This article originally appeared in slightly different form in the March 1997 issue of Bright Lights. While limited to the history up to that time, it remains sadly relevant.
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“The history of blackface has been well documented in American film criticism; the history of yellowface has received much less critical attention, and considerably less public censure.”
In 1990, when English actor Jonathan Pryce was selected to play a Eurasian pimp in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon, members of the Asian-American artistic community cried foul. Asian-American directors, playwrights, and actors protested against not only Pryce’s “yellowface” performance — Pryce had performed the role on the London stage wearing heavy prosthetic eyelids, until he was informed that some people might find this racially offensive — but also against the show’s producer’s refusal to allow Asian-American actors to compete for the role. After a multiethnic coalition raised concerns about the casting decision, members of the Actors’ Equity Association voted to bar Pryce from reprising the role in the United States, stating that Equity could not “appear to condone the casting of a Caucasian in the role of a Eurasian.” The show’s producer, Cameron Mackintosh, quickly canceled the $10 million New York production, which had already brought in more than $25 million in advance ticket sales. Less than a week later, Equity reversed their decision, citing the need for “artistic freedom” in casting as the primary reason.
The Miss Saigon controversy brought national attention to two long-standing traditions in U.S. theater and film. The first, most obvious tradition was simply the business part of “show business,” where the bottom line almost always takes precedence over artistic and ethical considerations. In the case of Miss Saigon, the choice between possibly pissing off a few Asian Americans or canceling an obscenely lucrative Broadway production turned out to be, predictably, not much of a choice at all. While terms like “artistic freedom” and “nontraditional casting” were bandied about throughout much of the debate, these philosophical terms were invoked primarily to justify what was essentially an economic decision.
The second tradition, and the one that got far more press, was the time-honored practice of white actors performing in “yellowface.” Many Asian Americans were angry at Pryce’s yellowface performance largely because it was not an isolated, one-time casting decision, but represented a return to an earlier time when yellowface was the rule rather than the exception. During much of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, scores of actors, big-name actors, had no moral qualms about taking roles that required them to “slant” their eyes, do that funny walk, and practice their embarrassingly poor “Oriental” accents. Although most actors did the yellowface thing as a one-shot deal, a handful, like “Charlie Chan” actor Warner Oland and Siamese king Yul Brynner, actually spent much of their careers unashamedly accepting such roles.
The list of actors appearing in yellowface is disturbingly long: Katharine Hepburn; Fred Astaire; Myrna Loy; Ricardo Montalban; Ingrid Bergman; John Wayne as Genghis Khan; Marlon Brando as a comical Okinawan; Mickey Rooney, complete with “slanted eyes,” thick glasses, and buck teeth, doing the “Jap thing” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Peter Sellers; Helen Hayes; Peter Lorre; Lon Chaney; Anthony Quinn; and that perennial, “probably still believes he’s an Asian” David Carradine. And the list goes on.
But while the history of blackface has been well documented in American film criticism, with such classics as The Birth of a Nation and The Jazz Singer featuring whites pretending to be blacks, the history of yellowface has received much less critical attention, and considerably less public censure. Long after it became politically unacceptable for a white actor to appear in blackface (Ted Danson’s ill-advised appearance at the Whoopi Goldberg roast notwithstanding), white actors and actresses continued to accept yellowface roles. In fact, while contemporary “how-to” books on makeup for theater and film no longer explain blackface techniques, many continue to describe the yellowface process in great detail. As recently as 1995, Penny Delamar’s The Complete Make-up Artist had two listings under the category “Ethnic Appearances” — “Caucasian to oriental” and “Caucasian to Indian,” complete with really sick before-and-after photos of a young blond woman made up to look like Fu Manchu.
Of course, yellowface didn’t begin in Hollywood. Just as cinematic blackface had its roots in traveling minstrel shows, yellowface performances have been around in the U.S. for over 200 years. The first such production, Voltaire’s Orphan in China, opened in 1767, and others soon followed. In these early productions, white actors, most of whom had never seen an Asian person, performed in yellowface for audiences who also had never seen a real, live Asian. As film and theatre professor James May noted, “The notion of Chineseness . . . became familiar to the American spectator long before sightings of the actual Chinese.”
But yellowface performances continued to flourish on stage and screen long after these sightings of “actual Chinese.” Job protection for white actors was one obvious factor. 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.
