Filmscalpel‘s Vimeo essay on the Oedipal undercurrents in Chinatown is intriguing as far as it goes, but what caught my attention is the female narrator’s use of the term “Chinaman.” In strict p.c. terms this is like saying “Oriental.” The business-as-usual response would be for a p.c. lynch mob to come down on Vimeo like a ton of bricks and demand that the narrator be tarred and feathered and run out of town. I’m presuming that the writer got into the flow of the film and the 1930s period flavor and the personality of J.J. Gittes and the word “Chinaman” just popped out — an innocent blunder. Note: It was actually a linguistic misunderstanding due to the author of the piece being Dutch and raised in Europe and being unfamiliar with the incorrectness of the term. [See statement below.]
My heart skips a beat whenever someone makes a mistake along these lines or, better yet, deliberately ignores or taunts the p.c. mob. Like Chrissie Hynde, for example, who became irate during yesterday’s interview with NPR’s David Greene, or more precisely because of Greene’s needling questions about how she used the wrong words in telling that story about being sexually ravaged by a group of bikers when she was 21. She described the p.c. crowd as a kind of “lynch mob.”
Email from David of Filmscalpel: “I just saw your blogpost on my Chinatown video essay and wanted to clear a few things up. I posted the video over a week ago, and only got positive feedback. Until two days ago, that is, when somebody posted a short comment: “She said chinaman” (sic). This prompted me to look into the term, for indeed I had written it in the text without knowing of its contested stature in U.S. English.
“I’m not American. My native language is Dutch, and I am born and raised in Europe. English is my third language, in fact. Because of my bad accent, I got a female to record that narration for me (she is not to blame however — she just read what I gave her).
“When I read about the term and its connotation, I felt very bad.True, you can defend its use here: after all, Gittes himself uses the word ‘Chinaman’ in one of the most memorable scenes from the film, where he first meets Evelyn while he is telling a dirty joke. But still, I did not want to cause any discomfort or show disrespect. Which is why I edited out the word immediately and replaced the video — I have no idea why the old version still shows in your post.
“So I was not taunting the p.c. crowd. I was just unaware of the term’s negative connotation. As said, I feel badly about this. I hope this clarifies things.”