Big Trouble in Little China

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Big Trouble in Little China – 1986
82% rotten tomatoes
Directed by John Carpenter: Halloween, Escape from New York, Vampires. Assault on Precinct 13

John Carpenter himself described Big Trouble as an “action adventure comedy kung fu ghost story monster movie.”

History of chinatown:

Chinatown is in San Fran and covers about a square mile and a half, with a population of over 100,000. So – Britain went to war with China over opium (twice – the second time France helped out). Essentially, China was trying regain and restrict control of the opium trade, which Britain had been openly smuggling via India (in which they also had a military presence). Opium is what we now would consider a narcotic. In various forms we know it now as heroin, morphine, and a multitude of opiate pain-killers such as percocet and vicodin. In 19th century it was used flat-out as a recreational drug, and also as a cure-all. Laudanum was the most common preparation of opium. It also contained alcohol (mostly alcohol) and some herbs. It was casually sold and used, and was taken for everything from headaches, coughs, period discomfort, a tranquilizer, (yikes) a soporific (sleep aid) for babies and young children as well as adults. It was in demand and Britain knew they could tax the holy hell out of it. They needed a way to grease the wheels of trade a bit. Since they were used to getting their way through military might, that seems like the most logical place to start.


-The first one (1839-42)- Opium had been the cause of social and economic disruption due to widespread addiction, and so the Chinese government was confiscating and/or destroying it when they could. Hostilities naturally increased, and minor skirmishes began escalating. Britain’s arrogance played a role in those escalations. A Chinese villager was killed by some drunk British sailors, and the British government refused to turn the men over to Chinese government for legal processing. (rude). Later, a Chinese blockade of the Pearl River estuary (a by-way Canton) was destroyed by British warships (rude). The blockade resistance got Britain’s attention, and they deployed more soldiers, and after long, unsuccessful negotiations, said fuck it and went ahead and occupied Canton and started taking over. Cause Britain, that’s why. Peace negotiations – these are bullshit terms:

-China had to pay a huge indemnity to Britain

-Give Britain Hong Kong

-Increase the number of ports that Britain could use

-Give British citizens the right to be tried by British courts

-And give Britain special preference as a foreign nation and trade partner

-The second one (1856-60)- Britain wants increased trading rights in China, so they pick BULLIES – they know that with the turmoil, both economic and geographic, that China can’t win. So they basically pick a few fights so they can justify a new war that they’re guaranteed to win, which means they can negotiate another bullshit peace settlement. Chinese officials went on board a British ship and arrested some Chinese citizens who were on board, and Britain claimed that they lowered the British flag. I guess that was all the provocation necessary, because a little while later, British ships began bombing Canton (why does anyone still live in Canton at this point?). China burned down some foreign factories in Canton in retaliation.

France, taking a page from Britain’s playbook, decided they could benefit from getting in on the action as well. A French missionary had been murdered in China earlier in the year, so France decided this was a good enough reason for a military alliance with Britain. With the predators come the parasites, I suppose. Together, they recaptured Canton, and later on forced the Chinese government into negotiations. More bullshit terms:

-Foreign envoys would be provided residences in Beijing

-Opened yet more ports to foreign traders

-Gave foreigners legal right to travel the interior of China

-Gave freedom of movement to Christian missionaries

-Later on, importation of opium was legalized. That was probably the biggest blow.

A short time later, the Chinese fired on the British who were on their to Beijing to have the treaty with the terms just referenced finalized. The British suffered heavy casualties from that assault and were successfully driven back. China refused to ratify the treaty and the fighting resumed. But alas, France and Britain called for reinforcements, and with a huge force, they captured and plundered Beijing. Later in the year, China submitted to the treaty and its terms, and additionally they were forced to cede the southern part of Kowloon Peninsula to Britain. (It’s next to Hong Kong). Aiding Britain in the Opium Wars were all the peasant rebellions and natural disasters. The Chinese government was stretched thin.

So what’s this got to do with Chinatown?

Well, after the first Opium War, China also suffered a famine after several natural disasters. The peasants rebelled, naturally. If you’ll recall, the Gold Rush was currently on in the American west, so a lot of Chinese citizens who felt like they had nothing to lose pulled up their stakes and headed for the sea.

