Friday, January 30, 2009

Yellowface is still alive

Below: Rob Schneider in "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry"

The term "yellowface", like "blackface", refers to the practice in theater, TV and film of making up white actors to look Asian or black for roles. This was extremely prevalent in the early-to-mid 20th century. Was this because there were absolutely no black or Asian people anywhere who were capable of doing these performances themselves? Or was the entertainment world in fact so racist that it would prefer the ridiculous conceit of disguising a white actor as another race, rather than give a role to a person of colour? I'll let you figure that one out.

One of the best known examples of yellowfacery is the classic 70s martial arts series Kung Fu. An idea conceived by Bruce Lee, who intended to star in it, was hijacked by Hollywood, who cast David Carradine in the role of Kwai Chang Caine. (Carradine is kinda Asian-looking due to his part Cherokee-ancestry, so he can maybe pass as Eurasian, but the principle of it is still pretty f@#%ed.)

One of the most bizarre yellowface examples in film was John Wayne as Genghis Khan in the 1956 flop "The Conqueror". I mean, really, John Wayne as a Mongol? WTF? Someone must have been smoking the pipe for that one. That's like Schwarzenegger being cast as Idi Amin. Or a white British actor playing Mahatma Gandhi.

(Actually, Ben Kingsley who played Gandhi is half Indian, so he gets a pass, I guess.)

You'd think that in the Obama-era, more PC Hollywood of today, that this wouldn't happen. Well apparently it still does. The upcoming movie "The Last Airbender", based on the anime "Avatar: The Last Airbender", is a live-actor adaptation of the popular series, which is based in an Asian-themed fantasy world. Yet the main actors being cast are all Caucasian, such as teen-heart-throb singer Jesse McCartney. Apparently there are still no Asian people anywhere who can act. They might be able to squeeze in my man Al Leong as a henchman or something (google him, you'll know who I mean).

Avatar fans all over the internets are not happy. I'm not much of an animation buff, and must say I know very little about the Avatar phenomenon. But blogger Derek Kirk Kim has an Asian-American take on the Caucasianisation of Avatar which is well worth reading; you can do that here.

One of the strange things about the Avatar business is that before leaping to the "white racist Hollywood repressing the Asian man again" conclusion, consider that the director is Indian-born M Night Shyamalan (of Sixth Sense fame), one of the most prominent Asian-Americans in Hollywood. So the picture gets slightly more complex. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out.

Btw, I know Rob Schneider is 1/4 Filipino, but that doesn't make it right.


  1. The Genghis Khan example reminded me - the recent Kazakhstan produced "Mongol" film initially had Caucasian actor Channing Tatum attached to star. You can actually find early production photos online of him in full yellowface - and this is 2005/2006.

    Thankfully the producers ousted him in favor of a Japanese actor.

  2. Thanks Anon, it sounds too ridiculous to believe, but I checked up on that and its absolutely true. I can't imagine Channing Tatum speaking Mongol for a whole movie.

    Mind you, a Japanese actor playing a Mongol is kinda weird too, especially given that the rest of the cast was actually Mongolian. But at least Asano looked the part, more or less, and seemed to do a serviceable job of speaking the language (not that I'd know!)

  3. i detest rob schneider... but more for the fact that his movies are total utter bullocks. when rob schneider gets money for making a movie, i'm sure fairies die.

    the ultimate yellowface - mickey rooney in breakfast in tiffany's: