Thursday April 17, 2003


The Web of

Fu Manchu

By Robert Rudolph
Star-Ledger Staff

"In a few moments, the entire world will capitulate to me. This is the destiny of Fu Manchu."

He has been described as the world's most evil genius, a brilliant but diabolical master criminal bent on nothing short of global domination.

He is one of the world's great fictional villains, a character created by a one-time bank clerk and perfume designer named Arthur Sarsfield Ward, who introduced Fu Manchu and his plans for world conquest to the public in a 1913 short story, "The Zayat Kiss."

Photo: Kathleen W. Perlett for the Star-Ledger

 Written under the pen name of Sax Rohmer, Ward's tale of the exploits of the Asian "devil doctor" and his chief nemesis, Sir Denis Nayland Smith, so captured the imagination of the public that it served as the springboard for a continuing series of more than 200 novels and stories that have been translated into at least two dozen languages, including Icelandic and Japanese.

 Although Rohmer died in 1959, the legacy of Fu Manchu -- which includes movies, television shows and even a mustache style -- is being kept alive by Lawrence Knapp, a decidedly non-sinister 54-year-old New Jersey college professor who has created his own global network of Fu Manchu fans. 

Knapp is the mastermind behind an elaborate Web site (http://www.njedge.net/(tilde)knapp/FuManchu.htm) that offers just about anything anyone could hope to know about the life and times of fictional Fu and his real-life creator.

The site, lavishly illustrated with movie posters, book jackets, comic strips and photographs, is not just a flight of fancy, but is described as a "demonstration project of international scholarship and community." The page is sponsored by the NJEDge.Net, a nonprofit private organization affiliated with the New Jersey President's Council, comprising the presidents of 49 of the state's colleges and universities.

Since its conception in 1997, the site has drawn contributors from around the world, many of them scholars and experts in the field of science and academia, offering their views, analyses and speculation on the enduring fascination of Dr. Fu Manchu.

Knapp, a professor of English at Essex County College, said he is astonished at the response the Web site has received.

The Montclair resident said he initially set up the Web page as an experimental faculty initiative, "but when I put it on the Web, the response was overwhelming."

"I'm amazed," he admitted. "People tell me what material they have and if they don't see it there, they offer to scan it and send it to me. I even get books in the mail."

Knapp noted that among the contributors to the site are an astronomer at the Konkoly Observatory in Hungary, a researcher for the National University of Iceland and a research librarian at Brandeis University.

Fans of the stories, however, remain at something of a loss to explain the worldwide enthusiasm for a character created nearly a century ago.

"Essentially," said Robert E. Briney, a professor of computer science at Salem State College in Massachusetts, "they are fast action adventure stories."

Briney said he believes what set the Fu Manchu stories apart are "the distinctiveness of the character" and the fog-shrouded London streets and mysterious underground passages that provide a colorful backdrop to Fu's nefarious activities.

Knapp compared him to Mario Puzo's "Godfather": "He's evil, and yet he's honorable. As diabolical and mysterious as he was, if he gave you his word, he was good for it."

In the first novel, he is strikingly described by his pursuer, Sir Denis Nayland Smith:

"Imagine a person, tall, lean and feline, high-shouldered, with a brow like Shakespeare and a face like Satan, a close-shaven skull, and long, magnetic eyes of the true cat-green. Invest him with all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race, accumulated in one giant intellect, with all the resources of science past and present, with all the resources, if you will, of a wealthy government -- which, however, already has denied all knowledge of his existence. Imagine that awful being, and you have a mental picture of Dr. Fu Manchu..."

The stories are the literary equivalent of a thrill ride or old-fashioned Saturday morning movie serial -- with many of the chapters ending with the hero facing what the reader assumes is certain death, usually by some fantastic device or drug created by Fu Manchu.

In some respects, Fu Manchu may be even more relevant to today's world, with its fears of terrorism and biological warfare.

In one passage, he is portrayed as a master of deadly and arcane sciences -- "an enemy whose insects, bacteria, stranglers, strange poisons, could do more harm in a week than Hitler's army could do in a year."

He has been portrayed on film by Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee and Warner Oland (who went on to play Charlie Chan), and even by Peter Sellers in "The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu" -- in which Sellers played not only Fu Manchu, but his nemesis, Nayland Smith.

Surprisingly, despite Rohmer's blatant racist references to Fu, Knapp and others say they have received little criticism about the character or the site.

"I've never had a negative comment from a colleague," Knapp said. "And from the literally thousands and thousands of e-mails, I've had only two people who even raised the issue."

Briney and Knapp both speculated the racial elements were so "over the top" that they could not be taken seriously, and noted that Fu Manchu himself was in no way a demeaning characterization, being portrayed as a man of great intellect and accomplishments, who held numerous doctoral degrees.

"He felt that the Orient had been wronged by the West, and he wanted to pay us back," Knapp explained.

Ironically, just as Arthur Conan Doyle tried to rid himself of Sherlock Holmes by sending him over a waterfall, Rohmer attempted to do what his heroes could never do: kill off Fu Manchu. In both cases, public demand forced their creators to resurrect them.

"Eventually," Knapp said, with the Cold War in full bloom, "he became almost a good guy, fighting the communists."

After Rohmer's death, a friend who was also a writer, Cay Van Ash, penned two more novels, both with the spirit and flavor of the originals. In one, he pitted Sherlock Holmes against the master criminal.

Since then, however, the world has heard little from Fu. But as Christopher Lee intones at the end of each of his portrayals as Fu Manchu, "The world will hear from me again."

"I'm sure somebody will pick up the mantle," Knapp said. "He does live."

One other bit of trivia: As described by Rohmer, Fu Manchu never had a mustache.

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