Envisioning Asia: On Location, Travel, and the Cinematic Geography of U. S. Orientalism

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"Whereas some other scholars read selected films mainly to illustrate political arguments, Roan never loses sight of the particularities of film as a distinctive cultural form and practice. Her drive to see 'cinema as a mechanism of American orientalism' results in not just a textual analysis of these films, but also a history of their material production and distribution."
---Josephine Lee, University of Minnesota

"Envisioning Asia offers an exciting new contribution to our understandings of the historical developments of American Orientalism. Jeannette Roan deftly situates changing cinematic technologies within the context of U.S. imperial agendas in this richly nuanced analysis of 'shooting on location' in Asia in early 20th century American cinema."
---Wendy Kozol, Oberlin College

"Through her vivid illustration of the role of American cinema in the material, visual, and ideological production of Asia, Jeanette Roan takes the reader on a journey to Asia through a very different route from the virtual travel taken by the viewers of the films she discusses."
---Mari Yoshihara, University of Hawai'i at Manoa

The birth of cinema coincides with the beginnings of U.S. expansion overseas, and the classic Hollywood era coincides with the rise of the United States as a global superpower. In Envisioning Asia, Jeanette Roan argues that throughout this period, the cinema's function as a form of virtual travel, coupled with its purported "authenticity," served to advance America's shifting interests in Asia. Its ability to fulfill this imperial role depended, however, not only on the cinematic representations themselves but on the marketing of the films' production histories---and, in particular, their use of Asian locations. Roan demonstrates this point in relation to a wide range of productions, offering an engaging and useful survey of a largely neglected body of film. Not only that, by focusing on the material practices involved in shooting films on location---that is, the actual travels, negotiations, and labor of making a film---she moves beyond formal analysis to produce a richly detailed history of American interests, attitudes, and cultural practices during the first half of the twentieth century.

Jeanette Roan is Adjunct Professor of Visual Studies at California College of the Arts and author of "Exotic Explorations: Travels to Asia and the Pacific in Early Cinema" in Re/collecting Early Asian America: Essays in Cultural History (2002).

Cover art: Publicity still, Tokyo File 212 (Dorrell McGowan and Stuart McGowan, 1951). The accompanying text reads: "Hundreds of spectators gather on the sidelines as technicians prepare to photograph a parade scene in 'Tokyo File 212,' a Breakston-McGowan Production filmed in Japan for RKO Radio distribution." Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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Editorial Reviews

American Quarterly Review - Kent A. Ono

"Jeanette Roan emphasizes context itself, taking a cultural studies approach to her study of “on location” cinema. ... This novel approach contributes significantly by drawing attention to the need in film and media research for broad historicization and contextualizing that makes clear the role of discourse in understanding changing historical and geopolitical conditions as related to shifting technological, rhetorical, and instrumental choices in cinema."
---American Quarterly Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780472070831
  • Publisher: University of Michigan Press
  • Publication date: 5/10/2010
  • Pages: 278
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

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Envisioning Asia

On Location, Travel, and the Cinematic Geography of U.S. Orientalism
By Jeanette Roan


Copyright © 2010 University of Michigan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-07083-1

Chapter One

"To travel is to possess the world"

The Illustrated Travel Lectures of E. Burton Holmes

"The World 100 Years Ago"

The illustrated travel lecturer Elias Burton Holmes began his 1953 autobiography The World Is Mine with his motto, "To travel is to possess the world." He intended the phrase metaphorically: "I know that through travel I have possessed the world more completely, more satisfyingly than if I had acquired the whole earth by purchase or conquest. "Yet despite his care in setting apart travel, which "takes naught from any man," from the brute economic, political, and military realities of purchase and conquest, Holmes's remarkable career as a professional traveler was made possible in many ways by precisely these practices. At the turn of the twentieth century, the entertaining narratives and picturesque images of the Burton Holmes Lectures represented the world to Americans at the dawn of the American Century. Holmes claimed, not without reason, that "many lands became, through my efforts, visibly familiar to my increasing audiences." In keeping with Edward Said's imperative to "look carefully and integrally at the culture that nurtured the sentiment, rationale, and above all the imagination of empire," we must analyze such representations as more than merely entertainment. Viewed in the context of the imperial contests of the turn of the century, these representations constituted an important element of a national culture struggling with questions of economic expansion, racial and cultural difference, and colonial conquest.

