Editorial: Ancient Chinese Secret, Huh?

Winston Ho 何嶸.  
University of New Orleans,
Department of History 紐奧良大學歷史學系.

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2020 Jul. 23, Thursday.


Calgon (c. 1970s)[Calgon commercial from 1972].

Well, you learn something everyday.  I was looking for some background historical information on Chinese laundries, when I watched that silly “ancient Chinese secret” Calgon commercial from the 1970s.  In the comments section, the daughter of the actress from that commercial said that her mother had passed away from breast cancer in 2013.

Miyamoto, Anne Eiko[Anne Miyamoto Timmins, courtesy of the Miyamoto family].

That actress was Anne Miyamoto Timmins (1940 → 2013), a Japanese American from Honolulu, Hawaii.  Miyamoto completed a BA at the University of Hawaii, and two MS degrees from New York University and Carnegie-Mellon University.  She spent most of her adult life in New York city, where she enjoyed modest success as a theater actress and playwright.  In the 1970s, she appeared with Al Pacino in the Broadway play The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel.  She also wrote the play The Mango Tree, which was awarded the 2008 Hawaii Prize, and was performed by the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in New York.  Anne Miyamoto was the mother of three children.  

Jung, Calvin[Calvin Jung, courtesy of IMDB.]

In the Calgon commercial, Miyamoto’s character played the wife of “Mr. Lee.”  Mr. Lee was played by was a Chinese American actor from New York city named Calvin Jung (1945 → present).  In the 1970s, Jung was best known as a theater actor, appearing in several Broadway plays, including performances of Arthur Miller’s A Memory of Two Mondays and David Henry Hwang’s play FOB.  In the 1980s, Jung also began acting in several Hollywood movies.  He appeared in a minor speaking role in two major action movies.  In 1987, he played Steve Minh, a member of Clarence Boddicker’s gang in the first Robocop movie.  In 1998, he played detective Ng, a member of the Chinatown division of the Los Angeles Police Department in Lethal Weapon 4.

There are many people who seem to think the Calgon commercial is “racist.”  Clearly, using Chinese laundries to sell water softener is a case of cultural appropriation, but I find the Calgon commercial quite funny.  If Calgon had hired white actors in black wigs and yellow-face makeup and speaking in fake “oriental” accents, then that would be racist.  If they had depicted “inscrutable Orientals” who refuse to accept Western culture, can’t escape their “ancient traditions,” and are endlessly scheming in the shadows against White people, then that would be racist.  It is a good rule of thumb that misrepresenting an entire group of people with exaggerated caricatures, misleading stereotypes, prejudiced assumptions, and outright lies is racist.  Also, contrasting the “exotic and mysterious East” with the “modern and civilized West” — without actually trying to understand other cultures — is racist.

55 Days at Peking (1963) - 3

[Ava Gardner, David Niven, and Robert Helpmann as Prince Tuan in the 1963 movie 55 Days in Peking.  Also starring Charleton Heston.  Copyright Paramount Pictures.  This movie is based on the true story of the China Relief Expedition in the year 1900, when the United States joined the Eight-Nation Alliance in an invasion of China to rescue 1000 foreign civilians and soldiers — and tens of thousands of Chinese Christians — who were trapped in the foreign embassies during the Boxer Rebellion.  White actors in yellow-face were cast to play all of the lead Chinese roles in this film — which is only the beginning of the problems with this convoluted, tedious, poorly written, historically inaccurate, condescending, and profoundly offensive portrayal of one of the most important moments in modern Chinese history.]

On the other hand, depicting English-speaking American-born Chinese as successful small-business owners is not racist.  And in the Calgon commercial, we have an Asian American woman debunking the myth of “ancient Chinese secrets.”  As a historian of Chinese American history, debunking myths about Chinese people is what I do for a living.  I once told a [white] news reporter that the vast majority of Chinese Americans in New Orleans were employed in the laundry industry before the 1950s, and she asked me, “isn’t that racist.”  So I guess that means a Chinese American describing her own childhood growing up in her parent’s laundry is racist, too.  The reason so many Chinese Americans were denied other jobs in the past and forced into the laundry industry is because of racism.  Whitewashing that history and pretending it never happened is racist.  Talking about it, and ridiculing the stereotype, is not racist.

Racism and racist images remains a serious problem in American popular culture today.  Critics are correct to challenge the stereotypical depictions of marginalized minorities in media.  They are correct to question the affect such images have on the way minorities are perceived and treated in this country.  However, branding all forms of cultural appropriation as “racist” is not helpful, and at worst, trivializes and de-legitimizes the rest of the movement towards racial harmony.  There is a distinction between cultural appropriation that normalizes stereotypes, appropriation that allows people to share different cultures, and appropriation that challenges stereotypes.  I think the Calgon commercial is in the last category, and one of the only examples from the 1970s of Asian American actors being cast as normal human beings — rather than comical relief.  If this commercial had been made just ten years earlier, I think the advertising company would have used white actors in yellow-face.

21 (2008)[Jim Sturgess, Kate Bosworth, Laurence Fishburne, and Kevin Spacey in the 2008 movie 21.  Copyright Columbia Pictures.  This movie is based on the true story of a group of MIT students who used their math skills to cheat at gambling in several Las Vegas casinos.  In real life, almost all of the students in real life were Asian Americans, but Columbia Pictures cast mostly white actors to play them.  This is classic example of “whitewashing” in Hollywood film, where Asian characters are played by white actors.]

