Home | Contents | Photos | News | Reviews | Store | Forum | ICI | Educators | Fans | Contests | Help | FAQ | Info

Indians Shanghaied by Shanghai Noon

Before I saw Shanghai Noon, correspondent Abbie filled me in on the Indian scenes and characters in Shanghai Noon. The following is our original discussion in 2000. After seeing the movie in 2003 (the edited version on TV, that is), I've added some comments in italics:

>> the Sioux character has no idea why Chan's character is saying "How" to him and simply responds in kind out of politeness. <<

I'm glad it's not as bad as it looked. But...a guy has to be pretty sharp to become chief. Parroting someone out of politeness is not what I'd expect an intelligent, accomplished leader to do.

More likely, I'd expect him to have heard of the "How" cliché and to laugh at it. Or to ignore it with a dignified silence. So the scene still (arguably) mocks the Indian's dignity.

Let's turn it around. Suppose an Indian went to China. His communication consisted of saying "Ah, so" to everything. His Chinese host also said "Ah, so" out of politeness. They bowed and said "Ah, so" repeatedly.

Does that sound like innocent fun to you? Would it stereotype both sides equally? I don't think so. The Indian would come off as "merely" ignorant, which would be bad enough. The Chinese host would come off as servile and stupid.

For starters, the Indians weren't identified as Sioux. The setting was identified as Nevada. That the Indians looked Sioux-like and Abbie assumed they were Sioux is precisely because they were stereotypical.

Also, the person who apparently led the Indians, who did most of the talking and decision-making, was never identified as a chief. He didn't wear a feather headdress, although another character did. I presume the first person, the leader, was a chief if not the chief, so let's call him the chief.

Abbie is mistaken in claiming Chan initiated the "How" exchange and the chief mimicked him. She has it exactly backward. The chief initiated it and Chan mimicked him. So the movie has an Indian uttering "How" as a stereotypical greeting.

Ironically, Chan later says, "Sayonara, partner," when he leaves Roy O'Bannion in disgust. There have been no bits mixing Chinese and Japanese culture, no indication that O'Bannion can't tell the two people apart. In fact, O'Bannion has been relatively sensitive and enlightened throughout the movie. He never calls Chan anything but "Chinaman."

The movie doesn't indicate any reason Chan would know Japanese. Nor does it show O'Bannion reacting to this oddity. There's no sign it was intended to be some sort of ironic or bitter joke. It seems to be nothing more than a mistake—further evidence that the filmmakers didn't care about mangling their cultural references.

The "peace pipe"
>> As for the getting stoned on the peace pipe — the Sioux aren't getting stoned along with him, and Chan's character also gets very easily drunk with white companions. <<

How can we interpret this scene? Well, a tribe's "official" pipe was often considered sacred and handled specially, but I believe some Indians had their own pipes for informal use. And pipes often used tobacco, but some varieties were much stronger than today's commercial brands.

Nevertheless, smoking a peace pipe is a standard movie cliché. It's unlikely a tribe Chan encountered would smoke such a pipe or that it would affect Chan adversely. Many Chinese smoked opium at that time, remember.

The pipe was identified as a "peace pipe," which suggests it was more official and perhaps sacred than some other pipe. Why smoke a "peace pipe" when Chan is a lone hero, not an enemy representative? There was no peace parlay, hence no need for a peace pipe.

Because "peace pipe" is the classic stereotype used depicting Sioux-like Indians, that's why.

As Chan gets stoned, the chief with the headdress says, "This is some pretty powerful herb." The chief implies the pipe is filled with some sort of drug-like substance. This isn't just a stereotype, it's false. Indians usually filled pipes with tobacco, sage, or some other plant matter that wasn't intentionally "powerful." So the movie is mocking an often-sacred Indian ceremony by pretending Indians smoke to get high.

>> The point is that Chan's character is very susceptible, not that the Sioux are a bunch of stoners. <<

The point is that regardless of how naive Chan is or how sophisticated the Indians are, the movie repeats some common Indian clichés. The feather bonnet. The peace pipe. The tipis. The chief's daughter. Etc.

The point is both, since an Indian specifically says the material being smoked is powerful enough to cause the effects it has had on Chan.

Speaking of the Sioux, was the story set in the Dakota Territory? I thought it took place in Nevada. Which would make sense for the story's plot, because many Chinese coolies were located on the West Coast and few were farther east than Denver. If the chief was wearing a feather bonnet and living in a tipi in Nevada, it's another blatant stereotype.

The story did take place in Nevada. In the middle or western part of Nevada, to be precise. Even if Roy O'Bannion misled Chan with his directions, Chan knows enough to go west, not east. He crosses only one mountain range to get to the vicinity of his goal. And even if Chan ends up in the wrong town (Reno?) at first, he and Roy reach Carson City without a long journey. The implication is that they're east of Carson City before Chan crosses the mountain range and near Carson City after.

Therefore, the entire Indian scene is false and stereotypical. The enemy "Crow" Indians, who are identified by name, shouldn't be closer than 1,000 miles away. The Indians should be Paiutes or another tribe native to Nevada, not stereotypical Siouxs. They shouldn't ride horses, live in tipis, smoke peace pipes, or any of the other Indian clichés.