As a young boy, historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. attended the Burton Holmes Lectures at Boston's Symphony Hall in the 1920s with his mother. Many decades later, he wrote the introduction to The World 100 Years Ago, a 1998 publication that reprinted abbreviated versions of some of Holmes's lectures. The essay begins:

Burton Holmes!-forgotten today, but such a familiar name in America in the first half of the 20th century, a name then almost synonymous with dreams of foreign travel.... He taught generations of Americans about the great world beyond the seas. His books are still readable today and show new generations how their grandparents learned about a world that has since passed away but remains a fragrant memory.

Holmes's photographs, films, and lectures are indeed valuable documents of the "World 100 Years Ago" and as such also provide important evidence of United States overseas expansionism at the turn of the twentieth century. Holmes had extraordinary timing: he was on the scene in Hawai'i as the Senate was voting to annex it, in Manila near the beginning of the Philippine-American War, and inside the Forbidden City in Beijing, formerly Peking, soon after the conclusion of the Boxer Uprising. He characterized the first fourteen years of the century as "those happy years" when" I was almost alone in the then peculiar field of showing Americans what the world, outside of America, looked like." Holmes was not, of course, the first or the only person to bring images of foreign countries to U.S. audiences. But at the very moment that Holmes was "showing Americans what the world, outside America, looked like," a dramatic redefinition was occurring not only in technologies of showing but also in the concept of America as a nation and its relationship to the world outside. Holmes enthusiastically embraced each of these changes; his sense of the historic, along with the size and demographic of his public following, makes him an especially important purveyor of travel images in this period. He was also one of the first, if not the first, illustrated travel lecturer to incorporate moving pictures into his presentations. This fact makes his work particularly relevant to this book's examination of U.S. films shot on location in Asia. In sum, Holmes combined the visual and dramatic possibilities offered by cinema with the well-worn conventions of the travel lecture. Thus, his lectures offer an early vision of the power of film as both a form of virtual travel and a form of knowledge of faraway places.

Holmes's lectures, initially accompanied only by hand-painted photographic slides, are part of the history of what Charles Musser calls "screen practice," which situates cinema within a historical model that addresses a range of related technologies, representational strategies, and social and cultural functions. This model therefore allows film historians to consider texts, such as Holmes's early lectures, that do not conform to what we would today recognize as "cinema." Yet his lectures utilized structures and stylistic strategies that would later become familiar in narrative cinema. Thus, as we examine the discourse of travel that undergirds shooting on location, Holmes provides a link to the past as he exemplifies the conventions of illustrated travel lectures; he also provides a connection to the future development not only of travel cinema but also more generally of fictional narratives in moving pictures. As Rick Altman argues, "In terms of the history of cinema, the editing strategies evident in Holmes's lectures are precisely those that cinema needed in order to develop beyond its early photographic, documentary, mimetic approach." Examining Holmes's lectures therefore allows us to compare still photographs to moving images and nonnarrative cinematic travel views to more familiar story films. However, my analysis in this chapter not only sheds light on the history of cinema but also answers the question of how these modes of representation shaped the imaginative geography of Japan, China, the Philippines, and Hawai'i for turn-of-the-century Americans.

Holmes lectured about these faraway lands and distant cultures at a time when Americans were beginning to see Asia and the Pacific from the perspective of owners of newly acquired territories and occupiers of defeated nations. How might Holmes's travels, as represented in words, still images, and moving images, help Americans to reimagine their place in the world and their new identity as an overseas imperial power? As Said has said of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the novel was "part of the European effort to hold on to, think about, plan for Africa." In effect, "To represent Africa is to enter the battle over Africa." Similarly, Holmes represented parts of Asia and the Pacific to Americans at a time when their relationship to these places was changing. As he encountered these redefinitions of national identity in an international context, he maintained a spirit of optimism, curiosity, and national pride. In projecting this attitude, he clearly exemplifies the figure of the emblematic American of the period, enthusiastic about the new responsibilities of the nation and confident about its abilities to fulfill them.

