Hollywood’s continuing fascination with yellowface

Growing up, I didn’t think much about it, but seeing old Westerns now, it’s amazing to me that movies got away with casting white people in the roles of American Indians or Mexicans — almost always as “bad guys.”

Seeing these movies today, you could tell they’re not ethnic actors, and could almost see the smudges from the makeup smeared over their faces and hands. It wasn’t any more sophisticated than the blackface makeup white actors wore to play African American roles in silent movies or the early talkies, wide-eyed, shiny black visages like masks, singing about “mammy.” You don’t see that any more, at least, not with blacks and Latinos.

Hollywood also has a long and tiresome tradition of “yellowface” — having Caucasian actors portray ethnic Asian roles. And, unfortunately, you can still see that on the big screen today.

The most famous early examples of yellowface are the various actors from Warner Oland and Boris Karloff to Peter Sellers who played the evil, inscrutable Fu Manchu; Oland and Sidney Toler as the detective Charlie Chan in a series of hit movies; and the German-born, diminutive Peter Lorre as the Japanese detective Mr. Moto in another string of movies.

Even the great Katharine Hepburn, one of my favorite actresses, put on yellowface, to play a Chinese woman in the 1944 movie “Dragon Seed.”

More recent examples include David Carradine playing the supposedly half-Chinese lead character in the 1970s TV series “Kung Fu.” Just last year, Christopher Walken played an evil Asian dude in the comedy, “Balls of Fury.”

You’d think that like other minorities, Hollywood would have gotten around to finding Asians to play Asians. Or, you’d think that Hollywood would understand that having white actors — even famous ones — playing Asian characters might be offensive, since Caucasian actors are likely to lean on stereotypes in those roles. But no, not yet.

“The Love Guru” opened yesterday in theaters with Mike Myers playing the part of an Indian spiritual leader. Some Indians have been offended by the content, but one of Myers’ friends, Deepak Chopra, who makes an unflattering appearance as himself in the movie, has defended it, and defended Myers’ sensitivity to the subject.

But I haven’t seen anything from Chopra (or other South Asians) about a white man playing an Indian part. I realize that the film is nothing less than a vehicle for Myers to stretch out a character he developed for a standup routine, and it’s not like it would make any sense for producers to find an Asian to play the part. It just bugs me, that’s all.

Update 22 June: Hollywood’s karma has come home: “Love Guru” is a flop, with the spy comedy “Get Smart” making a lot more money on opening day.

Again, there’s a long history of Hollywood casting Caucasians in South Asian roles. One of the most memorable for me, and the one that got me thinking abut this when the DVD was released a few months ago, is another one that probably offended Indian spiritual leaders, the Beatles 1965 comedy “Help!” in which Australian actor Leo KcKern played an Indian religious fanatic.

The example of yellowface that I fiind most offensive of all is the one that ruins an otherwise fine classic film, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Mickey Rooney’s take on a perverted Japanese neighbor (who happens to be a photographer) to Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly, is nothing short of breathtaking in its awfulness. He makes his first apparance within minutes of the opening credits, and it’s like a punch in the gut, like having someone call me a “Jap” to my face. It leaves a sour taste for the rest of the movie, when I can stomach keeping it on.

But the most recent example is almost as offensive, and sadly, it just came out last year in the theaters and just a couple of months ago on DVD.

The Adam Sandler comedy “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” has a supporting character of an Asian minister, played in broad yellowface by Rob Schneider, complete with thick glasses, squinty eyes, buck teeth, bowl haircut and indeterminate accent that veers more towards Chinese even though his character is supposed to be Japanese. (That’s him in the photo at the top of the page.)

Amazingly, Schneider is a Filipino who should understand the power of stereotypical images of Asians. But maybe even though he shows up at the annual Asian Excellence Awards, he separates himself as a Filipino from playing a stereotype of a Japanese. Or else, he hides behind the mask of comedy as a way of spinning his racist role into a form of social commentary.

