You'll Wonder Where the Yella Went


Here's a zen koan to ponder: When the director Rob Marshall got slammed for casting Chinese actors as Japanese characters in Memoirs of a Geisha, was that controversy actually a sign of progress? This old article, keying off the hubbub over the Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce's casting as a Eurasian pimp in Miss Saigon, gives some perspective. Not too long ago, fully Euro thespians were donning "yellowface" to play Asians:

"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."

The article, by one Robert B. Ito, contains some humor (and Mickey Rooney's "Mr. Yunioshi" is singled out for well deserved abuse), but I don't understood why a 100-percent Asian actor would have been more appropriate to play a Eurasian than a 100-percent Euro actor. Should we insist on precise 50-50 genetic makeup for mixed-race roles, and if so should mixed-race performers be allowed to play 100-percenters? Back in the glory days of "passing" dramas, white actresses like Susan Kohner and Jeanne Crain brought home the kudos for playing troubled mulattos, while Jennifer Jones turned in an admirably anti-communist performance as a Eurasian in the otherwise unwatchable 50s dinosaur Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing. Today, on the other hand, Halle Berry acts like she's Harriet Tubman in her Oscar acceptance speech, even though her white mother is her only family member in the Kodak Theater.

Ito also leaves out some of the richest material in the history. There's no mention, for example, of Khigh Dhiegh, the Anglo-Egyptian-Sudanese actor who made a career out of playing inscrutable Asiatics, most famously the recurring villain "Wo Fat" on Hawaii Five-0. Maybe Dhiegh, like Jones, gets a pass because he didn't wear grotesque makeup. (Interesingly, Dhiegh became a notable I-Ching scholar and founder of the Taoist Institute of North Hollywood, suggesting an Iron Eyes Cody-level submersion of self into a reverse-ethnic signature role.) Nor is there any mention of Keye Luke, who started out portraying the ultimate ABC—the jazz-age, roadster-driving Number One Son—but ended up voicing Charlie Chan himself in The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan and playing the guy who sells Hoyt Axton the gremlin in Gremlins. That must make Keye Luke the Bert Williams of yellowface.

What of the Caucasian version of yellowface: the rich tradition of all-purpose "ethnics" in film? Tony Shalhoub, Mercedes Ruehl, F. Murray Abraham, Anthony Quinn—what would we do without all you wonderful Italian Greek Slavic Colombian Arab Jews? Should the same leeway apply in Asian casting? Memoirs of a Geisha seems like lateral progress: Instead of a Caucasian group standing in for an Asian group you have two Asian groups who hate each other exchanging roles. Since the movie and the source novel are really works of Asian fetishism suited to the David Belasco era, there may have been no way to get it right. As it turns out, Geisha pretty much tanked, bringing in $48 million and being categorized as a "loss marker" or "bomb" in a recent Film Comment roundup of the 2005 box office. Little, yellow, different, better indeed.

Compare the catchphrase deliveries, as Charlies Chan Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, and Roland Winters take turns saying, "Thank you so much."

NEXT: Blow This

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  1. You left out two of my favorite Johns, Torturro and Leguizamo. Is there an ethnicity these guys can’t play?

  2. Or, at least, don’t play?

  3. I think the portrayal of the Eurasian character Khan by a Mexican, Ricardo Montalban, to be a particular offensive example of this whole “passing for ethnic” acting phenomenon.

    I never bought for a minute the idea that he wasn’t just some intergalactic wetback, for christ’s sake.


    Was a genetic experiment, IIRC, so I guess that


    Was a genetic experiment, IIRC, so I guess that it doesn’t really matter if he was played by Ricardo “Dude Look At My Chest” Montalban.

  6. You’ll Wonder Where the Yella Went
    When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.

  7. Although casting non-Japanese Asian actors as Japanese characters is certainly progress over using White actors in make-up, I think the point that it plays to a “They all look alike” mentality is still valid.

  8. George Takei played a Vietnamese officer in The Green Berets. He’s a Japanese-American, of course, and that was forty years ago.

    In any case, I don’t think it’s racism or any other ism. We seem to think that a guy with a Scottish accent makes a perfectly good Russian, for instance, so why not interchangeable Asians to go with interchangeable Europeans?

