This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.
Hell Money is an oft-overlooked episode of The X-Files.
The positioning in the third season probably doesn’t help. It comes directly after Teso Dos Bichos, probably the season’s weakest episode. It is also positioned in the gap between Pusher and Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”, two broadly-loved episodes that serve as pitch-perfect examples of The X-Files both on- and off-format. In contrast, Hell Money is something a little stranger. It is not as conventional as Pusher, nor as radical as Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.”
Instead, Hell Money is an episode of The X-Files that loosely fits the show’s format. Mulder and Scully investigate a bunch of macabre murders where sinister forces are at work. However, in keeping with the broad themes of the third season, the evil in Hell Money takes a particularly banal form. There are no monsters here; at least, not any supernatural monsters. The only ghosts that haunt the narrative are metaphorical. There is a culture alien to our leads, but one a bit more grounded than extraterrestrials.
Hell Money is a clever and thoughtful piece of television that feels subtly and harrowingly subversive.
There is a line of thought that dismisses Hell Money, because the episode consciously sidelines Mulder and Scully for most of the runtime. As producer Paul Rabwin suggest in X-Files Confidential:
“If you can take Mulder and Scully out of the show and it doesn’t change anything, it’s not an X-File. They weren’t affected personally, and the other characters weren’t affected by them. That’s what makes the series unique: it’s got great interaction.”
His argument makes a certain amount of sense. There are episodes that are greatly undermined by the fact that Mulder and Scully seem to exist solely as witnesses to horror rather than as active participants in the plot.
However, Hell Money is not one of those episodes. The marginalisation of Mulder and Scully is entirely the point. The fact that Mulder and Scully are generally ineffective in trying to break through “the wall of silence” is one of the core themes of the episode, just like their inability to bring the Hard-Faced Man to any sort of justice suggests that their authority over the Chinese American community is somewhat limited. This is a show about how Mulder and Scully are outsiders, and about how ineffective they are in this situation.
Hell Money deliberately emphasises the sense that Chinatown is a setting very distinct from the locales that Mulder and Scully normally investigate. Much of the episode’s dialogue is in Cantonese, and a significant portion of that is without subtitles. Hell Money isn’t just about emphasising Mulder and Scully as outsiders, it is about making the audience feel separate from the action. Hell Money is a show about how insulated these sorts of communities can be, how protected from outsiders.
A large part of the narrative of The X-Files concerns little communities that find themselves fading away. One of the recurring motifs in the show is the idea that the world is getting smaller and that globalisation has made it more and more difficult for certain communities to retain their own unique flavour. The shadows are retreating, and the monsters are being exposed. There is a sense that the quirky and eccentric spaces at the heart of America are being gradually eroded.
In many respects, the Chinatown presented in Hell Money stands at odds with that. Here, Chinatown is revealed to be a community that has largely walled itself off from the outside world. It is capable of policing itself. Outsiders are never able to pry too deeply into its secrets. Hell Money is a story of truly horrific and systemic corruption unfolding in the heart of one of the largest cities in California. Hell Money is a story of a subculture that has rather effectively separated itself from the mainstream.
This is not an experience unique to Chinese Americans. Other ethnic and immigrant groups have also created their own communities within larger cities. Little Italy was a centre of the Italian-American community in New York, but has found itself being slowly eroded by rising rents and other cultural factors. Similarly, Hell’s Kitchen was largely populated by working-class Irish-Americans, at least until gentrification pushed up property prices and made the area quite appealing to young professionals.
Time seems to eat away at all these different subcultures that had previously managed to keep themselves relatively distinct from the mainstream. Even Harlem has found itself facing the erosion of its cultural identity, as the number of white people living in Harlem grew exponentially between 1990 and 2008. In contrast, the Chinese America community has managed to retain a great deal of its cultural identity in Chinatowns across the country.
The popular image of Chinatown in the nineties was that of an insulated and isolated community, apart from the mainstream. In 1992, Gwen Kinkead had published Chinatown: A Portrait of a Closed Society, teasing a glimpse into life in New York’s Chinatown:
Much of the activity that goes on around these streets no one ever hears about and no one ever reads about; most of it is not reported even in Chinatown’s four Chinese-language daily newspapers. The crimes that take place here are often so serious and so bizarre that the area sometimes resembles Hong Kong at its wildest. In Chinatown, there is a social order so ruthless that its very existence seems to be against the law, but because the area is so isolated from the rest of society, most of the people who live here accept it as normal.
