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South Pacific -- Musical Orientalism

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If you want to see a fantastic overview of the struggle of Asian-Americans in film in the US, a struggle to be included, a struggle for a voice, a struggle for some truth, be sure to check out Hollywood Chinese, a recently released documentary directed by Arthur Dong. Coming out of the local theater showing of Hollywood Chinese, I found myself reflecting on the recent breathless reviews of the revival of South Pacific on the New York stage. Apparently, this Rodgers and Hammerstein 1949 musical is considered a bold stand against racism, something that we sorely need in our times. I beg to differ. The music is infectious, the dancing is superb, the story is compelling. But, come on, can't someone mention that South Pacific is a textbook example of Orientalism, that western mania for dominating the lives and dismissing the souls of those who are not white? What is most stunning is how this musical is greeted so uncritically, as if it could tell us something we desperately need to know in this era of globalization and imperial crisis.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of these scolds who think artworks should be suppressed or held back. Let's show them all, but then let's have a talk about them. I would not mind seeing a revival of The Jazz Singer, but I would be surprised to see it praised as a prescient cultural polemic against racism.

John Lahr of the New Yorker is taken with South Pacific as "daring discussion of cultural diversity: how people get lost and found in translation." Ben Brantley of the New York Times says it is "an overt plea for racial tolerance." And Lawrence Downes gets a New York Times opinion column to likewise declare that this musical was "daring then for its treatment of racism and interracial love."

Am I missing something here? I thought our discourse, even popular discussions in the newspaper, had gotten a little more sophisticated than this. The story, based on James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, is about an American base in the New Hebrides Islands (now Vanuatu) during the second World War. The real characters, the subject characters, are of course the Americans. The natives, who are overrun by the troops, are only props, exotic background roles in what Brooks Atkinson called "a strange corner of the world." Strange to the Americans, not to the people who live there.

Typical of the Orientalist narrative (as described so brilliantly by Edward Said in recent years, by Frantz Fanon before that) is the strange, exotic, "other" character of people who are not-white-Americans. For the colonial peoples are always the imperial male's fantasy of the perfect female, passive, receptive, intuitive, irrational, and in need of domination. The vision of the island of Bali Hai, similar to the magical land of Shangri-La in the British colonial imagination, possesses everything the westerner feels he is missing in our rationalistic, scientific culture: spirituality, sensuality, intuition, warmth, and caring. This is how the colonial lands are positioned as female, submissive female, in the western imagination.

We have Bloody Mary -- the stereotypical hustler, selling grass skirts, mysterious potions, and finally her own daughter. And then there is Liat, the teenage daughter who Mary pimps to the upstanding Lieutenant Joe Cable. What a lovely cross-cultural match. What a perfect bride. Indeed, Liat speaks not a word in the whole musical, only smiles and takes the Yankee to bed. She's underage; he's a pedophile What a fantasy of the white western male, the submissive, exoticized and eroticized Asian "girl" to, to what? Well, to screw of course. But here the authors turn on their liberal sympathy. She is not only for screwing but for helping Cable to get in touch with his gentle side, his body, his heart. Liat helps Joe feel "Younger than Springtime." Yes, she is a sensual prop and he is going through changes. He is the subject, she is the object.

The second plotline is similarly revealing. This time it is the sympathetic French colonial plantation owner, Emile de Becque, who is the father of mixed-race children, in love with feisty American Ensign Nellie Forbush -- memorably played by Mary Martin in the 1958 film version. This time the human being, the one learning something, is Forbush. Since de Becque has gone further than Cable and actually procreated with a Polynesian, Forbush must overcome her revulsion at such a breach. This is the furthest extent that her epiphany can go -- to tolerate these "others."

The timing of this revival is striking. Here we are, with America's greatest challenge in the global economy looming across the Pacific in the form of China, with a fear narrative about China, with everything Chinese being defined as toxic. And Broadway takes us to a tentative, patronizing, colonialist fantasy of exotic Asian islanders. Is this as far as we've come? The central liberal anthem, supposed to be a critique of racism, is "You've Got to be Taught." Lt. Cable's song suggests that racial hierarchies are mostly psychological attitudes that are reproduced and passed on through generations. This is a disappointment -- for our race system is much deeper than that. Nevertheless, it is an attempt at a liberal, "we could be better" ethic. But in the context of the patronizing, even rape-centered, narrative, it hardly represents an evolved consciousness.

But we can go a bit further, because the South Pacific phenomenon is fascinating and filled with insights. It is, of course, a fitting inheritor of the tradition of Asian fantasy stories and films in American culture. Check out the Oriental Tales comic books of the thirties, with the constant snarling, inscrutable male and the sexualized female. Look at the Charlie Chan movies as well as Fu Manchu. But of particular interest is the American fantasy about the Asians they encountered during and after World War II. Check out Teahouse of the August Moon (set in post war Okinawa), The World of Susie Wong (American artist falls in love with prostitute in Hong Kong), and Tai Pan (set in the 1840's) as other examples of this genre. Even in its more modern iteration, the western narrative has a difficult time breaking from this sexual fantasy, from a story which keeps the white man in the middle of things and the Asian woman on her back. One of the more touching recent Orientalist films (and novels) was Snow Falling on Cedars (1999). Yes, it all takes place in the US, in the Northwest. But the hero, the white guy Ishmael (again, the white guy is the subject), is deeply in love with Hatsue the Japanese American woman who is imprisoned during World War II in an internment camp. Ishmael's moment of epiphany (white guys always "learn something" from their Asian fantasy loves) is when he decides to give evidence which will keep her husband from going to prison for life. That's as far as his solidarity or insight can go.

Perhaps South Pacific, and Hammerstein's rendering of the tale, is more nuanced than the reviews. Like the famed Douglas Sirk and the noir films of the 50's, it manages to capture the anxiety Americans felt in the supposed afterglow of World War II. South Pacific, like these other films, had a complicated fence to straddle. On the one hand they want to cater to the white male fantasy -- especially with the tens of thousands of GI's who have encountered "bar girls" and other typical colonial sexual encounters during their tour. Then again, the musical must allow the American wives, whose husbands have come home presumably to set up a safe domesticity, to feel not threatened. Whatever happened in Asia was exciting, perhaps even enriching, but it will not infect the monogamous tranquility of post-war America. This is accomplished in South Pacific by killing off Lt. Cable. He dies heroically, though far off stage, so that he does not have to return to Liat and decide what the heck to do with her after the war. The French colonial de Becque survives, and Forbush can safely marry him. He is after all white -- though in possession of questionable offspring. While the ending is apparently neat and clean, one does not go away with a sense of a feel good tale -- in fact, there is a sense of dread.

So this is certainly a musical worth seeing (in its 1958 release, in the 2001 TV film, or on stage). The original film, made after a long Broadway run, has some fascinating elements. For instance, Juanita Hall, who played Bloody Mary, was actually an African-American actress. She found a good deal of work playing cross-over Asian roles, including in Flower Drum Song. There is nothing wrong with enjoying these productions for what they are, and aren't. But the politics they promote, and the collective white American subconscious they reveal, deserve some critical attention.

I am not advocating a policing of relationships and love. On the contrary. Love between all kinds of people, in all kinds of circumstances, is filled with chaos and is properly without rules. But just as South Pacific claims the mantle of anti-racism, we must certainly pay attention to the deeper cultural meanings of the entertainment. And again, be sure to also go see Hollywood Chinese.