Portrayal of East Asians in Hollywood

Yellowface is a form of theatrical makeup used by white performers to represent an East Asian person. It is similar to the practice of blackface used to represent black performers.[1] Yellowface has been historically prevalent throughout Hollywood films, and continues to be used in the present day.[1][2] In the 21st century alone, Grindhouse, Balls of Fury, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Crank: High Voltage, and Cloud Atlas all feature yellowface and non-Asian actors as Asian caricatures.[3] Many writers have noted that portrayals of East Asians in the American film industry generally reflect an ethnocentric perception of them rather than realistic and authentic depictions of Asian cultures, customs, and behaviors.[1][2][4]

Early Asian American actors

Lee Tung Foo was a well known singer due to his performances in vaudeville around the 1910s.[5]

Around the same time, Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa began appearing in films.[6] Signed to Paramount Pictures, he had roles in more than 20 silent films including The Wrath of the Gods (1914) and The Typhoon (1914), and was considered to be a Hollywood sex symbol.[6] When Hayakawa's contract with Paramount expired in 1918, the studio still wanted him to star in an upcoming movie, but Hayakawa turned them down in favor of starting his own company.[6] He was at the height of his popularity during that time.[6] His career in the United States suffered a bit due to the advent of talkies, as he had a heavy Japanese accent. He became unemployable during the World War II era due to anti-Japanese prejudice. He experienced a career revival beginning in 1949 in World War II-themed films, and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in The Bridge on the River Kwai.[6]

Anna May Wong, considered by many to be the first Chinese-American movie star,[7] was acting by the age of 14 and in 1922, at 17 years old, she became the first Asian to break Hollywood's miscegenation rule playing opposite a white romantic lead in Toll of the Sea. Even though she was internationally known by 1924, her film roles were limited by stereotype and prejudice; tired of being both typecast and being passed over for lead Asian character roles in favor of non-Asian actresses, Wong left Hollywood in 1928 for Europe.[7] Interviewed by Doris Mackie for Film Weekly in 1933, Wong complained about her Hollywood roles: "I was so tired of the parts I had to play."[8][9] She commented: "There seems little for me in Hollywood, because, rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles."[10] In 1935, she was considered for the leading role in The Good Earth, which went to Caucasian actress Luise Rainer. Wong refused the role of the villainess, the stereotypical Oriental Dragon Lady.

Keye Luke was one of the most successful actors of his time, starring as the "Number-One Son" Lee Chan in the popular Charlie Chan films (which also featured white actors Warner Oland or Sidney Toler playing Charlie Chan in yellowface), as well as the original Kato in the 1940s Green Hornet, and Detective James Lee Wong in Phantom of Chinatown (1940), another role previously played by a caucasian actor (Boris Karloff).

Korean-American actor Philip Ahn, after rejection for speaking English too well, braved death threats after playing Japanese villains. Ahn would go on to have a prolific career, however.

Some Asian-American actors nonetheless attempted to start careers. Merle Oberon, a mixed-race Anglo-Indian, was able to get starring roles after concocting a phony story about her origins and using skin whitening make-up. There were others pioneering Asian American actors like Benson Fong (who played the Number Three son in the Charlie Chan films), Victor Sen Yung (who played the Number Two son in the Charlie Chan films), Richard Loo (who also played many Japanese villain roles), Lotus Long (known for her role as Lin Wen opposite Keye Luke in the Phantom of Chinatown), Suzanna Kim, Barbara Jean Wong, Fely Franquelli, Chester Gan, Honorable Wu, Kam Tong, Layne Tom Jr., Maurice Liu, Rudy Robles, Teru Shimada, Willie Fung, Toshia Mori and Wing Foo; all began their film careers in the 1930s and '40s.

With the number of Asian-American actors available, actor Robert Ito wrote an article that described that job protection for Caucasian actors was one reason Asians were portrayed by Caucasians. "With the relatively small percentage of actors that support themselves by acting, it was only logical that they should try to limit the available talent pool as much as possible. One way of doing this was by placing restrictions on minority actors, which, in the case of Asian actors, meant that they could usually only get roles as houseboys, cooks, laundrymen, and crazed war enemies, with the rare "white hero's loyal sidekick" roles going to the big name actors. When the script called for a larger Asian role, it was almost inevitably given to a white actor."[11]

Early history

In 1767, Arthur Murphy's theatrical work The Orphan of China was presented in Philadelphia.[12] In this early production, the actors and the audiences had never seen an Asian. On screen, Mary Pickford, a white Canadian, played Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly in (1915).