Since Holmes was the sole author of his lectures and almost always the speaker at the podium, he was the primary figure of identification for his audiences. Therefore, I begin by recounting some details of his life to illuminate the subjective positioning he offered in relation to the people and places he encountered in his travels. Holmes was not always a travel lecturer, and the circumstances that led to his decision to become one demonstrate how his lectures were a part of a larger national effort to understand the world and the place of the United States within it. I then compare his work to that of John L. Stoddard, his famous predecessor, to examine the innovations in technique and technology Holmes brought to the genteel illustrated travel lecture, not least by introducing films to the format. In the second half of the chapter, I examine three Holmes lectures-on Hawai'i, Manila, and the Forbidden City-that depict the U.S. expansion into Asia and the Pacific. Although Holmes's professional life as an illustrated travel lecturer began in 1893 and continued for several years after World War II, in this chapter I focus only on these early lectures. My analysis is based on the versions of Holmes's lectures published in a multivolume book collection that purports to reproduce the spoken text in full but includes only a selection of the accompanying slides and films. Since the lectures are available in book form, they are accessible primary texts. However, the book versions are not the same thing as the performed lectures, so in addition to analyzing the texts of the published lectures, I consult reviews of his performances for details of how they were promoted to and received by audiences.


Both of Holmes's parents were descended from English settlers who arrived in New England in the seventeenth century. Holmes was born and raised in Chicago, in a socially prominent family. He received relatively little formal education, choosing to leave Chicago's Harvard School for Boys at the age of sixteen, though most of his friends continued on and many eventually attended Yale University. According to his autobiography, he first traveled abroad to Europe with his mother and grandmother in 1886, shortly after leaving school. In 1890, he again accompanied his grandmother to Europe, and a year later, the pair toured Mexico by train. In 1892, Holmes's boyhood friend, Albert W. Goodrich, invited him on a trip to Japan. Holmes felt an immediate affinity for the country: though he arrived on a stormy day, "From the first moment, despite the gloomy aspect of everything that morning, Japan fascinated me." Years later, he reflected, "I doubt if I have ever been happier than during the four months I spent in the as yet unspoiled Japanese Japan of 1892." Holmes wholeheartedly embraced Japanese culture, boasting of how he could use chopsticks by his second Japanese meal. Despite his numerous visits to the capitals of Europe, which clearly thrilled and delighted him, and his brief excursion into Mexico, something in Japan enthralled Holmes as no other place did. The beginnings of Holmes's lifelong passion for travel and vocation as a travel lecturer thus lie in this fascination with the difference of Japan. Judging from the content of his lectures and autobiography, however, Holmes was enchanted not with the history and politics of the country but with what might be understood as lifestyle-that is, "customs, dress, food, [and] manner of life."

In the fall of 1893, shortly after his return from Japan, the twenty-three-year-old Holmes attended the World's Columbian Exposition in his hometown. He was one of more than twenty-seven million adults and children to see the exposition over its six-month duration. He described the experience with great enthusiasm, recalling, "I found in that great exposition an epitome and a foretaste of the great world that I longed to see. I travelled around the world within the gates of the Chicago Fair." Furthermore, "the Fair had so intensified my love for things foreign, exotic, far-away and unfamiliar that I resolved, before going back to work, to try to find a way to keep on going places, seeing things, indulging my wanderlust." He soon abandoned his job as a photo supply clerk for a career in travel:

The photo supply house offered me fifteen dollars a week to return. But I didn't want to work. The trip to Japan, the Oriental exhibits of the Exposition, were still on my mind. I thought of Stoddard. I thought of the slides I'd had hand-colored in Tokyo. That was it, and it wasn't work. So I hired a hall and became a travel lecturer.

