Thursday, March 17, 2005

Then and Now

Even though I still don't have enough spare time to do spring cleaning (yet I have enough spare time to write about it), I managed to dig up this old relic from my childhood. When I was a kid, my sister and I used to play this all the time, although I highly suspect that we "made up" a lot of the rules back then.

Chinese Checkers tin

Chinese Checkers tin, close up detail

If you look at some of the images depicted on the board, this Chinese Checkers tin is about as Chinese as pizza. If you take a close look, you will find randomly scrawled characters that are supposed to look like Chinese words and stereotypical images of rickshaws and Chinese people that have almond-shaped slanty eyes, Fu-Manchu mustaches, and straw hats.

I wouldn't go all the way to refer to this as offensive, although it does make for some interesting discussion. As the global village gets progressively smaller, cultures become more and more diverse. Little things like these are reminders that it wasn't always like this.

If you look at some of the North American cultural values of the early- to mid-20th century, it's clear that they could get away with offending certain groups of people back in the day, partly because the WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) was not the visible minority that it is now. Stereotypes ran rampant in every sector of pop culture, ranging from comic books to popular films to cartoons. Some of them could be argued as relatively harmless, although some will really hit a nerve.

Some WWII era cartoon shorts were notable for this. In 1942, Paramount released a World War II propoganda cartoon entitled You're a Sap, Mister Jap, which depicted Popeye fighting the Japanese. This piece does have historical significance as it does reflect the times, but this cartoon will not likely be seeing the light of day any time soon, unless it is part of a retrospective that would feature Warner Brothers cartoons depicting Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck fighting the Nazis.

Today, old Dick Tracy cartoons featuring Go-Go Gomez and Joe Jitsiu won't see the light of day. Controversy over the Warner Brothers character Speedy Gonzales led to his cartoons getting pulled by the Cartoon Network, despite the fact that he is still hugely popular with Latin American audiences. Disney goes to great lengths to supress anything that would make the stockholders see them as less than family friendly by editing out racist images from Fantasia and denying all existence of them.

And then there's the stuff that's being produced today. The popular television show 24 is controversial among Arab-American communities due to the depiction of Middle-Easterners as terrorists. Possibly in response to that, the recent episode depicts the protagonist Jack Bauer going into an Arab-American owned gun store and getting help from the two proprietors. I haven't quite decided if pandering to ethnic groups is more offensive than reflecting the current news headlines.

How will we see this in thirty or forty years? If our reaction to culturally insensitive material from the mid-50s is an indication, we might see it even worse. But then, who really knows? It could be because the speed that information travels causes controversy to be stirred much faster, so it could very well burn itself out and be forgotten long before then.

As it is, when somebody does something particularly silly and puts up anything like an ad or a movie that features a negative stereotype, the response is immediate. Back when Disney's Mulan hit the theatres, it was praised for cultural accuracy by various Chinese communities (heck, I like it too). And then McDonald's went off and did a stupid thing by having a cross-promotion with the film and doing a commercial where a young girl forces her family to eat their lunch sitting on the floor, ending with Ronald McDonald karate-chopping something in half. "Hi-ya! Did somebody say McDonald's?"

After doing some research, I found that there are a lot of people who posess the same Chinese Checkers board and are trying to sell it on eBay, promoting it as a 1950's relic. My sister got it new in the early 1980s. The high bids hover around $5. Collector's item indeed.

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