Portrayal of East Asians in American film and theater
Portrayals of East Asians in American film and theatre has been a subject of controversy. These portrayals have frequently reflected an ethnocentric perception of East Asians rather than realistic and authentic depictions of East Asian cultures, colors, customs, and behaviors. Portraying the rich and complex diversity of East Asians and Asian-Americans in a single movie or theatrical show is difficult to do. The 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians received criticism for only depicting a small segment of the Asian diaspora. 
Yellowface, a form of theatrical makeup used by European-American performers to represent an East Asian person (similar to the practice of blackface used to represent African-American performers), continues to be used in film and theater. In the 21st century alone, Grindhouse (in a trailer parody of the Fu Manchu serials), Balls of Fury, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, Crank: High Voltage, and Cloud Atlas all feature yellowface or non-East Asian actors as East Asian caricatures.
- 1 Early East Asian American film actors
- 2 Recent East Asian American film actors
- 3 European actors who have played East Asian roles
- 4 Madame Butterfly
- 5 Early film
- 6 Classic Hollywood cinema
- 7 Theater
- 8 Other examples of yellowface or whitewashing in Western media
- 9 See also
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
- 12 Further reading
- 13 External links
Early East Asian American film actors
The Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa began appearing in films around 1914. 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. 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 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.
Anna May Wong, considered by many to be the first Chinese-American movie star, was acting by the age of 14 and in 1922, at age 17, she became the first Chinese-American to break Hollywood's miscegenation rule playing opposite a white romantic lead in The 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 passed over for lead East Asian character roles in favor of European-American 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 German actress Luise Rainer. Wong refused the role of the villainess, a stereotypical Oriental Dragon Lady.
Keye Luke was a successful actor, starring as the "Number-One Son" Lee Chan in the popular Charlie Chan films, as well as the original Kato in the 1940s Green Hornet, and Detective James Lee Wong in Phantom of Chinatown (1940), a role previously played by the English actor Boris Karloff.
Some East and South Asian-American actors nonetheless attempted to start careers. Merle Oberon, an 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 East 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 East 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."
Recent East Asian American film actors
The 2018 film Crazy Rich Asians starred Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi, Carmen Soo, among others.
European actors who have played East Asian roles
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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 European and European-American actors including Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, and Peter Ustinov. Loy also appeared in yellowface alongside Nick Lucas in The Show of Shows.
The list of actors who have donned "Yellowface" to portray East 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.[a]
"Madame Butterfly" was originally a short story written by Philadelphia attorney John Luther Long. It was turned into a one-act play, Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan, by David Belasco. Giacomo Puccini re-made the play into the Italian opera Madama Butterfly, set in 1904. The 1915 silent film version was directed by Sidney Olcott and starred Mary Pickford.
All the versions of Madame Butterfly tell the story of a young Japanese woman who has converted to Christianity (for which she is disowned by her family) and marries Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a white lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. For him, the marriage is a temporary convenience, but Butterfly's conversion is sincere, and she takes her marriage vows seriously. Pinkerton's naval duties eventually call him away from Japan. He leaves Butterfly behind and she soon gives birth to their son. Pinkerton eventually meets and marries a white American woman (the fact he stopped paying the rent on Butterfly's house amounted to a divorce under Japanese law at the time). Pinkerton returns to Japan with his new wife, Kate, to claim his son. Butterfly acquiesces to his request, and then kills herself as Pinkerton rushes into the house, too late to stop her. In the original story by Long, Butterfly is on the point of killing herself when the presence of her child reminds her of her Christian conversion, and the story ends with Mr and Mrs Pinkerton arriving at the house the next morning to find it completely empty.
Mr. Wu was originally a stage play, written by Harold Owen and Harry M. Vernon. It was first staged in London in 1913, with Matheson Lang in the lead. He 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). 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.
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 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.
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 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
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.
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 Chinese, and according to his contemporaries, he did not use special makeup in the role. He also played East Asians in other films, including Shanghai Express, The Painted Veil, and Werewolf of London. (Decades later, Afro-European 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 East Asian actors.)
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 Europeans 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 actors, producer Irving Thalberg responded by saying, "I'm in the business of creating illusions."
Anna May Wong had been considered a top contender for the role of O-lan, the Chinese heroine of the novel. However, because Paul Muni was a white man, the Hays Code's anti-miscegenation rules required the actress who played his wife to be a white woman. So, MGM gave the role of O-lan to a European actress and offered Wong the role of Lotus, the story's villain. 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 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. 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. Mickey 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.
"Yellowface" in theatre has been called "the practice of white actors donning overdone face paint and costumes that serves as a caricatured representation of traditional Asian garb." Founded in 2011, an organization known as, "The Asian American Performers Action Coalition" or the AAPAC work in an effort to, "expand the perception of Asian American performers in order to increase their access to and representation on New York City's stages." This group works to address and discuss "Yellowface" controversies and occurrences.[non-primary source needed]
Miss Saigon, a musical with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyrics by Alain Boublil and Richard Maltby, Jr. and book by Boublil and Schönberg, is a modern adaptation of Giacomo Puccini's opera "Madame Butterfly". Miss Saigon tells the story of a doomed romance involving an Vietnamese woman and an American soldier set in the time of the Vietnam War.
When Miss Saigon premiered at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London on September 20, 1989, Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce wore heavy prosthetic eyelids and skin darkening cream in playing The Engineer, a mixed-race French-Vietnamese pimp.
Once the London production came to Broadway in 1990, Pryce was slated to reprise his role as The Engineer, causing a major rift in American theater circles and sparking public outcry. Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang wrote a letter to the Actors' Equity Association protesting this portrayal of a Eurasian character being played by a White actor.
