this is not at all what is at work in his novels. Rohmer's Asian characters are formidable, knowing and sophisticated. They often are in possession of answers to eternal questions that the English have yet to learn to ask of themselves. Rohmer's stance in relation to them is not that of a racist, but that of a fetishist.

It's important for readers to remember that China and Great Britain were great and geographically opposed empires, meeting for the first time on Britain's home turf. Chinese immigrants were a fairly new element in Britain during Rohmer's day, often forced by poverty to dwell in the less respectable areas of town, and this lowly social standing, and the language barrier, fostered mutual feelings of distrust and secrecy. Even at their most open and communicative, the two peoples were only beginning to interact with, to conform to one another. Rohmer's writing and personal habits show him to have been actually progressive -- in contrast to the xenophobia otherwise common among the native classes -- in terms of being sincerely interested in the exoticism and strangeness of the Asian people. Cay Van Ash's biography MASTER OF VILLAINY tells stories of how Rohmer would sometimes disappear from home for days to live among Chinese immigrants in boarding houses, observing them, coming to a better understanding of them. Fu Manchu himself becomes a more recognizably human character over the course of the 14 different books Rohmer wrote about him, which is perhaps why some readers find the later books in the series lacking.

The primary Chinese characters in YELLOW SHADOWS are wealthy, fascinating, and more sophisticated and at ease with the ways of the world than their authoritative but sometimes fumbling English counterparts. Much of the book's subtext concerns establishing a trust -- not between nations (that's still impossible!), but between people of different nations -- each respecting the other's right to its own traditions, beliefs and sacred secrets. Rohmer's interest was clearly as sexual as it was aesthetical. His British and Asian characters not only work together toward common goals, while mutually respecting the laws and codes of their respective empires, they also kiss.

Rohmer was a superior stylist to, say, Edgar Wallace -- a more cinematic storyteller, too -- but it's true that his work doesn't have the subtlety that the open-minded now demand from such subject matter. Our world is a lot smaller today, and we take international relations so much for granted that they have lost their former charge of magic and exoticism. For Sax Rohmer, when Western man met Eastern woman, the air crackled with electricity as surely as it did when Adam first encountered Eve. Without early thinkers and dramatists as dedicated as Rohmer to seeking common ground between East and West -- and for a grass roots readership, no less -- it might have taken our world a good deal longer to find an in-between. It's important to read him, and to read past the early Fu Manchu novels, to get at the true heart of his infatuated, mystified, and outreaching body of work.

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