Thursday 11 September 2008


In the years between the wars the word Chinatown carried an immense variety of transgressive associations. It was the exotic locale for an endless sequence of detective fiction, white slave melodramas, musical comedies, gangster movies and tales of opium smoking and heroin smuggling. Even contemporary authors as sophisticated as Philip Pullman have been seduced by the concept of Chinatown as a reliable vehicle for the creation of instant mystery and exoticism (The Ruby in the Smoke). Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op was a frequent visitor to do battle with the Oriental forces of evil.

This fold-out postcard (undated but probably from the inter war years) makes its own small contribution to the enduring myths about China and Chinese culture as transplanted to California with generous displays of exotic costume and architecture. Fortune-tellers and a soothsayer pose for the camera and underline the association with gambling and the occult. There’s evidence of an extravagant quantity of photo retouching to the point where many figures are left floating in space, detached from their surroundings by an over-enthusiasm for eliminating shadows and textures. This was truly the first golden age of the air-brush.

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