“Giving the audience what they want” was a common justification for this one-sided deal, which was a nice way of saying that audience members didn’t want to have to look at Oriental actors for any extended period of time (this was the primary reason given for the now infamous casting of David Carradine in the 1970s television show Kung Fu, over original choice Bruce Lee). Another justification was that there just weren’t any “qualified” or talented Asian or Asian-American actors, a sentiment echoed by Miss Saigon’s casting director, who stated that if there had been a suitable Asian actor for the role of the Eurasian pimp, “we would surely have sniffed him out by now” (a tellingly weird metaphor, in any case). Of course, this type of thinking is a catch-22 for so many Asian actors, who can’t find work because they lack experience, and can’t get experience because all the good Asian roles go to white actors.
A third justification for yellowface was that white actors simply made better “Orientals” than Asian actors did. This was probably true, since the white actors were often actively trying to play “Orientals,” trying to play the stereotypes, while the Asian actors were perhaps trying to play humans. Whatever the reason, the depiction of “real” Asian characters was not a high priority for Hollywood filmmakers. When one critic asked the producer of The Good Earth why he didn’t cast any Asian actors in leading roles in the film, he responded, “I’m in the business of creating illusions.”
When the “appearance of reality” becomes a secondary concern, the process of turning a white person into an Asian becomes fairly simple. For the eyes, prosthetic eyepieces are cast, using “real Asians” as models for the flexible molds. (Philip Ahn, who would later play a Shaolin priest in that infamous yellowface extravaganza Kung Fu, began his career as an “eye model” for the 1936 film The General Died at Dawn.) The eyepieces are then applied to the actor’s eyelids and held in place with spirit gum. Finally, makeup is applied to hide the eyepieces, and rubber bands are attached to the top of the head to pull the corners of the eyes up into that familiar “slant.”
To contemporary viewers, these eyepieces and cosmetic techniques look, to put it kindly, like crap. The actors don’t look Asian at all, but exactly what they are: white actors wearing a weird combination of eyepieces, rubber bands, and makeup. Incredibly, legendary Hollywood makeup artists would look back with pride at their earlier works, marveling at their realism and believability. In 1976, Frank Westmore, who did the horrendously awful work on Shirley MacLaine in My Geisha, said in his memoirs that the actress “looked as Oriental as the Japanese Empress.” Don’t believe it. She looks ghastly, and unmistakably Caucasian.
And then there’s the accent. Some of them are as bad as you would imagine, staccato, machine-gun fire for Japanese accents; weird, singsong Chinese accents; or a strange amalgam of the two. But whether out of inability or ignorance or sheer laziness, a lot of the more serious “yellowface” performers simply eschewed an “Oriental” accent, either speaking in their normal voices or just slowing things down. Admittedly preferable to a poorly done Asian accent, this again points to a general lack of seriousness and sensitivity. While an actor might spend months working with a voice coach on an Irish brogue, an Asian accent rarely seemed to be worth the time for most Hollywood actors.
For a brief overview of the history of Hollywood yellowface, I’ve selected five “classic” films from the 1930s to the 1960s. This is not intended as a representative sampling of the genre, just a handful of my personal favorites — characterizations that reached new heights of tacky, racist splendor.
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933, Columbia, Frank Capra)
The Movie: Swedish actor Nils Asther as a Chinese warlord with a soft spot for the white ladies. After rescuing Barbara Stanwyck from some civil unrest in Shanghai, Asther unsuccessfully tries to seduce his white “captive.” When he is unable to win her love, Asther drinks a mix of tea and poison, the “bitter tea” of the movie’s title.
Asther’s death is in the great narrative tradition of Asians committing suicide after having their hearts broken by uncaring white lovers, a tradition made famous by works like Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The film skirted the ban on movie miscegenation by having white actors portray the “interracial” couple, but the taboo theme still got the film banned in the U.K.
Yellowface Performance: Former Hollywood hearththrob Nils Asther repels his female fans with his role as the poetry-spouting heathen. The best yellowface makeup is reserved for Stanwyck’s dream sequence, where she imagines Yen as a crazed Oriental demon, complete with pointed ears, a Dracula-style widow’s peak, and Fu Manchu fingernails.
Karmic Retribution: One of Frank Capra‘s few financial failures. Walter Connolly, who plays Yen’s American financial adviser, breaks his leg during an ill-fated train sequence and spends the rest of the movie on crutches.
