By BILL WATANABE
“The Crimson Kimono” is the title of a B-movie made in 1959 by Hollywood director Sam Fuller, but it was a trailblazing effort to tell a story in an Asian American setting with Asian American actors.
It starred a young James Shigeta, who plays an LAPD cop. and his partner and best friend is another LAPD cop who is a Hollywood-handsome white guy played by Glenn Corbett. While trying to solve a murder mystery (which takes place during the Nisei Week festival in Little Tokyo), the two cops fall in love with a beautiful blonde involved in the case and in the surprise ending (spoiler alert), they not only solve the crime but the blonde falls for the JA guy!
At the end of the movie, they embrace and have an amorous kiss — perhaps the first on-screen romantic kiss between a white woman and an Asian American man!
Unfortunately, I did not know this movie existed until about ten years ago and by then I was already age 60 so it didn’t have any impact on my youthful developing years. I wish I had seen this movie when I was a teenager — when I could have imagined I could be like James Shigeta.
I grew up thinking that we Asian guys never got the beautiful blonde — at least not in the movies or in TV, nor in real life. As one who grew up during the 1950s, it was pretty clear that blonde babes were considered the high-water mark in terms of female beauty, and my youthful hormones were secretly lusting after anyone who looked like Marilyn Monroe or Kim Novak.
Needless to say, it was subconsciously frustrating for me to think that such women would never give an Asian guy a second look. It is a no-win situation of unrequited love or at least lust. Also frustrating was the sense that white guys liked Asian chicks and many girls seem to prefer them over the Asian guys.
American TV programs in the 1950s and ’60s rarely had Asian actors except for bit parts that portrayed no depth of character; there were certainly no heroic Asian males that I could relate to. It was great when Sulu played an integral and important part of the “Star Trek” crew (he was, after all, the helmsman for the flagship of the entire Federation fleet of starships), but even Sulu never got the girl while Captain Kirk could be seen in every episode with a girl in his arms — some with blue or green skin! Even Spock got the girl occasionally and he was a Vulcan who suppressed and didn’t like feelings and romance! (I apologize for my sexist language — but this is how I was back then!)
On the other hand, in another genre, I do remember watching Charlie Chan movies on TV back in the 1950s and enjoyed them. Charlie Chan was a Honolulu police detective who, like Sherlock Holmes, always solved the crime mystery through cunning and craft and saved the day for whoever was the hapless victim. Charlie also had kids who were very much second-generation Asian Americans — young, rambunctious, and speaking youthful, “cool” English. Even though I admired Charlie Chan, he was a rotund older father figure and not someone that a kid with pimples and sex drive could relate to as a real “man’s man.”
In the past few months I watched some Charlie Chan movies on YouTube and it struck me as rather amazing that even though the films were made in the 1930s and 1940s, Charlie Chan was universally respected and admired by everyone as someone who is capable, smart, and trustworthy. Even though the character was played by a white guy with slanted eyes held up by Scotch tape, I liked the fact that Charlie was the main character and held in high esteem.
I recently read a book about Charlie Chan (written by Yunte Huang) that states there was a real person named Chang Apana who was a Honolulu police detective in the early 1900s and supposedly was partly the inspiration for Charlie Chan. However, Chang Apana was a totally different persona from Charlie Chan in that Apana was like a Hawaiian cowboy who patrolled his Honolulu beat wearing a cowboy hat, carried a whip like Indiana Jones, and was absolutely fearless in fighting criminals face-to-face.
Now, why couldn’t they show that kind of man as Charlie Chan — someone an Asian kid growing up in white America could look up to? I am sure Chang Apana, if he were to portray Charlie Chan would always, in the end, not only solve the crime but also get the girl! What I would give to have seen a movie like that during my impressionable years!
Bill Watanabe writes from Silverlake near downtown Los Angeles and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.