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


  • Dora Renna Ce' Foscari University of Venice



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


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.


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