UC Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal

A Premier Humanities Research Journal at the University of California, Berkeley

The Hero at the Heart of the Western: Warlock and Shanghai Noon

Esther Yu

This paper looks at the possibilities of minority representation in a traditionally white, male-dominated genre: the American Western. The Western provided formative approaches for American audiences to think about masculinity and the boundaries of both personal and national identity. In comparing the 2000 film Shanghai Noon to the revisionist Western novel Warlock, both of which are concerned with the process of “making” an American Western hero, this paper probes the potential connections between Hong Kong martial arts cinema, stardom, and the “all-American” genre of the Western. Through a focus on the physical body as virtuoso, it explores the ways in which revisionist Westerns like Shanghai Noon offer a way to “rewrite” the genre of the American West.

Of the genre fictions that have captivated American audiences, few carry more ruminations on the nature of American masculine identity than the Western, in both its literary and filmic forms. The Western boasts a pantheon of gritty, tough heroes contending with various iterations of the American frontier: the outer limit, the place where “America” as a concept might end, and the meeting point of potential savagery and some form of civilizing force—whether homesteading settlers, Lone Rangers, or the general flow of people and commerce from the East Coast to the West. No other genre grapples so explicitly with the meaning of American-ness and the sometimes literal, sometimes imaginative process of creating, unifying, penetrating, and pacifying a national landscape. A closer look at the evolution of the Western genre, then, tracks different ways of approaching American identity, specifically through a consideration of how one might constitute a “hero”—usually a hetero-normative white male whose actions are tied to and often representative of the Western’s broader themes and myth-making apparatus. What do deviations from a standard hero-making rhetoric highlight in the revisionist Westerns that lead up to the present day? In other words, what is a hero in a Western, how is he “made”, and what can he be?

In looking at the history of the geographical West and its relation to the Western genre, there are many avenues of historical “truth” that have been suppressed in conventional, non-revisionist Westerns—the voices of women, Native Americans, and other minorities outside the hegemony of the white male are seldom heard, for example, in the films and novels that make up the heyday of the thematically traditional Western. Among these hidden voices is the history of the Asian in the West. The railroads of the American West, which figure so prominently into the genre of the Western, were built in large part by thousands of Chinese laborers who shouldered many of the most dangerous and unpleasant tasks involved. The contributions of Chinese laborers to the opening of the American frontier are hardly, if ever, mentioned in Westerns, though “without their [that of the Chinese] manpower, which numbered some 12,000 workers [in California alone], the [Central Pacific] railroad that opened up the vast territory and wealth of the West to national development could not have been built for decades to come” (Chinn 3). Strangely enough, however, the cultural history of the Western as genre barely reflects their presence. Of course, this is not to claim that Westerns are obligated to represent Asian laborers simply because those laborers are there—there are a wide range of reasons why the traditional Western’s focus on the white male body (and occasionally, the white male in conjunction with or contrast to the Native American or Mexican body) excludes representations of Asians. These reasons are too numerous and complicated to explore deeply in this paper. Rather, this observation of an absence serves to highlight the intriguing nature of a text that does attempt to place a significant Asian character within the Western genre: the Hollywood film Shanghai Noon (2000), whose Chinese hero (Jackie Chan) proves himself an American hero as well. As scholar Richard Slotkin writes in his seminal work on the new historicist Western, “the narrative of the hero’s action exemplifies and tests the political and/or moral validity of a particular approach…The heroes of myth embody something like the full range of ideological contradictions around which the life of the culture revolves, and their adventures suggest the range of possible resolution that the culture’s lore provides” (Slotkin 14). Thus, looking at a story’s hero can be a way of clarifying the myth-making apparatus surrounding that hero, and what such an apparatus reveals about the narrative’s worldview. Werner Sollors writes that “investigations of motifs and themes…contribute to an understanding of the imaginative and symbolic structures that intensify (or, at times, generate) group consciousness among dominant as well as suppressed collectivities” (Sollors 303). In other words, if one can think about a literary genre as a form of “group consciousness” in Sollors’ words, then the thematic elements that generate a reader’s understanding of a Western hero clarify the preoccupations and focuses of the genre. This becomes especially important since for much of the 20th century this immensely popular genre influenced the way viewers and readers envisioned and idealized American masculinity. More specifically, the representation of Jackie Chan’s character as a possible hero in Shanghai Noon signals a way of imagining a postmodern space within the Western for the Asian body, one predicated on physicality and adaptability, in a genre that has typically excluded Asian representations.

Reading and Rewriting the Hero

Before turning to Shanghai Noon, however, it is helpful to look first to another revisionist Western that deals with the making of a Western hero—Oakley Hall’s novel Warlock (1958), which demonstrates one possible way of thinking about hero-making through myth, words, and action. Warlock is revisionist in that it privileges those who understand and manipulate the story from within—the ones who “read” situations and act according to a version of the genre’s expectations, rather than the gunfighter whose actions would, in a traditional Western, make up the material of the story itself. In doing so, Warlock anticipates and articulates the revisionist Western’s tendency to recoil from the traditional Western hero’s immersion in a world of physical violence. This complexity has allowed Warlock to stand out among the masses of Westerns written at the height of the genre’s popularity[1]

Thomas Pynchon writes in his review of the novel that

Before the agonized epic of Warlock is over with…the collective awareness that is [the town of] Warlock must face its own inescapable Horror: that what is called society, with its law and order, is as frail, as precarious, as flesh and can be snuffed out and assimilated back into the desert as easily as a corpse can. It is the deep sensitivity to abysses that makes Warlock one of our best American novels (Pynchon 164).

The abysses that Pynchon sees are part of what make Warlock more than just a story of good guys versus bad.

Warlock tells the story of the embattled town of Warlock, whose merchants band together to hire a famous gunman, Clay Blaisedell, as their marshal to protect them against a band of unsavory ranchers led by Abe McQuown. The story, however, paints more than a stereotypical two-sided portrait of morality, with Blaisedell on one side and McQuown on the other. Instead, the ostensible hero figure, Blaisedell, is complicated by the baggage he brings with him: his romantic attachment to a woman involved with labor disputes, his past with a shadowy double/best friend Tom Morgan, and his potential status as a pawn in the town’s understanding of heroic myth, signaled by other figures in the novel such as the merchant Henry Holmes Goodpasture, the writer Caleb Bane, and Blaisedell’s friend Morgan. These last three characters, in particular, focalize the way in which Hall draws attention to those who manipulate meaning rather than material—the myth-makers, in other words, rather than the man.

