Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality


Yellowface: A Story in Pictures

December 9, 2009

The following article was written by Racebending contributor Michelle I. We thank for her detailed research on the subject of yellowface. Here we include her original work, with minor revision and formatting changes for better integration with the Racebending site.


Yellowface, at its core, is not only the practice of applying prostheses or paint to simulate a crude idea of what “Asians” look like; it is non-Asian bodies (usually white) controlling what it means to be Asian on screen and stage, particularly in lead/major roles.

Tied to blackface and the portrayal of African Americans on the stage by whites in the nineteenth century, the term yellowface appears as early as the 1950s to describe the continuation in film of having white actors playing major Asian and Asian American roles and the grouping together of all makeup technologies used to make one look “Asian.”

Thanks to the power of film executives in casting, Asian and Asian Americans who had decades of theatrical experience in vaudeville were unable to find work or were relegated to stereotypical roles–laundrymen, prostitutes, or servants.

– Krystyn R. Moon
Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850-1920s (page 164)

The yellowface controversy is not about the quality of the films or performances. It is about systematic bias in casting as much as it is about individual choices made by directors, performers, and production companies.

History is complex and a full analysis of the influences and cultural attitudes of each time period is far beyond the scope of this article. However, we hope that readers keep an open mind and

allow the pictures to speak for themselves.

Included below are examples of whitewashing of Southern and Middle Eastern Asian characters (more properly considered brownface).

Early 1900s: The Golden Age

Madame Butterfly (1915)
Mary Pickford as Cho-Cho-San

Broken Blossoms (1919)
Richard Barthelmess as Cheng Huan

The Dragon Painter (1919)
Edward Peil, Sr. as Kano Indara

What sets The Dragon Painter apart is its authenticity of sets, costumes and predominately Japanese cast who are portraying real people and not stereotypes. It is also probable that the same unique racial POV is what obscured this film.

The American audiences liked their Asians to be psychopathic Fu Man Chus or comic laundrymen and cooks. Though popular in the teens, Hayakawa fell into obscurity with a rising tide of anti-immigration laws aimed at Asians and the Japanese in particular in the 1920s. [Source]

The Sheik (1921)
Rudolph Valentino as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan

Mr. Wu (1927)
Lon Chaney as Mr.Wu
Renee Adoree as Wu Nang Ping

The 1930s

The stereotype that men and women of Asian descent were incapable of creating complex and subtle characters in film (not to mention their inability to speak English well) was once again recirculated.

Many actors who went into film after the decline of vaudeville in the 1930s (such as Lee Tung Foo, Lady Tsen Mei, and Harry Gee Haw) participated in creating those same stereotypes that their work in vaudeville had confounded.
– Krystyn R. Moon
Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850-1920s (page 164)

The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu
The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu
Daughter of the Dragon

Warner Oland as Fu Manchu

It’s no secret that Hollywood simply did not (or could not) feature non-Caucasian actors in anything but stereotypical roles during the Golden Age. African-American actors were Mammies or Stepin Fetchits, Latino-American actors were Mexican bandits or hot-blooded ‘bad’ girls.

Asian-Americans fared the worst.

… Caucasian actors stole their roles by having their eyes taped back to make them slanted … real Asians were cast as pidgin-English speaking houseboys and laundresses, Fu Manchus or Evil Empresses … when they appeared at all.

Daughter of the Dragon (1931) is a strange hybrid of Caucasians playing Asians and genuine Asian actors. It features the worst of Hollywood stereotypes but it also featured the beautiful and talented Anna May Wong. [Source]

Charlie Chan Carries On (1931)
Charlie Chan at the Circus
Charlie Chan in London
Charlie Chan in Paris
Charlie Chan in Egypt
Charlie Chan in Shanghai
Warner Oland as Charlie Chan

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932)
Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu

The Mask of Fu Manchi (1932)
Myrna Loy as Fah Lo See

The Hatchet Man (1932)
Edward G. Robinson as Wong Low Get
J. Carrol Naish as Sun Yat Ming
[Not pictured]
Loretta Young as Sun Toya San
Dudley Digges as Nog Hong Fah
Leslie Fenton as Harry En Hai
Edmund Breese as Yu Chang
Tully Marshall as Long Sen Yat

Makeup artists had noticed that audiences were more likely to reject Western actors in Asian disguise if the faces of actual Asians were in near proximity.

Rather than cast the film with all Asian actors, which would have then meant no star names to attract American audiences, studios simply eliminated most of the Asian actors from the cast. [Source]

Shanghai Express (1932)
Warner Oland as Henry Chang

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)
Nils Asther as General Yen

As the other main character, Capra [the director] didn’t want “a well-known star made up as an Oriental,” but he had no problem with “a not-too-well-known Swedish actor” made up as one.

Asther had the “impassive face” and “slightly pedantic” accent that Capra was looking for, so the make-up artist covered his upper eyelids with “skins” and clipped his eyelashes to a third of their normal length, and the wardrobe department decked him out in sumptuous Mandarin robes and a tall black skullcap.

