Yellowface (1700s- ) is where someone of another race is made to look East Asian. Hollywood has been doing it for over a hundred years. Like blackface, it is dehumanizing and pushes stereotypes.
An extremely incomplete list:
- 1870s: minstrel shows
- 1885: The Mikado – still being presented in yellowface in 2014
- 1908: New York Age
- 1915: Madame Butterfly
- 1922: Fu Manchu
- 1931-49: Charlie Chan series
- 1936: Flash Gordon – Ming the Merciless
- 1937: The Good Earth – Luise Rainier, who won an Oscar
- 1944: Dragon Seed – Katherine Hepburn
- 1955: Love is a Many-Splendored Thing – Jennifer Jones
- 1956: The Conqueror – John Wayne
- 1956: Teahouse of the August Moon – Marlon Brando
- 1961: Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Mickey Rooney as Mr Yunioshi
- 1962: Dr. No
- 1964: Seven Faces of Dr Lao – Tony Randall
- 1972-75: Kung Fu – David Carradine
- 1976: Murder By Death – Peter Sellers
- 1982: The Year of Living Dangerously – Linda Hunt, who won an Oscar
- 1987: The Fires of Fu Manchu
- 1991: Miss Saigon – Jonathan Pryce
- 2006: Crank – David Carradine, still at it.
- 2007: Norbit – Eddie Murphy
- 2012: Cloud Atlas
- 2014: How I Met Your Mother: Slapsgiving 3: Slappointment in Slapmarra
- 2015: Aloha – Emma Stone
- 2016: Dr Strange – Tilda Swinton
There is also “The Ghost in the Shell” (2017) where producers were thinking of using computer effects to make Scarlett Johansson look Asian.
The most infamous example is Mr Yunioshi in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961), Audrey Hepburn’s best-known film. Mickey Rooney’s Yunioshi is like a Second World War propaganda stereotype come to life, buckteeth and everything.
The most heartbreaking example is the lead female part for “The Good Earth” (1937), set in China. Anna May Wong, a Chinese American actress then at the height of her powers, wanted the lead. They gave it to a White woman instead, who went on to win an Oscar, the only person ever to win an Oscar for playing an Asian woman (Linda Hunt played an Asian man). It was one of the few films of the time that put Chinese people in a good light.
When MGM offered Wong the part of a wicked concubine instead, she said:
“You’re asking me – with my Chinese blood – to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture, featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters.”
An Asian American would not notably star as an unembarrassing character till 1966. That was when George Takei played Mr Sulu on “Star Trek” (1966-1969). He was even allowed to speak English with an American accent!
The most damaging example of yellowface was Fu Manchu, the Yellow Peril made flesh, shown regularly in the 1920s on Saturday afternoons in cinemas across the US. It almost certainly helped to lead to the Japanese American internment.
Why yellowface? Some say it is money: White actors draw larger audiences. But it is more than just that:
- Entertainment value: Dehumanizing other races has been a form of White entertainment since the 1700s.
- Lack of empathy: Whites do not see people of other races as having deep feelings. That might be fine for bad guys and even action heroes, but not for love stories or serious drama. A White actor in yellowface will seem deeper and realer.
– Abagond, 2016.
- Welcome to Asian American History Month 2016
- White American writers:
- Zora Neale Hurston: What White Publishers Won’t Print – of White empathy and Hollywood
- Three ways Americans write about Asians
- David Carradine
- Yellow Peril
- Anna May Wong
- The Japanese American internment