Tom Morgan, for example, as the ostensibly villainous figure and as Blaisedell’s double, proves far more interesting and important to the story than Clay Blaisedell himself. Morgan cannot shoot as fast as Blaisedell, nor can he boast of the same moral steadiness to which Blaisedell at first subscribes. But he is ultimately more important to the forward movement of the story because of his ability to “read” the situation—to anticipate what the citizens of Warlock want. These citizens are figured by the presence of the character Caleb Bane, a writer of Westerns, as potential readers of the genre themselves. Thus, within the novel, the citizens of the town gesture toward Oakley Hall’s own awareness of the genre’s perpetuation, and of the way in which Westerns continually look back upon themselves and upon the genre even as the genre develops forward in time. Each Western is indebted to and participates in a long history, both lived and written. Those characters who understand this concept take on a little of an author’s power since they, like Hall, evince an awareness of their participation within multiple levels of the story: the diegetic world and the legacy it will leave behind as a Western myth. As one of the men controlling the story, Morgan shifts closer to the center of the novel’s interest, becoming an alternative hero. At the climax of the novel, with Blaisedell’s reputation as a hero sinking into the dust, Morgan makes an effort to revive it and save his friend by telling Blaisedell, “A whole town full of clodhopping idiots aching for you to play the plaster hero for them one time again, and post out the Black Rattlesnake of Warlock. Which is me. And why not? It would have pleased every damned person I know of here except maybe you” (Hall 398).  By now, Morgan has realized that the role of hero will be a fatal one for Blaisedell—he will have to keep upholding his gunman’s reputation until someone bests him. Morgan proposes that they play to the town’s expectations for their own advantage. These expectations are, in some ways, literary ones as well, according to Morgan’s allusions to “playing” the hero as if on stage for their own advantage. Morgan’s authorship of this plan, combined with his own understanding of their respective roles (plaster hero and Black Rattlesnake) point to his ability to “read” and control the conventions of the drama in which they find themselves entangled. His friendship and love for Blaisedell moves the story forward—in this sense, Morgan becomes more of a hero. The novel’s ostensible hero, Clay Blaisedell, becomes an empty center since his perspective remains closed to the reader in a way that Morgan’s is not. In a climactic scene in which Morgan plays out his role as the villainous Black Rattlesnake so that Blaisedell can kill him and cement his own reputation, Hall writes “Come on, Clay; come on! I am sick to death of this game already! He [Morgan] walked on across Broadway, and saw Dawson jump back inside the door of the hotel. He saw Clay at the next corner” (Hall 444). This free indirect discourse is used in the chapters titled under Morgan’s name—Blaisedell is never revealed to the reader in a similar way. The slipperiness of the voices of author, narrator, and character in Morgan’s chapters thus points to a reading of the author/narrator as more sympathetic to someone like Morgan, also indicating that Morgan’s psychology seems more worthy of excavation and exposition than the blankness and silence of the “hero” Blaisedell. Thus, the character of Morgan demonstrates an internal awareness of the conventions of the Western: the need for a titled villain, the need for an act of spectacular violence to seal off a reputation for good, and the need for an audience to witness this violence. This awareness on the part of characters within the story itself draws parallels with the experience of reading or viewing a Western—an awareness that Morgan evinces but other characters, like Blaisedell, do not. An emphasis on Morgan, who interprets, reads, and plays off of the conventions of the Western, signals an alternative hero predicated on proper interpretation of the Western world.

Hall also privileges an unlikely character in the novel: the shopkeeper, Henry Holmes Goodpasture, whose journals provide the only instances of first-person narrative in the otherwise third-person-narrated novel, and therefore stand out as significant. In these journals, Goodpasture is offered as an imperfect stand-in for both the reader and the writer. As a retrospective framing device, the end of the novel reveals that Goodpasture has been compiling the long, complicated tale to satisfy the curiosity of his grandson—thus, Goodpasture is a chronicler of the West, not unlike a writer of Western novels. Goodpasture is also positioned as a reader, both through his interpretation and slightly-removed observation of the events going on around him and through his incongruous insertions of literary citation, as when he references Shakespeare’s King Henry VI (Hall 172). Goodpasture has clearly been reading beyond the scope of his fellow characters if he is able to summon a Shakespearean quotation in his journals. It is Goodpasture’s voice that seems to carry potential echoes of the author’s, and it is Goodpasture who offers a form of running commentary as the novel’s events unfold, as if telling a story. In his journals Goodpasture writes, “It is a strange experience to read an account such as this, where an occurrence one is closely acquainted with is transformed into something wild, woolly, and improbable, with only the names true, and not all of them by any means” (Hall 178). Though these come from Goodpasture’s pen and not Hall’s mouth, it is easy to see how this entanglement with the distortion of American history as it is shaped into the Western formula narrative might be on Hall’s mind as well. Goodpasture gets to have the last word on the characters in the novel, especially the ostensible hero Blaisedell: “What was he [Blaisedell]? I think in all honesty I must say I do not know, and if [emphasis in original] do not know in this late year of Our Lord, then I think no man can…Of course there have been many rumors [about Blaisedell’s disappearance], but never one to which I was able to give any credence” (Hall 470). Goodpasture’s position in the novel places him as the arbiter of the story’s potential future as both “fact” and “myth”. Though Goodpasture does not participate actively in the violent events of the novel, his privileged access to the narrative, coming in at both the novel’s very beginning and very end, places Warlock in a tradition of revisionist Westerns that subscribe to the belief that the pen might be mightier than the sword (or the six-gun).

This privileging of a story’s manipulation rather than its action becomes problematic, however, when considering the place of minorities in a genre like the Western. Though an emphasis on texts and social constructs, such as the one presented in Warlock, turns away from what some readers of Westerns have decried as excessive physical violence on the part of the hero, such an emphasis also shuts out those who have traditionally had less access to venues of participation in storytelling such as education or even, on a more basic level, familiarity with the tropes of the genre. This includes minorities such as Native Americans, women, and Asians, who have been erased or unfavorably portrayed in favor of a white male hegemony. In this case, a film like Shanghai Noon that has roots in what Linda Williams calls “a body genre” [2] offers a striking and paradoxical alternative to the scenario laid out in Warlock, which elevates talking/reading/writing characters like Morgan and Goodpasture rather than the swift-shooting Blaisedell. Shanghai Noon offers the fast-fisted, high-kicking Jackie Chan as its border-crossing hero, paradoxically de-emphasizing race through a portrayal of the body as virtuoso. In the world of Warlock, Jackie Chan would have no chance—his character comes directly from Imperial China, and would have no way of reading a situation the way Warlock‘s Morgan does, in terms of the Western genre’s conventions. Thus, although both Warlock and Shanghai Noon are revisionist texts, Shanghai Noon offers an interesting new take on the possibility of both turning away from and back toward the traditional Western hero’s physical prowess—in a way that does not, for example, visit violence on Native Americans or abuse minority labor in the world of the film.

The Physical: Position, Prowess, Race, and Language

Though it was made many decades after Oakley Hall wrote WarlockShanghai Noon is nevertheless in dialogue with a central theme of Hall’s novel: the process of making the Western hero. Hall puts forth this tenet through Goodpasture, who observes that “we are a race…of hero-worshipers in a society of mundane get-and-spend. It is a Country and a Time where any bank clerk or common laborer can become a famous outlaw, where an outlaw can in a very short time be sainted in song and story into a Robin Hood…” (Hall 154). While the Western arguably puts certain strict limits on the identities of its heroes (white, male, heterosexual), the hero’s identity is somewhat open in that it is often justified through martial prowess. A tough man, a fighter who can survive the harsh world of the Old West, does not need to be a gifted speaker, socially savvy, rich, or educated. Though the hero of the Western is often white, the factors that often justify his heroism can also ultimately be read as race-blind. Physical prowess, notably through violence, is not monopolized by whites in the way that other elements (education, notions of class and taste) might be. In addition, the Western’s long-running dialogue with Asian formula genres—most notably the kung-fu and samurai films—might be seen to lend the Western a certain openness in potential dealings with Asian figures who have “migrated” over from other genres, such as Jackie Chan [3].  Shanghai Noon takes advantage of the Western’s traditional emphasis on the physical and uses the element of martial ability to justify and delineate the Western hero’s identity, creating space for a premise in which a man can rise to be a hero through dint of his own hard work and outstanding physical/violent ability. Thus Shanghai Noon, like Warlock, belongs to a class of Westerns that operate while conscious of their own status as Westerns.

Shanghai Noon, the directorial debut of Tom Dey, blends the Western and kung-fu genres (with a little buddy-cop comedy thrown in) and stars Jackie Chan as Chinese Imperial Guardsman Chon Wang, who goes to America to rescue and ransom the captured Princess Pei-Pei (Lucy Liu). In America, he teams up with amateur outlaw Roy O’Bannon to journey across Nevada and defeat the evil Lo Feng, a Chinese “traitor” of unspecified past with a railroad concern that uses Chinese laborers. Its basic premise becomes more striking when considered next to Goodpasture’s suggestion in Warlock that anyone can be a hero, even a bank clerk, common laborer…or a former Imperial Guard. Through the creation of Jackie Chan’s character, Shanghai Noon pushes the limits of the Western hero’s identity, bringing in a figure from the far East—the polar opposite of the West. His success as a minority figure who appropriates the heroic conventions of the traditional Western protagonist paints a postmodern vision of the Western for a contemporary audience, one that looks beyond Warlock’s version of the white male gunfighter as hero and myth.