The result of these labors, not surprisingly, is a Hollywood stereotype: “On the screen,” Capra enthuses in his memoir, “he looked strange – unfathomable.” [Source]

Mr.Moto film series (1937-39)
Peter Lorre as Mr.Moto

Actor-turned writer/director Norman Foster, eager to step up the studio ladder, was offered the chance to direct. He objected to Wurtzel’s preference for Lorre in the role, hoping to go against the tradition of the time and cast an Asian actor. He was overruled. [Source]

The Good Earth (1937)
Luise Rainer as O-Lan
Paul Muni as Wang

Charlie Chan in Honolulu
The Scarlet Clue

other Charlie Chan films
Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan

Gunga Din (1939)
Sam Jaffe as Gunga Din

Island of Lost Men (1939)
Anthony Quinn as Chang Tai

The 1940s: World War II and Yellow Peril

At the height of anti-Asian sentiment during World War II, the United States imprisoned over 100,000 American citizens of Japanese descent in internment camps.

At the same time, the Japanese-American 442nd Infantry Unit was fighting in the European theater. These soldiers served with uncommon distinction, earning more combat decorations per man than any other unit in American history. Veterans returned home after the war to a country that was openly hostile to those of Asian descent.

This hostility was reflected in film and television, where clear stereotypes began to emerge defining ethnic lines of “good” Asians and “bad” Asians on film in response to Japan’s role in the Axis.

Predictably, Asian Americans actors would spend most of the war years cast as sinister Japanese, often in films now viewed with some embarrassment. There were still “good Asian” roles being written–but they were restricted to Caucasian actors while Asian Americans played the villains.

Little Tokyo (1942)
Harold Huber as Ito Takimura

Dragon Seed (1944)
Katherine Hepburn as Jade Tan

China Sky (1945)
Anthony Quinn as Chen To

The Chinese Ring through Charlie Chan and the Sky Dragon (1947-49)
Roland Winters as Charlie Chan

An examination of animation in this era is very revealing.

The depiction of Asians in propaganda demonstrates American attitudes at the time. These cartoons distill the imagery the entertainment industry wished to pass on to the children of this generation.

Popeye: You’re a Sap, Mr.Jap (1942)

Disney’s Der Fuehrer’s Face (1942)

Tokio Jokio (1943)

Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips (1944)

The 1950s: Post-War America

It was at this time that the term “yellowface” came into circulation. Although makeup and prostheses were employed with far less frequency by this time, people were taking notice that – in spite of an ever increasing number of Asian Americans in entertainment – lead Asian roles went to non-Asian performers.

Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955)
Jennifer Jones as Han Suyin

The Conquerer (1956)
John Wayne as Genghis Khan

The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956)
Marlon Brando as Sakini

The King and I (1956)
Yul Brynner as King Mongkut
Rita Moreno as Tuptim

Sayonara (1957)
Ricardo Montalban as Nakamura

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958)
Robert Donat and Curt Jurgens as the Mandarin and Colonel Lin

The 1960s/70s: Civil Rights Movement

Exclusionary immigration laws were lifted, anti-miscegenation laws were abolished nationwide, “Orientals” became “Asian Americans”. Still, yellowface (and brownface) continues to thrive.

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

A performance that really needs to be watched to be believed..

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Anthony Quinn as Auda ibu Tayi

The 7 Faces of Dr.Lao (1964)
Tony Randall as Dr.Lao

The Face of Fu Manchu / The Brides of Fu Manchu / The Vengeance of Fu Manchu / The Blood of Fu Manchu / The Castle of Fu Manchu (1965-69)
Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu

The Party (1968)
Peter Sellers as Hrundi V. Bakshi

Kung Fu (1972-75)
David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine

Perhaps one of the most notorious examples of yellowface was the casting of the late David Carradine in a role originally conceived and envisioned for Bruce Lee.

This role and concept originated with Asian-American kung fu legend Bruce Lee, but he was cut from the production, or any credit from the studio, in favor of the then non-martial artist Carradine.

(The late) Mako recalls a studio executive’s reaction when asked about featuring a non-Asian in the lead of Kung Fu:

“I remember one of the vice presidents — in charge of production, I suppose — who said, ‘If we put a yellow man up on the tube, the audience will turn the switch off in less than five minutes.’[source]

The 1980s-1990s

Hollywood continues to produce new variations of old stereotypes for Asian American performers. Though the country has largely discarded the practice of blackface, the use of yellowface and brownface in Hollywood production continues to be the norm.

Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981)
Peter Ustinov as Charlie Chan

Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985)
Joel Grey (left) as Chiun

Short Circuit (1986)
Fisher Stevens as Ben Jabituya

Miss Saigon (1989-1999)
Jonathan Pryce as “The Engineer” a.k.a. Tran Van Dinh
Keith Burns as Thuy

In general, theatrical works require a greater suspension of disbelief than modern films. Additionally, the theater tends to enact colorblind casting in all directions – with minority actors having an equal opportunity to compete for a variety of roles.

However, Miss Saigon was a unique case that garnered massive controversy for its particularly blatant use of yellowface. The roles were originally performed with Pryce and Burns using prostheses to slant their eyes and bronzing cream to appear “Asian”.