There was very much a sense that the Chinese American community had done a very thorough job of protecting itself from outside influences, carving out space in various cities where residents could feel a part of their own unique community.
While other communities often struggled against urban gentrification in the nineties and into the new millennium, the Chinese American community thrived. Writing in 2007, Dimitri Ehrlich reflected on New York’s Chinatown:
A strange thing has happened in Chinatown’s seemingly inexorable submission to the hipster’s relentless need for Lebensraum. Instead of rolling over, Chinatown has actually expanded. First, it ate Little Italy. Lately, it seems to be expanding into Wall Street, Tribeca, and Soho. (Notice those signs popping up for TUI NA MASSAGE?)
Gentrification continues apace in the rest of the city, but it has been rebuffed here. Elsewhere in Manhattan, it seems everywhere you look there’s another luxury condo sprouting. In the early nineties, a similarly optimistic surge in new construction began to hit Chinatown, in anticipation of the wealthy businessmen who were expected to emigrate when Hong Kong returned to mainland China in 1997.
It was a culture that seemed able to withstand the erosive power of multiculturalism, retaining its own identity and even expanding.
After all, it was not only New York’s Chinatown that sought to expand in the nineties. As Ling Z. Arenson notes in Beyond a Common Ethnicity and Culture, Los Angeles’ Chinatown also grew outwards:
Thanks to the ambitious ‘Santa Fe Project’ envisioned by the Chinese American Development Corporation (CADC), established in 1984, Chinatown continued to expand spatially in the 1990s. This project aimed at expanding the Chinatown boundaries farther north and northwest of Archer Avenue to the abandoned thirty-two-acre railroad and industrial areas owned by the Sante Fe Railroad. Above all, the project developers envisioned a cultural community for those who spoke little English but would find ‘a place where they can work, raise their families, buy groceries and enjoy a cup of tea with friends, all within walking distance of their homes’ and where those Chinese Americans would consider Chinatown ‘the preferred place to do business and to raise their children.’
The concept of “Chinatown” has become part of the American popular consciousness, inexorably linked with the idea of a strange and foreign village nested within a larger city; a community that has retained its own identity against all odds.
Of course, there are historical reasons why the Chinese American community felt the need to establish and maintain these sorts of clustered environments. They were largely built by early immigrants as a refuge from hostile outsiders:
Early Chinese immigrants found themselves easy targets for discrimination and exclusion. Not only did their significant contribution to building the most difficult part of the transcontinental road west of the Rockies go unrecognized, but the mere existence of Chinese immigrant labor became a nuisance when the work was finished. Poor economic conditions, a well- developed racist ideology, and well-organized native workers stirred ethnic conflict in the 1870s. Chinese immigrant workers were accused of building “a filthy nest of iniquity and rottenness” and driving away white labor by their “stealthy” competition, and were referred to as the “Chinese menace” and the “indispensable enemy.” Rallying under the slogan “The Chinese Must Go!” the Workmen’s Party in California launched an anti-Chinese campaign for laws to exclude the Chinese, leading to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This act was the first of its kind, excluding an entire group on the basis of race alone. It was later extended to exclude all Asian immigrants until World War II.
Faced with legal and institutional exclusion, Chinatowns were built as places of refuge that resembled the Chinese immigrants’ homeland. Having few options and numerous barriers, Chinese immigrants clung to one another for social and economic support. As the ethnic community took root in American soil, various ethnic organizations emerged to assist the excluded Chinese laborers. Three major types of organizations were dominant in Chinatowns in America under Chinese exclusion: family, district, and merchant associations.
In light of these historical factors, it should come as no surprise that the Chinese American community should want to remain relatively independent and isolated. After all, Chinese Americans are subject to widespread prejudice even today.
As with many episodes of The X-Files, it seems like the script for Hell Money draws from a variety of sources and inspirations to craft a uniquely horrifying story. Part of the story seems inspired by coverage of the widely-reported Golden Venture tragedy in June of 1993. Widely reported in the media, the Golden Venture was a cargo ship that had been smuggling 286 illegal immigrants from China to the United States. It ran aground in Queens, and ten people drowned while trying to swim from the ship to shore.