The movie opens in the year 1881, just one year later than the setting of Warlock. This year also marks the death of Billy the Kid (1881), a historical and quasi-mythical figure in American folklore who is echoed in Warlock through the character Billy Gannon (Hall 155) and in Chon Wang’s nickname, “The Shanghai Kid”. Placing the film’s events in relation to Billy the Kid’s death might even be read as a commentary on the progression of the imaginative West—for as Billy the Kid’s death signals the waning of the American West’s fascination as historical reality, space opens for an alternative imagining in the form of Hollywood’s own spin on history as fantasy. Thus, the setting and choice of year blur the line between what is imagined and what belongs to the American West’s historical and material truth, compressing history and historical revision within the space of a single, concrete year in time. This paradox in setting serves as a prelude to other paradoxes that Shanghai Noon offers in its appropriations, dexterous re-imaginings, and liberal citations of not only other Western films, but of the history of the public’s fascination with the genre and its central place in understanding “the West” as a space of identity even for those not physically located there. The film’s initial setting is not just 1881, however—it is also the Forbidden City, a site that simultaneously and paradoxically seems immediately recognizable and inaccessible.

Closed to foreigners for most of its existence, the images of the Forbidden City invoke a decadence and long history of advanced civilization that seem incompatible with the idea of the American West as frontier and shifting point of intersection between the advancement of civilization and the “savagery” of unsettled lands and unknown people (Native Americans). By opening in the Forbidden City, Shanghai Noon places itself in relation to films such as The Good Earth (1937) and even earlier predecessors such as the actuality films of the Edison Manufacturing Company and the Occidental and Oriental Steamship Company of the late 19th and early 20th centuries[4]. Such films that show shots of China (real or imagined), argues film scholar Jeanette Roan, provided a sort of virtual travel for American audiences of their time, providing a visually and technologically stunning way to access distant landscapes and imaginative spaces, particularly effective because these films were viewed as employing an “indexical” medium: a camera that seems to record objective truth (Roan 81). The opening scenes of the Forbidden City underscore the distance both literal and imaginative that will be crossed in the film [5].  The early shots of rows of Imperial Guardsmen (00:01:31, Shanghai Noon) show undifferentiated ranks that offer a sharp contrast to the Western hero’s individualism—the way in which Westerns often depict a lone ranger against the empty and unconquered wilderness. In fact, the first inkling the viewer gets that Chon might be a fitting Western hero comes early in the film, while he is still in China—he alone looks up as the princess passes, deviating from the actions of his fellow Imperial Guardsmen and marking himself as an individual (00:02:16, Shanghai Noon). The film contrasts the opening setting as distant from the American West, underscoring the specific difference between the venerable and ornate Forbidden City from its raw, burgeoning American counterpart, Carson City. This dichotomy serves to make the film’s ending, in which Jackie Chan’s character becomes a part of the American imaginative landscape, more striking.

Interestingly enough, this opening in far-off China and the film’s eventual placement of Jackie Chan’s character as a Western hero can also be read as subtly working against what Jeanette Roan describes as the common and lamentable trope of “the conception of a singular, unified U.S. nation [which] requires the repeated distancing of Asians as foreigners…[which] insists on the geographical imagination of Asia and America as separate and distinct entities” (Roan 6). Though the film does start out by offering China as a contrast to the West, it ends by showing the penetration of the American West by Princess Pei-Pei and Chon Wang. Both Pei Pei and Chon Wang choose to remain in America, the latter as an upholder of American law and peace. Both of the Chinese protagonists who remain behind, furthermore, represent different ways in which the reality of interconnectedness between Asia and the U.S. exists—Lucy Liu as an Asian-American star and Jackie Chan as an international one, both with cross-cultural appeal. Rather than succumbing to the notion of Asians as perpetually inassimilable foreigners, Shanghai Noon works to demonstrate the ways in which foreignness and autochthony become complicated and intertwined. Their original setting in China underscores the irony of potentially claiming perpetual foreignness, since both Pei Pei and Chon Wang not only physically come to the West, but shape and participate in the genre’s conventions within the film. Setting thus contains a great deal of meaning in Shanghai Noon, serving to simultaneously compress history and imagination and set up a distance between East and West that will eventually be traversed and figuratively shortened.

When Shanghai Noon swings its action from the Forbidden City to the American West, it does so with a flourish—a sweeping crane shot of a mountainous landscape accompanied with a shift in soundtrack that brings in guitar and harmonica (00:06:14, Shanghai Noon). It also introduces the character that at first glance might seem the likeliest candidate as a Western hero—the charming Roy O’Bannon, played by Owen Wilson. Head of an outlaw gang, the owner of a pair of ivory-handled six-shooters with his initials on them (not unlike the distinctive gold-handled guns of Warlock’s Marshal Clay Blaisedell), Roy O’Bannon fits the bill in terms of outward appearance. However, the film is quick to point out his major shortcoming, the thing that puts distance between him and traditional Western film heroes like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood: Roy talks too much. And the Western, as scholar Jane Tompkins writes, “is at heart antilanguage. Doing, not talking, is what it values” (Tompkins 50). She goes on to argue that “the [generic] cowboy hero’s taciturnity, like his awkward manners around women and inability to dance, is only superficially a flaw; actually, it’s proof of his manhood and trueheartedness. In Westerns, silence, sexual potency, and integrity go together” (Tompkins 54).

Warlock, though revisionist in major ways, retains this taciturnity for many of its protagonists—such as Deputy Gannon, a sexually awkward and generally silent figure who, though he may not be the fastest shooter, ultimately outstrips protagonist Blaisedell in terms of moral certainty and effectiveness as a deputy.  Gannon does not speak much, but he moves forward with his action doggedly, sticking to his moral convictions. By contrast, Shanghai Noon, reversing this trope, couples Roy O’Bannon’s ineptitude at all the trademark actions of the Western—robbing trains, gunfight dueling—with his torrent of speech. This move is closer to satire than outright condemnation, for O’Bannon is still one of the protagonists of this generally light-hearted film, but there is nevertheless the sense that the film gently pushes O’Bannon, the white male candidate for hero-status in the film, away from the legacy of taciturn cowboy heroes. It is Jackie Chan’s character Chon Wang who, when he comes upon Roy O’Bannon buried up to his head in the desert, tells him, “Don’t talk, just dig” (00:20:00, Shanghai Noon). This moment, which aligns Chon with Western heroes who spurn talking, also acknowledges the Western’s preoccupation with the dangerous possibility of death to be found in nature—the human body left vulnerable in the desert, where the silent conservation of bodily strength trumps useless speech. As Chon very sensibly warns Roy, talking wastes energy that would be better spent on action, especially when one is buried out in the desert with only buzzards and vultures for company.

