Fu Manchu - the Irony

"Fu Manchu mustache -- A mustache with ends that hang downward toward or below the chin. [After Fu Manchu , character in novels by Sax Rohmer, pen name of Arthur Sarsfield Ward (1886-1959), British mystery writer]"--American Heritage Dictionary

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Say the name "Fu Manchu" and most people immediately conjure up an image of the bewhiskered villain. The evil, drooping mustache served Joe Namath well, and it inspired names for everything from orchids to tropical fish to Tiki mugs.

Artist: Frank Hamilton

Unfortunately, Fu Manchu had no mustache. The mustache was added in the movies and caught on with the public to such an extent it became an icon.

Nayland Smith's classic description to Petrie makes no mention of a mustache or any facial hair at all:

"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 yellow peril incarnate in one man." (The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu Chap. 2)

But later in the novel, Petrie gets his own up close and personal look:

"I looked up to his face--his wicked, hairless face. Mr. Smith, whatever age I live to, I'll never forget that face I saw last night--or did I see it? God knows! The pointed chin, the great dome of a forehead, and the eyes--heavens above, the huge green eyes!" (The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu Chap. 19)

The constant portrayal of Fu Manchu with the mustache actually irritated the serious fans. Members of The Sax Rohmer Society wrote a number of letters and articles about the added mustache. John Harwood, for example, wrote the following letter to The Rohmer Review.

"The first thing I did was to read the descriptions  of the doctor in the first and last books of the series. Neither one contained any mention of a mustache.

Then I got a copy of The Bad Guys by William K. Everson from the library and checked the Fu Manchu pictures. On page 40 is a picture of Warner Oland in a scene from The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929). He is shown with a mustache, the ends of which, come down just below the corners of his mouth. On pages 40 and 41 Boris Karloff appears as Fu Manchu in scenes from The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). In these pictures he is shown with a long mustache that droops below his chin. Evidently the mustache was something dreamed up by the movie-makers. On page 8 there is a picture of Warner Oland with Pearl White in the serial, The Fatal Ring (1917), In this picture he is shown as an oriental villain with a mustache that comes just below the corners of his mouth.

Probably in the early days of the movies (and the stage dramas) a mustache was a sign of villainy. In references to these early melodramas, we are always reading about the villain twirling his mustache. Maybe this has something to do with it.  Then when Fu Manchu appeared in the movies as the villain he was depicted in similar make-up as the earlier Oriental villains." -- from the "Letters" section of The Rohmer Review, No. 3.




In 1931, Warner Oland, the first actor to portray Dr. Fu Manchu, had a mustache and kept it as he played the part. It's the same mustache as Charlie Chan.

The next year, 1932, Boris Karloff's makeup man obviously felt a longer mustache was in order.

Christopher Lee's Fu Manchu appears to be fashioned after Karloff's -- a typical "Fu Manchu mustache" -- currently selling for $12.95 at The National Costume Supply House.

So Sax Rohmer's most famous character became best known for something that Rohmer never intended -- a mustache that has a life of its own in popular culture.

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A properly illustrated Dr. Fu-Manchu (from the dustjacket of The Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu)




Michael McQuary as photographed by Sebastian Piras.

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Copyright 1998-2011 Lawrence Knapp. All rights reserved.

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