Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Yellowface Top Ten

This essay originally appeared at in 2003.

The voice of outrage at Angry Asian muses that he will write a list of a “Top 10 Yellowface Roles” “just for kicks.” Sounds like a good idea. So, while the angry guy is working on his roll call, I thought I’d come up with one of my own.

Yellowface, for those who don’t know, means an Asian role played on stage, screen, or TV by a non-Asian actor, often — but not always — using heavy appearance-altering make-up. For decades, the mainstream U.S. entertainment industry has cast non-Asian actors in prominent Asian roles while seldom, if ever, allowing the reverse. As a result, Asian American actors do not have equal opportunities to play prominent roles on Broadway or in Hollywood, and the Asian image has been shaped largely by creators with sometimes misguided notions of who Asian people are.

In a more perfect world, Asian American actors would have equal opportunities to play roles of any race in the media, and in such a parallel universe, yellowface wouldn’t be a big deal. But as long as Asian American actors must struggle to be thought of on the same playing field as their Caucasian colleagues, and as long as limited and ill-informed portrayals of Asians continue to be so pervasive, yellowface will remain a contentious issue. Here is my ranking of some particularly important examples:

10. David Carradine in KUNG FU (1972-75)

As far as yellowface performances go, David Carradine’s Amerasian Shaolin monk, Kwai-Chang Caine, roaming the Wild West on the TV show Kung Fu survives as one of the least objectionable. Rather than affect a heavy Chinese accent and broken speech patterns — which might have been expected in earlier years — Carradine spoke only haltingly and in complete sentences. Moreover, Carradine, whose appearance was believably half-Asian, wore very little make-up to essay the part. Perhaps more than any other work of the early 1970s, Kung Fu brought Chinese culture, an awareness of Asian American history, and the eponymous martial artistry into U.S. living rooms. But Carradine’s casting still leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many because several people say that Kung Fu was originally developed by martial artist extraordinaire Bruce Lee as a starring vehicle for himself. However, according to a documentary on Kung Fu’s DVD, the television project was originated by writer Ed Spielman, and Bruce Lee, who auditioned for the role of Caine, was not involved in the series’ development.  Nevertheless, Carradine is still resented in some quarters for playing a part that many believe should have gone to an Asian actor.

9. Larry Blyden in FLOWER DRUM SONG (1958)

When Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s musical Flower Drum Song (based on the novel by C.Y. Lee) premiered on Broadway in 1958, the stage exploded with more Asian talent than any mainstream show had likely ever seen. Featured in the cast were actress-singers Miyoshi Umeki, Pat Suzuki (pictured), and Arabella Hong. However, the pivotal lead role of nightclub owner Sammy Fong went to Larry Blyden, a Jewish American actor from Texas. Things could have been worse: at least Blyden played his character as an acculturated American without any exaggerated Asian accent or broken English. But one is left to wonder why — after making such an effort to cast the female roles with Asian actresses — the producers settled on a non-Asian to play such an important male Chinese American character. Fortunately, when Flower Drum Song was turned into a movie in 1961, the role of Sammy Fong was re-cast with Japanese American actor Jack Soo ( Suzuki), who played a smaller role in the Broadway premiere. The film version of Flower Drum Song, with its virtually all-Asian cast, has all but erased memory of Blyden’s yellowface.


A nominee for the Academy Award for Best Make-Up, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins employed impressive facial prosthetics to transform the very Caucasoid thespian Joel Grey into Chiun, the title character's (Fred Ward) Korean martial-arts instructor. Except for a slightly unnatural facial paralysis, Grey’s make-up is extremely realistic, and his affectation of Asian mannerisms is quite convincing to the average audience member. But all of this extraordinary artistry leaves one question ringing in the mind: Why did the filmmakers go to all this trouble when they could have more easily cast an Asian actor in the role? One senses that Remo Williams exemplifies Hollywood’s tendency to show off. “Look at what we (white people) can do,” the movie nudges. Ultimately, Grey’s performance in Remo Williams seems to regard Asian people as a mute object upon which Caucasian exceptionalism is played out. We are supposed to marvel at how “realistically” a white actor can transform himself into an Asian character and at how Hollywood’s make-up artists have mastered their craft. Asian people themselves don't really enter into it.

7. Warner Oland

The Swedish-born, American-raised actor Warner Oland made virtually an entire career out of playing Asian characters — from “Oriental” villains in Pearl White serials to Fu Manchu to Charlie Chan. (He is pictured at left in 1929’s The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu.) But what set him apart from his Asian colleagues in Hollywood was that Oland was also able to play non-Asian roles, such as Cesar Borgia in Don Juan (1926) and Al Jolson’s cantor father in The Jazz Singer (1927). While some admirers still laud Oland for what they see as the integrity and dignity of his Asian characters — particularly the heroic Charlie Chan — others are dismayed by what they see as ignorance and condescension. Still, Oland's busy and lucrative life-work stands as a disturbing reminder that a Caucasian actor could make a career for himself in Hollywood by specializing in Asian roles, while authentically Asian performers at the time had to struggle much harder for acting jobs.