The Welsh-American Myrna Loy was the "go to girl" for any portrayal of Asian characters and was typecast in over a dozen films, while Chinese detective Charlie Chan, who was modeled after Chang Apana, a real-life Chinese Hawaiian detective, was portrayed by several white actors including Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, and Peter Ustinov.

The list of actors who have donned makeup to portray Asians at some point in their career includes: Lon Chaney, Sr., Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Anthony Quinn, Shirley MacLaine, Katharine Hepburn, Rita Moreno, Rex Harrison, John Wayne, Mickey Rooney, Marlon Brando, Lupe Vélez, Alec Guinness, Tony Randall, John Gielgud, Max von Sydow, Linda Hunt, Jamie Lee Curtis, David Carradine, Joel Grey, and many others.

Recurring stereotypes such as the Fu Manchu-style Asian villain or the Madame Butterfly-style Asian female love interest (with a white hero) were going largely unchallenged. Asian Americans formed advocacy groups such as the East West Players and Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) to counter the practice.[13]

The Motion Picture Production Code was the set of industry censorship guidelines which governed the production of the vast majority of United States motion pictures released by major studios from 1930 to 1968. It was originally popularly known as the Hays Code, after its creator, Will H. Hays. With these guidelines, portrayals of miscegenation were forbidden.

Anti-miscegenation laws, also known as miscegenation laws, were laws that banned interracial marriage and sometimes sex between members of two different races. In North America, laws against interracial marriage and interracial sex existed and were enforced in the Thirteen Colonies from the late seventeenth century onwards, and subsequently in several US states and US territories until 1967.

Early film

Madame Butterfly

"Madame Butterfly" was originally a short story written by John Luther Long.[14] An Italian opera, Madama Butterfly was created by Giacomo Puccini after he saw a London play by David Belasco that was based on the short story.[15] The original production premiered on February 17, 1904, at La Scala in Milan.

It is the story of a teenage Japanese maiden, Cio-Cio San, who marries and has a child with a white American navy lieutenant named Pinkerton.[16] The Lieutenant leaves Cio-Cio San and returns home where, unknown to Cio-Cio San, he marries a white American.[16] When he returns to Japan with his new wife, Cio-Cio San, who has given birth in the interim to Pinkerton's baby, kills herself.

The opera remains immensely popular but it has been criticized for misogyny and racism and has generated much controversy for its worldwide use of Yellowface.[15] It is seen as perpetuating the notion of the dominant white male lording it over the subdued Asian female, who can be cast aside at will.[17] Nonetheless, the opera does paint Pinkerton's conduct as reprehensible and the libretto seeks to portray Cio-Cio San as a wronged individual worthy of sympathy and respect.

In 1915, the silent film version was directed by Sidney Olcott and starred Mary Pickford as Cio-Cio-San.[18]

The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City was released in 1918. The plot centers around an inter-racial romance between a Chinese princess (Norma Talmadge) and an American. When palace officials discover she has fallen pregnant she is sentenced to death. In the latter part of the film Talmadge plays the now adult daughter of the affair, seeking her father in the Philippines.

Mr. Wu

Mr. Wu was originally a stage play, written by Harold Owen and Harry M. Vernon. It was first staged in London in 1913; the first U.S. production opened in New York on October 14, 1914. The actor Frank Morgan was in the original Broadway cast, appearing under his original name Frank Wupperman.

Matheson Lang was the first actor to portray Mr. Wu (in the 1913 West End production), who became so popular in the role that he starred in a 1919 film version. Lang continued to play Oriental roles (although not exclusively), and his autobiography was titled Mr. Wu Looks Back (1940).