The people-smuggling scheme had been coordinated between gangster Guo Liang Chi and New York “snakehead” Cheng Chui Ping. Cheng Chui Ping had been operating the smuggling ring since the early 1980s. The judgement for one of the smugglers noted that the Golden Venture was host to “inhumane conditions that deprived his passengers of adequate water, food, sanitation, and opportunity for exercise for weeks on end.” It also did not have adequate lifeboats or other safety equipment.
And yet, despite this brutal exploitation, there was still a sense that Cheng Chui Ping was viewed almost as a folk hero within the community:
Chinatown residents describe the name “Sister Ping” as an international brand. It is taken for granted that people-smuggling is a perilous business, and that some level of failure is inevitable even for the best brokers—so much so that the disaster which befell the Golden Venture did not particularly diminish Sister Ping’s reputation. In fact, she handled accidents in a way that drew more customers: when passengers were caught by immigration officials, she would forgive the balance of her fee; when passengers died, she paid for their burial. Sister Ping’s name became so highly esteemed that other snakeheads fraudulently claimed to be affiliated with her in order to attract business.
There a fascinating dichotomy there, as to how somebody like Cheng Chui Ping is glimpsed inside and outside the community.
That dichotomy came out during the trial, with residents in Chinatown reacting to her arrest in a manner that seems at odds with her general portrayal in the contemporary media:
In China, human smugglers are known as Snakeheads, and the prosecutors who put Sister Ping on trial called her “the mother of all snakeheads.” They told the story of a ruthless criminal entrepreneur who had preyed on the dreams and ambitions of her customers. The tabloids went a step further, with understated headlines like “EVIL INCARNATE.” But in Chinatown the reaction to the trial was different. Many in the community rallied to her cause, defending Sister Ping as a heroic figure who had escorted a generation of immigrants out of poverty in China to a better life in the United States.
It is an effective illustration of how this community can have a perception and culture that might seem alien or uncomfortable to the mainstream.
In Hell Money, the Hard-Faced Man makes a similar argument. Mulder and Scully see the Hard-Faced Man as a cruel man who exploited an entire community for his own criminal gain. “You cheated them out of life by promising them prosperity when the only possible reward was death,” Scully accuses. “In my belief, death is nothing to be feared,” he replies. “It’s merely a stage of transition but life without hope– now, that’s living hell. So, hope was my gift to these men. I don’t expect you to understand.”
Hell Money ends on a rather depressing note. Mulder and Scully cannot amass enough evidence to prosecute the Hard-Faced Man. The “wall of silence” serves to protect him. Detective Chao finally finds the courage to stand up for something and to make a moral decision, but ends up burnt alive for his trouble. There is a sense here that Mulder and Scully cannot magically resolve problems within a community that they are unable to understand.
There is a sense that outsiders are unable to police these sorts of communities. Lieutenant Neary isn’t even able to correctly identify the number of victims. Chao is corrupt, but he is not an active participant in this exploitation and brutality. Instead, he is employed to protect the racket from prying eyes. “We paid you well to protect the game from the foreigners,” the Hard-Faced Man states bluntly. Chao actually seems quite willing to do so. He doesn’t object to the game; merely to the reveal that the game is rigged.
Interestingly, Hell Money does not opt for a simplistic approach to these sorts of issues. It does not portray the Chinese American experience as homogenous or collective. Chao’s experience is distinct from that of Mr. Hsin or Johnny Lo. The Chinese American community is not presented as a generic “other”, but instead as a complex and multifaceted body that is full of its own complications and contradictions, refusing to conform to Mulder and Scully’s expectations.
Mulder and Scully expect that Chao should be able to break “the wall of silence” because he is Chinese American. That is a rather simplistic view, one that assumes cultural identity is purely binary and that membership of an ethnic group offers a person unfettered access to associated cultures. The reality is that the dynamics within any subculture are complicated and difficult to navigate. Xiaojian Zhao’s The New Chinese America explores how complicated relations between groups can be within the community.
“Look you don’t even know what the hell you’re dealing with here,” Chao advises Mulder and Scully, in a rare moment of candid honesty. “This isn’t some pretty little lacquer box you can just take the lid off and find out what’s inside. You might see the face of a Chinese man here, but let me tell you something — they don’t see the same face. They see the face of a cop… American-born Chinese, ABC. To them, I’m just as white as you are.”