Despite his garrulousness, Roy O’Bannon does, however, evince an awareness of the style and trappings that go along with being a Western hero. When he robs the train at the beginning, for example, he shouts “reach for the sky, ladies and gentlemen!”, a phrase that evokes decades of Western clichés, while his untutored and slightly unhinged partner in crime offers the un-gilded version: “I’ll blow your god-damned head off!” Immediately afterward, Roy whispers unhappily, “I like to be the one that talks, Wallace…” (00:08:16). Roy’s mannerisms seem to be learned. Like Goodpasture in Warlock, he is highly aware of who gets to be the controller of narrative flow, and why—but in Shanghai Noon this desire for control of words is painted as ineffectuality. In his aborted gunfight with Marshall Van Cleef (a nod to Lee Van Cleef, the villain in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly), Roy stalls by blathering, “I’m not gonna let you cheapen it! This is a duel…a sacred thing…” (01:00:46, Shanghai Noon). Sacred in what way, and to whom? A duel might be sacred to the participants; it is also, in a different sense, a sacred element in the litany of Western genre tropes. Of course, Roy is the one “cheapening” the duel with his stalling and stretching. His words play off of the deadly earnestness with which the gunfight duel’s bullets have been fired through the genre’s conventions.

If Roy is not quite a Western hero incarnate, then perhaps Chon might be a closer alternative. In contrast to his own garrulous nature, Roy observes of Chon in their first real moment alone together: “you’re a very silent man, aren’t you?” (00:40:50, Shanghai Noon). This is coupled with his earlier notes of admiration. “Man, you sure can fight”, Roy tells Chon as they sit locked together in a jail cell (00:40:20, Shanghai Noon). His admiration of Chon’s fighting skills marks a turning point in their relationship. At the saloon where Chon unexpectedly encounters Roy, the film gives us Roy as a spectator of Chon’s fighting skills. A close-up shot of Roy’s face shows the small flinches and jerks that accompany his spectatorship, which are reminiscent of the audience’s potential reactions to the physical combat (00:38:15, Shanghai Noon). As Linda Williams notes in her essay on body genres, films predicated on a focus on the physical body are often marked by “the perception that the body of the spectator is caught up in an almost involuntary mimicry of the emotion of sensation of the body on the screen” (Williams 4). Although Williams writes primarily of melodrama, horror, and pornography as body genres, martial arts films can certainly overlap with her criteria—especially when one considers the extra-diegetical fascination with the training and pain endured by stars such as Jackie Chan in making such films, along with the scenes of training from films such as Drunken Master or Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow which show the onscreen character suffering in extremis. Such suffering of the human body is also a preoccupation of the Western genre, which often features the male body in agonizing struggles against the cruelty of nature or the impossibility of recovering from wounds (take, for example, the enormously popular, Pulitzer-winning novel Lonesome Dove, in which a character undergoes a 100-mile walk, while naked, through the desert). This emphasis on physicality in Shanghai Noon, which owes debts to the kind of physicality emphasized in both Westerns and the martial arts films for which Jackie Chan is known, allows viewers to identify with the Chinese protagonist Chon Wang. In watching Roy watch Chon, the audience is reminded of its own position as spectator—and therefore aligned with Roy. As Roy’s animosity transforms into hushed admiration (“yes, yes”, he whispers), he comes closer to accepting Chon as a hero figure, rather than as an oddity in the Western landscape cut off from Roy because of a series of initial misunderstandings.

This moment is prefigured in a similar sequence earlier in the film, when Chon Wang fights six Native American warriors bare-handed to protect a young boy named Little Feather, earning the admiration of Little Feather’s tribe and the additional “reward” of a Native American wife. In this fight scene, shots of Little Feather hiding behind bushes and trees and watching the fight with admiration are intercut with shots showing Chon Wang/Jackie Chan in action as he uses trees and landscape elements in his fight (00:21:43-00:24:54, Shanghai Noon). The camera lingers lovingly on the action, and the film gives the audience a satisfying slow-motion shot of Jackie Chan round-house kicking his opponent in the face as they fight in the river, complete with a beautifully arcing spray of water and deep bass sound effects that mimic the accelerated heartbeat that accompanies a fight (00:22:55, Shanghai Noon). Fans of Jackie Chan’s films will recognize this sort of shot as part of a tradition described by film scholar Leon Hunt, who writes that “The Jackie Chan Stunt Team and the Sammo Hung unit are masters of what the language of Professional Wrestling calls ‘selling’— stylised, exaggerated responses to blows which ‘sell’ their power to the audience” (Hunt 40). Having Little Feather as a viewer of the powerful blow only serves to enhance the audience’s appreciation of the impact, as the audience is invited to ‘watch alongside’ the impressed Little Feather. Thus, the river fight scene anticipates the barroom brawl in giving the audience a stand-in viewer (Little Feather) and even picking up on the fighter’s (and perhaps the audience’s) physical sensations—accelerated heartbeats. Through this river fight scene and the barroom brawl that follows it, the characters Little Feather and Roy O’Bannon watch, admire, and come closer to accepting Chon Wang because of his physical skill and tenacity. Perhaps the audience comes closer (or goes all the way) to this acceptance of his character as well. Chon’s silence, and more importantly, his martial prowess, leads Roy especially to admire him, forging the base of their friendship. In crucial ways, the racial differences between the two of them are erased enough for the pair to move forward in their adventure together. In fact, Chon’s qualities of physical ability and taciturnity align him, rather than Roy, with the laconic and violent Western hero of Jane Tompkins’ formulation.

An even more exaggerated version of this juxtaposition between the power of words and the power of action to constitute a heroic protagonist comes from the figure of Chon’s Indian wife (Brandon Merrill), who remains nameless throughout the film. The daughter of an Indian chief, she becomes Chon’s wife after he singlehandedly defeats six Crow Indians, saving a young boy in her tribe. Throughout the movie, she is given less than three lines and does not travel alongside Chon and Roy, conveniently allowing them their male-bonding space. Yet it is she who steps in during major plot turning-points to save the duo—from rustling cattle and busting them out of jail (00:47:10, Shanghai Noon) to helping them narrowly escape a hanging (00:01:53, Shanghai Noon). The latter incident, in which Chon and Roy are about to be hanged by the corrupt, villainous Marshal Van Cleef, is particularly citational. The Indian wife sets her sights on the scaffold from afar and shoots Roy’s noose off at the decisive moment so that the three of them can make their getaway. For Western fans, this moment cannot fail to recall the tactics of Blondie from the classic spaghetti western, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. In this set-up, the Indian wife is aligned with Clint Eastwood’s male Western hero. Taken together, she and Jackie Chan’s Chon Wang offer an unexpected alternative to traditional Western representations of the hero, undercutting the blond, white, male Roy O’Bannon in favor of a Chinese or Native-American minority.

In fact, a closer look at the film’s representation of its white male protagonist reveals a surprising twist: Roy’s last name, O’Bannon, clearly marks him as Irish, and the Irish in 19th century America were hardly considered “white” in the sense of power and dominant culture. As scholar on Irish-America Lawrence J. McCaffrey notes, “the [Irish] Famine also created the northern United States’ first major ethnic problem” (McCaffrey 78). He goes on to remark that “to be called ‘Irish’ [in the 19th century] was not much better than to be called ‘nigger’: racist descriptions of the 19th century Irish ghetto anticipated those of today’s black ghetto” (McCaffrey 80). A cartoon from the August 1881 issue of The London Serio-Comic Journal shows a buffoonish man in a cage with the label “Irish in the United States”, depicting Irish immigrants as subhuman in the eyes of both sides of the Atlantic. Thus, the Irish who lived in America at the time of the film’s setting, 1881, were not privileged white Anglo-Americans, but part of a racial minority, denigrated by the dominant vein of racial thinking.

In this light, Shanghai Noon astonishingly goes a step further than simply undercutting Roy O’Bannon in favor of the Chinese Chon Wang. The film in fact offers its viewers a Western landscape with no white male protagonists, suggesting perhaps that every character in the world of the Western—the archetypal “American” imaginative landscape—is a transplant, an immigrant, a “minority” of some kind. Whether the hint at Roy’s Irish identity was a deliberate choice, or a happy accident, it nonetheless powerfully suggests an alternate vision for the racial landscape of the American West. Roy’s non-white status might not seem immediately obvious to modern viewers of the film, who might not be familiar with the particular history of the Irish as a pariah racial minority. Upon reflection, however, this invisibility serves as a reminder of how the line between nonwhite and white (in the sense of power of privilege, rather than mere skin-tone) can be written and rewritten through history.