Lon Chaney, Sr. and Renée Adorée were cast in the 1927 film. Cheekbones and lips were built up with cotton and collodion, the ends of cigar holders were inserted into his nostrils, and the long fingernails were constructed from stripes of painted film stock. Chaney used fishskin to fashion an Oriental cast to his eyes and grey crepe hair was used to create the distinctive Fu-Manchu moustache and goatee.

Broken Blossoms

The film Broken Blossoms is based on a short story, "The Chink and the Child" taken from the book "Limehouse Nights" by Thomas Burke.[19] It was released in 1919, during a period of strong anti-Chinese feeling in the USA, a fear known as the Yellow Peril. Griffith changed Burke's original story to promote a message of tolerance. In Burke's story, the Chinese protagonist is a sordid young Shanghai drifter pressed into naval service, who frequents opium dens and whorehouses; in the film, he becomes a Buddhist missionary whose initial goal is to spread the dharma of the Buddha and peace (although he is also shown frequenting opium dens when he is depressed). Even at his lowest point, he still prevents his gambling companions from fighting.

Classic Hollywood cinema

The Good Earth

The Good Earth (1937) is a film about Chinese farmers who struggle to survive.[20] It was adapted by Talbot Jennings, Tess Slesinger, and Claudine West from the play by Donald Davis and Owen Davis, which was itself based on the 1931 novel The Good Earth by Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck. The film was directed by Sidney Franklin, Victor Fleming (uncredited) and Gustav Machaty (uncredited).

The film's budget was $2.8 million, relatively expensive for the time, and took three years to make. Although Pearl Buck intended the film to be cast with all Chinese or Chinese-American actors, the studio opted to use established American stars, tapping Paul Muni and Luise Rainer for the lead roles. Both had won Oscars the previous year; Rainer for her role in The Great Ziegfeld and Muni for the lead in The Story of Louis Pasteur. When questioned about his choice of the American actors, producer Irving Thalberg responded by saying, "I'm in the business of creating illusions."

In 1935, when MGM Studios was looking to make The Good Earth into a movie, Anna May Wong was considered a top contender for the role of O-lan, the Chinese heroine of the novel. However, because Paul Muni was of European descent, the Hays Code's anti-miscegenation rules meant his character's wife had to be played by a white woman. So, MGM gave the role of O-lan to a white actress and offered Wong the role of Lotus, the story's villain, but Wong refused to be the only Chinese American playing the only negative character, stating: "...I won't play the part. If you let me play O-lan, I'll be very glad. But you're asking me – with Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters."[21] MGM's refusal to consider Wong for this most high-profile of Chinese characters in U.S. film is remembered today as "one of the most notorious cases of casting discrimination in the 1930s".

The Good Earth was nominated for a total of five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Direction (Sidney Franklin), Best Cinematography (Karl Freund), and Best Film Editing (Basil Wrangell). In addition to the Best Actress award (Luise Rainer), the film won for Best Cinematography.[22] Ironically, the year The Good Earth came out, Wong appeared on the cover of Look magazine's second issue, which labeled her "The World's Most Beautiful Chinese Girl." Stereotyped in America as a dragon lady, the cover photo had her holding a dagger.[23]

Breakfast at Tiffany's

Main article: I.Y. Yunioshi

The 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany's has been criticized for its portrayal of the character Mr. Yunioshi, Holly's bucktoothed, stereotyped Japanese neighbor. Played by Mickey Rooney, Rooney wore makeup to change his features to a caricatured approximation of a Japanese person.

In the 45th anniversary edition DVD release, producer Richard Shepherd repeatedly apologizes, saying, "If we could just change Mickey Rooney, I'd be thrilled with the movie".[24] Director Blake Edwards stated, "Looking back, I wish I had never done it ... and I would give anything to be able to recast it, but it's there, and onward and upward".[24] In a 2008 interview about the film, 87-year-old Rooney said he was heartbroken about the criticism and that he had never received any complaints about his portrayal of the character.[25]

Fu Manchu

In 1929, the character Fu Manchu made his American film debut in The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu played by the Swedish-American actor Warner Oland. Oland repeated the role in 1930's The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu and 1931's Daughter of the Dragon. Oland appeared in character in the 1931 musical, Paramount on Parade where the Devil Doctor was seen to murder both Philo Vance and Sherlock Holmes.