Marlon Hom had commented on this cultural divide in his study of folk rhymes of the Chinese American community, in Chinatown High Life:
It is significant that these few folk rhymes on the younger generation acknowledge the “non-Chinese” behaviour of the new Chinatown generation, who were physically Chinese but Westernised in thought. This is an important recognition of their new cultural characteristics. However, the immigrant writers of these rhymes interpret the difference negatively. We have seen that in some rhymes the immigrant praise American culture as modern, liberal, and symbolising progress and independence. However, the “Americanness” exhibited in American-born children was a disgrace to the immigrants’ time-honoured Confucian tradition, especially when American-born women refused to play a submissive role. They were regarded as wild and undisciplined, badly influenced by the “barbaric” Western culture. Some American-born women were even labelled women of ill repute and treated despicably, as if they had prostituted themselves. Unfortunately, this negative attitude towards the American-born generation is still evident among the immigrant generation today, the latter often calling American-borns mou nou juk sing (“brainless bamboo sections”), implying that they are ignorant and shallow, without any signs of intelligence.
It is very tempting to think of an ethnic group as one homogeneous body, but the reality is much more complicated and nuanced. There are a variety of factors at play that are not immediately obvious to outsiders.
At the same time, despite the careful insulation from American authority, Hell Money suggests that some cultural influence might have worked its way through. The core of Hell Money sees ancient Chinese spiritual beliefs eroded by contemporary capitalist concerns. There are gangsters posing as “ghosts.” The eponymous “hell money” is found at crime scenes. There is a sense that spirituality is giving way to materialism.
Even Chao reflects, “I find it hard to argue with 2,000 years of Chinese belief — the stuff my parents and grandparents believe in. But the truth is, I’m more haunted by the size of my mortgage payments.” Hell Money is one of those rare episodes where the supernatural elements are purely metaphorical. Everything that occurs within the episode has a purely rational meaning. Those ghosts are really predatory organ-harvesters. One gets the sense that this is entirely the point.
In Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization, Paul A. Cantor writes:
This is how The X-Files in general presents the process of modernisation – the transformation of a traditional community rooted in religious beliefs into a purely rational society based solely on economic motives. In The X-Files prophets are continually displaced by profits. The lottery in Hell Money is in fact one of the most striking emblems The X-Files offers of modernity – a world in which the only thing men have in common is their greed. The episode’s title points to its central idea that money and the pure economic rationality it represents create a new hell for modern man. The name refers to a kind of false money used in a Chinese ritual for appeasing the ghosts of the dead, but the larger suggestion is that all money is fake, a false goal relentlessly pursued by modern man, who thereby plunges himself into a hell of his own making.
This is a rather bleak assessment, but one that feels strangely apt. What had once been important symbols of faith and spiritual belief become the calling cards of exploitive materialism.
In a way, this can be read as a commentary on the American experience. The lottery at the centre of Hell Money makes an effective metaphor for the American Dream – the idea that everybody in America has the chance to become rich and successful. The anonymous Hard-Faced Man alludes to it in his interrogation. “They were desperate,” he tells Scully. “Just as I was desperate when I first came to this country.” Of course, the Hard-Faced Man did find success; that success came through the exploitation of his fellow immigrants.
The organ lottery teases the possibility of a massive financial reward, but with a great deal of risk. However, it turns out that the game is rigged. The lottery only serves as a means exploitation; the poor get poorer, and the rich get richer. The cycle continues, with the poor and disadvantaged kept in their place by the hope of opportunity. Things keep on turning, and the fixed lottery provides a suitable means to keep the system stable.
There is, of course, a more material line of criticism concerning the lottery. It has been demonstrated that people from lower socio-economic backgrounds traditionally spend more on the lottery than those from higher socio-economic backgrounds. So it is reasonable to argue that the lottery is just a way of taking more money from people who need it most, egged on by the promise of statistically unlikely potentialities and possibilities.
In many ways, Hell Money reads as a scathing indictment of unchecked capitalism and the American Dream, where immigrants gamble everything on the dream of success that never arrives, only to find themselves treated as spare parts and raw material. The organ lottery even seems like a cynical capitalist twist on John Harris’ “survival lottery”, a thought experiment about balancing the needs of the individual with the greater good. Hell Money also seems to owe a debt to Jorge Luis Borges’ The Lottery in Babylon, a short story first published in 1941.
