Hollywood Goes Oriental: CaucAsian Performance in American Film

Author:  Karla Rae Fuller

Karla Rae Fuller’s fascinating examination of the use of ‘yellowface’ makeup on white (and sometimes black) actors in Hollywood films is both informative and thought-provoking.

This is as much social history as it is film theory, and Fuller employs elements of performance theory to subvert the often obvious racism involved in yellowface – if an audience is meant to accept, unquestioningly, that non-Asian actors in glossy black wigs and prosthetic makeup are ‘actually’ Asian, doesn’t that mean that racial identity in everyday life is also ‘performed’? In her closing paragraphs, Fuller acknowledges that this possibility also gives rise to troubling questions.

The cause for her disquiet is Rob Schneider’s role in the forgettable and regrettable 2006 ‘comedy’ I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Schneider, whose maternal grandmother was Filipina, self-identifies as ‘Eurasian’. In Chuck and Larry, Schneider’s:

“…brief though key appearance in an uncredited role as a Japanese minister in complete yellowface makeup creates its own set of complex issues. His performance utilizes the traditional Oriental guise: a wig, cosmetically altered eyes, a protruding tooth prosthesis, and large dark glasses. What is there to say when an obviously demeaning caricature comes from within the group, as it were? I think that would be best left to another book.”


Although I’ll admit to being disappointed by Fuller’s decision not to expand on this idea, it’s at least understandable given the other meaty issues she’s already tackled. The book is elegantly structured and moves almost chronologically  through Hollywood’s history to examine the evolving uses and meanings of yellowface performances.

In chapter 1, “Figures of the Imagination”, Fuller argues that early Hollywood films used Oriental characters to signify other-worldly figures of horror and mystery. The most obvious starting point is Boris Karloff’s Fu Manchu, a man without a country of origin or a mother tongue. Fuller argues persuasively that this is because, to Hollywood, ‘The Orient’ itself was a non-place. “Between Hollywood’s vague ‘geographical boudaries’ of Asian characters and the seemingly indiscriminate casting of whites in Asian roles,” writes Fuller, “specific national character types were subsumed under a generalized Oriental character.”

Fuller then gives a number of examples from various films where ‘the Oriental character’ is quite often malevolent (e.g. Fu Manchu’s obsession with world domination), imbued with supernatural powers, sexually dangerous or simply devious.

Fuller uses chapter 2, “Masters of the Macabre”, to trace the rise and fall of the Asian detective in the franchises of the Mr Wong, Mr Moto and Charlie Chan films. While these films initially presented their titular Asian-American characters as emphatically Asian though loyal to the United States, there was an abrupt and total shift in this presentation once the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour. Audiences were able to accept this reversal because even the initial characterisations of the Oriental detective had presented him as a man who was, no matter how sympathetic, ‘inscrutable’. And it’s this shift in attitudes that Fuller focuses on in chapter 3, “Creatures of Evil”.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was the outbreak of World War 2 that finally forced Hollywood into acknowledging that there was no such thing as a homogenous ‘Oriental’ culture, with dismaying results. Dragon Seed (1944), starring Katherine Hepburn as a Chinese peasant turned revolutionary, was a propaganda film designed to educate American audiences about the differences between their new Chinese allies and the Japanese enemy. The drawing of this distinction is neatly boiled down by Fuller as being between “White Chinese vs Yellow Japs”.

By chapter 4, “Comics and Lovers”, the postwar period is demanding lighter fare in the form of musicals and comedies. What they get is Marlon Brando as a Japanese interpreter and Mickey Rooney harassing Audrey Hepburn. Oh dear.

If nothing else, Fuller provides an astonishing litany of the A-list Hollywood names who’ve donned yellowface – in addition to Hepburn, Brando, Karloff and Rooney, there’s also Shirley MacLaine, Laurence Harvey, Ricardo Montalban, Peter Ustinov, Peter Sellers and many, many more. In her conclusion, Fuller also strips Jonathan Pryce of his excuses for appearing in yellowface in Miss Saigon and briefly outlines why Bruce Lee was passed over for the lead in TV show Kung Fu in favour of David Carradine.

This is a thorough, well-argued and well-researched book that puts paid to the simplistic line “Well, actors play characters and that’s all actors do when they play people of races other than their own” once and for all. And she does all this even without playing the obvious trump card: Sean Connery’s Japanese ‘disguise’ in 1967’s You Only Live Twice.

Wayne State University Press

RRP £26.95

Clare Moody

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