  9. PL has it right. Take The Highlander movie – you have a guy with a strong scottish accent(your russian sub captain above) playing…a spaniard. Meanwhile the eponymous character is played by a frenchman with a vaguely european accent. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

  10. Marlo Thomas as Tai Lee.

  11. And how about Omar Sharif (Egyptian) playing a Russian in “Doctor Zhivago”? I guess all us White people look alike, huh? Actually, he’s another one who’s played a ton of different ethnicities.

    Seriously, I think the complaints stem from an increased feeling of empowerment in the ethnic communities (they can now complain and people will actually listen) crossed with a sense of ownership of certain roles and some insecurity that the roles could still be taken away from them.

  12. What was up with casting of the Bolivian drug lord in Scarface?

    They took some guy off a chaise lounge in the Hamptons, slapped some fake tan on him, and decided he’d make a great South American crime boss.

    Hearing Al Pacino call him a “greaseball” was downright surreal.

  13. I would say it points slightly towards progress because Geisha is still following the Hollywood mandate to get attractive, recognizable stars on the screen. That there are three Chinese women (Zhang, Li and Yeoh) that can carry a major American release with broken English is good. Bonus points for not having one kung-fu scene between them. But a deduction for having all three playing prostitutes.

  14. I seem to remember all Asian actors playing the Japanese navy roles in Midway. Of course, it was a terrible film, and historically inaccurate, but hell, Toshiro Mifune was in it!

  15. Joel Gray as Chiun in “Remo Williams”…

  16. Yeah. God forbid somebody actually has to act…
    Please stop treating Hollywood like it IN ANY WAY matters. It does not cause OR solve problems. It is too busy making itself irrelevant, and psuedo-cultural “outrages” like this just hasten the process.

  17. Now this thread really pisses me off to no end!

  18. VM, sure, but Joel Grey was great in that movie.

    However, I must admit that James Hong could’ve kicked ass in that role, too. Though I guess he’d be a Chinese-American attempting to portray a Korean. You really can’t win, I guess. Hong is damned cool–he tried out for Sulu, is an engineer, and, of course, played the god, Lo Pan.

  19. was that controversy actually a sigh of progress?

    Was that intentional, or the best typo ever?

  20. “VM, sure, but Joel Grey was great in that movie.”

    are we the only two who liked that movie?

    hilarious 🙂

  21. I liked that movie quite a bit. It and Big Trouble in Little China are movies that should’ve had sequels. It’s too late now, of course. I’m still bitter over Mr. Phelps being a bad guy in Mission Impossible. Friggin’ Tom Cruise. When they eventually remake Star Trek, I suppose Captain Kirk will be a bad guy, too. Grumble.

  22. Big Trouble in Little China

    another goodie.

  23. I think all this controversy would have been avoided if they had just cast Negroes in every role. I’m thinkin’ Queen Latifah, Ice Cube, Denzel Washington and Chris Rock for comic relief. I don’t know how good any of their Japanese is, though.

  24. scape, I gotta go 180 degrees the other way on you here, brother:

    Bonus points for not having one kung-fu scene between them.

    Big deduction for no three-way Asian chick kung fu scenes!

    But a deduction for having all three playing prostitutes.

    I’m not following you here.

  25. I was thinking about the PC police giving fines for racist, Hollywood attitudes that only allow Asian women roles as kung-fu assassins or prostitutes. Personally, I agree with you. The more three-way Asian chick (insert genre) scenes the better.

  26. Everyone was all atwitter in 1965 at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, CT, when Ruby Dee was cast to play one of King Lear’s daughters. How outrageous it seemed to have a negress play a celtic woman.

    Now that kind of thing is commonplace. Nobody thinks twice about how many liberties you take in casting your Shakespearian presentation.

    But rewriting the bard’s work really does have to stop at removing the “anti-semitic” bits from “The Merchant of Venice”.

  27. I haven’t actually seen the movie, but some comments:

    It’s normal for Hollywood to cast Chinese as Japanese, Japanese as Chinese, etc. I strongly suspect that this happens because casting agents are genuinely unable to tell the difference.

    Another factor for this particular movie: although it just came out, the casting was done back when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was all over the news (I happen to know a Japanese actress who auditioned for it). With that in mind, it’s not at all surprising that the Zhang Ziyi and Michelle Yeoh were picked for those two parts.

  28. e-Tim: this was an article in Stay Free years ago… U r the n00b

    How you failed to mention the especially-topical Charlton-Heston-as-uno-federale bit from “Touch of Evil,” however, is beyond me.

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