Examples of Yellowface

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In Hollywood, many times, Asian characters have been portrayed predominantly by white actors, often changing their looks with makeup in order to approximate East Asian facial characteristics, a practice known as yellowface. Media portrayals of East Asians in the American media's history have predominantly reflected a dominant Americentric perception rather than realistic and authentic depictions of true cultures, customs and behaviors.[1]

Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, and Madame Butterfly[edit]

  • Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan were the most common East Asian characters in film and television of the mid-20th century, and they were almost always played by white actors in yellowface. An updated film version of Charlie Chan was planned in the 1990s by Miramax; this new Charlie Chan was to be "hip, slim, cerebral, sexy and ... a martial-arts master",[2] but the film did not come to fruition.[2]
  • Madama Butterfly, an opera about Japanese woman who falls in love with an American sailor who leaves her, and when he returns with an American wife, the devastated Cio-Cio San commits suicide. This immensely popular opera is often performed with a non-Asian singer playing the role of Cio-Cio San in yellowface.

Pre Civil Rights Movement[edit]

Year Title Actor/s Director Notes
1915 Madame Butterfly (1915 film) Mary Pickford as Cio-Cio San
Many of the film's leading roles are white actors donning yellowface to play Asian roles
Sidney Olcott
1918 The Forbidden City Norma Talmadge as San San Toy
E. Alyn Warren as Wong Li
Michael Rayle as The Mandarin
L. Rogers Lytton as Chinese Emperor
Sidney Franklin
1919 Broken Blossoms Richard Barthelmess as Cheng Huan D.W. Griffith
1919 Mr. Wu Matheson Lang as Mr. Wu
Meggie Albanesi as Nang Ping
Maurice Elvey British Version
1927 Mr. Wu Lon Chaney as Mr. Wu
Renée Adorée as Wu Nang Ping
William Nigh American Version
1932 The Hatchet Man Edward G. Robinson and Loretta Young William A. Wellman
  • Makeup artists had noticed that audiences were more likely to reject Western actors in Asian disguise if the faces of actual Asians were in near proximity. Rather than cast the film with all Asian actors, which would have then meant no star names to attract American audiences, studios simply eliminated most of the Asian actors from the cast.[3]
1932 Frisco Jenny Helen Jerome Eddy William A. Wellman * Helen Jerome Eddy, portrays Frisco Jenny's loyal servant Amah.
  • Although not a success on the original release, in recent years, Frisco Jenny has been among the pre-Code films rediscovered and re-evaluated thanks to theatrical revivals and cable television screenings.[4]
1932 Thirteen Women Myrna Loy George Archainbaud
  • Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy), a half-Javanese Eurasian woman who was subjected to harsh bigotry from the other women during her school days due to her mixed-race heritage. Georgi exacts revenge by using a suborned swami to manipulate the women into killing themselves or each other.
  • Not a popular success either critically or financially, Thirteen Women has achieved a "cult classic" status in recent years. A pre-code era film, modern critics have stated that its theme was ahead of its time and out of step with the tastes of 1930s cinema patrons.[5]
1933 The Bitter Tea of General Yen Nils Asther Frank Capra
  • General Yen was a box office failure upon its release and has since been overshadowed by Capra's later efforts. In recent years, the film has grown in critical acclaim. In 2000, the film was chosen by British film critic Derek Malcolm as one of the hundred best films in The Century of Films.
  • According to a New York Times Review, Mr. Asther's make-up is impressive, with slanting eyes and dark skin. He talks with a foreign accent.[6]
  • Toshia Mori who in 1932 became the only Asian actress to be selected as a WAMPAS Baby Star, an annual list of young and promising film actresses, was billed third in the film's credits, behind Barbara Stanwyck and Nils Asther. This was her most significant film role; she returned to minor characters in her subsequent films.