Although there had been a large, well-publicized international search among Asian actresses to play Kim, there had been no equivalent search for Asian actors to play the major Asian male roles — specifically, Engineer (Pryce) and Thuy (Keith Burns). [Source]

On “Miss Saigon,” the producers wanted white actor Jonathan Pryce to play the lead Asian role. But they knew there would be hell to pay if they didn’t appear to at least try to find an Asian actor to do it. So, they dragged a lot of Asian actors through the door just to say they had, when they had already hired Pryce. [Source]

Actor’s Equity, the union for performers in the United States, had jurisdiction over whether foreign performers, excluding major stars, could appear in the United States and regulated the portrayal of nonwhite characters, ensuring, for instance, that African American roles were played by African Americans and not whites in blackface.

Pryce, however, was performing in yellowface, and with Macintosh threatening that he would not bring Miss Saigon to the United States if Pryce was not allowed to play The Engineer, Actor’s Equity permitted Miss Saigon to be performed on Broadway in the same way it had been in London. [Krystyn R. Moon, Yellowface]

The 13th Warrior (1997)
Antonio Banderas as Ahmad ibn Fadlan

As the country moved into the late 1990s, outright yellowface makeup became less common. However, it was still critical for Hollywood to maintain the status quo. In these cases, it was expedient to simply cast a white actor in ethnic roles:

Whitewashing - Casper Van Dien in Starship Troopers
Starship Troopers (1997)
Starship Troopers 3: Marauder (2008)
Casper Van Dien as originally Filipino Juan “Johnnie” Rico

The 2000s: America Today

Asians as extras-in-their-own-country syndrome ran rampant in film since a decade before, e.g. Come See the Paradise (1990) Seven Years in Tibet (1997), The Lost Empire (2001), The Last Samurai (2003), Tokyo Drift (2006), The Grudge 1 & 2 (2004 & 2006), etc.

With few exceptions, the only Asians to enjoy stardom in Hollywood are foreigners whose claim to fame is kung fu. Meanwhile, secure in the idea of being a post-racial country, yellowface is considered completely innocuous – even humorous. Asian foreigners remain a far more visible presence in the media than Americans of Asian descent.

Seann William Scott as Kar
Bulletproof Monk (2003)
Seann William Scott as (originally Tibetan American) Kar

I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (2005)
Rob Schneider as Asian Minister

Rob Schneider’s Filipino grandmother notwithstanding, his portrayal of an “Asian minister” in this film was widely criticized. It was noted by Richard Roeper as “perhaps the most egregious stereotype of its kind since Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Balls of Fire (2007)
Christopher Walken as Feng

Norbit (2007)
Eddie Murphy as Mr.Wong

Josh Hartnett as an Inuit American character (30 Days of Night)
30 Days of Night (2007)
Josh Hartnett as (originally Inuit) Sheriff Eben

Whitewashing in 21 - Jim Sturgess and Kate Bosworth
21 (2008)
Jim Sturgess as Ben

Japanese Superhero Goku Whitewashed

Dragonball: Evolution (2009)
Justin Chatwin as Goku

Few examples of modern yellowface are as notorious as the films 21 and Dragonball: Evolution. In 21, the story of real-life Asian American blackjack players was re-cast to feature white actors in every prominent role. Dragonball‘s Goku, the Japanese equivalent of Superman (an alien child lands on Earth, is raised by the native culture, and becomes adopted as the champion of his new home), was likewise whitewashed with the casting of Justin Chatwin.

Regardless of the ethnicity in the source material – whether mythological, fictional, or historical – Hollywood continues to enforce a glass ceiling for performers of color.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)
Jake Gyllenhaal as 6th century Persian prince Dastan
Gemma Arterton as “exotic Indian princess Tamina”

Tragically, the next decade will be heralded by a slew of summer films that perpetuates Hollywood’s systematic casting bias against performers of color. Prince of Persia will depict two Caucasian champions leading subjects of color and battling brown villains.

Mickey Rourke as Genghis Khan: Yellowface
Genghis Khan (announced, 2013)
Mickey Rourke as Genghis Khan

Yellowface helps to ensure that top acting roles continue to fall into white hands. Asians and other minorities have become acceptable to see in small roles such as sidekicks, maids, war enemies, etc. It is rare enough that a good script is written that calls for an Asian in a leading role. When these scripts do arise, yellowface makes it acceptable for that role to go to a white person. Producers claimed that audiences didn’t want to look at an Asian lead for so long, or that there weren’t any qualified Asian actors.

– Peter Npstad
Western Visions: Fu Manchu and the Yellow Peril

There are enough minority actors and actresses for marginal or sinister characters – but Hollywood continues to insist it is difficult or impossible to find talented Asian American actors for positive, substantial roles. This is reflected in Paramount’s planned films for the 2010s. Of the studio’s announced films, 89% feature white leads. On a related note, a staggering 94% of planned leads are men, despite the fact that women make up 55% of American ticket sales.

Categories: History and Concepts, The Last Airbender
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About the Author

Loraine Sammy is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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