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)
My intention is not to contest the quality of the films or performances, or to discuss the gray area in any of the casting or films; history was what it was, complicated and reflected back in media in different ways with different motives. Rather, my intent is to...
let the images speak for themselves.. okay, with relevant notes on what was going on in each period, and quotations on the production when I could find them:
- This list will include depictions of southern and middle eastern Asian characters as well (more properly considered brownface).
- Note #2:This list will not include films in which knowingly non-Asian characters were, at another point in the movie, made out to "pass" as Asian to other characters. So none of Tom Neil's crazy slant eyes and being "as perfect a Jap as (his surgeons) could turn out in First Yank Into Tokyo (1945). Or Shirley MacLaine in My Geisha (1962). Or Sean Connery with his freaky "Japanese man" eyebrows in You Only Live Twice (1967).
- Sometimes I just couldn't find a picture of the specific character--this is where you'll find a miniscule screencap or nothing at all. You'll have to forgive me for that.
Incidentally, at this time Asian American stars Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong enjoyed top-billing roles (though their choices were often limited to the letcherous villain and the hyper sexual dragon lady, respectively).
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 pyschopathic 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 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]
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. Either Caucasian actors stole their roles by having their eyes taped back to make them slanted, or 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 (1935)
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
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 Asner 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]
WWII saw the emergence of more clearly defined 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. Meanwhile, there were still "good Asian" roles being written--they just went to white actors while Asian Americans actors 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
And just for "fun", a quick traipse through the animation world, and the depiction of Asians in propaganda toons (since it is relevant to the idea of "yellowface" in another form).
Popeye: You're a Sap, Mr.Jap (1942)
Disney's Der Fuehrer's Face (1942)
Tokio Jokio (1943)
Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips (1944)
It was at this time that the term "yellowface" came into circulation. Although makeup and prosthetics 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, many times the lead Asian roles would still go 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
(guys, I loved him too; the point of this post isn't to vilify these actors or their performances!)
Rita Moreno as Tuptim
Poor Rita--she was full Puerto Rican, and couldn't even play a Puerto Rican character on West Side Story without being put in brownface -_-
Ricardo Montalban as Nakamura
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958)
Robert Donat and Curt Jurgens as the Mandarin and Colonel Lin
Exclusionary immigration laws were lifted, anti-miscegenation laws were abolished nationwide, "Orientals" became "Asian Americans". Still, yellowface (and brownface) never dies.
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
Okay, seriously? couldn't get cast in a KUNG FU character role that HE came up with in the first place for HIMSELF to play.
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]
Hollywood continues to churn out new variations of old stereotypes for Asian American performers. Oh and yellowface/brownface are still a go.
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
Though these are theater roles (and I am generally more forgiving of theater casting, as it is based more on the idea of suspending disbelief than film, and now works through colorblind casting in all directions) I decided to include them for the major controversy surrounding it. It is unpictured here, but the way the roles were originally performed was with Pryce and Burns using prosthetics 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
Asians as extras-in-their-own-country syndrome run 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 either considered still funny on its own (also funny: minstrel shows!) or as it was in the '50s, it's just accepted for the hell of it.
I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry (2005)
Rob Schneider as Asian Minister
Balls of Fire (2007)
Christopher Walken as Feng
Eddie Murphy as Mr.Wong
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)
Jake Gyllenhaal as 6th century Persian prince Dastan
Gemma Arterton as "exotic Indian princess Tamina"
(Guess who the starring people of color DO get to play in this movie? That's right--THE VILLAINS.)
I know some people would disagree (I've spoken with them), but somehow I really don't think it makes me racist that I don't want to see any of this happen anymore.
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
Anyway, this is actually all going to go somewhere eventually, but it's a lengthy and multi-faceted point, and I thought it would be more palatable in small chunks like this.