Here’s a very good piece by Lynda Lin from the JACL‘s APA newspaper, Pacific Citizen, covering the controversy over Schneider’s character. And, here’s a 2001 article about yellowface by Yayoi Lena Winfrey on IMDiversity.com’s Asian American Village.

Maybe, like Marlon Brando in “Teahouse of the August Moon,” a 1956 film in which Brando played an Okinawan fellow in post-war Japan with his eyes taped back and prosthetic lids hanging low from his brows, Schneider thought this was a test of his acting ability, a challenge to play someone outside his own culture. I doubt it, since he relies on bucketfuls of stereotypes to play the character — that’s just cultural laziness, and pandering to the lowest common denominator: the young people that “Chuck and Larry” is aimed at.

No wonder why we still have to deal with the same images of Asians that we found offensive 50 years ago… young people today are being fed the same stereotypes as if they’re just fine.

You know what? They weren’t fine when Mickey Rooney put on his buck teeth in 1961, and they’re not cool in 2008.

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9 Responses to Hollywood’s continuing fascination with yellowface

  1. We get no love at all, Gil. You would think that we’d make some progress by now. But evidently nothing has changed much. You know I kind of want to blame the AA community as well for being enablers, but then it there’s only so much we can do.

  2. Eric Sung says:

    makes me throw up..it’s time we “whiteface”

  3. R. Beeler says:

    It’s a shame that these white actors see these roles as opportunities to show their ‘range’.

    My initial reaction to the previews of Love Guru was that it was going to be a racist send-up but it’s interesting how the fact that Deepak endorsed it (I saw the Iconoclast’s episode with him and Mike Meyers) made me think that perhaps it would be okay. From what I hear, I’m lucky I didn’t see it.

    Thanks Gil for continuing to voice your opinion on such topics.

  4. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks, all — I keep having conversations with people who have never noticed or known about the use of yellowface…. It’s a constant process of showing that it exists.

  5. reviews says:

    I finally decided to give you a little feedback ! well you got it! i love your site !!! no , really, its good…

  6. cognitis says:

    Many “Asian-American” “activists” continue to expose Media both insulting and injurious to “Asian-Americans”. The Media have long made very clear their intention to insult and injure US ethnic minorities; thus, Media only use “Asian” actors in degrading roles such as the character in “16 Candles”. Why then should “Asian-Americans” watch the Media? Do you like being insulted and injured? If so, why not also spend hours on “white supremacist” websites? Many Media now charge for access (HBO, PPV et alia), and free Media get ad revenue based on viewer numbers; so “Asian-Americans” who use Media not only are degraded by the Media: they’re stupid enough to even pay for the degradation.

    All Media now sell to the most stupid and ignorant and to the least educated. What do your children learn by watching “Survivor” or “Hollywood Squares”? I only watch CNBC for government releases, and I haven’t paid for a movie in over 20 years; I feel no loss, but compared to the “activists” I also haven’t suffered daily abuse from the clearly and shamelessly hostile Media. Beware, for Media sell degrading images of ethnic minorities in the very same way they sell products, often in ways barely detectable and almost always through injurious manipulation.

  7. Gil Asakawa says:

    All True, cognitis. However, as someone who loves pop culture — both “American” and of the world — I think it’s important to keep connected to the mainstream, and to keep pointing out where mainstream media falls short. Otherwise, I wouldn’t know, for instance, that mainstream US pop culture now is inclduing more and more Asian faces in roles that have nothing to do with their ethnicity.

    Sure, there isn’t an Asian American lead actor in a primetime drama or comedy yet, but it’s coming. Even in commercials, you can see a lot more Asian faces includes as part of the American “landscape.” Even just a few years ago, I used to give a lecture on how there are no Asian faces on TV and on the silver screen other than stereotypes. But that really is startng to change today. I couldn’t give the same speech now.

  8. cognitis says:

    Gil:

    Thanks for your reply. As a joke and an example of advertising’s influence on crowds, some Japanese scientists should “discover” that watching lots of TV makes “asian americans'” eyes “squintier”. Should many people believe the data, great fun would be had by watching all the “squinty eye” victims turn off their TVs.

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