Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong. With a title as lurid as that, how can you not be interested?
Part tribute, part meta deconstruction of the Yellow Peril pulp subgenre, Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong is by F. Paul Wilson, author of Black Wind and the Repairman Jack series. The book is more a collection of stories with multiple POVs, all of which converge to form a single narrative. Longtime readers of pulp fiction will recognize several characters who make an appearance here.
The action takes place in 1938, San Francisco. One overall story ties the three novellas together – the exploits of a mysterious crime lord known as ‘the Mandarin’. However, anyone who gets too close to uncovering the Mandarin’s true identity meets a horrific demise.
The Mandarin has several nicknames, most telling of which is the ‘Lord of Strange Deaths’. Fans of pulps and Sax Rohmer in particular will have no problem identifying the illustrious Dr. Fu Manchu, even if that specific name isn’t used anywhere in the book. Copyright issues, and all. Interestingly enough, a similar tactic was used in Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula.
The three novellas are:
Part 1 – Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong
A young redhead (who has a daddy named Oliver, hmmmm) goes missing in Chinatown, and a San Francisco detective named Brannigan is sent in to find her. Along the way, he crosses paths with an unnamed Continental Operative (hmmmm) and the cop who actually patrols Chinatown, Sorenson. Turns out, Sorensen was getting close to the Mandarin and meets a particularly gruesome fate.
Brannigan eventually does track down the headquarters of the Dragon Tong, ruled by the mysterious Mandarin, and his descent into its depths is reminiscent of many pulp heroes venturing into the bowels of the underworld. I loved it.
Part 2 – Part of the Game
Here we flash over to Sorenson, and see exactly how he met such a gruesome fate. Turns out, he kind of brought it upon himself. Not as good as the first story, since the action is kept at a minimum. Still, it’s an engaging story about the perils of greed and tempting fate.
Part 3 – Dragon’s Tongue
This story is told through the POV of the Continental Op, the famous character created by Dashiell Hammett. While searching for the mysterious Mandarin, the Op comes in contact with an equally mysterious Chinese woman named Nuying. She claims to be a concubine for the Mandarin, but instead of sex, she simply poses for him in suggestive manners.
Nuying appears to be the Op’s best bet to uncovering the Mandarin, so they form an alliance. However, certain clues appear that he might be being led into a trap.
Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong is a quick read and pretty entertaining. However, one should be aware of the casual use of racist slurs, all of which were extremely common in 1938 and especially in the Yellow Peril pulps. The author stated that he included this to remain true to the source material. Part of it definitely feels like a pulp from that era, whereas other passages (the end of Dragon’s Tongue) seem like a meta commentary on the genre itself. We have to remember the way times were, unpleasant slurs included, and not the way we want them to be.
I was curious about the thought process behind Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong, so I contacted the author, F. Paul Wilson for an interview.
1) What inspired you to write the book?
It began with the title story. Joe Lansdale called and asked me to contribute to his Retro Pulp Tales anthology. I volunteered a Yellow Peril story and he said go for it. The lurid title popped into my head and I was on my way. I decided right off to set it in the 1930s and involve a face-off between two fictional titans of the period: Fu Manchu and a comic strip character from those times – an icon created by Harold Gray
2) What drew you toward the ‘Yellow Peril’ pulp subgenre?
I was fifteen years old when I spotted The Insidious Doctor Fu-Manchu in a paperback rack. I’d heard of Fu-Manchu. I remembered as a kid catching an episode or two of a TV series called The Adventures of Dr. Fu Manchu on TV, but not being too impressed. I opened the book and saw it had been originally published in 1913. Really? How good could it be? But, desperate for something weird to read, I bought it. (That copy sits on one of my bookshelves to this day.)
And loved it.
This was my introduction to Yellow Peril fiction via the character who became the paradigm of Oriental evil: Dr. Fu-Manchu (the hyphen disappeared after the third novel), the Lord of Strange Deaths… the epitome of villainy in his day. But he wasn’t a mere mustache-twirling bad guy (he never had a mustache, by the way). He was far more complex.
3) The Yellow Peril is a racist term, designed to demonized Asians. Do you think this subgenre still exists in modern day thrillers?
Yes and no. It’s not the Chinese anymore. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese became the Yellow Peril, but the Nazis eclipsed them and persisted long after the war. Then the Red Menace emerged during the Cold War, followed by the Islamic crazies of today. One might say Far Eastern Peril has become Middle Eastern Peril, but it’s less racial because Islam is a belief system that’s not confined to any race.