The Good Earth (1937, MGM, Sidney Franklin)
The Movie: Chinese farmers endure drought, famine, revolution, and dinners of boiled mud. Luise Rainer wins the Academy Award for her role as O-Lan, the long-suffering wife, who fulfills her role as an Asian film heroine by dying at the end. Don’t miss the locust invasion scenes, done with incredible special effects and creepy insect close-ups.
Memorable Line: “We’re Republicans, not bandits.”
Yellowface Performance: A jarring mix of white actors in yellowface alongside a handful of “real Asians” doing bit parts. The yellowface makeup is predictably bad, with Rainer going for the “heroin chic” look decades before it would come into vogue. Thankfully, none of the primary actors attempts an Asian accent.
Karmic Retribution: Producer dies untimely death just before completion of the film. Alcoholic supervising photographer George W. Hill gets blotto before an important story conference, embarrasses himself in front of the producer and crew, then promptly returns home and puts a bullet in his head.
The Conqueror (1956, RKO, Dick Powell)
The Movie: John Wayne is Genghis Khan. The Mongol warrior’s armies sweep across Asia, raping and pillaging. Wayne kills the Tartar ruler and marries his daughter, who has inexplicably fallen in love with the Mongol ruler after he kidnaps her on a random pillaging run.
Memorable Line: “You’re beautiful in your wrath!”
Yellowface Performance: Universally acknowledged as one of the Duke’s most wretched performances, as well as one of the worst casting decisions in Hollywood history. Wayne loved the script, and nobody at RKO had the balls to say no to the legendary actor. In a fit of good sense, Wayne refused to even take a stab at an Asian accent, delivering his lines his own immediately recognizable wooden style. The makeup? Imagine John Wayne as an Asian warlord.
Karmic Retribution: The film was shot in Utah, 136 miles from a huge atomic test site. Of the 220-member cast and crew, over 90 contracted cancer, and half of that number died from the disease, including the director and several of the major stars, including Wayne.
The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956, MGM, Daniel Mann)
The Movie: Film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play. A bumbling Army captain, played by Glenn Ford, attempts to “Americanize” the local inhabitants in postwar Okinawa. His assistant/translator is Sakini, a smiling, sneaky Okinawan played by Marlon Brando. It may have been funny in the 1950s, but it’s pretty unwatchable now, especially the ass-backwards scene in which Lotus Blossom, a “geisha girl first class,” “comically” tries to tear off the clothes of the resisting Army captain.
Memorable Line: “My job is to teach these natives the meaning of democracy. And they’re going to learn democracy if I have to shoot every one of them!” I guess this line was funny in the 1950s too.
Yellowface Performance: Brando gets a “C” for effort, and actually attempts an “authentic” Japanese accent (he even speaks some Japanese, but it’s all in that unique Brando voice). Standard prosthetic eyepieces and makeup, made all the more noticeable because he is the only actor in yellowface in a sea of Asian extras and secondary characters. Looking unmistakably like Marlon Brando doesn’t help either.
Karmic Retribution: I’m still waiting.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961, Paramount, Blake Edwards)
The Movie: Audrey Hepburn as free spirit Holly Golightly, in an adaptation of Truman Capote’s novel. Cool Oscar-winning tune “Moon River,” and many interesting performances all around, especially Mickey Rooney as the crazy Jap in the upstairs apartment. Standard whitewash of the Capote novel, with the usual happy Hollywood ending tacked on for good measure.
Memorable Line: Audrey Hepburn to an angry, screaming Rooney: “Don’t be angry, you dear little man . . . If you promise not to be angry, I might let you take those pictures we mentioned.”
Yellowface Performance: May Rooney burn in hell for this supremely racist bit of “acting.” Although I can appreciate ethnic humor as much as the next guy, this one-note performance gets tired after the first 30 seconds. Rooney pulls out all the stops: Halloween-style prosthetic eyepieces; round, black-framed glasses; big buck teeth; crossed eyes; and hysterical Jap accent.
Karmic Retribution: Three decades later, Rooney’s racist rantings are pilloried in the 1991 film Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. His yellowface performance is displayed as an example of blatant anti-Asian racism in the U.S., and is used to foreshadow the immense racism Lee would encounter in Hollywood. A great scene, and one of the few critiques of yellowface in a major Hollywood film.