Americans responded to them with typical race arrogance. When the Gold Rush went bust, the Chinese workforce threatened mainstream society, they were driven away from the gold mines and ended up concentrating in the area that we know now as Chinatown. By the mid-1860’s many Chinese men who hadn’t had any luck with gold rush found work building railroads. ( The most ambitious endeavor being the transcontinental railroad, that would connect the western US to the east coast. One railroad company started work in Sacramento (this lot would include many of our gold rushers) and another railroad company started near the Iowa/Nebraska border. The two companies moved toward each other. Presumably the Nebraska end to connect to existing railroads in the east. This was dangerous work. The efforts were often beset by Native Americans who were none to thrilled about this iron atrocity scarring their lands and bringing more white devils. There were a lot of explosives in play to blast through mountains and rock obstacles. There are a ton of sweaty dudes swinging sharp instruments around. There were a lot of opportunities for injury, and this labor was physically brutal. Nevertheless, the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, and this now displaced workforce would again go out to find new jobs, many of them likely returning to Chinatown where they had friends and maybe family.

Over the ensuing years, racial tensions escalated (they were called the “Yellow Peril”) and in 1882 Congress passed Chinese Exclusion Act, which denied Chinese immigration into the country.

<side note: There is a book called “Yellow Peril – The Adventures of Sir John Weymouth Smythe, written in the style of old pulp fiction books in !!!1978!!! and set in the late 1930’s. The Village Voice called it a “porno-fairy tale-occult-thriller”. Here’s the description:

“Starring – A dashing and virile British secret agent, a sensual and willing Eurasian beauty, a certifiably mad scientist, plus assorted American gangsters and Rabbi avengers. Featuring – Bangkok opium dens, Berlin cabarets, steamy jungle sex scenes, erotic torture chambers, and of course the ultimate weapon. Extra added attraction – One up-and-coming young Nazi Satanist named Hitler.”

And the best part is that you can still buy it on Amazon. Just $5.>

This was (up until the near future) the only government action ever to exclude immigration based on race. Additionally there was an anti-miscegenation law prohibiting Chinese men from marrying white women. They would not have had the right vote, the right to own land, work in government, bring their families over, or have much in the way of civil liberties. By 1924, all Asian immigration was prohibited, any Asians currently residing in the States would be denied citizenship, and were subject to the anti-miscegenation laws. These conditions persisted until the 1940’s, when the US allied with China during WWII. WWII unfortunately made conditions worse for Japanese inhabitants, who were rounded up and placed in concentration camps for the duration of the war.

Naturally, when the government and mainstream society fails to take care of or offer basic human respect to a group of people, those people will stick together and take care of each other. That’s where we get places like Chinatown, which turn into microcosms of economics and self-government, and also some not-so-nice institutions.

Sex tourism:

So – what do know about depriving a group of people from legal and economic rights? The opportunists swoop in to prey on a vulnerable population. We’ve learned so far that Chinese men who came over to find work found themselves unable to bring their families after the exclusionary immigration act was passed. Now we have a large group of people, most of them frustrated young men, living in a defined geographical area that’s not well-off economically or socially, and who are legally prohibited from marrying whites and there are not enough Chinese women to go around. What’s that a good formula for? PROSTITUTION. Some of these women ended up creating their own empires (kudos, I guess…), but more were victims of a beastly and debasing trade. Gangs set up brothels in highly male concentrated areas, and to feed the supply demand, began trafficking women from China all the way to Chinatown. They used the same ploys then as they do now; either deceit or force. Apparently it didn’t take a lot of effort to get them past officials and into the country. In the world of sex trafficking, not a whole lot changes.

Once in the States, they were treated like animals; they would be auctioned. The most attractive women would go for the highest price, and may be bought by individuals or brothels for an ill-defined period of indentured servitude (on paper), but really functioned like outright slavery. The least attractive women would be sent to the worst fates. Of course. These women would be kept in cages that lined the street, or be sent to the mining towns, which was apparently worst of all due to how badly they were treated by those men.

The main gang responsible for the trafficking and pimping was called The Tongs, after their leader, Hip Yee Tong. As usual, the women were beaten or humiliated for even minor offenses, and often were drugged to keep them compliant. Escape was unlikely; they had nowhere to go. They likely didn’t speak English, and the white Americans were in the grip of xenophobia against Asians. Any skirmishes with the law were handled with bribery. It’s all a familiar story.

There was no health care provided for these women, who were nearly guaranteed to contract STI, most likely syphilis. Syphilis can stay latent for several years, but once symptoms cropped up, the Tongs, who had no use for a sick prostitute, would turn them out and leave them to beg for their living. Conditions like this persisted into the early 1900’s, and as we know, sex trafficking has not gone away. This has been and is still reality for some women.

