Shaping Stereotypes in a Space of Absence: A Linguistic Analysis of Wayne Wang’s “Chan Is Missing”

Dora Renna


Wayne Wang’s Chan Is Missing (1981) was acclaimed by the critics and broadly appreciated by the public for its innovative style and its lively depiction of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Academic discourse has focused on the film’s ability to embody the essence of Asian Americans (Tajima 1990), and on the challenges it poses to the common assumptions concerning this specific minority within the United States (Feng 1996). Indeed, the film is a milestone for cinema in general, and for the representation of Asians and Chinese Americans in particular, for it manages to be many different films at the same time.
The aim of this paper is to use Systemic Functional Linguistics and Critical Discourse Analysis to investigate the linguistic image construction of Chan (whose name echoes the notorious Charlie Chan from the beginning of the 20th century) within the film. His identikit is (and at the same time fails to be) the outcome of a chorus of different voices. While the two protagonists, Jo and Steve, look for the missing Chan Hung, they talk to several people who have met him. Each character delivers a fragment of a shapeless portrait that does not help the protagonists finding him, actually causing even more confusion on his location and his identity. Each description has little to do with Chan himself, as it only represents the characters’ confrontation with the stereotypes attached to the Asian and Chinese American community. This attempt to use Chan as an image of what each character wants to detach from in order to define themselves is made possible and at the same time invalidated by his continuous absence, which represents the essence of the stereotype itself—only real in the words of the beholder.


stereotypes; cinema; Systemic Functional Grammar; Critical Discourse Analysis; Asian American

Full Text:



Abrams, Zara. “Countering Stereotypes about Asian Americans.” Monitor on Psychology by the American Psychological Association 50.11 (2019): 26.

Butt, David, et al. Using Functional Grammar: An Explorers’ Guide. Second Edition. Sidney: Macquarie University Press, 2000.

Cable, Vince. “America is Rekindling the Dangerous Myth of the ‘Yellow Peril’ to Wage a New War with China.” Independent 5 May 2020. All websites last visited on 21/04/2021.

Canagarajah, Suresh. Translingual Practice: Global Englishes and Cosmopolitan Relations. London: Routledge, 2013.

Chan is Missing. 27 June 2012.

Chang, Iris. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. New York: Viking, 2003.

Chao, Melody Manchi, et al. “The Model Minority as a Shared Reality and Its Implication for Interracial Perceptions.” Asian American Journal of Psychology 4.2 (2013): 84-92.

Chong, Christina Shu Jien. “Where Are the Asians in Hollywood? Can §1981, TITLE VII, Colorblind Pitches, and Understanding Biases Break the Bamboo Ceiling?” Asian Pacific American Law Journal, 21.1 (2016): 29-79.

Fairclough, Norman. Discourse and Social Change. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992.

Feng, Peter X. Identities in Motion: Asian American Film and Video. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002.

---. “Being Chinese American, Becoming Asian American: ‘Chan Is Missing.’” Cinema Journal 35.4 (1996): 88-118.

Franklin, Sidney, Sam Wood and Gustav Machatý. The Good Earth. 1937.

Gabriel, John. Whitewash: Racialized Politics and the Media. London: Routledge, 1998.

Greene, Naomi. From Fu Manchu to Kung Fu Panda. Images of China in American Film. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2014.

Griffith, David Wark. Broken Blossoms. 1919.

Halliday, Michael and Christian Matthiessen. Introduction to Functional Grammar. Fourth Edition. London: Routledge, 2014.

Hong, Nicole and Jonah E. Bromwich. “Asian-Americans Are Being Attacked. Why Are Hate Crime Charges So Rare?” 2021. New York Times 18 March 2021.

Hughes, John. Sixteen Candles. 1984.

Hwang, David Henry. FOB and Other Plays. New York: Plume, 1990.

Jia, Wenshan. The Remaking of the Chinese Character and Identity in the 21st Century: The Chinese Face Practices. Westport: Ablex Publishing, 2001.

Kawai, Yuko. “Stereotyping Asian Americans: The Dialectic of the Model Minority and the Yellow Peril.” The Howard Journal of Communications 16.2 (2005): 109-130.

Lamster, Fabian, et al. “The Impact of Loneliness on Paranoia: an Experimental Approach.” Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry 54 (2017): 51-57.

Lê Espiritu, Yến. Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

Levin, Sam. “‘We’re the Geeks, the Prostitutes:’ Asian American Actors on Hollywood’s Barriers.” The Guardian 11 April 2017.

Lowe, Lisa. “Heterogeneity, Hybridity, Multiplicity: Marking Asian American Differences.” Diaspora 1.1 (1991): 24–44.

Lum, Wing Tek. “Chan is Missing Marks New Age of Asian American Film.” East/West (1982): 9-10.

Ma, Sheng-mei. Alienglish: Eastern Diasporas in Anglo-American Tongues. Amherst: Cambria Press, 2014.

---. Off-white: Yellowface and Chinglish by Anglo-American Culture. London: Bloomsbury, 2020.

Mark, Diane Mei Lin. Chan is Missing. A Film by Wayne Wang. With Introduction and Screen Notes by Diane Mei Lin Mark. Honolulu: Bamboo Ridge Press, 1984.

“Model Minority Stereotype for Asian Americans.” Counseling and Mental Health Center, University of Texas at Austin, 2008.

Mok, Karen. “Getting the Message: Media Images and Stereotypes and Their Effect on Asian Americans.” Cultural Diversity and Mental Health 4.3 (1998): 185-202.

Okihiro, G Y. Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994.

Ono, Kent A. and Vincent N. Pham. Asian Americans and the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2009.

Patterson, Richard. “Chan is Missing, or How to Make a Successful Feature for $22,315.92.” American Cinematographer (1983): 32-39.

Ramírez Berg, Charles. Latino Images in Film: Stereotypes, Subversion, and Resistance. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2002.

Rohmer, Sax. The Insidious Dr Fu Manchu. 1913. New York: Dover, 1997.

Sanders, Rupert. Ghost in the Shell. 2017.

Sriwimon, Lanchukorn and Pattamawan Jimarkon Zilli. “Applying Critical Discourse Analysis as a Conceptual Framework for Investigating Gender Stereotypes in Political Media Discourse.” Kasetsart Journal of Social Sciences 38 (2017): 136-142.

Tajima, Renee. “Moving the Image: Asian American Independent Filmmaking 1970-1990.” UCLA American Studies Center (1991): 10-33.

Thompson, Geoff. Introducing Functional Grammar. Third Edition. London: Routledge, 2013.

van Dijk, Teun. “Critical Discourse Analysis.” The Handbook of Discourse Analysis. Edited by Deborah Schiffrin, Deborah Tannen and Heidi E. Hamilton. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004. 352-371.

van Doorslaer, Luc, Peter Flynn and Joep Leerssen. Interconnecting Translation Studies and Imagology. Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 2016.

Wang, Wayne. Chan is Missing. 1981.

Ward, Colleen A., Stephen Bohner and Adrian Furnham. The Psychology of Culture Shock. London: Routledge, 2001.

Wodak, Ruth. “What CDA is About. A Summary of Its History, Important Concepts and Its Developments.” Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis. Edited by Ruth Wodak and Michael Meyer. London: Sage, 2001. 1-13.

Zhang, Qin. “Asian Americans Beyond the Model Minority Stereotype: The Nerdy and the Left Out.” Journal of International and Intercultural Communication 3.1 (2010): 20-37.



  • There are currently no refbacks.