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Yellowface is the practice in cinema, theatre and television where East Asian characters are portrayed by actors of other races while wearing make-up to give them the appearance of an East Asian person, often including epicanthic folds (the skin fold in the inner corner of the eye, a common East Asian feature). In more racist applications, the make-up is stylized with various stereotypical traits.
Sometimes it is used simply out of a reluctance to cast genuine Asian actors. A prominent example was Anna May Wong being passed over for the lead female role of O-Lan in The Good Earth in favour of white actress Luise Rainer. The excuse given was that the Hays Code would have prohibited the film from showing Wong kissing her leading man as "miscegenation", because he was the white actor Paul Muni, despite their both playing Chinese characters.
Yellowface has often been used simply to facilitate comically insulting representations of East Asians. Unlike Blackface, yellowface has never been associated with a particular artistic tradition. It also never gained the same stigma associated with blackface and remained acceptable in Western media for far longer.
See also Brownface.
Tropes associated with Yellowface:
- But Not Too Foreign / Fake Mixed Race: Sometimes, the writers will make an Asian character half white so that a white actor can be cast.
- Fake Nationality: Yellowface is a subtrope of Fake Nationality in which the actor uses make-up to appear East Asian.
- Modern Minstrelsy: Particularly stereotypical uses of yellowface were almost always performed with the intention of mocking the character.
- Older Than They Think: The tradition of yellowface dates at least to the 18th century in theatre, and appeared in cinema from the earliest days of silent film.
- Race Lift: Changing an Asian character into a white one. This could be considered the modern-day alternative to yellowface as both practices come from a reluctance to cast Asian actors.
- Values Dissonance: Yellowface was once considered completely routine, but nowadays often seems embarrassing at best, and is rarely played straight outside opera.
Works in which yellowface appears:
- 55 Days at Peking: Every Chinese character with any lines in this 1963 film is played by a white actor. A large number of East Asian extras were hired of course, to provide the Mooks for the white heroes to mow down.
- Breakfast at Tiffany's: Mickey Rooney's role as the buck-toothed stereotype-Japanese Mr. Yunioshi is notorious.
- The Bruce Lee biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story features Bruce and his girlfriend Linda going to see Breakfast at Tiffany's in a theater but leaving early when Linda realizes that Bruce is upset by the Yunioshi character.
- Broken Blossoms: In D.W. Griffith's 1919 silent film, the depiction of Chen Huan the Chinese missionary was played by Richard Barthelmess, a white actor, though the portrayal is positive, especially for the time.
- Pretty much every version of Fu Manchu has been played by a white guy.
- Charlie Chan: In nearly all film adaptions of the novels, the Chinese-American detective is played by a white actor in yellowface.
- Murder By Death features Sidney Wang, a parody of Charlie Chan. Naturally, he's played in yellowface as well, this time by Peter Sellers.
- Dragon Seed: Katherine Hepburn and Agnes Moorehead portrayed Chinese characters in this 1944 film.
- The Good Earth: A 1937 film adaption of Pearl Buck's bestselling novel. A story set in China, with all the characters Chinese, but the leading roles were all given to white actors. The only role offered to an East Asian actress, Anna May Wong, was as the villain, but she turned it down, saying, "You're asking me — with Chinese blood — to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters."
- Kung Fu: In this television series, David Carradine was as Kwai Chang Caine and the character was made half-white. While the character of Caine was a sympathetic one, Carradine's casting gained notoriety because he passed over Bruce Lee, who had aided in creating the show with the sole purpose of starring in it.
- Carradine plays a comically yellowfaced Poon Dong in Crank 2. The character seems to be intentionally offensive.
- The Year Of Living Dangerously: Linda Hunt portrayed male Chinese-Australian photographer Billy Kwan. While some critics accused the film of using yellowface, Hunt also earned quite a lot of praise for her performance and was awarded an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress - to date, the only person ever to have gained an Oscar for playing someone of the opposite gender.
- Seven Faces of Dr. Lao: Lao is played by Tony Randall. Of course, as hinted by the title, Lao is a 7,000 year old wizard who can appear in whatever form he wants.
- The Adventures Of Marco Polo starring Gary Cooper as the title character who travels to China had no actual Asian actors in the cast.
- Miss Saigon: In the original West End (London) run of this musical, The Engineer was played by white actor Jonathan Pryce. The casting garnered controversy, but it didn't stop Pryce from winning a Tony Award for his performance. As pointed out by Pryce's defenders, the character is half European. Thuy was also played by a Caucasian performer in yellowface and in ways this is worse given that Thuy is the designated villain and in the original production with its original lyrics was considerably less sympathetic. Both of these roles are now generally played by Asian performers in English-speaking professional productions.
- The Golden Child features Charlotte Lewis as an East Asian character, though her character is heroic. Other Asian characters are played by Victor Wong, Shakti Chen, etc.
- In The King of Fighters live-action movie the Japanese protagonist Kyo Kusanagi is played by the Caucasian Sean Faris, despite the character having an Asian father, and being shown as an Asian child in a flashback scene.
- I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry has Rob Schneider playing an Asian minister. Schneider is one quarter Filipino.