1934 The Mysterious Mr. Wong Bela Lugosi William Nigh
  • Bela Lugosi stars as Mr. Wong, a "harmless" Chinatown shopkeeper by day and relentless blood-thirsty pursuer of the Twelve Coins of Confucius by night.
  • They did not even bother to disguise Lugosi's thick Hungarian accent. It was directed by William Nigh, who three years later directed Boris Karloff in the Mr. Wong detective films.
1937 The Good Earth Paul Muni as Wang Lung
Luise Rainer as O-Lan
All of the Lead Roles
Sidney Franklin All of the lead roles were played by actors in Yellowface while all the extras and minor roles were played by Asians.
1937 Lost Horizon H.B. Warner Frank Capra
1937–1939 Mr. Moto film series Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto film series
  • Between 1937 and 1939 eight motion pictures were produced by 20th Century Fox starring Peter Lorre[8] as Mr. Kentaro Moto.[9]
  • Unlike in the novels, Moto is the central character, wears glasses, and no longer has gold teeth. He is still impeccably dressed in primarily Western suits, only wearing a yukata when he is relaxing at home.
  • The stories are action-oriented due to Moto's liberal use of judo (only hinted at in the novels) and due to his tendency to wear disguises.
1939 Island of Lost Men Anthony Quinn Kurt Neumann
  • Anthony Quinn is in yellowface and portrays Chang Tai, a "Chinese" agent.
1939 The Mystery of Mr. Wong Boris Karloff William Nigh
  • Boris Karloff was in yellowface as the detective.
  • Amongst the Asians in the background: Chester Gan, Lotus Long as the maid, Lee Tung Foo as Mr. Wong's Butler and door opener.
1940 The Letter Gale Sondergaard William Wyler
  • Sondergaard plays a Eurasian, a trope of the Dragonlady.
  • Variety said, "Sondergaard is the perfect mask-like threat".[10]
1942 Little Tokyo, U.S.A. Harold Huber as Takimura, American-born spy for Tokyo, June Duprez as Teru Otto Brower
  • 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.[11] Twentieth Century-Fox seized on one of the most controversial aspects of the homefront, the roundup and internment of people of Japanese descent on the West Coast. Little Tokyo basically developed the theme that anyone of Japanese descent, including American citizens, was loyal to the emperor of Japan and a potential traitor to America.[12][13]
  • The movie employed a quasi-documentary style of filming. Twentieth Century sent its cameramen to the Japanese quarter of Los Angeles to shoot the actual evacuation. However, after the evacuation, night shots were difficult in the deserted "Little Tokyo". Night scenes were filmed in Chinatown instead. Chinese actor Richard Loo played one of the lead Japanese roles in the film.
1944 Dragon Seed Katharine Hepburn, Walter Huston, Aline MacMahon, Turhan Bey, Agnes Moorehead, J. Carrol Naish, and Hurd Hatfield Harold S. Bucquet and Jack Conway
  • Based on a best-selling book by Pearl S. Buck, the film portrays a peaceful village in China that has been invaded by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second Sino-Japanese war. The men in the village choose to adopt a peaceful attitude toward their conquerors, but Jade (played by Hepburn), a headstrong woman, stands up to the Japanese.
  • Aline MacMahon was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actress.
  • In Lion of Hollywood author Scott Eyman wrote that this was one of the worst of all MGM pictures (p. 364).[14]
1946 Anna and the King of Siam Rex Harrison, Linda Darnell, and Gale Sondergaard John Cromwell
1946 Ziegfeld Follies Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer Lemuel Ayers, Roy Del Ruth, Robert Lewis, Vincente Minnelli, Merrill Pye, George Sidney, Charles Walters
  • Limehouse Blues: Conceived as a "dramatic pantomime" with Astaire as a proud but poverty-stricken Chinese labourer whose infatuation with the unattainable Bremer leads to tragedy. The story serves as bookends for a dream ballet inspired by Chinese dance motifs.
1955 Blood Alley Anita Ekberg, Berry Kroeger, Paul Fix, and Mike Mazurki William A. Wellman