Despite these protests, Pryce performed the Engineer to great acclaim and Miss Saigon became one of Broadway's longest-running hits.
The Mikado is a comic opera, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert, premiered in 1885 in London and still performed frequently in the English-speaking world and beyond. In setting the opera in a fictionalized 19th century Japan, Gilbert used the veneer of Far Eastern exoticism to soften the impact of his pointed satire of British institutions and politics.
Several US productions of The Mikado have been criticized for the use of Yellowface in their casting: New York (2004 and 2015), Los Angeles (2007 and 2009), Boston (2007), Austin (2011), Denver (2013), and Seattle (2014) The press noted that the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society cast the 10 principal roles and the chorus with white actors, with the exception of two Latino actors.
In 2015, the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players cancelled a production of The Mikado that was set to feature their repertory company of mostly White actors, due to complaints from the East Asian-American community. The company redesigned its production in collaboration with an advisory group of East Asian-American theater professionals and debuted the new concept in 2016, receiving a warm review in The New York Times. After Lamplighters Music Theatre of San Francisco planned a 2016 production, objections by the East Asian-American community prompted them to re-set the operetta in Renaissance-era Milan, replacing all references to Japan with Milan. Reviewers felt that the change resolved the issue.
The King and I
The King and I is a musical by Richard Rodgers (composer) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyricist). Based on the 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, the story illustrates the clash of Eastern and Western cultures by relaying the experiences of Anna, a British schoolteacher hired as part of the King's drive to modernize his country. The relationship between the King and Anna is marked by conflict and constant bickering throughout the musical, as well as by a love that neither can confess.
The 2015 Dallas Summer Musical's production of the musical caused controversy in the casting of a European-American actor as King Mongkut. In an open letter to Dallas Summer Musicals, the AAPAC criticized the choice, saying "the casting of a white King dramaturgically undermines a story about a clash between Western and Eastern cultures"; moreover, "Asian impersonation denies Asians our own subjecthood. It situates all the power within a Caucasian-centric world view."
Other examples of yellowface or whitewashing in Western media
A prominent example of the whitewashing of Asian roles is the 1970s TV series, Kung Fu, in which the leading character – a Chinese monk and martial arts master who fled China after having accidentally slain the emperor's nephew – is portrayed by European-American actor, David Carradine. The film Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story describes to some extent the struggles that ensued when Hollywood moguls attempted to cast Bruce Lee in the starring role of Caine but were overruled.
- Blackface and Blackface in contemporary art
- Covert racism
- Examples of yellowface
- Reel Bad Arabs
- Reel Injun
- Stereotypes of East Asians in the United States
- Whiteface (performance)
- Whitewashing in film
- A full list of actors who have donned yellowface can be seen here.
- Winfrey, Yayoi Lena (November 19, 2012). "Yellowface: Asians on White Screens". IMDiversity.
- Kashiwabara, Amy, Vanishing Son: The Appearance, Disappearance, and Assimilation of the Asian-American Man in American Mainstream Media, UC Berkeley Media Resources Center
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- "The Practice of Yellow Face," by Vickie Rozel, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley In The Works theatreworks.commercialmedia.com
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- www.tcm.com Spotlight: Broken Blossoms
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- Breakfast at Tiffany's: The Making of a Classic
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- "Dallas Summer Musicals' THE KING AND I Casting Causes Controversy". BroadwayWorld.com. Retrieved 2015-11-25.
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- "The Heat Is On: Touring Production of Miss Saigon Met With Protests at Minnesota's Ordway Theater". Playbill. Retrieved 2015-11-25.
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- Cauterucci, Christina (January 30, 2014). "'Yellow Face' at Theatre J explores Asian representation in the theater world". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2015-11-25.
- Hwang, David Henry. "David Henry Hwang: racial casting has evolved – and so have my opinions". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 2015-11-25.
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- Steinberg, Neil. "Updated Mikado promises to be as rousing as ever". Chicago Sun-Times, December 6, 2010
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- "Stereotypes in 'The Mikado' Stir Controversy in Seattle - NBC News". NBC News. Retrieved 2015-11-25.
- "Following Outcry from the Asian Community, The Mikado (With Caucasian Actors) Canceled". Playbill. Retrieved 2015-11-25.
- "New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players Reveals Concepts for Reimagined The Mikado; Kelvin Moon Loh Joins Creative Team!", BroadwayWorld.com, October 6, 2016
- Fonseca-Wollheim, Corinna da. "Is The Mikado Too Politically Incorrect to Be Fixed? Maybe Not.", December 30, 2016
- Tran, Diep. "Building a Better Mikado, Minus the Yellowface", American Theatre, April 20, 2016
- Kosman, Joshua. "Lamplighters' transplanted Mikado retains its charm", San Francisco Chronicle, August 8, 2016; and Hurwitt, Sam. "Review: Guilt-free Mikado unveiled by Lamplighters", The Mercury News, August 8, 2016
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- 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). Misreading the Chinese Character: Images of the Chinese in Euroamerican Drama to 1925 (review) Asian Theatre Journal. 18. University of Hawai'i Press. pp. 117–119.
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- 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.
- Metzger, Sean. "Charles Parsloe's Chinese Fetish: An Example of Yellowface Performance in Nineteenth-Century American Melodrama." Theatre Journal 56, no. 4 (2004): 627-51. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25069532.
- Young, Cynthia Ann. "AfroAsian Encounters: Culture, History, Politics (review)." Journal of Asian American Studies 10, no. 3 (2007): 316-18. doi:10.1353/jaas.2007.0033.
- 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
- "Monitoring Asians in the American mass media" at Asian American Media Watch
- "Asian Images in Film: Introduction" at TCM
- "Roundtable: The Past and Present of 'Yellowface'", at NPR