... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Whitewash

January 25, 2009

We start with the imitable Charlie Chan, ably contrasted with a buncha real Chinese.

Of course these films were full of stereotypes, but the essence of Charlie Chan was that he was a Chinese American man who was brave, smart, and honorable. So, of course, he couldn't be played by an actual Chinese man.

The Good Earth of course, with its cast of thousands ... of white people ... had not a single Asian in a leading role. You HAVE to watch this trailer though. It's awesome, especially the Chinese characters they use to suggest the title, one of which means "big" and the other of which doesn't look like a real character to me.

And to play ubermanly winner Genghis Khan? Why John Wayne, natch.

Jennifer Jones gets to play Han Suyin in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing and speak some of the best hapa lines in history, including, "I'm Eurasian. The word itself seems to suggest a certain moral laxity in the minds of some people." For a film so conscious of its heroine's race, it didn't seem conscious of its leading lady's race.

Tony Randall, of all people, plays magical Chinaman Dr. Lao in The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao. Why not, I guess.

As we all know, for Kung Fu Bruce Lee was roundhouse-kicked out of a role they gave to a white guy. Not sure if they made the character Eurasian because David Carradine is just so not Asian looking, or because that made the character more acceptable.

Linda Hunt -- as Chinese Australian photojournalizing little-person Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously -- was fakin' a LOT of funk, so much so that she won an Oscar.


Peter Weller plays Japanese/white transnational hapa renaissance man Buckaroo Banzai. Do we see a theme developing here?

And here's where we see a transition. Yellowface starts to become unacceptable -- except for comedies -- so if a film wants to cast a white actor in an Asian role it has to change the role from Asian to white. This tactic is so new we don't have a lot of examples of it yet, but here's a start:

Ged of the book A Wizard of Earthsea is described as having red-brown skin, which makes it possible for him to be anything from Tibetan to Hopi to Bantu. Know what he couldn't be? White. Here's what he looks like in the TV series:

This is particularly special: a recent real-life true story featuring Asian Americans gets turned into a moobie called 21 starring Jim Sturgis and whatserface from Blue Crush. Yeah, last year. Welcome to the 21st Century, mofo.

And, looking ahead to this year we'll see the release of Dragonball: Evolution a live-action American film made from a popular Japanese manga based on the Chinese epic Journey to the West.  The American flick transforms the Japanese character Son Goku into a ... what? ... yes, that's right, a white American teenager schooled by Chow Yun Fat. Yep, that's right, they rewrote the entire thing. The rewriting of source material has become par for the course -- racial hijinks or not --  but it almost never ends well.




and keanu reeves as Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop.@_@. forreal?
um, why does no one seem to know that keanu is hapa? he's part chinese and hawaiian, part white.
What burns my ass is David Carradine is still getting away with playing a Chinese person. The Kill Bill movies and the White Pages ads on TV where he's floating in Lotus Position while dispensing stupid fortune cookie wisdom are offensive. Has he been able to do anything else since Kung Fu??!If a white guy put on black face and was on TV jive talking and pitching the White Pages , there would be mass hysteria and wholesale condemnation by everyone. What's the difference with what Carradine is doing?!
wow, thanks for compiling this. i mean, you hear about yellowface, but it's another thing entirely to see it. the older ones, maybe because they are so laughable, i don't get as mad about them. i just think, seriously? (and dang, movie trailers back then were looong). btw, since we're on the topic, i know that keanu is hapa.
I guess I'm so used to being around compassionate and aware Americans that it surprises me to see that ignorance still exists.Here's a related statement from Gene Yang on his blog.http://www.geneyang.com/blog/index.php
What's just as pathethic as this history of the White Media's minstrelsy show is the fact that Asian American actors are often silent about issues like this--despite the fact they are the ones being directly affected in terms of lack of casting opportunities.In terms of Avatar, the protests against it have been largely driven by fans or ordinary people--not Asian American actors, even though they would benefit from having these roles.But then again, I guess this is to be expected given that many Asian American actors would mediawhore themselves to Hollywood even for a bit part in some forgettable pilot or sitcom.
that's really unfair. all actors except a-list actors are working in a casting director's market. actors have very little power throughout their careers, and if they want to work, they can't go out and stir up trouble, or insult producers. look at how steve park got blackballed after complaining about racist treatment on the set of "friends."WE'RE the ones with power: the audience. if we don't buy tickets or rent movies, everyone else is shit out of luck. so it's really up to us to complain. the best that as am actors can do -- and this would be very helpful and a lot of them ARE doing this -- is to talk to their contacts quietly about what's going on in the fan world. that's probably more effective than any public outcry they could make.
The actors do have power. It's called collective (political) organizing.If an actor takes the individualist "I'm only looking out for myself" path, yes they are disempowered. But ultimately, that disempowerment is at least partially self-inflicted.Secondly, these actors can not only organize within their own profession, they can politically connect with other constituencies outside it--namely, the fan and audience base. This can be done at a much greater level than it is now, and it would give them that much more leverage.But how many of these actors would be interested in doing something like this?Many would not be.And, in general, I don't think the primary reason is fear of being blacklisted--though I'm sure that does happen.It's political apathy and the "I gonna get mine" mentality.
To be fair, that other Chinese character in the second clip is a correct character for "earth".
dude, thanks for that. that's what comes from my only knowing, like, three characters.
Add Keanu Reeves as the Buddha in the Little Buddha.
Uh, I thought that Keanu Reeves' father was Chinese> I guess him being biracial dilutes his Asianess, huh
ugh, boone, don't go there. next thing you know, you'll be setting up blood quantam quotas. keanu's dad is chinese and hawaiian. his mom is scandinavian. he's not in yellowface any more than bruce lee (whose mother was chinese and english) is in yellowface. let's leave it at that, shall we?