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Yellow Face and Orientalism in the Media: Controlling What it Means to be Asian

[Inspired by a fellow Amplify contributor, Karachi, and her post on Blackface, Slurs and Appropriation]

Yellow Face isn’t just the mere inauthenticity and a failure of aesthetics of white people dressing up, wearing make up, trying to be Asian, and/or playing the roles of Asians.  No, it’s definitely more insidious and problematic than that.  It is systematic racism and discrimination, refusing to hire Asians or forcing them to play as villains, or when they receive a major role, it is typically a stereotypical one (i.e., martial arts, ‘wise man’, ‘dragon lady’, etc).  It simulates a crude idea of what ‘Asians’ look like, all the while perpetuating terrible stereotypes, controlling what it means to be Asian whether it’s in person, on the stage, or on screen.

Orientalism: It’s a dichotomy created by the ‘West,’ it builds a view of the ‘East’ along with many elements of this culture that becomes obscured and exotic. Making a whole group of people seen as something monolithic, creating an erasure of actual identities.

I’m not even going to try to bother with getting too in-depth about the obvious cultural appropriation, ethnocentrism, and orientalism (not too much at least).  I’m not going to go into Yellow Face on stage, in whitewashing (too much), in Europe, nor will I take the time to go through political caricatures of Asians throughout history.  [Not that it’s less important or there’s a lack of evidence.]  These following examples and history checks should do enough for now in getting my point across.  (Please find a friend in Google if you really want to educate yourself though!  Thank you!)

So, why did Yellowface occur?  Was there a shortage of Asian people to play these Asian roles during the times this practice was most rampant (19th and 20th century)?

Meet Sessue Hayakawa (Born 1889-Death 1973), the first Asian American leading actor.  He was one of the highest paid actors of his time.  His talents were definitely recognized by Paramount Pictures and was even considered a sex icon.  But despite all of this, he still met discrimination and racism everywhere he went.  He was always forced to either play “the exotic villain” or “the exotic lover.”  He waited for his turn to be casted as a hero of color, but it never came.

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This is Anna May Wong (1905-1961).  During the 1920s-1930s, Anna was given many different roles as a contracted Paramount Pictures actress, but they were always either as a “dragon lady” or a “butterfly lady.”  Despite all of that, she was still a household name and was considered a fashion icon.

She was the top contender for the leading role of O-Lan, a Chinese heroine for the movie The Good Earth (1937) by MGM, but that role was later given to Luise Rainer (definitely not Asian).  MGM went to her and tried to give her another role for a film called Lotus, but it meant that she had to be the villain again, so she turned it down and left for Europe for more opportunities and eventually went back to Paramount Pictures.

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Say hello to Philip Ahn (1905-1973).  For the film, Anything Goes, Ahn was initially rejected by the director, Lewis Milestone, because—I shit you not, he said this to Philip Ahn—he thought Philip’s “English was too good for the part.”  During World War II, Philip Ahn was often forced to play roles of Japanese villains.  He even received death threats because people thought he was actually Japanese.

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Other Asian actors/actresses: Barbara Jean Wong, Fely Franquelli, Benson Fong, Chester Gan, Honorable Wu, Kam Tong, Keye Luke, Layne Tom Jr., Maurice Liu, Philip Ahn, Richard Loo, Lotus Long, Rudy Robles, Suzanna Kim, Teru Shimada, Willie Fung, Victor Sen Yung, Toshia Mori and Wing Foo.

Merle Oberon can also be added to the list, although she was part white/part Asian.  She had to lie about her origins and applied whitening make up to pass as fully white.  Other Asian actors and actresses: Jack Soo, Pat Morita, Mako, Bruce Lee, Lucy Liu, Margaret Cho, B.D. Wong, Amy Hill, Jennie Kwan, Masi Oka, James Lee, Ming Na, Daniel Dae Kim, Sendhil Ramamurthy, Charlyne Yi, Miyoshi Umeki, Shin Koyamada, John Cho, Brenda Song, and George Takei.  Click on this link to see a hundred more. 

After going through the list, ask yourself why the majority of the actors and actresses here are either in some martial arts movies or some other stereotypical crap?

TL;DR this section: There definitely wasn’t a shortage of Asian American actors and actresses.  And there still isn’t.


Very Few Examples (of Very Many) of Yellowface in History:

Nil Ashter as General Yen from The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

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What Nils Ashter really looked like:

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Harold Huber as Ito Takimura in Little Tokyo, USA (1942)
Interestingly enough, everyone who was a “bad guy” in this was portrayed as Japanese.  Even more interesting, this was around the same time Japanese Internment Camps were happening.

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What Harold Huber really looked like:

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Katharine Hepburn as Jade Tan in in Dragon Seed (1944)

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Katharine Hepburn just a few years after Dragon Seed:

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Jennifer Jones as Dr. Han Suyin in Love is a Many Splendored-Thing (1955)

Another interesting concept found in this movie. “BEING WITH ASIAN WOMEN IS SO HOT AND EXOTIC. LET’S FETISHIZE THE SHIT OUT OF THEM.” Yup.

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What Jennifer Jones actually looks like:

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John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956)

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John Wayne, y’all:

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Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

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Mickey Rooney at that time:

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Joel Grey as Chiun (Kung Fu Master, everyone—on the left) in Remo Williams (1985)

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What Joel Grey really looked like:

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Other cases I haven’t really taken the time to cover: Charlie Chan Series 
(Actors who played as Charlie Chan from 1931-1981: Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, Roland Winters, Peter Ustinov) Fu Manchu, Madame Butterfly, The Teahouse of the August Moon, Shanghai Express, The Manchurian Candidate, Sayonara, Mr. Moto Series, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, Short Circuit (1986 & 1988), The Party, Gunga Din, Broken Blossoms, The Year of Living Dangerously, etc.


I mean, I guess you could say, “But those movies were decades ago!”

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Alex Borstein as Ms. Swan.

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Nicholas Cage as Fu Manchu (2007)
(Other actors who played the role of Fu Manchu starting from the 1920s up ‘til now: H. Agar Lyons, Warner Oland, Boris Karloff, Harry Brannon, Christopher Lee, and Peter Sellers)

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Christopher Walken as Feng (2007)

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Rob Schneider as Asian Minister in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007)

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M. Night’s The Last Airbender (2010)
Well, the show was based on Asian and Inuit culture.  But just look at the casting.  The three protagonists are all light skinned while Zuko (played by Dev Patel in the movie) is dark skinned, (but Zuko is actually the lightest skinned in the original series and the good guys were darker skinned) and by default in this movie, the bad guy.  Someone please just remake this movie.  Please.

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British Actor, Jim Sturgess, (rocking bad eye prosthetics) playing as a Korean in Cloud Atlas (2012)

Here is a response to people who didn’t get what this post is about and are defending some of the movies on this list.

  • Cindy

    It is really crazy to see how society has bluntly defiled Asian culture and implaced such strong stereoypes into the public’s minds. This was beautifully written and very informative. *Thumbs Up*

    • http://stfuprolife.tumblr.com Hannah Le

      Thanks! I appreciate it!

    • Chew Wang

      Blow it out your ass Cindy.

  • Chew Wang

    Actors are CALLED actors for a reason – DUH!
    All people like you do is piss and moan and whine about shit that is ancient history. How about you leave the USA, go back to where your ancestors came from and try to pull the same bullshit there that you’re pulling here and see what it gets you. If Mr. Ahn’s english was “too good for the part” then perhaps Mr. Ahn wasn’t a good enough ACTOR to pull off the BAD english role – You racist dipshit – Go pound sand. And learn how to masterbate. That should keep you busy and happy.

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