6. Sean Connery in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967)

In this fifth entry into the fabled movie cycle, British super spy James Bond is sent to Japan. At one point during his stay on the island nation, 007 must undergo facial surgery in order to pass for Japanese. After a while on the operating table, stitched together by a scantily dressed surgeoness, the secret agent emerges looking like a droopy-eyed white dude who’s had too much to drink. Nevertheless, this laughable look is deemed convincing enough to fool the locals. You Only Live Twice was not the first time that a white hero was surgically transformed into an Asian. The trope can be found at least as far back as First Yank in Tokyo (1945), a World War II-era adventure in which a Euro-American agent undergoes plastic surgery and is sent behind enemy lines. The message is another clear example of white exceptionalism: With minimal effort, whites can master all things Asian — regardless of how laughable such “mastery” might look to Asian people themselves. Critical viewers are left wondering: If these films needed spies to blend in with the Japanese populace, why didn't they simply send agents who were culturally and ethnically Japanese? Ah, but such a question would be churlish.

5. Alex Borstein as Ms. Swan on MAD TV (1997-2002)

The creative forces behind the sketch-comedy series Mad TV must have known that they were treading on volatile ground when they unveiled their slant-eyed, gibberish-speaking, bowl-haired manicurist called Ms. Kwan, played by non-Asian actress Alex Borstein, in 1997. After amply demonstrating her poor ability to speak or understand English in her first sketch — the source of the character’s alleged humor — she was quickly rechristened Ms. Swan. And not long after that, Borstein and the show’s producers went to great lengths to deny that the character was Asian, saying that she was from the fictional country of “Kuvaria.” Borstein publicized that Ms. Swan was based on her European-immigrant grandmother, and that her appearance was inspired by the Icelandic singer Björk. But as others have remarked, it’s difficult to view this character and not think that she’s supposed to be Asian. (After all, how many manicurists in the U.S. are from fictional countries?) Ms. Swan was a sobering reminder that Hollywood still regards Asians as fair game for race-based humor. And Mad TV’s disingenuous handling of Asian American complaints against the character remains instructive. But perhaps the most intriguing thing to arise from the controversy was the ridiculous extent that the creators were willing to go in order to deny the character's Asianness. The moral of the story: Keep practicing yellowface, Hollywood, just don't be honest about what you’re doing.

4. Boris Karloff in THE MASK OF FU MANCHU (1932)

British writer Sax Rohmer (the pen name of Arthur Sarsfield Ward) created his villainous Chinese character Fu Manchu in 1913, at the height of the “yellow peril.” Like many other Westerners, Rohmer saw the Chinese as anathema to his Occidental culture — and perhaps bent on its destruction. A seemingly indestructible criminal mastermind, Fu Manchu became the embodiment of the West’s anti-Asian fears, spawning many imitations and filmed adaptations. A number of Caucasian actors have played Fu, including Warner Oland, Christopher Lee, and Peter Sellers. But The Mask of Fu Manchu, starring Boris Karloff in heavy facial prosthetics — perhaps more than any other film — works to demonize Asian racial features as inherently evil. The film’s first shot of Fu depicts him working in his laboratory next to a distorting mirror. The mirror twists Karloff’s already nefarious-looking cosmetics into a misshapen visage of pure evil. Asian features, the film practically screams, are not to be trusted. Although Fu Manchu himself has not been seen on the big screen since the farcical death gasp The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu (1980), Hollywood still hasn’t stopped featuring Asian villains as the racially marked antagonists to non-Asian heroes. Only now, the villains are played by actual Asian actors. Some call this progress.

3. Mickey Rooney in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1962)

What The Mask of Fu Manchu does to vilify Asian racial features, Breakfast at Tiffany’s does to make them inherently laughable. 
But where The Mask of Fu Manchu’s yellowface inhabits a pulpy, high-adventure atmosphere that need not be taken seriously, Breakfast at Tiffany’s caricature of Asian facial traits occupies an otherwise verisimilitudinous vision of contemporary New York. Donning false buck teeth and eye make-up, Mickey Rooney portrays the Japanese character of Mr. Yunioshi as a funny-looking buffoon whose speech is garbled and actions inept.  While Breakfast at Tiffany’s was very popular in its time — indeed, Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly became something of an icon, and the movie’s theme song, “Moon River,” is still a standard for crooners — Rooney’s performance today is very painful to watch for anyone with a modicum of racial sensitivity. It’s clear that the filmmakers see Yunioshi’s exaggerated Asian features as an aberration from the Caucasian norm and as a source of humor in and of themselves. When looking from Mr. Yunioshi to Ms. Swan, one is dismayed to see how little has changed in 40 years.

