Big Trouble in Little China’s Complicated Relationship With Orientalism

On the surface level, Big Trouble in Little China (1986) is just another American martial arts movie. It stars a white protagonist who enters a mysterious oriental world, and is chalk full of Fu Manchu caricatures and other stereotypes evoking the East-Asian mysticism trope that plagues Hollywood. However, what sets Big Trouble apart – and elevates it to the status of cult classic – is the unique way its protagonist operates in the story.

The film’s IMDb summary would have you believe that Big Trouble stars Kurt Russel as the lead and a Chinese-American actor named Dennis Dunn as his sidekick. Upon watching the movie, you’ll find that it’s the other way around. While Russel’s Jack Burton may begin the film as the focal character, it quickly becomes clear that he isn’t meant to be the typical white savior character who inexplicably masters the ancient ways of a foreign culture immediately upon entering it. No, Burton is a buffoon who bumbles his way through the movie and [mild spoilers] even spends most of the climax unconscious after accidentally dropping a rock on his own head. Meanwhile, Dunn’s Wang Chi and the other Asian-American members of the cast take on the threat they, as residents of “Little China” (a fictionalized version of San Francisco’s Chinatown), are actually equipped to handle. So instead of being a story about a white man saving a foreign culture, it’s a story about people saving their own culture.

All that being said, the movie does use an excessive amount of oriental tropes. While you could argue that it does so in a tongue in cheek manner, it’s still perpetuating harmful stereotypes. Whether the positive elements outweigh those negatives is up to the viewer. Personally (and obviously I am in no way an authority when it comes to Asian-American representation), I find Big Trouble to be a refreshing subversion of the white savior narrative, and altogether a pretty fun movie.

The Harsh Fate of Hulga Hopewell

Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People” concludes with a dramatic twist that leaves our protagonist, Joy/Hulga, abandoned and betrayed. The bible salesman who calls himself Manley Pointer dislegs her and leaves her high and dry. But Pointer also leaves Hulga with a lesson.

The story depicts Hulga and her mother, Mrs. Hopewell, as fairly well-off. They have a nice home and employ a helping hand of sorts, Mrs. Freeman, who Mrs. Hopewell refers to as good country people.

While Hopewell might describe herself as good country people in the company of others, and she likely believes it to be a compliment, I perceived it as a patronizing term. She refers to Pointer as good country people too, and later calls him dull. Hopewell is a member of the middle class, and while she may wish to identify with people of lower class than her who she believes to be good, salt of the earth, working people, ultimately she looks down on them and pities them as much as she respects them.

Hulga is not as different from her mother as she thinks she is. She considers herself to be an intellectual and distances herself from the outdated ways of her mother and the people she grew up around, rejects their religious illogic and embraces scientific reasoning and atheism, but she shares the same superiority complex as her mother, possibly to an even greater extent.

Hulga underestimates Pointer. She believes him to be simple minded, good country people, just as her mother does. She makes herself completely vulnerable to him, a stranger she has every reason in the world to mistrust, while wrongfully assuming that she has the upper hand, and then she pays for that assumption. Pointer shatters her patronizing fantasy of good country people. Frankly, Hulga is lucky that she didn’t wind up dead and lives on to take up a more complex view of humanity.

Vladimir Nabokov & the Empathetic Reader

Vladimir Nabokov’s introduction to his book Lectures on Literature contains one sentiment that I find to be particularly rabble-rousing.

There is the comparatively lowly kind [of imagination] which turns for support to the simple emotions and is of a definitely personal nature... A situation is in a book is intensely felt because it reminds us of something that happened to us or someone we know or knew... Or, and this is the worst thing a reader can do, he identifies himself with a character in the book. This lowly variety is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use.
Nabokov, “Good Readers and Good Writers”

There’s a humorous bit of what I perceive to be self-awareness at the end of that quote, when Nabokov acknowledges that all of his dictations about what makes a good or bad reader are really nothing more than his personal preference (This… is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use). But that’s besides the point.

One of literature’s greatest powers is the power to make a unique, individual reader feel seen. We spend our lives calling out into the abyss, begging question, “Does anyone else feel the way I do, or am I alone?” It is art–literature and other media–that answers the call: “No. You are not alone. Look here, we feel the same way.”

Nabokov identifies this power as a fatal weakness on the part of the reader. While his argument that readers should seek exposure to new experiences is sensible, to discount the personal connection a reader develops with text that they can specifically empathize with is overkill.

It is also impossible for readers to embrace such an impersonal handling of their reading. As Nabokov himself says, when a reader is reminded of a personal experience while reading of some situation or another, that situation will be intensely felt. The reader cannot choose whether or not to relate to something, it’s just instinctive. And it would be foolish to actively try to block out any feelings of empathy inspired by a text while in the process of reading it. If the goal of reading is to have some visceral experience, then the reader that heeds Nabokov’s instruction would be swimming against the tide that conveniently flowed towards that goal.

All that being said, Nabokov’s ultimate message is valuable. Readers should definitely seek out literature that heralds new and foreign experiences. However, when they come across literature that calls upon their personal experience, they should embrace that feeling of empathy rather than squash it.