This could be read as a criticism of lotteries in general. Philosophically, it has been argued that the lottery is a dehumanising process:
Being random, the Lottery dehumanises those who take part. In casting his or her lot, a punter becomes a statistic – absolutely nothing of character,personality, social standing, race, creed, age or sex makes any difference. And while it is deplorable to discriminate on these bases, it is dehumanising to see all of them as irrelevant. For then, nothing has any value.
If everybody is just a number, if anybody can get rich by sheer chance, than the individuals involved matter little. People eagerly and voluntarily reduce themselves to numbers.
After all, that is the horror of stories about organ harvesting. They reduce the individual to nothing more than a collection of meaty parts of various values. The commoditise the human body in a metaphor even more explicit and material than prostitution or people-trading. The black market in organ transplants has become a vibrant underground economy on which lives are bought and sold. It has been estimated that up to fifteen percent of organ transplants take place on the black market.
This is another clear influence on Hell Money. During the nineties, issues around black market organ trading came to the public’s attention. Nancy Scheper-Hughes first heard rumours of the trade in Brazil in 1987. That infamous urban myth about a person waking up to find a kidney stolen was first recorded in 1991. This not a practice limited to the criminal underworld. Israel has admitted that it harvested organs from dead bodies without consent during the 1990s. Kosovo rebels allegedly organ trafficked in the 1990s.
So doing an episode of The X-Files based around illegal organ trading feels appropriate – another example of how the show had its finger on the pulse of nineties anxieties and uncertainties. The X-Files was undoubtedly a show of its time, but it was very much in tune with its time. Hell Money serves as a perfect illustration of this. It is an episode that provides a glimpse into some very nineties fears.
At the same time, Hell Money also fits quite comfortably within the show’s third season – despite the lack of any supernatural element. It is no coincidence that James Hong’s mysterious anonymous Hard-Faced man smokes a cigarette as he sits out of reach of the two agents. He is just as much an embodiment of corruption and decay as William B. Davis’ iconic and mysterious adversary. The culture of silence facing Mulder and Scully here is not that different from the one they face as they pry into government misdeeds.
More than that, the Hard-Faced Man offers a reiteration of the themes of Piper Maru and Apocrypha. He suggests that the supernatural is purely a metaphorical construct that allows us to process the weight of history. “My people live with ghosts,” he explains. “The ghosts of our fathers and our fathers’ fathers. They call to us from distant memory, showing us the path.” It does not seem radically different from the suggestion that ghosts are merely the expression of conscience at past horrors.
In a way, the scheme run by the Hard-Faced Man provides an effective mirror to the narrative of conspiracy presented in shows like Nisei and 731. In those episodes, it was suggested that the United States government encouraged stories about aliens in order to distract from the more mundane man-made horrors taking place. Here, the Hard-Faced Man buries his corrupt scheme in the iconography of Chinese spirituality. Ghosts provide a nice cover story.
There are other superficial similarities at play. The episode even inherits the recurring “eye” motif from the third season’s mythology episodes – the idea of a person peering into a strange an unknown world, struggling to make sense of what they see. It is an effective image, reinforcing the idea of perception – that Mulder and Scully (and the audience) are only catching a glimpse of a strange and different world. In a way, Hell Money is just as much a companion to the show’s conspiracy arc as Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space.”
Hell Money is a massively underrated episode of the show, one that suggests that Mulder and Scully need not look to the skies to find a culture that is effectively alien to them. It plays into many of the show’s more cynical themes about exploitation and authority and power, treating the series’ supernatural elements as explicitly metaphorical. It is a superb, if uncomfortable, hour of television, and a third season highlight.
- The Blessing Way
- Paper Clip
- Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose
- The List
- The Walk
- X-tra: (Topps) The Pit
- War of the Coprophages
- Piper Maru
- Teso Dos Bichos
- Hell Money
- Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space”
- X-tra: (Topps) #14 – Falling
- Talitha Cumi
Filed under: The X-Files Tagged: | Authority, bd wong, black market, China, chinatown, chinese american, cover-up, ethnic group, Gambling, golden venture, immigration, James Hong, lottery, lotto, organ harvesting, secrets, subculture, Television, the x-files, wall of silence, x-files