16 August 1992

                                                    Dragon Lady

        "Why is it," asked columnist Adrian Cristobal early this month, "that a powerful woman in Malacanang is called 'Dragon Lady' while men with similar or worse motivations are not called Ogre, Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster or Darth Vader? Your gender bias is showing.''
        The remark about gender bias was directed at Rina Jimenez David, Mr. Cristobal's fellow columnist in the Inquirer, who had earlier applied the dragon-lady sobriquet to Leonora Vasquez-de Jesus, head of the Presidential Management Staff. On the day that Mr. Cristobal raised the question about dragon ladies, Ms. David devoted much her column to show that Ms. De Jesus was more lady than dragon.
        Whatever the appropriateness of the dragon-lady sobriquet to Ms. De Jesus, the dragon image is fascinating because it connotes power in the mythologies of East and West -- but only in the West does it carry a connotation of malevolence.
        In Western Christian tradition, the dragon is merely a more powerful kind of snake, and, like the snake, is a symbol for Satan. In the Middle Ages, it was a symbol of sin in general and paganism in particular. The Book of Revelations described Satan as the Great Dragon. Many saints, including St. Michael, St. George, St. Margaret, St. Philip the Apostle, have been pictured as slaying or otherwise vanquishing the dragon.
        In contrast, the Chinese regard the dragon as a benevolent power. The dragon has been a symbol of China since imperial times. China's present-day leaders have described such highly successful countries as Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore as "little dragons."
        It seems, however, that the Dragon Lady is not an element of either Eastern or Western mythology. The Dragon Lady is part of American popular culture and is of fairly recent origin. Strange as it may seem, the Dragon Lady originated as a comic strip character -- in Milton Caniff's "Terry and the Pirates.''
        The comic strip is about Terry Lee, a clean-cut, young American adventurer who battles with pirates, smugglers and other evil-doers along the China coast. The criminals he fights include a gang headed by a Chinese woman known as the Dragon Lady. The comic strip made its debut on Oct. 22, 1934; the Dragon Lady first appeared in it on Dec. 13, 1934.
        "Terry and the Pirates" was made into a radio program, a TV program and a movie serial -- and in all three, the Dragon Lady was a prominent villain. The Dragon Lady was played on radio by Agnes Moorehead, Marion Sweet and Adelaide Klein, on TV by Gloria Saunders, and in the movie serial by Sheila Darcy.
        The real name of the Dragon Lady is Lai Choi San. Her name means "Mountain of Wealth."
        The next time I see Lenny de Jesus, I will address her as Lai Choi San and ask about her mountain of wealth.