Fu-Manchu: The Yellow Peril in the East End

Sax Rohmer - Fu Manchu The Mystery of Dr Fu-Manchu (1913) is an extraordinary racist thriller of white fear and desire. While knowing vaguely about the character of Fu-Manchu, I admit I had no idea quite what I was getting into.  It is a singular example of racist rhetoric, one that highlights the power and ancient knowledge of the ‘other’ rather than his stupidity or savage nature, a genius which puts the entire white empire at risk — I found its open racism and mad worldview shocking given its popularity — but I know I shouldn’t have.

It opens with a late night visit to Petrie by his friend Nayland Smith, just returned from Burma. Smith explains the reason for his return:

“A fiend who, unless my calculations are at fault is now in London, and who regularly wars with pleasant weapons of that kind. Petrie, I have traveled from Burma not in the interests of the British Government merely, but in the interests of the entire white race, and I honestly believe–though I pray I may be wrong–that its survival depends largely upon the success of my mission.”

Sentences like that are just a bit jaw-dropping. And his mission? To foil the evil Dr Fu-Manchu:

“There is little to fear until we arrive home,” he said calmly. “Afterwards there is much. To continue: This man, whether a fanatic or a duly appointed agent, is, unquestionably, the most malign and formidable personality existing in the known world today. He is a linguist who speaks with almost equal facility in any of the civilized languages, and in most of the barbaric. He is an adept in all the arts and sciences which a great university could teach him. He also is an adept in certain obscure arts and sciences which no university of to-day can teach. He has the brains of any three men of genius. Petrie, he is a mental giant.”

It gets sillier from there:

“But, Smith, this is almost incredible! What perverted genius controls this awful secret movement?”

“Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government–which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man.”

This explains American and British fears of the yellow peril better than anything else I have read, the crazed inversion of our own desires of empire and domination, our own motives forced upon others and thus excusing all of our cruelties:

“I have only the vaguest idea, Inspector; but he is no ordinary criminal. He is the greatest genius which the powers of evil have put on earth for centuries. He has the backing of a political group whose wealth is enormous, and his mission in Europe is to PAVE THE WAY! Do you follow me? He is the advance-agent of a movement so epoch-making that not one Britisher, and not one American, in fifty thousand has ever dreamed of it.”

It is described as inevitable struggle, a clash of opposites in East and West:

That I moved amid singular happenings, you, who have borne with me thus far, have learned, and that I witnessed many curious scenes; but of the many such scenes in that race-drama wherein Nayland Smith and Dr. Fu-Manchu played the leading parts…

They represent the polar opposites:

A breeze whispered through the leaves; a great wave of exotic perfume swept from the open window towards the curtained
doorway.

It was a breath of the East–that stretched out a yellow hand to the West. It was symbolic of the subtle, intangible power manifested in Dr. Fu-Manchu, as Nayland Smith–lean, agile, bronzed with the suns of Burma, was symbolic of the clean British efficiency which sought to combat the insidious enemy.

The subtle versus the efficient, the scented and floral versus the clean and manly. I could keep writing binaries, but they are devolving fast. Still, they are all here. At least there is enough of some version of respect here to make of this a titanic struggle:

The mere thought that our trifling error of judgment tonight in tarrying a moment too long might mean the victory of Fu-Manchu, might mean the turning of the balance which a wise providence had adjusted between the white and yellow races, was appalling.

Wise providence? English greed for opium and world domination more like. And still we project upon the ‘other’ in a struggle of good and evil in which the two may never cooperate or combine, only fight to the death:

East and West may not intermingle. As a student of world-policies, as a physician, I admitted, could not deny, that truth.

indexWow.

It is only in the bodies of women that there lies a chance of it, a hope of it, but one forbidden. There is certainly desire, but it is a fatal one:

“She is one of the finest weapons in the enemy’s armory, Petrie. But a woman is a two-edged sword, and treacherous. To our great good fortune, she has formed a sudden predilection, characteristically Oriental, for yourself. Oh, you may scoff, but it is evident. She was employed to get this letter placed in my hands. Give it to me.”

Women are used against white men, yet often backfires given women’s innate treachery — even if she loves Petrie now, she will not for long and he knows that she will betray him. But how tragic it will all become before that happens:

Many there are, I doubt not, who will regard the Eastern girl with horror. I ask their forgiveness in that I regarded her quite
differently. No man having seen her could have condemned her unheard. Many, having looked into her lovely eyes, had they found there what I found, must have forgiven her almost any crime.

That she valued human life but little was no matter for wonder. Her nationality–her history–furnished adequate excuse for an attitude not condonable in a European equally cultured.