- The film Anna and the King of Siam features white actor Rex Harrison as Siamese (Thai) King Mongkut.
- The Doctor Who serial The Talons of Weng Chiang has a white man in yellowface playing a Chinese magician in a Yellow Peril plot. Though the yellowface has made networks reluctant to rerun the serial, especially in America, its story is still highly regarded amongst fans - it possesses some anti-racist content as well. The same can be said about other early Doctor Who serials in Asian settings, such as Marco Polo.
- Silent film Tell It To the Marines, starring Lon Chaney, Sr., has a white woman playing the local Asian hottie/source of trouble. It's really obvious in a scene with several extras playing the locals: the camera pans from ethnic guy to ethnic guy to ethnic guy...to this woman who stands out as obviously a Caucasian in makeup.
- Get Smart had the villain "The Craw", played by Leonard Strong, and Harry Hoo (Joey Forman), a Charlie Chan expy.
- John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror. The role was not a particularly strong example of yellowface, however, as Wayne infamously made no attempt to alter his performance from his standard persona.
- The titular character of Dr. No is half-German and half-Chinese. He is played by a white Jewish actor.
- Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado is supposedly set in Japan and was originally performed by British actors in make-up. The plot and its setting are all just a satirical take on England of the age, however. There were fears that visiting Japanese officials would be offended by the musical, but they enjoyed the performance and wryly commented on being "pleasingly disappointed" to find nothing offensive. Productions of the musical toured Japan with integrated casts and there was even a recent production which translated the lyrics into Japanese.
- Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing Made in 1955 with William Holden as the leading man, and Jennifer Jones in yellowface as Dr. Han Suyin. Nowadays the film is a case-study in the difficulty Hayes Code Hollywood had in depicting interracial relationships.
- In the Short Circuit films, white actor Fisher Stevens has his face darkened to play stereotypical Indian Ben Jabituya.
In-universe examples (The character is white but pretends to be Asian)
- In Robert A. Heinlein's novel Sixth Column, a white man gets plastic surgery to infiltrate the "PanAsian" occupiers. The novel is actually a version of John W. Campbell's All with the racism toned down. Heinlein considered Sixth Column an Old Shame that he wrote to garner the favor of the racist but influential Campbell.
- In Barry Eisler's John Rain series, the title character is a half-white, half-Japanese American who uses plastic surgery and hair dye to look fully Asian.
- In the Romance Novel Desire's Blossom, a redheaded Caucasian heroine Letitia is captured by the Chinese as a little girl and made up to look Chinese by them. In the snarky words of reviewer Candy (who herself is Chinese):
Chinese Big-Wig Dude, instead of turning her over to the authorities, is all "Hey! I have a GREAT idea! Let's totally adopt [Letitia], only not really, and not only that, let's totally treat her like shit AND make her appear Chinese." Which involves renaming her to Lee-Lee, dyeing her hair black, powdering her face (because Chinese people are PALER than you round-eyed types, yeah?) and—I shit you not—binding her breasts once she hits puberty so she looks more flat-chested. Because her bodacious bazooms are not nearly Chinese enough.
- In You Only Live Twice, James Bond is disguised (very unconvincingly) as a Japanese man.
- Sherlock Holmes a Game of Shadows has Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes disguising himself as a 19th century Chinese man complete with queue and giant opium pipe.
- In one episode of the original Scooby Doo cartoon, Shaggy pretends to be Chinese, complete with queue, squinty eyes, and buck teeth.
- In The Three Stooges episode "No Dough Boys", a wartime short, the stooges are dressed as Japanese soldiers for a photo shoot, and later stumble upon a hideout with Nazi spies and have to take on the identity of the Japanese spies they were expecting to meet with.
Real life examples
- Robert Fortune was a white Scottish man who disguised himself as a Chinese man to learn the secrets of Chinese tea. He explained his Scottish accent by claiming to be from a faraway province. As different regions of China have different accents and even different languages, this worked.
- In 1703, a white Frenchman named George Psalmanazar pretended to be from Formosa (Taiwan) and wrote a book about his "homeland." He spoke gibberish, ate strange foods, and followed several made-up customs. But the craziest part is that he didn't even change his appearance, claiming that upper-class Formosans sleep underground.
- An English servant named Mary Baker spent some time under the name Princess Caraboo and used her identity to be wined and dined by various dignitaries.
- Inverted by Fred Korematsu, a Japanese-American who got plastic surgery on his eyelids in the hope that he could pass for white and avoid anti-Japanese sentiment in World War II America.
- WWE superstar Lord Tensai is a weird half-and-half example. Most older fans recognize him at Matthew Bloom, who wrestled for a while as Albert/A-Train, but after leaving, he became very popular in Japanese promotions. They continually bring this up, and his gimmick involves wearing Japanese garb, with Japanese (fake) kanji tattoos on his face and a few real ones on the back of his head, and even having a manager dressed all in black almost like a kuroko. He also speaks Japanese (although his pronunciation is with an American accent.) It's still a little hazy whether or not they're trying to pretend he's actually Japanese. Considering they have an actual Japanese wrestler in Yoshi Tatsu who's nowhere near as stereotypical, it's just strange.