  • Despite the star power of its lead actors and director, Blood Alley received a lukewarm reception from critics.[16] The New York Times proclaimed, "Blood Alley, despite its exotic, oriental setting, is a standard chase melodrama patterned on a familiar blueprint."[17]
  • Far better were Paul Fix, Berry Kroeger, and Anita Ekberg, who weren't the most convincing "Chinese" in the world but who seem to fit right in with the blood-and-thunder proceedings.[18]
1955 Love is a Many Splendored Thing Jennifer Jones Henry King
1956 The Conqueror John Wayne Dick Powell
  • The picture was a critical and commercial failure (often ranked as one of the worst films of the 1950s). Wayne, who was at the height of his career, had lobbied for the role after seeing the script and was widely believed to have been grossly miscast. (He was so "honored" by The Golden Turkey Awards.)
1956 The King and I Yul Brynner and Rita Moreno Walter Lang
  • Brynner, Russian born (although of part Buryat descent), reprised his role as King Mongut of Siam from the original Broadway production; Moreno, who is of Puerto-Rican heritage, played Tuptim. The film was banned in Thailand (formerly Siam in King Mongkut's days).
1956 The Teahouse of the August Moon Marlon Brando Daniel Mann
  • Brando spent two hours a day for the standard prosthetic eyepieces and makeup. His role was made all the more noticeable because he is the only actor in yellowface in a sea of Asian extras and secondary characters.[19]
  • Brando actually attempted an "authentic" Japanese accent and he even has some Japanese dialogue.
1957 Sayonara Ricardo Montalbán as Nakamura Joshua Logan A movie dealing with racism, prejudice, and interracial marriage in post war Japan
1958 The Inn of the Sixth Happiness Curd Jürgens and Robert Donat Mark Robson
1961 Flower Drum Song Juanita Hall Henry Koster
  • The film and stage play were based on the 1957 novel of the same name by the Chinese-American author C.Y. Lee.
  • In 1960 producer Ross Hunter cast Anna May Wong, in Flower Drum Song. However, Wong became ill in December 1960 and was replaced by Juanita Hall.
  • This movie was unusual (for its time) in featuring nearly all Asian-American cast members (one of the few speaking Caucasian parts being that of a mugger), including dancers, though two of the singing voices were not by Asian ones. Starring in this movie were Nancy Kwan, James Shigeta, Benson Fong, James Hong, Reiko Sato and the original Broadway cast members Jack Soo, Miyoshi Umeki and Juanita Hall (an African-American actress who previously played the Pacific Islander Bloody Mary in the Broadway and film productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific).
  • In 2008, Flower Drum Song was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[20]
1962 The Manchurian Candidate Henry Silva John Frankenheimer
1962 A Majority of One Alec Guinness Mervyn LeRoy
1963 55 Days at Peking Flora Robson Nicholas Ray
1964 7 Faces of Dr. Lao Tony Randall George Pal
1965 Pierrot le fou Anna Karina Jean-Luc Godard
  • Lead actress Anna Karina donned yellowface makeup during a mid-film skit satirizing the American involvement in the Vietnam War.
1965 Genghis Khan Robert Morley, James Mason and others Henry Levin
1965 Gilligan's Island Vito Scotti
1965 Get Smart Leonard Strong (actor) * As "The Claw", in the episode: "Diplomat's Daughter". "Not Craw, Craw!"
1965 The Return of Mr. Moto Henry Silva Ernest Morris
  • In 1965 Mr. Moto's character was revived in a low-budget Robert Lippert production filmed in England starring Henry Silva.[21]
  • In Mr. Moto Returns, a.k.a. The Return of Mr. Moto, Mr. I.A. Moto is now a member of Interpol.
  • The extremely tall Silva conveyed an almost James Bond-like playboy character; in the fight scenes he is clearly not proficient in martial arts. He speaks in a lazy 'Beatnik' manner.
  • Nowhere in the film is it even mentioned that Moto is Japanese. He is referred to as an "oriental" and, oddly, in the trailer, Moto is referred to as a "swinging Chinese cat". It is only when he is disguised as a Japanese oil representative, Mr. Takura, that a more stereotypical portrayal of a Japanese businessman is given.
1966 7 Women Woody Strode and Mike Mazurki John Ford

