The new HBO series Westworld, based on Michael Crichton’s 1973 sci-fi novel about an immersive Old West theme park, is a maze of concepts and ideas, which means the showrunners have to scramble to keep the thing grounded. One of the tools they employ in the show’s first episode is an ethnic stereotype: the ubiquitous Chinese tourist. These fellow travelers appear for only a few seconds on-screen, doing shots with Maeve. They’re extras, but they represent a calculated decision to make the park culturally recognizable despite existing in a technologically twisted future.
The weird thing is that the cliché clicks. It might be the smartest thing about the show. It both plays to cultural expectations and subverts them, enhancing the audience’s understanding that the robots and humans that coexist within the park live in two distinctly different eras.
Many of the more famous images of Asian people (mainly Chinese) on the western frontier are photographs of laborers building the Transcontinental Railroad. Films have built off the historical reality of that labor-driven migration. The kung-fu western exists for a reason. But the John Ford/Wayne movies that inform this landscape were always devoid of those characters. Now, Asian people have arrived and they occupy positions of power. The arc of history becomes visible for a split second as they take their tipples.
The rise of China’s middle class has allowed millions of well-educated families to travel abroad. Thus the ubiquity. But the Chinese tourists in Westworld — they say “ganbei,” a Chinese cheers that means “dry the cup” — are definitely affluent, enjoying R&R at a popular $40,000-a-day resort across the Pacific. They are young and attractive and moneyed. It’s not a hurtful reiteration of a stereotype, it’s a reflection of economic and cultural trends. And the fact that a women of color is drinking with them illustrates just how confounding Westworld can be. Not all of the show’s most complicated questions are about artificial intelligence. Some are about history.
Westworld doesn’t seem to exist in a specific place in time, but it would seem to be a post-Civil War town (given the lack of references to slaves or slavery) so the audience can ballpark it. The audience can also recall that the Central Pacific line was completed 1869 and Chinese Exclusion was enacted 1882. The Old West was not a great place for Asian people, but this version of it seems nice enough. There’s an element of exorcism to the shot: Here’s what the West could have been if everyone was a lot less racist.
The show is dark, but not unrelentingly so. Sometimes it engages in a bit of wishful thinking. Ganbei!