Department of English and Film Studies
Today, when we think of the film Western, we think of a genre dominated by Anglo-American heroes conquering the various struggles and obstacles that the nineteenth-century frontier presented to settlers and gunslingers alike—from the daunting terrain and inclement environment of deserts, mountains, and plains to the violent opposition posed by cattle ranchers and Native Americans. What we tend to forget, most likely because the most famous Westerns of the last seventy-five years also forgot, is that Chinese immigrants played an important role in that frontier history. As Edward Buscombe confirms, “[g]iven the importance of their contribution, particularly to the construction of the Central Pacific railroad, the Chinese are under-represented in the Western.” In the 1920s and ’30s, many films focused on the smuggling of illegal Chinese immigrants—whether men for work or women for prostitution. Although a topic for a handful of social dramas such as The Miracle Makers (W. S. Van Dyke, 1923), Speed Wild (Harry Garson, 1925), Let Women Alone (Paul Powell, 1925), Masked Emotions (David Butler/Kenneth Hawks, 1929), and Lazy River (George B. Seitz, 1934), as well as newspaper-crime films such as I Cover the Waterfront (James Cruze, 1933), and Yellow Cargo (Crane Wilbur, 1936), the smuggling of Chinese people was also common in Westerns. According to the AFI Catalog, Chinese characters and actors appear in minor roles in at least seventy-eight silent and classical-era Westerns as cooks, laundrymen, and restaurant owners. These seventy-eight Westerns ranged from A-Westerns set in the nineteenth-century frontier to B-Westerns set in the modern West. Of the latter group, several Westerns—more specifically, “Southwesterns”—offered plots that connected Chinese immigrants to crime through the smuggling of opium, laborers, and prostitutes into the United States from China via Mexico. Southwesterns were lower-budget and were typically shot with cheap sets, grainy film stock, and few retakes (what we would call today B-Westerns), set in the contemporaneous Southwest (i.e., California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas) near the border with Mexico: it was this borderland setting that invited stories of smuggling and border penetration.3 According to the AFI Catalog, of the 182 Westerns released between 1910 and 1960 that are set in the Mexican–American border region, 39 offer plots centered on smuggling various kinds of things, from opium and liquor to silver, dynamite, and counterfeit money, as well as guns. Southwesterns exploited the borderland setting to offer exciting smuggling plots that connected crime to Chinese immigrants. Although the opium-smuggling films connect crime to China, they rarely feature Chinese characters. In contrast, the immigrant-smuggling films present Chinese people as a physical and visible alien threat to America’s national borders, and it is these films that are the focus of this article. As this article will demonstrate, there were many Westerns centered on smuggling plots related to Chinese immigration, and the borders that these films were concerned with were as much cultural and racial as territorial. In other words, the presence of illegal Chinese immigrants assisted the genre of the Western to confirm the borders of American national identity.
Gates, P. (2017). “Crossing America’s Borders: Chinese Immigrants in the Southwesterns of the 1920s and 1930s.” Journal of Film and Video 69.4 (Winter 2017): 3-17.