The Magnificent Seven’s Chinatown Episode and the Fragile Asian Girl

Continuing along with my research on the American Old West, I recently finished watching the 1998-2000 television series, The Magnificent Seven. This series was inspired by the Western movie of the same name released in 1960 which was in turn homage to the legendary Japanese film director Akira Kurosawa’s classic 1954 film, Seven Samurai.

I have not watched the original Magnificent Seven film nor have I seen Kurosawa’s original classic, both of which are up next in my Netflix que. However, I have seen the 2004 anime series Samurai 7 which is based on the original Kurosawa film and follows the original plot and characters pretty closely with a mecha-punk sci-fi backdrop instead of just feudal Japan.

At first, I thought the American TV series was going to be a shameless copy of the original, and that maybe I would just be watching the Japanese anime series again but with cowboys. However, after a somewhat corny start, this show actually panned out to be quite a good one, taking only the premise of the original films but developing the story in new directions, Old West appropriate.

Notably, I was complaining earlier about the late 80s Young Riders series and their lack of Asian Pacific Islander American characters despite the strong presence and role of APIs in the Old West. Although there was no regular API character throughout this 22 episode TV run, Episode 8 in Season 2 entitled “Chinatown” had a plethora of Chinese American characters that were portrayed by many seasoned API actors and actresses.

The “Chinatown” episode begins with the railroad construction coming nearby the town that the Magnificent 7 have been hired to protect. The Chinese railroad workers are of course being cheated of their full wages and those who complain or try to organize are being killed off. Two of the Chinese American railroad workers, father Chung Sun (George Cheung) and his son Wo Chin (John Cho), approach the Magnificent 7 and try to hire them to come and protect the Chinese workers and bring justice to the murder of his brother (Jim Lau). Our noble heroes naturally agree to look into it, and they do so for free.

A side story that feeds into this main conflict is the attempt of an opium-addicted man to sell his young niece Lei Pan (Kathleen Luong) to the highest bidder. The African American gunslingin’ doctor, Nathan Jackson (Rick Worthy), disgusted at this act of slavery, tries to outbid a corrupt railroad hired gun trying to buy Lei Pan. Not having enough money, Nathan threatens to reveal the mahjong cheating of his co-magnificent friend, Ezra Standish (Anthony Starke), if he doesn’t use some of his winnings to emancipate the poor woman. Reluctantly, Ezra agrees, and they free Lei Pan. Later, however, she shows up in his closet (creepy, I know), and offers to be his slave anyways. Ezra is a greedy man, but despite this fairly serious vice, he’s actually got a good heart. He pleads with her to leave, but she stays, saying she has nowhere else to go. After offering her the feather bed while he sleeps on the floor, the two become romantically close, and Lei Pan convinces Ezra to do something to help the Chinese railroad workers.

Overall portrayal of APIs? Eh, B+, which means pretty good. The fact that the Chinese American railroad workers were trying to organize and fight back against discrimination is not only historically accurate but also shows that they’re not just victims. John Cho’s character is given some complexity as he struggles with and resents the unfairness of life as a minority in America with a heavy dose of mistrust of the white man. He wrestles with hate, vengeance, and paranoia as he deals with the trials and tribulations that never stop trying to drown him. The selling of Kathleen Leong’s Asian female character by another Chinese American also does a good job of showing that the Chinese workers were not free of vice themselves, humanizing them with deep flaws.

The one portrayal I wish was different was the one of the Lei Pan, the API woman. She’s completely complacent and helpless as she’s being sold off, and when free, she runs off to hide in Ezra’s closet, submissively offering every service possible to her new “master”. And it’s only through Ezra’s good heart that she’s spared a life of slavery, and then he’s the one that runs off to risk his neck and help “her people” while she hides safely away back in his room. I’m trying not to be too “sensitive” about this, but when a character walks and talks and quacks like a stereotype, it’s kind of hard to draw any other conclusion.

Let me just compare her to other women characters in this series to prove my point. First of all, there’s the regular on the show Mary Travis (Laurie Holden), an educated and headstrong woman who kicks off the first episode holding back an entire lynch mob with a rifle, and when she’s easily knocked down by the mob, she screams for the townsfolk to stop the madness. She singlehandedly manages her late husband’s newspaper and printing press while being a single mother to her fatherless young son. Next, we have Maude Standish (Michelle Phillips), who shows up in a few episodes as Ezra’s independent, business-savvy, and brilliant con-woman mother who can manipulate any man or woman to do her bidding. Then there’s Rain (Siena Goines), a woman of African American and Native American parents, love interest of Nathan, who can leave her tribe at any time and ride out across the plains on her own to see Nathan when she wants to. Oh, and the youngest of the Magnificent Seven, J.D., has a tomboy girlfriend, Casey Wells (Dana Barron) who is always challenging him to spit farther, shoot sharper, or ride better than her. The brilliantly titled episode “Lady Killers” is about two bounty-hunting women, one of which is probably a better shot than any of the Magificent 7. Last but definitely not least is Inez Rocios (Fabiana Udenio), a feisty bartender and waitress at the saloon who can knock a guy out faster than she can adjust her purty skirt or blouse.

And then there’s Lei Pan, who hides in a closet after two men buy her freedom. Sigh.

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