Though the film can be read as lacking the traditional dominant white male protagonist, it does not, however, present the landscape of the Western as one of fragmentation and cultural isolation. Rather, the two major “minorities” visible in the film, Chinese and Native-American, are brought together again in the resolution of the mission fight. This fight scene, in which Chon and Roy have just defeated the villainous Marshal Van Cleef and Lo Feng and now must face Roy’s old gang of betrayers, cites the ending mission fight in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, in which Butch and Sundance run out to their certain death against impossible odds. In Shanghai Noon, the ending of the climactic scene in the mission brings out the Indian tribe of Chon Wang’s wife once more, as the saviors of the heroic duo when confronted with Roy’s original posse. This is a rousing vision of minority solidarity, made explicit through the moment at which Roy panics: “Indians!” he shouts. “No, my family!” Chon hastily corrects him (01:40:46, Shanghai Noon). The next scenes, depicting a happy celebration back at Lo Feng’s former railroad yard, show Chon and Princess Pei-Pei paired off and exchanging sly glances, while Roy and Chon’s Indian wife flirt. The Indian wife surprises the audience (and Roy) by suddenly speaking in perfect English to say, “Shut up Roy, you talk too much” before kissing him (01:41:38, Shanghai Noon). Here again, her actions, rather than Roy’s wordy attempts at seduction, move their flirtation forward. Perhaps, the film hints, Hollywood and fictional representations within the Western genre can show us a way of joining these races (“white”, Chinese, Native-American) in a harmonious resolution of male-male, male-female bonds, even if such an ending would have been rare, if not impossible, in reality.

Bridging Spaces: Jackie Chan’s Stardom

Within its tidy ending, the film also exudes a sense of poignancy, as if to acknowledge that the briefness of the space it has created for a postmodern vision of Western heroism is not quite sustainable in the face of the relentless onslaught of historical reality. This acknowledgement does not, however, negate the power of Shanghai Noon’s images themselves, since merely depicting an Asian protagonist within the seemingly incongruous setting of the American West is a powerful step in the right direction. Audiences taking in the film’s premise leave with a new twist on historical possibility in mind, one that has even more important reverberations within present-day perceptions. Historical realism is rarely quite the point of a Hollywood production like Shanghai Noon and of course, the film exists not merely as an intrinsic diegetic world of its own but also within the extrinsic world of cinema culture, production, and stardom. In this sense, no matter how amusing and empowering the fantasies (the Chinese immigrant as American lawman in 1881, for example) created by Shanghai Noon are, these fantasies never escape both an awareness of their historical alternate realities (the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the continued racial discrimination of the American law system against Asian immigrants) and their modern-day filmic environment (Hollywood). The ease with which the character Chon Wang slips into the world of the American West reads more like a commentary on Jackie Chan’s star persona—the making of the Hong Kong action star hero—than on the historical possibilities open to a Chinese immigrant to the West.

Thus, an awareness of Chan’s status as an international celebrity and someone who successfully navigates various cultures and cultural identities looms large in a consideration of the film’s production history and reception, especially when considered alongside the film’s depiction of his character’s trajectory from foreigner to “American” hero. Few Asian stars (or perhaps none) are as well known and widely beloved as Jackie Chan [6], and few have worked for so long in so many different capacities within the worlds of both Hong Kong and Hollywood cinema. Shanghai Noon clearly works in tandem with the audience’s awareness of Chan as an actor by citational moments, such as the “training” he goes through to become a Western “cowboy” (00:51:16, Shanghai Noon). These training sequences recall the famous moments in Chan’s kung-fu films, particularly the cult classic Drunken Master, while also turning them on their head, since O’Bannon, the ostensible teacher, proves laughably unskilled and outmatched by Chon Wang’s Indian Wife. The ease with which Chan’s character Chon Wang mingles with his wife’s Indian tribe (including a great scene in which the Indian greeting “how” and the Chinese word “hao” [good] become fluid, 00:29:20) is also a reflection of the relative ease with which the real-life Chan was able to navigate the dual (perhaps tripartite, if one includes mainland China) pop-cultural worlds of Hong Kong and the United States to become a star in each.

The success of Jackie Chan’s character in assuming the mantle of the Western hero—becoming a sheriff at the end of the film, best friends with all-American Owen Wilson—depends in large part upon the success of Chan himself as an actor and star in “crossing over” into the Hollywood/American market from his base in Hong Kong. The general trajectory of the film—that of a talented foreigner coming to America from China and finding both eventual acceptance and even a sort of “homecoming”—interestingly mirrors Chan’s own career. A closer examination of these parallel trajectories also reveals the ways in which the film is grounded in, and made possible by, a history of cultural exchange between Hong Kong and Hollywood—or, more broadly, between East and West, as Shanghai Noon itself might put it. The production history of the film itself offers a richly textured way to approach the process of cultural exchange in a more specific and detailed context.

Shanghai Noon does not pretend to high-art aspirations, and can be safely called a popcorn film, an endeavor that was not made to garner an Oscar. Despite this acknowledgement of its popular, rather than high-art, appeal, Shanghai Noon was generally considered a surprisingly pleasant box office success, drawing a high rating on the review-aggregating website Rottentomatoes.com and earning a worldwide gross of $99,274,467 (imdb.com, “Shanghai Noon”). Famed movie critic Roger Ebert writes of the film: “Jackie Chan’s new action comedy [Shanghai Noon] is a wink at Westerns, martial arts, and buddy movies…[Owen Wilson provides] cover for Chan’s shaky English, which is no problem because his [Chan’s] martial arts scenes are poetic” (rogerebert.com, “Shanghai Noon”). Touching on the potential for such a mash-up’s failure, Ebert goes on to note that “material like this can be very bad. Here it is sort of wonderful, because of a light touch by director Tom Dey, who finds room both for Chan’s effortless charm and for a droll performance by Wilson” (rogerebert.com). Through such reviews and the well-known emphasis on Jackie Chan’s practice of doing his own stunts, what emerges is a sense that the characters within the film parallel the personas or star personalities of the actors themselves, in real-life. The foreign, generally naïve character Chon Wang serves as an analog for the audience’s understanding of Jackie Chan, just as Wilson’s perceived real-life boyish charm and light humor contribute to an understanding of his character Roy O’Bannon. Though it is impossible to determine just how closely the characters and actors mirror each other “in real life”, for Hollywood personalities are seldom without filters or skewed perspectives, there is nevertheless the sense that the film’s success rests on an understanding of the actors themselves, as the audiences bring to the theater certain preconceived notions about each actor or actress in a way that colors the audience’s reception of the film.