2. Harold Huber and June Duprez in LITTLE TOKYO, U.S.A. (1942)

The main reason why this movie is not at the top of the list is because it has faded from popular memory. But in its day, Little Tokyo, U.S.A. exemplified yellowface at its most pernicious. While other works had used Asian make-up to ridicule or vilify Asian features, this B movie used yellowface directly to deny a group of Asian Americans their civil rights. The story, set in late 1941, follows tough Los Angeles cop Michael Steele (Preston Foster) as he investigates a series of crimes involving the local Japanese American community. The story gradually reveals that the crimes are to cover up a Japanese American cabal’s efforts to facilitate Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. After the horrific military attack, the Japanese American community’s demonstrations of pro-U.S. patriotism are portrayed as patently insincere. Policeman Steele tracks the crime trail to an American-born spy for Tokyo, Takimura (played in yellowface by Harold Huber). Takimura is shown to represent that even Japanese Americans who are born in the U.S. can’t be trusted. Takimura tries to throw Steele off the case by enlisting a neighborhood Japanese American vixen, Teru (English actress June Duprez), to seduce him. If Little Tokyo, U.S.A. had been made 20 years later, Teru and Steele might have consummated the seduction. But this being the miscegenation-phobic ’40s, Takimura instead murders Teru and frames Steele for the crime. Nevertheless, Steele ends up proving his innocence and busting the spy ring. The movie ends extolling the necessity for the Japanese American internment. In retrospect, knowing that not a single charge of espionage was ever brought against a Japanese American during wartime, this sensationalistic story reeks of racist propaganda. Granted, the film would not have been any better if Japanese American actors had played these propagandistic roles. But Little Tokyo, U.S.A. stands as a cautionary reminder of just how horribly a community’s image can be distorted when it’s not there to represent itself.

1. Jonathan Pryce in MISS SAIGON (1991)

The rancorous tone of racial debate at the end of the 20th century was set in 1990 with the Miss Saigon casting controversy. Legendary British theatrical impresario Cameron Mackintosh (Cats, Phantom of the Opera) first staged this musical, an updating of Madame Butterfly, on London's West End in 1989. Mackintosh and his creative team scoured the world in search of an Asian actress to sing the title character, finally finding Lea Salonga in the Philippines. But when it came to casting the Asian male lead, the Engineer, Mackintosh settled on the Welsh-born actor Jonathan Pryce. No world-scouring search was deemed necessary, and Pryce opened the role of the Engineer wearing heavy eye prosthetics. As Mackintosh was making arrangements the following year to bring Miss Saigon to Broadway, he let it be known that he planned to have Pryce reprise his performance. A white actor was acceptable in the role, Mackintosh said, because the character — despite a lack of evidence in the libretto — was “Eurasian.” When the Asian American creative community found out, they protested to their union, Actors Equity. The Asian American actors — who were hardly ever allowed to play leads of any race on the Great White Way — noted that they were not being seriously considered for this rare Asian male Broadway lead role. After much discussion, Equity vetoed Pryce’s application for a visa to work in the U.S. because Mackintosh had not cast his net wide enough. Although he was aware of the Asian actors’ discontent, and although he had the option to take Equity’s decision to arbitration, Mackintosh canceled the Broadway production — which had already grossed a then-record $25 million in advance ticket sales — indignantly claiming that Equity denied Pryce a job because of his race. The response by the press and the Broadway elites was swift and severe: Equity was being “racist” against Pryce. Little mention was made of Asian American actors routinely denied the opportunities to star on the mainstream stage. All the punditocracy could see was a white man victimized by “reverse discrimination.” Equity eventually backed down. Pryce opened the Engineer on Broadway in 1991 sans prosthetics, and he was awarded the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical, perhaps as an apology by the Broadway establishment. More than any other issue, Miss Saigon exemplified the mainstream’s insensitivity to the entertainment industry’s discrimination against its Asian American talent. However, other disputes would also arise within the Asian community. Some questioned whether these arguably stereotypical Asian roles were worth playing in the first place. Some mixed-race Asians bought Mackintosh's “Eurasian” argument and claimed that other Asian Americans were insensitive to Eurasian issues. But perhaps Miss Saigon’s most enduring legacy are the steady assaults against affirmative action that have followed in its wake.

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