In 1932, Boris Karloff took over the character in the film The Mask of Fu Manchu.[26] The film's tone has long been considered racist and offensive, but that only added to its cult status alongside its humor and Grand Guignol sets and torture sequences. The film was suppressed for many years, but has since received critical re-evaluation and been released on DVD uncut.

Charlie Chan

Main article: Charlie Chan

In a series of films in the 1930s and '40s, Chinese-American detective Charlie Chan was played by white actors Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters. The Swedish-born Oland, unlike his two successors in the Chan role, actually looked somewhat Asian, and according to his contemporaries, he did not use special makeup in the role. He also played Asians in other films, including Shanghai Express, The Painted Veil, and Werewolf of London. (Decades later, American TV actor Khigh Dhiegh, though of African and European descent, was generally cast as an East Asian because of his appearance, and he was often included on lists of Asian actors.)

Other examples of yellowface in Western media

See also


  1. 1 2 3 Winfrey, Yayoi Lena (19 November 2012). "Yellowface: Asians on White Screens". IMDiversity.
  2. 1 2 Kashiwabara, Amy, Vanishing Son: The Appearance, Disappearance, and Assimilation of the Asian-American Man in American Mainstream Media, UC Berkeley Media Resources Center
  3. "The Practice of Yellow Face," by Vickie Rozel, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley In The Works theatreworks.commercialmedia.com
  4. Chin, Frank; Chan, Jeffery (1972). "Racist Love" (PDF). In Richard Kostelanetz. Seeing Through Shuck. New York: Ballantine Books. p. 65.
  5. Lee Tung Foo and the Making of a Chinese American Vaudevillian, 1900s-1920s by Moon, Krystyn R., Journal of Asian American Studies - Volume 8, Number 1, February 2005, pp. 23-48
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 www.goldsea.com Sessue Hayakawa: The Legend
  7. 1 2 Chan, Anthony B. Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong (1905–1961). Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8108-4789-2 p. xi, p. 42.
  8. Leong, Karen J. The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005. ISBN 0-520-24422-2. pp. 83, 187.
  9. Wollstein, Hans J. "Anna May Wong." Vixens, Floozies, and Molls: 28 Actresses of late 1920s and 1930s Hollywood. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999. ISBN 0-7864-0565-1. p. 252.
  10. Parish, James and William Leonard. "Anna May Wong." Hollywood Players: The Thirties. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House Publishers, 1976, pp. 532–538. ISBN 0-87000-365-8.
  11. www.brightlightsflim.com A Certain Slant
  12. muse.jhu.edu Misreading the Chinese Character: Images of the Chinese in Euroamerican Drama to 1925 (review) Asian Theatre Journal - Volume 18, Number 1, Spring 2001, pp. 117-119
  13. www.ejumpcut.org Rising Sun: Interview with activist Guy Aoki - Total eclipse of the Sun by Robert M. Payne
  14. www.logos-verlag.de Analysis of John Luther Long's "Madame Butterfly"
  15. 1 2 japantimes.co.jp Madama Butterfly, Puccini's masterpiece transcends its age By Benjamin Woodward
  16. 1 2 Puccini opera is 'racist': News24: Entertainment: International news24.com
  17. The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient, Sheridan Prasso, 2005
  18. Madame Butterfly (1915) at the Internet Movie Database
  19. www.tcm.com Spotlight: Broken Blossoms
  20. www.asian-studies.org What's So Bad About "The Good Earth" by Charles W. Hayford.
  21. www.asiaarts.ucla.edu Profile of Anna May Wong: Remembering The Silent Star by Kenneth Quan
  22. tcm.com Spotlight: The Good Earth
  23. www.time.com Anna May Wong Did It Right by Richard Corliss
  24. 1 2 Breakfast at Tiffany's: The Making of a Classic
  25. Calvert, Bruce (September 9, 2008). "Sacramento Bee: Racism in reel life". sacbee.com. Archived from the original on November 21, 2008. Retrieved 2008-11-02.
  26. The Mask of Fu Manchu at the Internet Movie Database

Further reading

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