Monday, October 15, 2012

Is Houdini's "Chinese Water Torture Cell" racist?

This morning I awoke to find a message at the Genii forum from a reader who had taken offense to my article about the 100 year history of the Water Torture Cell. The reason was that in my headline and in the article I had used the full name of the escape, The Chinese Water Torture Cell.

"Let's celebrate the showmanship etc and leave off the misplaced racist stuff, please," read the message in part.

I understood the point, and even though the escape was billed as "The Chinese Water Torture Cell" for much of the 14 years Houdini performed it, it was originally just The Water Torture Cell and Houdini himself called it the Upside Down or USD. Today most people know it as The Water Torture Cell.

But this has now sparked a lively discussion at the Genii forum. Was Houdini being racist in calling his most famous escape The Chinese Water Torture Cell? Is it racist for us to still call it that today? I admit I never really thought about this until today. I'm still thinking.

If you feel like chiming in on the topic, or just read the debate so far, click on over to the Genii forum, or feel free to voice your opinion in the Comments below.

16 comments:

  1. Well I know I won't be going to the Genii Forum. It's called history, plain and simple. Houdini was not a racist and it's unfair to put modern ideals on people that lived 100 or more years ago.

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    1. You might be wise to stay away from the Genii forums. That place can get nasty.

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  2. The effect was called what it was called. Its name has nothing to do with racism.

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  3. So many magicians of Houdini's era and afterward relied on far off lands to add a glimmer of the exotic to their shows. some even masquerading as Oriental in manner and style that at the time seemed mild but by our sensitive standards of today are unacceptable. Big deal. Let it go. Move on or whatever.
    Bruce Thomson

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  4. Well, the poster reproduced above is certainly racist: It portrays a Chinese person with horns.

    A broader question is whether Houdini's use of the phrase "Chinese water torture cell" is racist. I think at the very least it's based on the assumption that white people are his audience and everyone else is "the other."

    Not so many years after Houdini's death, Agatha Christie felt free to use the "n" word in her books and even in a title. The tacit assumption is she didn't think black people were part of her audience. They were "the other."

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    1. Ironically, that poster/ad was created before it was called The Chinese Water Torture Cell. It was still just The Water Torture Cell. The earliest reference I could find to the new name is 1914, around the time of Houdini's Magical Revue. Houdini also starts calling his Needles the "East Indian Needle Trick" around this time. Everything is getting an "exotic" name makeover as Houdini presents himself as more of a traditional magician.

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  5. At least the needles trick may have derived from an Indian trick using beads and horsehair.

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  6. Did anyone else raise this issue with you before?

    The reason I ask is that it is interesting that out of the whole article, this person has focused on one word which was used in its correct historical context. On the whole, your piece on the UPSIDE DOWN appeared to garner largely positive responses.

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    1. Thanks melbo. This was the only such comment about this that I received.

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  7. Just to be clear: I don't think your referring to Houdini's trick as the Chinese Water Torture Cell is racist at all. It's simply being historically accurate. Houdini's use of the phrase is a separate question.

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    1. Thanks Eric. I agree. I actually restored the word "Chinese" to my headline. Even Wikipedia calls it The Chinese Water Torture Cell. It's history.

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  8. Calling a magic trick "Chinese" does not fit the definition of racism.

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  9. Consider that the trick has nothing to do with China, unlike the linking rings, or even with the torture called the Chinese water torture.

    Consider that torturing someone is cruel and brutal, unlike, say, calling a levitation Asrah and telling some story about Indian princesses. Asrah is just exoticism for dramatic effect.

    Consider particularly the images on the posters, which tap into the meaning of the phrase.

    Consider the American cultural context of the time, when non-whites were viewed as brutish subhumans. Look at the immigration laws and the ways people spoke about nonwhites -- or even southern Europeans.

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    1. Did the linking rings have anything to do with China? For some reason I thought it was Chung Ling Soo who gave them the name and "Chinese" association.

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  10. They were associated with Ching Ling Foo and performed earlier by western magicians who said they were Chinese. Of course, there could be another origin. My point was that using the word Chinese or Indian in a trick's name isn't inherently racist.

    Also, see pages 162-163 in the hardback edition of Silverman's bio.

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    1. Ah, Ching Ling Foo, got it.

      Thanks for the Silverman reference. Clearly "Chinese torture" was something HH was into and used in his act.

      Are you following the thread at Genii?

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