Thus, it becomes clear that the perception of a film is influenced by many factors beyond the world of its storyline, including the audience’s prior knowledge of the actors involved, the marketing and promotion of the film, its relation to other films both preceding and contemporaneous, and its place relative to its genre. The possibility of producing Shanghai Noon, and that process itself, were particularly influenced by these factors—especially because the film marketed itself as doing something that had never been done before: combining a Chinese actor and stunt crew with an all-American genre [7].  As becomes clear from the slew of interviews and marketing materials attached to Shanghai Noon, Jackie Chan was almost disproportionately involved with many of the film’s production aspects. It is hard to imagine such a film getting green-lighted and being successful at the box office with just any Asian actor—at this point in time (and still today), Jackie Chan was far more famous than any of his co-stars, and certainly better known than Shanghai Noon’s director. Owen Wilson was somewhat known for the Wes Anderson film Bottle Rocket, and Lucy Liu was still mostly an unknown (Charlie’s Angels and her memorable turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1 would follow after Shanghai Noon). Neither had anything approaching the international star status of Chan, already beloved in Asia and in some American film-going circles for his cult-classic martial arts films such as Drunken Master, and known in the United States for his popular partnership with Chris Tucker, Rush Hour.  A series of interviews in a “making-of” featurette on Shanghai Noon proves particularly revealing of Chan’s status and involvement with the project (Dey, Chan, Wilson). At one point, the featurette splices together interviews with Chan and director Tom Dey to artificially create a dialogue about the green-lighting process of the film:

Chan (with set in background): “When I was young I just loved Westerns…the project [was] always on my mind for like, more than, like fifteen or twenty years…” (cut to Dey)

Dey (with computer, perhaps editing room in the background): “So he went to the producer of Rush Hour, Roger Birnbaum” (cut to Chan)

Chan: “Said, sit down!” (cut to Dey)

Dey: “And he pitched this idea to him” (cut to Chan)

Chan: “I just roughly to tell about my idea [sic]” (cut to Dey)

Dey: “And Roger said, this is a great idea” (cut to Chan)

Chan: “Just say, yes, we like it!” (cut to Dey)

Dey: “Roger went out and hired two writers, Al Gough and Miles Millar…” (cut to Chan)

This short excerpt reveals the seemingly simple and straightforward way that a star like Chan was able to push forward his idea and make it happen, especially according to Dey’s statement that the producer went out and hired two writers, as if to imply that it happened extremely casually. However, Chan’s first statement that the project was on his mind for years belies the seeming ease with which such a film could come about—the film was dependent upon relationships that Chan had been able to forge prior to its development, drawing in particular on the success of his films from the Rush Hour franchise for leverage. Thus, the making of Shanghai Noon is also a look at the making of Jackie Chan as a star in the United States—both foreigner (because his two famous buddy-genre franchises showcase roles that often emphasize this trait at the beginning) and beloved of America (if not quite American). As film scholar Mary Farquhar writes, stars and the characters they portray “share a common identity as ‘the primary figure of the individual who centers and makes sense of the narrative’ and star image as a referent within and beyond the text” (Farquhar 182). And as Dey explains in the “making-of” featurette attached to the film, “With Shanghai Noon, I wanted to take my favorite scenes from all my favorite Westerns, and all the cliches, and put Jackie Chan in the middle of these classic scenes” (Dey, Chan, Wilson). From this statement, it becomes obvious that the director sees the character Chon Wang and the actor Jackie Chan as interchangeable—it is, in fact, Jackie Chan and not his character that the director thinks of “putting into” classic Western tropes. In a similar sense, film scholar David Bordwell describes Chan’s work as inhabiting a process in which “star and character fold together; the hero’s indefatigable dedication to his goal becomes the performer’s dedication to entertaining his audience, especially in the face of death” (Bordwell 59). Thus, a look at Shanghai Noon’s attempt to portray the process by which a fictional, historical parallel to Jackie Chan becomes a Western hero (in the sense of the Western genre) necessarily invites a consideration of the parallel ways in which the real-life Jackie Chan is configured as a transnational “hero” or star.

The adaptability of Chan’s character in the film can be seen in relation to Chan’s own ability to adapt, whether to the needs of making films in other cultures or to the multiple movie-related roles which he has occupied since his very early career in the Hong Kong movie industry. Chan is famous for doing his own stunt-work and for creating appeal across cultural borders with relative ease—from the way in which he acquired his nickname “Jackie” (as a young construction worker in Australia) to his parents’ connections to French diplomacy work, to, of course, his fame worldwide (Farquhar 183). The creation of this appeal rests partly on the deliberate way Chan makes himself immediately accessible to his fans, especially through television appearances. Whether on American shows like Late Night with Jay Leno and Ellen, or in his appearances on German, French, and Middle Eastern television shows, Chan details his own stunt work, tells his life story, and offers funny anecdotes about his films behind-the-scenes. His website and his autobiography, as well as the blooper reels attached to the end of most of his films, add to a sense of audience connection—especially when that connection rests on physical comedy and his suffering stuntman body, rather than culturally-specific jokes.  As Farquhar notes in her examination of Jackie Chan’s 1998 autobiography I am Jackie Chan, “geography is essential to his star image” (Farquhar 183).  The broad geographical reach of Chan’s stardom is perhaps indicative of a greater permeability of cultural boundaries, especially for Hong Kong action stars whose work became integral to huge Hollywood productions like The Matrix, on which famed Hong Kong action choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, who also collaborated on many iconic Jackie Chan films, worked. And Chan’s international fame also allows him to physically bring with him vestiges of the culture within which he trained and grew up—that of punishing, physically rigorous opera training and early Hong Kong cinema stunt work. More than any other “foreign” star working in Hollywood, “Chan’s box-office strength [across the world, not just in Hollywood] enabled him to insist on a high level of production design, shooting, and special effects” in all of his films (Bordwell 59). Although Chan exercised less control over Shanghai Noon than he might have over a Hong Kong production under his name, his flexibility in having worked many different film-related roles (stuntman, stunt coordinator, director, producer, etc.) allowed him to assume a great deal of control, just as Tom Dey notes that Owen Wilson’s previous experience as a screenwriter for Bottle Rocket allowed Wilson greater flexibility in adapting his character’s lines. Indeed, Jackie Chan’s role even within the relatively short “making-of” featurette is indicative of his degree of control over the film, since he is given equal screen-time in the featurette as director Tom Dey. This also speaks to an audience’s potential fascination with Chan’s public persona, and the kind of access that modern stardom affords the avid fan. The second half of the featurette reveals a glimpse of the collaborative nature of the film. Dey says:

On set we’d say, ok, are we in Hong Kong mode? Or are we in Hollywood mode? Hong Kong mode is, you do a take and it only lasts about three seconds at most. And you do that over and over again until Jackie and his stuntmen are satisfied that the angle is correct, or that the hit looks realistic…he [Chan] has so much expertise that I would be an idiot not to, not to look to him, really, to make these fights look terrific”. (Dey, Chan, Wilson)

Toggling between these two modes seems integral to the success of the film’s crucial action sequences. Dey speaks of “Jackie and his stuntmen” being satisfied, rather than the American directorial team. In this sense, Shanghai Noon seems like a true collaborative effort, each side drawing on the strengths of the other. Thus, Jackie Chan brings to a modern American film the physical traces of Hong Kong and his globe-hopping experiences, both through his physicality on-screen and through his work with his stunt team, many of them members who had worked together for years in Hong Kong and had formed a tightly cohesive unit. Chan’s past and his participation in a history of cultural exchange comes in not only on a discursive, imagined level—working with the audience’s prior knowledge of his stardom but in a physical way—on the level of the film’s production. For audiences, an awareness of these processes comes through in marketing materials and through the inclusion of blooper reels (which have become a beloved feature of most Jackie Chan films) that offer glimpses of the filming processes and emphasize those cringe-worthy, funny moments in which stunt-work goes wrong and endangers Chan.