After Civil Rights Movement[edit]

Note: This is also after the anti-miscegenation laws were repealed in the United States of America that prevented East Asian actors from playing opposite white actors as love interests.

Year Title Actor/s Director Notes
1970 The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go James Mason as Y.Y. Go Burgess Meredith
1972-1975 Kung Fu David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine David Carradine wore Yellowface makeup/prostethics to look more East Asian
1973 Lost Horizon John Gielgud as Chang Charles Jarrott
1975 One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing Peter Ustinov and others Robert Stevenson
1976 Murder by Death Peter Sellers Robert Moore Peter Sellers plays Inspector Sidney Wang, based on Charlie Chan and appropriately accompanied by his adopted, Japanese son Willie (Richard Narita). Wang wears elaborate Chinese costumes, and his grammar is frequently criticized by the annoyed host much the same way that Inspector Clouseau. It could be argued that Sellers' role is in itself a parody of yellowface casting in earlier films.
1980 The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu Peter Sellers Piers Haggard
Peter Sellers
Richard Quine
This is the last Fu Manchu created.
1980 Flash Gordon Max von Sydow as Emperor Ming Mike Hodges Ming the Merciless is the sci fi version of Fu Manchu.
1981 Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen Peter Ustinov as Charlie Chan In 1980, Jerry Shylock proposed a multi-million dollar comedy film, to be called Charlie Chan and the Dragon Lady. A group calling itself C.A.N. (Coalition of Asians to Nix) was formed, protesting the fact that two white actors, Peter Ustinov and Angie Dickinson, had been cast in the primary roles. Others protested that the film itself contained a number of stereotypes; Shylock responded that the film was not a documentary.[22] The film was released the following year as Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen and was an "abysmal failure".[23] More successful was Wayne Wang's Chan is Missing (1982), which was a spoof of the older Chan films.[2]
1982 Conan the Barbarian Gerry Lopez as Subotai John Milius The character Subotai is a 'Hyrkanian' who in the mythos of Conan the Barbarian are the ancestors of Asians and further the character is named after Subotai one of the general so Genghis Khan, but the character however is played by the white actor Gerry Lopez.
1982 The Year of Living Dangerously Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan Peter Weir Actress Linda Hunt won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of an Asian man.[24]
1982 Marco Polo (TV miniseries) Leonard Nimoy as Achmet Giuliano Montaldo Italian and American television mini-series
1985 Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins Joel Grey as Chiun Guy Hamilton Film based on the Destroyer book series. Joel Grey garnered a Saturn Award and a second Golden Globe nomination for "Best Supporting Actor" for his Yellowface portrayal.
1993-1997 Kung Fu: The Legend Continues David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine David Carradine once again wore Yellowface makeup/prosthetics to make him look East Asian
1994 Sabotage Adam Yauch Spike Jonze Beastie Boys music video.
1996-1999 Tracey Takes On... Tracey Ullman as Mrs. Noh Nang Ning Ullman wore prosthetics to make her look East Asian.
1999 Galaxy Quest Tony Shalhoub as Fred Kwan / Tech Sergeant Chen Dean Parisot Shalhoub (an American of Arab descent) plays an actor with a Korean family name; Shalhoub wears makeup which makes him look more East Asian

21st century[edit]