Chinese gang wars in Chinatown:

Lest Chinatown be satisfied with just the Tong gang, we actually have quite the history of violence. Gangs continued operating criminal underworlds throughout the years (as they do). In recent-ish history, we can pinpoint the end of the mostly unmitigated operation of gangs. In the early ‘60s when Asian immigration was opened back up, an us-vs-them mentality cropped up between “american-born Chinese” and those “fresh off the boat”. As an answer to being endlessly harassed by the native-born Chinese, the new comers formed a gang (of course – that’s how men solve their problems) called Wah Ching. No innocent daisies, these men had lived hard lives in Hong Kong and were no strangers to violence. Eventually these hostilities turned to larger ones as the street gangs “ganged up” against established crime syndicate running Chinatown called Hock Sair Woey. So – one guy (Joe Fong) who was Wah Ching ends up joining the syndicate, allying the Wah Ching to the syndicate, and then later leaves the syndicate. The syndicate retaliates by drive-bying Fong’s best friend after chasing him down through the streets of Chinatown. Fong creates his own gang, the Joe Boys.

A feud was born – there was a period of revenge killings, which of course only served to keep the feud going. Also, they were fighting for control over Chinatown’s criminal enterprises. It’s basically the plot of the first season of Gotham. A common theme seems to be victims being chased down before being killed. This might be common for any gang killing, I would not know, but it’s certainly at play in Big Trouble.

The Golden Dragon Massacre – 1977:

The Hop Sing Tong gang (ehhh, Tong, ehhhhh?) was a syndicate gang and ally of the Wah Ching (I guess – I’m confused). The top dog in the Hop Sing Tong was Jack Lee, and he owned the Golden Dragon restaurant. The Joe Boys botched an attempt at a takeover of a lucrative Wah Ching fireworks enterprise, and a young Joe Boy was killed in the skirmish. Two months later, the Joe Boys tried to get revenge by attacking the packed Golden Dragon restaurant – about 100 people were dining, among them several Wah Ching gang members. Three gunmen entered the restaurant – one with a semi-automatic, one with a sawed-off shotgun, and one with a long-barreled shot gun. Two men went to the upper level and one stayed on the main floor. They were looking for specific targets, but the man on the lower level was spooked by a terrified customer and opened fire. Upon hearing the gunfire, the men on the upper level started shooting as well while patrons panicked and tried to flee. The shooting lasted about a minute (all this is according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle article) and the the gunmen fled in a vehicle. Five people were dead or dying, and another eleven were injured. Among the victims were a young couple who advocated for the disadvantaged, one of the waiters who was a talented violinist and husband and father and two young men who had just started college. None of them were affiliated with either gang.

This massacre motivated officials to finally crackdown on the gang violence in Chinatown, via a gang task force. The three gunmen were ultimately apprehended, and the Joe Boys dissolved. There is still a gang presence of course, but as big or as bold and it used to be.

Stereotype of magical Asian:

There’s a great article called “Hollywood’s 6 Favorite Offensive Stereotypes.” They are: 6) The Magic Negro (think John Coffee, The Green Mile), 5) The Gay or Effeminate Psychopath (think Buffalo Bill, The Silence of the Lambs), 4) The Latina Maid (think Jennifer Lopez in Maid in Manhattan), 3) The Mighty Non-Whitey (Eddie Murphy, Trading Places) (black guy turns white world on it’s head with his jive-talking blackness), 2) The Wise Old Asian Asshole (any kung fu movie), and 1) The Cowardly/Incompetent Black Sidekick (Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element).

While these are all delightfully shame-inducing, we’ll be focusing on number 2. The magical Asian or is so common that we don’t even notice it most of the time. To be fair, we (white people) do this to just about every non-european culture. We have a lot of magical Native American or First Nations tropes in addition to the two already mentioned. I would love to give us the benefit of the doubt and put this down to our relative youth as a nation and our belief that people who have existed in a place for a long time must have a special connection to that land, but… even in our own European based cultural stories the magical creatures are “other” – the fey, the auld ones, what have you. So I think we’re just assholes.

This character, as Cracked points out, is always an unbelievable asshole. He can help the main character, but has a sadistic need to see him humiliated and put through hell first. He will have a generic Asian accent and bad grammar. He’ll be a superior talent, but socially or economically “beneath” the white lead.