This insistence on the authenticity of Chan’s physicality (if not the combat itself, then the danger of pain and injury that accompanies it) comes up again and again in any discussion of Jackie Chan and is a major part of his autobiography, in which he provides a rather gruesome list of the many, many injuries sustained throughout his long career. As Tom Dey explains in the featurette, perhaps to those American audience members who do not already know, “Jackie is very inventive physically…he works in the spirit of Buster Keaton or Chaplin…He has an incredible amount of concentration…Jackie likes to say, ‘I do all my own stunts’, and the fact is that he’s one of the last guys around who actually does do all of his own fighting” (Chan, Dey, Wilson). With this insistence on his authentic suffering, Jackie Chan the actor, not just Chon Wang the character, becomes aligned with a tradition among the non-revisionist white male Western hero of not shirking hard labor or physical pain. As Tompkins notes in a phrase that echoes the often-rehearsed narratives of Chan’s (and other martial artists’) extensive training and suffering, “the [Western] hero suffers, makes himself suffer, causes suffering in others because that is what he has been trained to do” (Tompkins 122). This notion of ever-present suffering—physical hardship as an unavoidable and even laudable part of the cowboy or ranger’s life—runs parallel to the sense of authentic pain and bodily peril that permeates Jackie Chan’s work in particular. Furthermore, the increasing sense that the now-aging Chan is part of a “dying breed” of more “authentic” martial arts stars (those with more rigorous training, including Jet Li, who rarely rely heavily on wirework and special effects) carries with it an echo of the Western’s approach to its own impending fade-away—for the heyday of the literary and filmic Western came at a time when much of the historical reality of the unconquered West had already past. Of this, notes Tompkins, “the [Western] movie catches the audience in an emotional double bind, filling us with longing for a mode of life that it then declares extinct before our very eyes” (Tompkins 103). This “double bind” can be applied to an audience’s relationship to and fascination with Chan’s suffering body—the pleasure of watching Chan in particular comes partly from his insistence on authentic effort, and therefore authentic suffering, but the sort of suffering on which this internationally beloved action star has built his career also heralds and hastens the outer limit and impending end of what his aging body can bring to the screen.

The Western: Revision and Postmodern Fantasy

Thus, Shanghai Noon seems indelibly tied to the particular brand of stardom enjoyed and carefully cultivated by the transnational film persona Jackie Chan, embodied in his physical skill and insistence on an authentic presentation of bodily suffering. Through his presence, Shanghai Noon can be seen as part of a larger process of cultural exchange which allows for the probing, stretching, and combination of genres and filmic approaches. As film scholar Kin-Yan Szeto argues, “the Hong Kong/Hollywood interaction occurs not only on the technical or stylistic level but also, and more important, sociopolitically and culturally in the films and with their filmmakers…[pleasure comes] from the foregrounding of the hero/heroine’s body with the ability to wield power of liberation and overcome social and political oppression” (Szeto 17). Shanghai Noon’s presentation of race within a “traditional” Western landscape—replete with saloons, Native Americans, and in-the-nick-of-time rescues from hangings—offers a powerful and decidedly postmodern vision. Race is paradoxically de-emphasized (though the body has often served as the site of racial discrimination, and the visual ledger on which racial inequality is written) through an emphasis on the skilled physical body, which allows its non-white protagonists to participate and “prove” their right to participation. It would be a mistake, however, to describe the film as a watershed moment in America’s cultural acceptance of all Asians as participants in a nation-building narrative. Rather, the film limits the avenues of participation open to minorities, thus complicating an otherwise potentially pure (and naïve) fantasy of multicultural harmony.

These limits are also applicable to the central figure of Chon Wang/Jackie Chan, to a certain extent. It would be difficult to argue that Shanghai Noon, for all of its allowances and the central position it gives to Chon Wang/Jackie Chan, gives him an entirely free rein. An element of Jackie Chan’s ability to enter the world of the American West (and Hollywood in general, perhaps) rests on his image as a sexually non-threatening figure. This asexuality, figured as a kind of good-natured innocence, comes through in the accidental nature of Chon’s “marriage” to the Indian Wife, the ease with which that marriage is dissolved (Chon watches her kiss Roy at the end of the film with no objection) and especially through the framing and overhanging presence of Chon’s fascination with “The Princess and the Frog”, a chaste fairy tale that is Princess Pei Pei’s favorite story. Of the films in Jackie Chan’s extensive filmography, few (if any) feature him in an explicitly romantic role—the films that do, such as the 1999 film Gorgeous, portray him as a love interest who never crosses into an on-screen sexual realm (his one kiss scene with the female lead was cut, since producers feared it would displease audiences to see Chan in a sexual light). In this regard, he joins the ranks of other martial arts stars whose masculinity traditionally resided in their physical power through combat, not through their conquest of the opposite sex. Film scholar Yvonne Tasker notes that, especially with regard to Western productions, “one of the most enduring Western stereotypes of the East is as a site of a[n]…asexual knowledge”, knowledge that is commonly figured as martial skill or sagacity related to physical endeavor (Tasker 328). The potential of Jackie Chan’s aggression, then, is presented in a “safe”, sanctioned sense—he is there to defeat obvious villains without threatening to overturn sexual mores. In this light, the asexuality of his character reflects the reality of the audience’s perception of an Asian male film star. In a sense, this perceived lack of sexuality on Chan’s part [8] then allows him to step fully into the story without being a sexual threat to the other (white) male characters, thus allaying a lingering sense of potential audience discomfort. The potential for this discomfort becomes plain when one considers how few American films, if any, feature an Asian male triumphing over his non-Asian romantic rival (and, by contrast, how many films feature an off-hand Asian “small-penis” joke [9]).  Instead, Shanghai Noon skirts this discomfort by offering a male hero who uses other ways to enter the American world, ways that happen to align with Tompkins’ formulation of the traditional taciturn, sexually awkward (white) male Western hero. The limits on Chon Wang’s sexual forays thus reflect one sense in which Shanghai Noon is unable to fully transgress historical norms—when Jackie Chan is paired with a sexual partner, it is the otherwise unnamed Indian Wife (or, it is hinted, Princess Pei Pei), rather than a white woman—perhaps referencing or hinting at the anti-miscegenation laws and views that held sway over American culture for decades, and further reflecting a “safer” way to incorporate an Asian body into an American story.

Further limitations on the productive power of this Hollywood fantasy become clear when one returns to the question of Asian labor—not the spectacular combat labor performed by a powerful star like Jackie Chan, but the background labor on which the film’s villainy ostensibly rests: the exploitation of Chinese laborers in service of railroad construction. As Gunther Barth writes on the coming of Chinese sojourner railroad-workers, “characterized in terms not of liberty but of survival, a Chinese California emerged, isolated from, yet part of, Western development” (Barth 63). In a parallel sense, this idea of simultaneous existence and separation comes to the fore in a consideration of the place, or lack thereof, of Chinese stories, voices, and representations in a genre deeply intertwined with and dependent upon the very technology that the Chinese built. Despite their physical presence in the historical Western landscape by which so many literary and filmic Westerns are inspired, and despite their importance to the railroad technology that in so many ways epitomized the concept of the Western (forward movement, mobility, exploration, and penetration into a barely ‘civilized’ frontier), representations of Chinese are absent from the stories of the West.

If Shanghai Noon offers an answer to this absence, and to Warlock’s contention that anyone can be a hero in the West, in the figure of Chon Wang/Jackie Chan, it is a partial one. In fact, the racial representations in Shanghai Noon are decidedly classed ones, with the Imperial Princess Pei-Pei and the nephew of a high-ranking official (Chon Wang) as the main Asian figures. The main railroad worker with whom Princess Pei Pei interacts while being held for ransom in Nevada is presented as a hunched old Chinese woman (who, inexplicably, speaks in accented English to Pei Pei, even though the film shows Pei Pei and Chon Wang interacting in Chinese earlier in the film) (01:02:59, Shanghai Noon). This choice of an aged female worker as representative of the railroad workers seems odd, and perhaps at odds with the historical reality—it seems unlikely that an old Chinese woman would risk the journey, let alone find the financial backing necessary to come to the US. Her age and the physical infirmity implied by the film would make her an unsound labor investment, especially for such dangerous and back-breaking work as carving a railroad through the unforgiving landscape of the American West. Clearly, Shanghai Noon relegates the stories of these laborers to the background, and is less concerned with presenting an unflinching account of their reality than in emphasizing and underscoring the physical frailty, hardship, and unfairness of railroad-working life by placing the burden of this representation on the shoulders of an old woman. While the mere fact that these workers receive some screen time already places Shanghai Noon in a league of its own with regard to Westerns’ representations of Chinese workers, the fact remains that its focus parallels the reality of making a film in Hollywood—only high-octane, well-known stars like Jackie Chan, it seems, can be bankable protagonists, and only in a way that highlights the dynamism and power of his fighting—that which already sets him apart from the more humdrum lives of the actual Chinese workers in the historical West. For Shanghai Noon operates as a fantasy that highlights the power of Hollywood to bring together far-flung stars and genres, and thus a focus on the backbreaking labor of a Chinese railroad worker might be at odds with the generally lighthearted and triumphant tone of the film. Its approach to the revision of the West as skill-based fantasy seems to necessarily preclude any discussion of the more bitter reality faced by the downtrodden and exploited lower laboring classes.