Holmes explicitly conceived of his lectures as an extension of or even a substitute for the immensely popular exposition: "When the Columbian Exposition closed its gates in November, 1893, I felt that the world needed something important to fill the void! I decided to present 'The E. Burton Holmes Lectures' to the local public of my native city and then-who knows?" Film scholars have frequently noted how world's fairs and international expositions at the turn of the century influenced early cinema. Writing specifically of the Chicago Columbian Exposition, Lauren Rabinovitz argues, "Fairgoers learned about a new modernist, cinematically situated spectatorship because it was part of the overall discursive formation of visual culture and social practices acting upon the observer's construction of knowledge." Therefore, the Columbian Exposition influenced Holmes's decision to become a travel lecturer not only by reinforcing his interest in "things foreign, exotic, far-away and unfamiliar" but also by providing a model of a spectacular form of entertainment that offered up the world for visual consumption. Just as Holmes traveled and learned about the world by visiting the exhibits of the exposition, so too would his audiences see the world by attending his lectures and viewing the slides and films of the places he had seen, learning about the world and their place in it in a pleasurable but also educational manner.

Although Holmes, as a member of the Chicago Camera Club, had presented an earlier illustrated travel lecture based on his tour of Europe, he debuted as a professional lecturer on November 15, 1893, at the Recital Hall of Chicago's Auditorium Building. He presented "Japan-The Country" in front of "a fairly large, fashionable and feminine audience." (The audience members, each of whom paid $1.00 for a single lecture or $1.50 to attend the two-lecture course, had been culled from Holmes's mother's visiting book and The Blue Book.) One week later, he presented "Japan-The Cities" to an even larger audience of well-heeled Chicagoans. This first professional venture, which included one matinee and one evening performance of each of his two lectures, yielded seven hundred dollars in ticket sales. These lectures also marked the beginning of Holmes's long association with Oscar Depue, who was hired to project the lantern slides at this performance and later became Holmes's motion picture cameraman. Although an appearance in Milwaukee one month later cost Holmes the profits of his debut engagement, he persisted, and in 1897, Stoddard, the preeminent travel lecturer of the time, retired and anointed Holmes as his successor, greatly enhancing Holmes's growing professional reputation. An article announcing Holmes's upcoming January 1899 lectures in Washington, D.C., assured readers that he was "fully worthy of the recommendations and sponsorship extended to him by his illustrious predecessor," naming Stoddard as "one of Mr. Holmes' greatest friends and admirers." The article reprinted the text of a December 16, 1897, letter in which Stoddard congratulated Holmes on securing an engagement at Daly's Theater in New York City as Stoddard's replacement. Perhaps not coincidentally, 1897 was also the year Holmes began using motion pictures.

Tradition and Innovation

The addition of moving pictures was only one indication of how Holmes differed from his predecessor in the way he conceived of travel and the techniques and technologies of illustrated travel lectures. When Stoddard crossed paths with Holmes on the way to Vancouver, where they would both board the steamship Empress of Japan for Yokohama, he was embarking on his first and only trip around the world. Stoddard held a nostalgic view of travel and lamented the advent of modern technologies of communication and transport, accusing them of robbing the earth of its romance. His wistful longing for a vanishing era of travel is apparent in the opening sentences of his lecture on Japan:

It is now nearly four hundred years since the brave discoverer, Magellan, first sailed around the world. Yet, till comparatively recent times, three years were necessary to complete the circuit. To-day, some Phineas [sic] Fogg can put a girdle round the earth in less than eighty days, and messages are flashed to us from China and Ceylon in less than eighty seconds. The old-time spirit of adventure amid unknown scenes, which thrilled the traveler of former years, has, therefore, well-nigh disappeared.


Excerpted from Envisioning Asia by Jeanette Roan Copyright © 2010 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: On Location and the Production of Place....................1
CHAPTER ONE "To travel is to possess the world": The Illustrated Travel Lectures of E. Burton Holmes....................27
CHAPTER TWO Asia in Early American Cinema: From Street Scenes to War Stories....................69
CHAPTER THREE Knowing China: Accuracy, Authenticity, and The Good Earth....................113
CHAPTER FOUR At Home in the World: Occupied Japan and the American Century....................157
Selected Bibliography....................245
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