Year Title Actor/s Director Notes
2005 We Can Be Heroes: Finding The Australian of the Year Chris Lilley as Ricky Wong We Can Be Heroes: Finding The Australian of the Year is an Australian Television series, Ricky Wong is a 23-year-old Chinese physics student who lives in the suburb of Wheelers Hill, Melbourne, Victoria. He is often exuberant and tells his colleagues that "Physics is Phun" and that they are in the "Wong" laboratory. This character is largely a vehicle for parodying the stereotypical "Chinese overachiever", or model migrant.
2006 Cloud 9 Paul Rodriguez as Mr. Wong Cloud 9 [25]
2007 Balls of Fury Christopher Walken as Feng Ben Garant Feng is a parody of the yellow peril and Fu Manchu stereotype.
2007 Norbit Eddie Murphy as Mr. Wong Brian Robbins For his portrayal Eddie Murphy received a Golden Raspberry Award. Worst Supporting Actor (Eddie Murphy; as Mr. Wong) [26]
2007 Grindhouse Nicolas Cage as Dr. Fu Manchu Rob Zombie Fake Trailer: Werewolf Women of the SS [27]
2007 I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry Rob Schneider as the Asian minister and photographer Dennis Dugan Schneider is in fact half Filipino by descent, but wore prosthetics for the role which were criticised as an offensive stereotype.

Nominated for the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor but lost to Eddie Murphy.

2008 My Name Is Bruce Ted Raimi as Wing Bruce Campbell
2009 Crank: High Voltage David Carradine as Poon Dong Neveldine/Taylor Poon Dong, played by David Carradine, is the head of the Chinese Triad. In Crank: High Voltage. The name of the character is a pun, being both a stereotypical Chinese-sounding name and slang for genitalia.
2009 Chanel - Paris - Shanghai A Fantasy - The Short Movie Freja Beha, Baptiste Giabiconi Karl Lagerfeld Karl Lagerfeld Opened His Pre-Fall Show in Shanghai With a Film That Included Yellow Face.[28] Lagerfeld defended this as a reference to old films. "It is an homage to Europeans trying to look Chinese", he explained. "Like in The Good Earth, the people in the movie liked the idea that they had to look like Chinese. Or like actors in Madame Butterfly. People around the world like to dress up as different nationalities." "It is about the idea of China, not the reality." [29] Chinese persons played the maid, a courtesan and background characters. The film is currently on YouTube [30]
2009 Hanger Wade Gibb as Russell Ryan Nicholson A black comedy in which a Chinese man with Down syndrome is portrayed by a Caucasian actor under heavy prosthetics and make-up.
2012 Cloud Atlas Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, James D'Arcy, and Keith David Lana and Andy Wachowski A significant number of cast members applied makeup, focusing mostly on the eyes, to make their features appear more Korean/East Asian in one of the film's stories. The film is based on the idea of having the same actors reappear in different roles in six different story lines, one of which is set in 'Neo Seoul' in the year 2144. The film thus also has Asian actresses Doona Bae and Zhou Xun appear in non-Asian roles, and African-American actress Halle Berry portrayed a white character. Blackface is not used in the film, however.
2013 The Walking Dead: A Hardcore Parody Danny Wylde as Glenn Rhee Danny Wylde A pornographic parody of The Walking Dead, controversy interrupted over the character Glenn being portrayed by a Caucasian actor under heavy make-up and prosthetics.[31][32]
2013 Pacific Rim Clifton Collins, Jr. as Tendo Choi Guillermo Del Toro Mexican-American actor Clifton Collins, Jr. portrays in Yellowface a Chinese-American character Tendo Choi the Jaeger technician. Collins has been quoted describing his character as the "Brains" behind the Jaegers.

Yellowface worn by a character in a film[edit]

In some films, white characters, played by white actors, have played Asians, often as a disguise.