Within Shanghai Noon, the overhanging presence of the fairytale “The Princess and the Frog” frames and indicates the film’s awareness of its own role as part-fantasy. Upon his arrival to America, Chon Wang is shown sitting on a train and reading Princess Pei-Pei’s copy of “The Princess and the Frog”, repeating the phrase “happily ever after” (00:08:01, Shanghai Noon). There is, of course, the parallel with his own life—he eventually enables the Princess to choose to remain in America, where she says vaguely that she will be able to do more for the people there (meaning, perhaps, the Chinese laborers that are always shown in the background of the film). When she kisses him on the cheek near the end of the film, she repeats a line from the story: “That which you have promised, you must perform” (01:39:11, Shanghai Noon). On the one hand, in this pairing Chon Wang becomes the frog, a prince-in-disguise, whose life will magically improve after a Princess’ kiss. On the other hand, the inclusion of the story in the plot of the film is a nod toward the fairy-tale quality, and therefore the unreality, of Chon Wang’s character arc.

The film comes full circle, ending with the same kind of shot that opened the section set in the American West: a train. Of course, the question of the representation of Chinese labor within a Western is not fully resolved through Shanghai Noon. The laborers working on the railroad under the villain Lo Feng are background characters at best, with no real ties to the adventures of the exceptional Jackie Chan/Chon Wang figure. Chon Wang is marked by his friendship with the white Roy O’Bannon/Owen Wilson as a participant in a story arc that is not tied to historical reality as such—as we recall, they become “lawmen” at the movie’s end on the eve of the historical 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration and marked an era in which Chinese laborers in the U.S. were denied citizenship and suffrage, let alone the ability to hold a lawman’s office. Chon Wang and Roy O’Bannon are “lawmen” without a specific place’s law to uphold, without cultural context, placed in the wide open landscapes of the West as cultural genre and not as history. The issue of exploited Chinese labor, of unrest and anxiety among the low and suffering classes, has faded into the background. The film has also conveniently excised that question by making its main villain a Chinese man, a traitor to the Imperial realm named Lo Feng, as if to displace the burden of guilt from the structures of American capitalism. Despite these potentially problematic features, Shanghai Noon offers a unique and surprisingly fertile site for the examination of several disparate genres and processes of cultural and material exchange. The film serves as a focal point at which the culturally imaginative landscape of the genre Western, the myth-making apparatus of the Western hero, the mechanics of modern stardom, and the question of masculinity and physical prowess come together to answer the question of American-ness—or who, in the postmodern Hollywood production, might become a hero. By the end of the film, Chon Wang has earned his right to be seen as a Western hero through his combat skills and his friendship with Roy, even if the fairy-tale tinge lent by his story’s entanglement with “The Princess and the Frog” undercuts such a status. Such visual imaginings as those offered by Shanghai Noon are important steps in the making of a reality, and even though the film acknowledges the limits of its particular historical retelling, the production history of the film points to a way in which Asians like Chan—or homegrown Asian stars like Lucy Liu—can be envisioned as American heroes in real life. Shanghai Noon answers Warlock’s conjecture that anyone can be a hero with a resounding yes—at least within the postmodern space carved out by a contemporary Hollywood fantasy. Thus, Shanghai Noon offers its viewers the vision of stepping into a world richly textured with the American cultural myth, a place where race is transformed, and where the everyman embodied by the ever-affable Jackie Chan can become a Western hero despite his distance from the West—as long as he can kick, punch, and shoot his way across the screen.

Works Cited and Consulted

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Bordwell, David. Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

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Chinn, Thomas. “New Chapters in Chinese-American History.” California History (1978): 2-7.

Dey, Tom, Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson. Jackie Chan–Shanghai Noon Interview n.d. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usDn8Y0BV-8&gt;.

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Farquhar, Mary. “Jackie Chan: Star Work as Pain and Triumph.” Farquhar, Mary and Yingjin Zhang. Chinese Film Stars. New York: Routledge, 2010. 180-193.

Hall, Oakley. Warlock. New York: New York Review Books, 1958.

Hunt, Leon. Kung Fu Cult Masters: From Bruce Lee to Crouching Tiger. London: Wallflower Press, 2003.

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McCaffrey, Lawrence J. “Irish America.” The Wilson Quarterly (1985): 78-93.

Mogen, David. “The Frontier Archetype and the Myth of America: Patterns That Shape the American Dream.” The Frontier Experience and the American Dream. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1989. 15-30.

Moretti, Franco. Signs Taken for Wonders: On the Sociology of Literary Forms. London: Verso, 1983.

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[1] Testifying to its lasting significance, the New York Review of Books Press recently reissued Warlock.

[2] Williams writes of the melodrama, pornography, and horror-film genres. The kung-fu film or martial arts genre does not fall directly under her rubric, but can be thought of as a genre that similarly privileges the physical, sensational body and resides on the edge of “good taste”.

[3] Notable films that participate in this give-and-take between elements of both martial arts films and Westerns include the mutually-influenced films of Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone, who directed Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars respectively. There were also mash-ups that attempted to take advantage of box-office trends, such as The Stranger and the Gunfighter (1974), a film made in collaboration with the famous Hong Kong Shaw Brothers studio and starring Lee Van Cleef. Modern-day incarnations of this dialogue between “Eastern” and Western” film genres can be found in films like The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, and the work of director Quentin Tarantino, who borrows freely from the aesthetics of both spaghetti Westerns and martial arts films in many of his most famous productions (Kill Bill, Django).

[4] These films, coinciding with the rising popularity of steamship travel to the East, showed scenes of daily life on the streets of cities like Shanghai, giving American audiences a glimpse of such sights as Chinese businessmen riding in rickshaws or shopkeepers dealing with customers.

[5] Interestingly, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) lists international release dates for the film in 47 different countries/territories, including Hong Kong and Taiwan—but mainland China is not among them. It is unclear whether the film was released in China or not, and its omission from IMDb’s otherwise comprehensive list suggests that either the film was not released there, or perhaps did not make significant inroads in the country which the film depicts at its opening. Perhaps this plays into the imaginative power of the early setting, the Forbidden City, for places other than China itself, especially in areas significantly marked by the Chinese diaspora. The film’s earliest release date, for example, was in Malaysia—home to a large number of Chinese immigrants, for whom an image of the Forbidden City might invoke powerful associations.

[6]  A quick perusal of his extremely thorough and meticulously updated website, jackiechan.com, reveals user comments from such disparate locations as Saudi Arabia, Holland, Portugal, Brazil, and the United States. The website is also constructed to give viewers the sense that they are accessing the “real” Jackie, with (most likely ghost-written) diary entries and photos detailing his travels around the globe.

[7] Though this had, in fact, been attempted a few decades earlier in The Stranger and the Gunfighter (1974).

[8]  An asexual presence onscreen does not quite translate or reflect Chan’s reality, since he has both a legitimate son and a child from an extramarital affair.

[9] See the recurring and popular figure “Mr. Chow” from The Hangover series, for example.

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