The marriage ceremony
>> *This* is probably stretching custom a bit far, but we are in a film where the whole plot is charged by the flight of the heroine <<

Yes, a bit. <g> I suspect the movie trivialized what was probably a solemn marriage ceremony. That again would be problematical, since it would make the Indian people look "simple" and "primitive." I.e., the chief says a few words, clasps their hands together, and Chan and his bride are married.

I've read only about the Hopi marriage customs, but they're elaborate, with days of preparations, feasts, gifts, and other customs. Did the movie portray anything like that? If not, I suspect it shortchanged the complexity of Indian culture.

No, the marriage scene stretched "custom" a lot, not a bit. After Chan gets stoned and presumably passes out, he wakes up the next morning under a buffalo hide with a beautiful Indian maiden. She's your typical white-male fantasy version of an Indian princess. Naturally, she turns out to be the chief's daughter.

That the Indians give the chief's daughter to Chan as some sort of sexual trophy suggests how loose or primitive their morals are. This may have been customary practice in some tribes, but marrying a stranger to the chief's daughter after one night of sex probably wasn't.

The implication is that Indians treat relationships much more casually than others do. Which suggests they're much more uncivilized or savage. The chief gives away his daughter as if she were a pet—an extra kitten in the litter, perhaps. The marriage "ceremony" is so brief and trivial it's a mockery of Indian customs. The chief could've said, "Take my daughter, please," and it would've fit in.

The whole idea of Indians trusting and relying upon an unknown outsider is dubious. The prolonged scrutiny the Lakota gave Dunbar (Kevin Costner) in Dances With Wolves was more realistic. Although he was ignorant, Dunbar wasn't so ignorant he engaged in a phony "How" routine. He didn't immediately "powwow" with the feather-bonneted chief or smoke a pipe with him. Nor did he shack up with the classic chief's daughter.

Dances with Wolves has problems of its own, but compared to Shanghai Noon, it's a model of decorum. And yes, I know Shanghai Noon was a lighthearted comedy. See my comments below.

>> I was waiting to see if there would be some explanation that her character was supposed to be adopted <<

I don't know Merrill's ancestry, but I haven't heard of her. The LA Times review said she disappeared for much of the movie and didn't do much more than rescue people. Sounds like another problem. An Indian woman could've been anything from a "homemaker" to a warrior in that era, but probably would've had a defined role. I.e., she wouldn't go from being a demure "princess" to a hellraiser.

This chief's daughter, now Chan's wife, shows up three times to save Chan and O'Bannion. She's not a weak character, but she's a blank non-entity. Showing just what a cipher she is, the movie never gives her a name. The credits call her "Indian wife."

Proving how the movie dismisses Indian culture, she kisses O'Bannion in the end and apparently transfers her allegiance to him. All because he boasted of his manhood earlier. According to the movie, therefore, Indian relationships are based on "primitive" sexual lust, not "civilized" long-term commitments. A wife can leave her husband for someone else as if the marital bond doesn't exist.

Everyone stereotyped equally?
>> However, "Shanghai Noon" doesn't stereotype the Native American characters any more than it stereotypes Europeans (all slightly crazy, mostly jerks, all somewhat racist, though Owen Wilson's character ultimately sees the light) or Chinese (sometimes naive but ultimately dignified). <<

If true, I don't consider that a good defense. Stereotyping is generally bad no matter who's the butt of it.

I've written about this "equal opportunity offender" theory before (Equal Opportunity Offenders). In short, I don't buy it. White people have plenty of positive role models they can find elsewhere, so they can stand to have their dignity tweaked a little. For Asian and Native Americans, this is one of the few times they'll appear on the screen. Their portrayals and the related stereotyping are proportionally more significant.

After seeing the movie, I disagree that the movie was evenhanded. The characters may be equally stereotypical, but what about their cultural milieus? The Nevada environment is standard issue for a Western (train robbery, saloon, prostitutes, sheriff, duel, etc.), but there are no noticeable clinkers. Although I don't know much about 19th-century imperial China, its depiction looks equally reasonable to me.

In contrast, the Indian culture depicted is entirely false for the Nevada setting. A Plains-like culture has been transported a thousand miles or so to western Nevada. This is as wrong as putting Carson City in Kansas or China's Forbidden City in Japan. The movie doesn't make these mistakes, but it does make that level of mistake with the Indians. It bastardizes their culture far more than the others.

>> it doesn't make a lot of sense to get upset about it. <<

Hey, it was only a brief note. <g> I'm not planning to lead a protest against Shanghai Noon or anything. As I've said many times, few stereotypes are so earth-shakingly bad they're worth fighting over.

The point is that they keep happening. And that they have a cumulative effect. When a stereotype appears the thousandth or ten thousandth time, it becomes the cultural norm. It replaces the complex picture we should have of Indians.

I merely noted the stereotypes in passing, as I tend to do these days. What people make of the information is up to them.