4) While Sax Rohmer’s first three novels are in the public domain, the character of Fu Manchu is not. Were you wary of arousing the wrath of the Rohmer Estate by using the cover of the “Mandarin” to disguise the Devil Doctor?
I was more concerned about the Hollywood studio that holds the Little Orphan Annie license, so I played it safe and disguised Daddy Warbucks. Once I did that, it seemed only fair to disguise Fu Manchu as well — besides, the obliquity made it more fun for the knowing reader. Bringing in the Continental Op for part three was easy because no one ever knew his name anyway.
5) I’ve always found Fu Manchu to be the more interesting character, despite his villainy, and rooted for him over Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie. Did you have any admiration for him while writing this?
Always admired the Lord of Strange Deaths. Even as a teen I recognized him as an honorable figure, with a strict (though skewed) moral or ethical code. Fu Manchu would devise the most fiendish ways to dispose of people who stood in the way of his plans, but he had an inviolate sense of honor and would never break his word. If you reached a stalemate with him and he said you were free to go, you could turn and walk away without fearing a knife in your back. But your reprieve would last only so long as you stayed out of his way. Although he worked for a criminal organization, his agenda was honorable: Get the white colonials out of China — China for the Chinese.
6) There is a sort of meta-commentary/deconstruction of the Yellow Peril genre, particularly Fah lo Suee’s speech at the end. Was this intentional?
Yes. It was a commentary on the attitude toward the Asians in our midst back then. I read a clutch of Yellow Peril stories (would you believe a title like “It’s Raining Corpses in Chinatown”?) to prep for “Sex Slaves…” and was put off by the attitudes of the white characters. But my lens has a wide enough angle to realize that the French expression applies: Autres temps, autres moeurs. Racism was the zeitgeist, the very air the writers were breathing. Not hate, per se,more like casual contempt and smug condescension. Even if you were a down-and-out whitey, at least you were better than a “chink.” I let Fah lo Suee rage against that.
7) The book isn’t structured like a traditional narrative, but rather three separate stories that intertwine. What was the rationale behind writing like this?
The title story (“Sex Slaves…”) was written as a stand-alone. A while after, at one of my signings at Dark Delicacies, Del Howison told me that he and Jeff Gelb were putting together an anthology of stories by people who’d signed at the store. They were calling it – surprise! – Dark Delicacies. He had no theme other than a riff on the title. Delicacies… edibles… and it occurred to me that Detective Sorenson’s travails (he had a cameo in “Sex Slaves…” and was being eaten alive from within) would make a perfect fit. That became “Part of the Game.” Then, to round out the triptych, I enlisted another San Francisco regular, an operative from the Continental Detective Agency who’d had some previous dealings in Chinatown.
8) What has been the reaction to Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong?
Mixed. An amazing number of clueless people out there consider themselves qualified to review books. A fair number didn’t recognize Daddy Warbucks; some didn’t even catch on to Fu Manchu. Others were way put off because the dialogue didn’t kow-tow to 21st century sensibilities. Yeah, characters referred to the Chinese as “chinks” and “coolies.” That was the white guys’ parlance in 1937, and the dialogue would be not only anachronistic but flat out dishonest if it failed to conform to it.
Then there are people who are tuned in, who get it, like the Bookgasm reviewer who said: “I’m absolutely in love with “Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong”…you’ll laugh, smile and thank God for F. Paul Wilson. Another masterstroke.”
9) Was there a particular reason for setting it in the 1930s? The Mandarin mentions the Japanese invasion of China, but the infamous Tong Wars happened much earlier in the 20th and late 19th century.
Fu Manchu would have been above the Tong Wars. His agenda had always been China for the Chinese and to get the white man out. But in 1938 he had to eject another yellow race: the Japanese. He was virtually ageless due to life-prolonging treatments, so he would have been reasonably spry in 1938. Daddy Warbucks (who could kick ass when called upon) was in his prime in the 1930s and 1940s. I liked the irony of Warbucks offering to sell guns to Fu Manchu to resist the Japanese, so 1938 seemed perfect.
10) What are you working on currently?
Working on a novel, a novella, and waiting for the contracts on a comic book deal.
You can purchase Sex Slaves of the Dragon Tong here.