From a historical perspective, the early 1970s was the beginning of the post-Civil Rights era, when African Americans and other minorities were gaining an unprecedented level of economic opportunity, both in the real world and on television.  For the first time, there were African American sitcoms and African American actors in roles other than servants.  I think this commercial was a part of that trend.  It reflects a growing recognition in American popular culture that Asian Americans are Americans and should be treated as Americans — something we struggle to achieve even now.  Yes, we have Chinese people in a laundry, but they are Chinese people who are not foreigners, speak English, and have no ancient secrets.  So no, the Calgon commercial is not racist.  And, I can’t believe I just researched and wrote a 5500-word essay defending a 30-second commercial.


Jung, Calvin - Robocop (1987) - 1[Calvin Jung as Steve Minh, with Kurtwood Smith as Clarence Boddicker, in the 1987 film Robocop.  Copyright MGM.  See, an Asian American actor portraying a normal gun-wielding drug-dealing American psychopath.  Was that really so hard, Hollywood?  I’d buy that for a dollar… ]


NolaChinese: Ancient Chinese Secret, Huh?

Calgon Commercial (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mzixL7Ef-bI).  1972.

Obituary for Anne Miyamoto Timmins (https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/nytimes/obituary.aspx?n=anne-miyamoto-timmins&pid=166867729).

IMDB:  Anne Miyamoto Timmins (https://www.imdb.com/name/nm11592524/).

IMDB:  Calvin Jung (https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0432517/).

IBDB:  Calvin Jung (https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/calvin-jung-91451).

Avinsquartz, Jenni.  “The Dos and Don’ts of Cultural Appropriation Borrowing from other cultures isn’t just inevitable, it’s potentially positive.”  The Atlantic (2015 Oct. 20).  Accessed from The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/10/the-dos-and-donts-of-cultural-appropriation/411292/)

NolaChinese:  The Chinese According to American Movies 根据北美電影的華人(https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL-du-0FMXLgNBOyV0XYim-AB-u-Vr-ahi).

Chao, Eveline.  “How Childhoods Spent in Chinese Laundries Tell the Story of America.”  Alta Obscura (2018 Jan. 3).  Accessed from Alta Obscura (https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/chinese-laundry-kids-new-york).

NolaChinese:  Chinese Laundries 華人洗衣店 (https://nolachinese.wordpress.com/2016/03/09/chinese-laundries/).


Examples of Actual Racism. 

Trailer for 55 Days At Peking (1963).  Accessed from Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=51NX01xyxKo&feature=youtu.be&t=67).

Trailer for The Face of Fu Manchu (1965).  Accessed from Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=33mJRSKipbw&feature=youtu.be&t=100).

“Yellowface is a bad look, Hollywood.”  Vox (2016 Apr. 21).  Accessed from Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zB0lrSebyng).

Chinese Americans: Film and Television Actors 北美華僑:電影電視演員 (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL-du-0FMXLgPz2Nty8H160mHHRJBy9L4Z).


2 thoughts on “Editorial: Ancient Chinese Secret, Huh?

  1. I had no idea that the Japanese-American actress Anne Miyamoto was not Chinese, but at the time it didn’t matter. What mattered to me was she spoke with an American accent and I loved it. Watching this commercial as a child I was very impressed by that American accent and so I never wanted to speak in slang and so I never did. I am not Asian, but come from a black and Hispanic background. Growing up I watched Blaxploitation films as well as martial arts (Kung Fu) movies when I was little, still do sometimes. I know it sounds strange but I really loved seeing that commercial. I’m sad about her passing and I hope that more people get to see her work and her fellow actor Calvin Jung. I never ever though that commercial was racist at all because it was just a part of life at that time. And now in my family I have Chinese relatives from Shanghai that live here and I visit and spend the holidays with them from time to time. 30 seconds can really impact someone without even understanding why, I still love that darn commercial, lol.


    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I am also a big fan of Kung Fu movies, and one day I will need to write a series of articles explaining why Kung Fu movies have had such an impact on African American and Latino cultures. Kung Fu movies are, by definition, fantasies about using violence to achieve justice, and the idea that violence can be justified in righting a wrong or destroying an evil is universal across all cultures. A few Kung Fu films even feature racism as a major theme, such as Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury and Jet Li’s Wong Fei Hong movie (better known as the first Once Upon a Time in China. However, I am still trying to figure out a way to talk about Kung Fu movies because the topic is actually quite complicated:

      [1] First, China has always appeared as an alternative to the West. Kung Fu movies are often set in China’s pre-modern past, and such movies give a sense that the Chinese have developed their own sophisticated culture, religion, art, and moral system apart from Europe. For marginalized minorities in North America, who have been taught that the only true source of culture or civilization is the West, it can be quite empowering to see a non-European culture this way. However, most American audiences have only the most superficial grasp of traditional Chinese culture and don’t fully understand what they are seeing on screen.

      [2] Second, most Kung Fu movies seen in the United States are dubbed — rather poorly — so what Americans see is a watered down version of the original Chinese. The words are often changed and plots simplified to become easier for Americans understand. Americans often project their own values on these movies, values that are not present in the original and would seem quite strange to the Chinese. In that sense, marginalized minorities often project something of themselves onto the Chinese, like a mirror, and they see parallels between their world and the world of Kung Fu movies that probably aren’t there in real life.

      Anyway, thanks again for the comment.


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