>> The alternative is to remove entire ethnic groups from all broad comedy. <<

That doesn't strike me as a bad idea. But there are ways to involve people in humor without belittling them. It's the difference between laughing at people and laughing with them.

Lots of movies—from Powwow Highway to Dances With Wolves to Pocahontas to Smoke Signals—have managed this. So did the TV show Thanks (now canceled). To my amazement, Michael Horse as Squanto cracked as many jokes as the others, but never treaded on his own or anyone's dignity.

So stereotype-free humor can be done. The question is whether we have the will to do it.

Another alternative is to treat all cultures equally and stop stereotyping Indians worse than others. As this movie has done.


More on the "How" exchange
>> As for the "How"/"How" exchange, there is a similar one between the other three Chinese Imperial guards and a pair of white settlers. The settler wife says to her husband, "These are very strange Indians," whereupon her husband replies, "Don't you know anything? They're not Indians — they're Jews! Shalom!" The Chinese reply politely (if uncomprehendingly), "Shalom." <<

If the Chinese characters don't speak English well, they presumably didn't know "Shalom" wasn't a standard English greeting. How is that similar to an Indian's repeating the "How" greeting? An Indian does know the "How" greeting—and presumably knows it's a stereotype. Why would he repeat something he knows is phony?

This scene didn't make it into the edited version of the movie, or I missed it. But again, the Indian chief initiated the "How" exchange. An ignorant white settler might mistake Chinese people for Indians or even Jews if he had never seen any minorities. The question is why an Indian utters the "How" greeting when it's patently stereotypical.

>> In both the "How" and "Shalom" cases, the joke seems to be, everybody is trying to be polite and accommodating, and *nobody* actually understands what's being said, because it's the wrong thing. Since nobody understands the language of the other, they believe the attempt to speak the *listener's* language to be part of the *speaker's* language. It seems to me that what is being satirized is the assumption on the part of the speaker that this is the correct thing to say, *not* the listener in either case. <<

But an Indian would understand the "How" greeting. He'd smile at its inappropriateness, correct the person saying it, ignore it, or offer some other response. Repeating "How" would only make him look foolish.

>> I'm also not sure *where* Chan's character encounters the Sioux, as he is en route to Carson City, Nev. but is completely lost at this point in the story. Not to beat the point to death — I've only seen the film once and I didn't think it was especially brilliant — but I didn't feel it was racist. <<

I'd say something can be stereotypical without being racist.

As for the setting, see above. The movie starts in Nevada and there's no reason to think it ever leaves Nevada.

>> So far as I could tell, they were not suggesting (a) that all Indians (or all of anybody) were alike <<

They were suggesting that all Indians lived in teepees, wore feather headdresses, smoked peace pipes, had princess daughters, and so forth. From what I gather.

Yes, exactly.

It doesn't matter what they were saying about "all" Indians or whether they were saying anything. Depicting one Indian incorrectly for his time and place contributes to the stereotyping of them all.

>> (b) they were not suggesting that Indians were less intelligent, more subservient, more aggressive or even *funnier* than members of any other group depicted on screen. To me, those are the hallmarks of an "ism" — suggesting that everybody who has one thing in common (race, gender, sexual preference) is going to think/act as if they were interchangeable or to show that because of race, gender, sexual preference, that they are inferior in some way to people of another race, gender, sexual preference. I didn't really see that in "Shanghai Noon." <<

Stereotyping isn't an -ism, it's an -ing. <g>

But seriously, stereotyping doesn't have any necessary connection with traits like intelligence or subservience. If every movie shows an Indian wearing a headdress, I'm not sure you can conclude anything about the Indians' character traits. I'm not sure you can conclude anything except "Indians wear headdresses."

Nevertheless, it's still a stereotype and it still causes harm cumulatively. People take away the message that all Indians were the same. They weren't, but stereotypes reinforce this wrongheaded message.


Related links
"It's just a [fill in the blank]"
Equal opportunity offenders
Why ethnic humor usually doesn't work
Stereotype of the Month contest

Readers respond
"This movie was inadvertently correct a lot of the time."
"When one makes fun of stereotypes...it is a very effective step in destroying the 'popular' stereotype."
"It doesn't just repeat SOME movie-indian cliches, it repeats ALL of them....AND, AND, it was FUNNY."
"It's a Jackie Chan movie, for God's sake."
"I'm really glad to see that most folks are taking this movie for what it is."
"I pretty much have given up on Indians ever being treated accurately in movies."

* More opinions *
  Join our Native/pop culture blog and comment
  Sign up to receive our FREE newsletter via e-mail
  See the latest Native American stereotypes in the media
  Political and social developments ripped from the headlines

. . .

Home | Contents | Photos | News | Reviews | Store | Forum | ICI | Educators | Fans | Contests | Help | FAQ | Info

All material © copyright its original owners, except where noted.
Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.

Copyrighted material is posted under the Fair Use provision of the Copyright Act,
which allows copying for nonprofit educational uses including criticism and commentary.

Comments sent to the publisher become the property of Blue Corn Comics
and may be used in other postings without permission.