Portrayal of East Asians in Hollywood
||This article lends undue weight to certain ideas, incidents, or controversies. (August 2013)|
East Asians have not always been accurately represented in Hollywood. Many times, Asian characters have been portrayed predominantly by white actors, often while artificially 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 Early Asian American Actors
- 2 Early history
- 3 Early Film
- 4 Classical Hollywood Cinema
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
Early Asian American Actors
Around the same time, Sessue Hayakawa began appearing in films. Signed to Paramount Pictures, he had roles in more than 20 silent films including The Wrath of the Gods (1914) and The Typhoon (1914). 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. He was at the height of his popularity during that time. His career did suffer due to Anti-Japanese sentiment in the 1930s, but he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Anna May Wong, considered by many the first Chinese-American movie star, 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. 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." She commented: "There seems little for me in Hollywood, because, rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles." 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 Dragonlady.
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."
In 1767, Arthur Murphy's theatrical work The Orphan of China was presented in Philadelphia. 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, Alec Guinness, Tony Randall, John Gielgud, Max von Sydow, Linda Hunt, Jamie Lee Curtis, David Carradine, Joel Grey, and many others.
The use of yellowface makeup continues to endure in modern Hollywood as a common practice while blackface makeup has become a social taboo. In the 21st century, Grindhouse, Balls of Fury, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Crank: High Voltage, and Cloud Atlas all featured yellowface and non-Asian actors as Asian caricatures.
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.[when?] Asian Americans formed advocacy groups such as the East West Players and Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) to counter the practice.
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.
Madame Butterfly was originally a short story written by John Luther Long. 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. The original production premiered on February 17, 1904, at La Scala in Milan.
It is the story of a teenaged Japanese maiden, Cio-Cio San, who marries and has a child with a white American navy lieutenant named Pinkerton. The Lieutenant leaves Cio-Cio San and returns home where, unknown to Cio-Cio San, he marries a white American. 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. 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. 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.
There was also a film version of the stage musical, Miss Saigon that featured East Asian actors as well as caucasian actors playing East Asian roles.
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 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.
The film Broken Blossoms is based on a short story, "The Chink and the Child" taken from the book "Limehouse Nights" by Thomas Burke. 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 word of 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.
Classical Hollywood Cinema
The Good Earth
The Good Earth (1937) is a film about Chinese farmers who struggle to survive. 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, 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." 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. 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.
Breakfast at Tiffany's
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". 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". 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.
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. 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.
Other portrayals of Yellowface in Western Media
- Kashiwabara, Amy, Vanishing Son: The Appearance, Disappearance, and Assimilation of the Asian-American Man in American Mainstream Media, UC Berkeley Media Resources Center
- 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
- www.goldsea.com Sessue Hayakawa: The Legend
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- www.brightlightsflim.com A Certain Slant
- 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
- www.imdiversity.com Yellowface: Asians on White Screens
- "The Practice of Yellow Face," by Vickie Rozel, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley In The Works theatreworks.commercialmedia.com
- www.ejumpcut.org Rising Sun: Interview with activist Guy Aoki - Total eclipse of the Sun by Robert M. Payne
- www.logos-verlag.de Analysis of John Luther Long's "Madame Butterfly"
- japantimes.co.jp Madama Butterfly, Puccini's masterpiece transcends its age By Benjamin Woodward
- Puccini opera is 'racist': News24: Entertainment: International www.news24.com] Puccini opera is racist
- The Asian Mystique: Dragon Ladies, Geisha Girls, & Our Fantasies of the Exotic Orient, Sheridan Prasso, 2005
- Madame Butterfly (1915) at the Internet Movie Database
- www.tcm.com Spotlight: Broken Blossoms
- www.asian-studies.org What's So Bad About "The Good Earth" by Charles W. Hayford.
- www.asiaarts.ucla.edu Profile of Anna May Wong: Remembering The Silent Star by Kenneth Quan
- tcm.com Spotlight: The Good Earth
- www.time.com Anna May Wong Did It Right by Richard Corliss
- Breakfast at Tiffany's: The Making of a Classic
- Calvert, Bruce (September 9, 2008). "Sacramento Bee: Racism in reel life". sacbee.com. Retrieved 2008-11-02.[dead link]
- The Mask of Fu Manchu at the Internet Movie Database
- Graham Russell Hodges, Anna May Wong: From Laundryman's Daughter to Hollywood Legend (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
- Gina Marchetti, Romance and the "Yellow Peril" Race, Sex, and Discursive Strategies in Hollywood Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
- Moon, Krystyn R. Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s-1920s (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2006).
- Paul, John Steven (Spring 2001 University of Hawai'i Press). Misreading the Chinese Character: Images of the Chinese in Euroamerican Drama to 1925 (review) Asian Theatre Journal - Volume 18, Number 1, pp. 117-119,.
- Prasso, Sheridan. The Asian Mystique: dragon ladies, geisha girls, & our fantasies of the exotic orient. Unknown parameter
- Wang, Yiman (2005). "The Art of Screen Passing: Anna May Wong's Yellow Yellowface Performance in the Art Deco Era". In Catherine Russell. Camera Obscura 60: New Women of the Silent Screen: China, Japan, Hollywood. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. pp. 159–191. ISBN 978-0-8223-6624-9.
- Hollywood Chinese Hollywood Chinese, a 2007 documentary film about the portrayals of Chinese men and women in Hollywood productions.
- "Yellowface: Asians on White Screens", by Yayoi Lena Winfrey, IM Diversity.com.
- "A Certain Slant." by Robert B. Ito, Bright Lights Film Journal.
- Asian American Media Watch.
- Asian Images in Film Introduction.