But indeed let me confess that hers was a nature incomprehensible to me in some respects. The soul of Karamaneh was a closed book to my short-sighted Western eyes. But the body of Karamaneh was exquisite; her beauty of a kind that was a key to the most extravagant rhapsodies of Eastern poets. Her eyes held a challenge wholly Oriental in its appeal; her lips, even in repose, were a taunt. And, herein, East is West and West is East.

Wow again. I don’t even know what that means.

I think of all his cringing hateful infuriating sentences, those must be some of the worst.

But to return to the city, the geographies of race and crime…this struggle has been brought to London, where a small band of devoted servants shall fight on behalf of the white races:

To Smith and me, who knew something of the secret influences at work to overthrow the Indian Empire, to place, it might be, the whole of Europe and America beneath an Eastern rule, it seemed that a great yellow hand was stretched out over London. Doctor Fu-Manchu was a menace to the civilized world. Yet his very existence remained unsuspected by the millions whose fate he sought to command.

Within these racialised logics, there is really only one place where Fu Manchu could go to find his permanent base, the centre of his many operations — the exotic and exoticised East End. I mean, look at the assumptions of the working class docks, even without his presence:

The cabman she had directed to drive to the lower end of the Commercial Road, the neighborhood of the new docks, and the scene of one of our early adventures with Dr. Fu-Manchu. The mantle of dusk had closed about the squalid activity of the East End streets as we neared our destination. Aliens of every shade of color were about us now, emerging from burrow-like alleys into the glare of the lamps upon the main road. In the short space of the drive we had passed from the bright world of the West into the dubious underworld of the East.

Aliens, people of colour, burrows and underworlds. Where better for Fu-Manchu to camouflage himself? This is the secret London, the London sought by the slummers and the journalists, the wealthy come to gawk, to escape, to make themselves feel better through drugs or charity, to assuage desires and discover new ones, to shiver in their proximity to criminality. Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Burke, and Sax Rohmer among them.

It is a fact, singular, but true, that few Londoners know London. Under the guidance of my friend, Nayland Smith, I had learned, since his return from Burma, how there are haunts in the very heart of the metropolis whose existence is unsuspected by all but the few; places unknown even to the ubiquitous copy-hunting pressman.

It is so clear who Petrie (and Rohmer) understands by the term ‘Londoner’ — the working class, the poor and the non-white are forever excluded.

Curious too, that the East End should be the world of the docks, and that Fu-Manchu’s hideouts are always alongside the water, almost as shifting and treacherous in Petrie’s eyes as Karamaneh:

Ten minutes’ steady tramping brought us within sight of the Thames. Smith and I both had noticed how Fu-Manchu’s activities centered always about the London river. Undoubtedly it was his highway, his line of communication, along which he moved his mysterious forces. The opium den off Shadwell Highway, the mansion upstream, at that hour a smoldering shell; now the hulk lying off the marshes. Always he made his headquarters upon the river. It was significant; and even if to-night’s expedition should fail, this was a clew for our future guidance.

***

Another question often put to me was: Where did the Doctor hide during the time that he pursued his operations in London? This is more susceptible of explanation. For a time Nayland Smith supposed, as I did myself, that the opium den adjacent to the old Ratcliff Highway was the Chinaman’s base of operations; later we came to believe that the mansion near Windsor was his hiding-place, and later still, the hulk lying off the downstream flats. But I think I can state with confidence that the spot which he had chosen for his home was neither of these, but the East End riverside building which I was the first to enter.

I’m as fascinated by the shifting views of South London as I am by the East End and those are here too, here we have Brixton as a centre of suburban respectability:

“The address is No.–Cold Harbor Lane,” he reported. “I shall not be able to come along, but you can’t miss it; it’s close by the Brixton Police Station. There’s no family, fortunately; he was quite alone in the world. His case-book isn’t in the American desk, which you’ll find in his sitting-room; it’s in the cupboard in the corner–top shelf. Here are his keys, all intact. I think this is the cupboard key.”

There are other interesting things here and there, like in Conan Doyle you find the ubiquity and legality of cocaine, casual sentences like: “Sir Crichton was addicted to cocaine…” Then there are the similarities this bears to some of the Sherlock Holmes stories, the way this is a more noble version of the prurience and violence of the Chinatown of Limehouse Nights. It’s pretty distressing that these were best-selling novels, inspired numbers of films, have entered fully into popular British and American culture. More distressing to untangle how they have shaped it…

I am almost curious to read the latest reboot of the Fu-Manchu novels by William Patrick Maynard, written in the past few years. See how much this shit has changed.

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