Year Title Actor(s) Director Notes
1962 My Geisha Shirley MacLaine Jack Cardiff
1978 Revenge of the Pink Panther Peter Sellers Blake Edwards Inspector Clouseau had many disguises and this included the quintessential Chinaman stereotype.
1981 Hardly Working Jerry Lewis Jerry Lewis
1997 The Pest John Leguizamo Paul Miller Leguizamo used Yellowface twice in the film to disguise himself as both a Chinese and Japanese man to try and escape hunters trying to kill him and in both situations his character Pest portrayed them as stereotypical Asian caricatures.
2001 Not Another Teen Movie Samm Levine as Bruce Joel Gallen Bruce is a white high school student who pretends to be Asian. A parody of racist stereotypes in teen films, most notably Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles.
2011 Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows Robert Downey, Jr. Guy Ritchie The character of Sherlock Holmes donned Yellowface to disguise himself as a Chinese man for a short while in the film.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Kashiwabara, Amy, Vanishing Son: The Appearance, Disappearance, and Assimilation of the Asian-American Man in American Mainstream Media, UC Berkeley Media Resources Center 
  2. ^ a b c Sengupta (1997).
  3. ^ "The Hatchet Man". Tcm.com. Retrieved 2014-02-10. 
  4. ^ "Frisco Jenny". Tcm.com. Retrieved 2014-02-10. 
  5. ^ Basinger, Jeanine (June 16, 2008). "Few female ensemble films". Variety. 
  6. ^ Hall, Mordaunt (January 12, 1933). "Radio City Music Hall Shows a Melodrama of China as Its First Pictorial Attraction". The New York Times. [dead link]
  7. ^ "Lost Horizon (1937)". Tcm.com. Retrieved 2014-02-10. 
  8. ^ Peter Lorre at the Internet Movie Database
  9. ^ Mr. Moto at the Internet Movie Database
  10. ^ "The Letter". Variety. 1939-12-31. Retrieved 2014-02-10. 
  11. ^ [1][dead link]
  12. ^ "Movies: About Little Tokyo, USA". The New York Times. 
  13. ^ "At the Palace". The New York Times. August 7, 1942. [dead link]
  14. ^ Dargis, Manohla (July 10, 2005). "'Lion of Hollywood': Mogul of Make-Believe". The New York Times. 
  15. ^ a b "NY Times: Anna and the King of Siam". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-20. 
  16. ^ "Blood Alley". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2014-02-10. 
  17. ^ Dargis, Manohla (February 7, 2005). "We're Sorry". The New York Times. 
  18. ^ "Blood Alley (1955) - Releases". AllMovie. Retrieved 2014-02-10. 
  19. ^ Robert B. Ito. "Bright Lights Film Journal :: "A Certain Slant": A Brief History of Hollywood Yellowface". Brightlightsfilm.com. Retrieved 2014-02-10. 
  20. ^ "'Flower Drum Song' Among 25 Films Inducted Into Registry - BWWMoviesWorld". Broadwayworld.com. Retrieved 2014-02-10. 
  21. ^ The Return of Mr. Moto at the Internet Movie Database
  22. ^ Chan (2001), 58.
  23. ^ Pitts (1991), 301.
  24. ^ Worrell, Denise; Gerald Clarke (April 23, 1984). "The Night off the Great Prom". Time. Retrieved 2009-07-07. 
  25. ^ "Cloud 9 (2006)". IMDb.com. Retrieved 2014-02-10. 
  26. ^ "Gold Derby". Los Angeles Times. February 27, 2009. 
  27. ^ "YouTube". YouTube. Retrieved 2014-02-10. 
  28. ^ "Karl Lagerfeld Talks Shanghai and Fashion - WWD Fashion Features". WWD.com. 2009-12-03. Retrieved 2014-02-10. 
  29. ^ "Karl Lagerfeld Opened His Pre-Fall Show in Shanghai With a Film That Included Yellow Face - The Cut". New York. Retrieved 2014-02-10. 
  30. ^ "YouTube". YouTube. Retrieved 2014-02-10. 
  31. ^ Kang, Peter (30 January 2013). "Walking Dead Porn Parody Actor's Interesting Makeup". iamkoream.com. KoreAm. Retrieved 6 September 2013. 
  32. ^ Morrissey, Tracie (31 January 2013). "Walking Dead Porn Parody Relies on Yellowface". jezebel.com. Jezebel. Retrieved 6 September 2013.