Stereotypes always say more about the offender than the offended, so what does this one say about us? Cracked thinks it may be lingering anxiety over WWII, but I think that’s not the whole picture. This stereotype was in place before WWII. They also mention our insecurity over Japan’s growth in the technology and electronics sectors. That’s likely, but probably more related to the “good at math asian” stereotype.

The wise old asshole is a subcategory of the larger Magical Asian stereotype. This is a character whose sole purpose is to let the white character benefit from his wisdom and experience. This help may manifest as kung fu skills (likely, because most asian characters know martial arts in some capacity), traditional medicine, general low-grade sorcery, and an innate understanding of the workings of the universe by happy accident of being asian. He’ll speak in proverbs and probably talk about chi while meditating and trimming his bonsai tree.

In addition to making Asian characters geographically and culturally generic, we do the same thing to Asia itself. A lot of our superheroes visit the mystic East and come back with special powers or magical gadgets. Dr. Strange gets his groove back in Nepal – or finds his groove, really. (speaking of Dr. Strange – I was actually happy that they cast Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One for exactly this reason – and also her androgyny and ageless appearance seemed to fit the character. But then I realized that it doesn’t change Asia being a magical location. Stephen Strange’s comment “when western medicine failed me I went east” – wtf does that mean? is that supposed to mean all of Asia is devoid of MRI machines and surgeons, do they just use acupuncture? anyway) Dr. Doom (my personal favorite) was mentored by a Tibetan monk. Batman is hanging out with Ra’s al Ghul in Bhutan (Ra’s al Ghul is himself Middle Eastern), because I guess there are no dojos in Gotham in which to learn ninja skills. The problem with this is that Asia is reduced to a place that white people visit to make them better. It’s the same way the magical Asian character functions – to benefit the white lead, or oppose him.

I could list a lot of examples of the magical asian stereotype, but I think we’re all familiar enough – and I think it’s more interesting to look at how this stereotype might be changing. There’s a website called and it might be my new favorite. Mallory Yu published an article ( about the asian characters (two east Asian, one south Asian) in Rogue One (maybe the greatest movie ever for smashing typecasting). Yu breaks down the three characters:

Chirrut – played by Donnie Yen

While we first see him in robes with a big stick, we’re anticipating more of the same stereotypical behavior. Yu points out that if he had been the only Asian character, this might have been the stereotypical case, but he’s not. He’s got a distinct, relevant backstory. He’s not an asshole, nor is he mystically wise. His wisdom and religious devotion stems from his sensitivity to the force, in a Yoda-ish way. Also, his excellent fighting skills are HIS. The other characters all have their own strengths, and we’re not subjected to a montage of Chirrut teaching Jyn the secrets of kung fu only to have her somehow surpass him in ability after ten days of training even though he’s studied for years but she’s white and on a quest so she must be special.

Baze Malbus – played by Jiang Wen

Baze turns the stereotypical Asian masculinity on it’s head. He’s not wearing a gi and doing roundhouse kicks – he’s more like Rambo. He’s got his gun, and nowhere do we see any martial arts coming from him. So maybe all Asian DON’T know karate! He rocks a beard, he’s gruff, and has that manly-man sense of humor. But he’s also got a fondness for Jyn, and in that we see a glimpse of his big heart – which we see a lot more of in a sadder scene later in the movie. (The internet is abuzz with speculations about Baze and Chirrut being a queer couple)

Bodhi Rook – played by Riz Ahmed

Bodhi is us. He’s terrified – he stood up for his principles and defected, but now he’s reeling from the consequences. He’s one of the first people to support Jyn, and we see romantic engagement between the two of them. One major trope is that the Asian guy hardly ever gets the girl, but Bodhi got the girl! Or she got him – I’m not really sure how that went. They could have turned him into the cowardly/incompetent sidekick that constantly needs rescuing, but he remained a vital member of the operation. He remained scared, but was never cowardly.

I think the most important thing Yu points out about Rogue One is that in a movie about hopeful rebellion, you have a leading cast of non-white men as the heroes – a woman, a Mexican, two East Asians, and a South Asian. And they’re all goddamn heroes – they’re the ones we’re rooting for.

(White men are fine guys, it’s just that … they’re everywhere. There’s all kinds of people out there, and while naysayers will say that political correctness is ruining this country – the media has an enormous influence on us. When we see the faces of our heroes changing and see every color and genital combination portrayed with all kinds of personalities and histories and dreams and goals – then we can start putting away our bullshit prejudices).

Back to the racist movie…

Favorite Quote: “I know, there’s a problem with your face.” – Jack Burton

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