On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Celluloid heroes

THE imagery for those of us weaned on American-made westerns is clear – the good guys were always the cowboys. The white men, I mean.

And in Hollywood’s typical black and white storyline model, the bad guys were naturally the Red Indians, who were portrayed as uncivilised savages who killed cowboys freewheelingly.

As schoolkids watching these movies, we had no idea the saddled and booted cowboys stole the Red Indians’ land.

We even cheered for Lone Ranger and his Red Indian sidekick, Tonto. It was only later that I realised Tonto was really a traitor to his fellow native Americans. Let’s be honest, the Native American snitched for him.

And of course, Lone Ranger had to be the boss. After all, he was the white man, so there was no way the Caucasian American audience would stomach their kind playing second fiddle.

When Italian moviemakers began producing western movies, dubbed spaghetti westerns, it was the Mexicans’ turn to be the bad guys. They were made to look overweight, scruffy and dirty.

Then in the late 1960s, at the height of the Vietnam war, I was delusional. I was still cheering for the American soldiers in the movies.

They were called GIs, which was a popular term to describe these soldiers. I didn’t even ask why they were called GIs. Well, GI was stamped on military assets to denote “government issue”.

I watched the 1968 movie Green Beret and was clapping away for hero John Wayne when he was killing the Vietnamese communists.

Well, recently, the late John Wayne, who played cowboys in many movies, was dismissed as a white supremacist, who had even used homophobic slurs in an interview.

I was just a kid, so how would I have known what these sweaty Americans were up to in the jungles of South-East Asia, or what business they had in our backyard? The Vietnamese in the movies were always skinny, but I was never curious to know why.

Penang was one of the listed rest and recreation spots for these American soldiers and there were many of them – usually drunk – in my hometown. They seemed like good guys and they looked like heroes. And that’s how Hollywood has brainwashed us.

In fact, American moviemakers are still at it. The Arabs must be terrorists, the Italians Mafia mobsters who kill on weekdays and confess in church for their sins on Sundays, and, curiously, only eat pizza and spaghetti.

The Irish speak English that’s not native to most. So they are often cast in a bad light by filmmakers.

In hit TV series Peaky Blinders, the Irish and Gypsy backstory make for Hollywood gold, in which, of course, the character Tommy Sheldon and his family members are gangsters.

The scourge of stereotyping has also made blacks look like gangsters, with their bling, tattoos and obligatory loud rap music as a soundtrack. You never see them as the Wall Street types in movies. Even the hero, Shaft, has to deal with black bad guys.

Then, there are the Albanians. If you’ve watched Taken (and its sequels), a movie about a retired secret service agent whose teenage daughter is abducted by human traffickers while on a trip, you will never visit Paris and Istanbul, two cities supposedly filled with these bad Eastern Europeans.

Let’s not even mention the Russians. They have been the bad guys from the day Hollywood made its first movie and little has changed to this day. The Cold War may have ended but the rivalry has never stopped.

Fast forward to 2020, and the bad guys are now the Chinese. Hollywood is still unsure of how they should treat the Communist Chinese, who supposedly eat bats and export viruses to the United States.

After all, the rich Chinese have pumped in too much money to support Hollywood movies and Tinseltown depends on China as the biggest box office in the world. So, indeed, cash is King, regardless of whether it is the US dollar or Chinese yuan. For the time being, just leave China-bashing to President Donald Trump and his sidekick, State Secretary Richard Pompeo.

With the US presidential election set for November, the two have literally gone berserk with their routine rhetoric against China.

The Chinese, and Asians who look like Chinese, have been blamed for everything under the sun.

Every Chinese is a potential spy for China. It doesn’t help that most of them are good in maths and science, lending to the spy theory. Soon, Kumon classes will be branded communist indoctrination camps designed to produce intellectual property thieves.

We can’t be too far off the mark to say 90% of Americans don’t even know where the hell the South China Sea is, yet it has become a daily topic in the American media.

None of the media, however, has pointed out that Americans have bases in South-East Asia while the Chinese have no such presence or even an outpost in any city in the region.

But the reality is that the anti-China narratives have worked in the United States and Trump is probably aware of it and has kept pushing the pitch. Never mind what CNN says because the TV station is merely the voice of the cities and not the rural Midwest where the cowboys live.

The fact is that Americans’ negative perception of China has reached a “new historic high” amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report published by the Pew Research Center on Thursday.

“Around three-quarters (73%) of Americans have an unfavourable view of China today – the most negative reading in the 15 years that Pew Research Center has been measuring these views,” wrote the authors of the report, Laura Silver, Kat Devlin and Christine Huang.

“The percentage who say they have a very unfavourable view of China is also at a record high of 42%, having nearly doubled since the spring of 2019, when 23% said the same.”

The South China Morning Post reported that amid repeated accusations of espionage, consulate closures in Houston and Chengdu, and continued finger-pointing in Washington and Beijing over which country deserves more blame for Covid-19, Pew’s survey is the latest piece of evidence in an impossible-to-miss trend: the distrust of China and its senior leadership, now rampant in the United States.

The survey showed that Republicans and Democrats are together in their scepticism, though the latter number slightly less.

“In March, 72% said they had a negative view of the country, compared with 62% of Democrats and Democratic leaners. Republicans are also more critical of China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic: In the April-May survey, 76% of Republicans and Republican leaners say the country has done a bad job, compared with 54% of Democrats and leaners who say the same.

“And, while large majorities of partisans on both sides of the aisle have little or no trust in coronavirus information coming from

the Chinese government, a whopping 92% of Republicans hold this view, compared with 78% of Democrats.”

It may not be emblazoned yet, but the Americans and their allies are sitting uncomfortably with the increasing competition in all spheres from China.

The Chinese have simply become too good at the game of capitalism. China is supposed to stay poor, be subservient, only produce cheap goods for the West, and never become a competitor.

Whether it’s CNN, BBC, CNBC or Fox News, the same narrative is being put through its rinse and repeat paces. Succinctly put, China must be the bad guys, and it’s now the right time to be biased, too.

Yellow Peril is now back in fashion. The principles of free trade and fair play have been thrown out the window.

At Trump’s order, social network video sharing site Tik Tok was blackmailed into selling its US operations to Microsoft within 45 days, having failed to come up with a similarly successful platform. Much more than that, Trump also insisted on a cut for making the deal possible, supposedly for the US government.

It makes more sense for the US and China to work together because the rest of the world would rather stay out of a fight between two superpowers. A lot can be done if the two nations work together for the betterment of the world.

I still love watching great Hollywood movies. Likewise, mainland Chinese and the rest of the world. So we should be mindful of how villains are cast in future.