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date: 29 September 2023

Yellowface Performance: Historical and Contemporary Contextsfree

Yellowface Performance: Historical and Contemporary Contextsfree

  • Josephine LeeJosephine LeeDepartment of English, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities


In European and North American theater and film, the centuries-old practice of “yellowface”—white actors playing Asian-identified characters—has dominated the ways that Asians and Asian Americans have been presented. Since the 19th century, yellowface representations in American theater portrayed these characters as villainous despots, exotic curiosities, or comic fools. These roles in turn greatly reduced the opportunities for the employment and recognition of Asian and Asian American actors. Yellowface performance does not only misrepresent Asians and Asian Americans by limiting the kinds of visibility and opportunities that they might have, but it also supports the imagined distinctions between those values presumably embodied by white Americans and those associated with oriental others. Late-19th and early-20th-century plays such as George Ade’s The Sultan of Sulu (1902), Joseph Jarrow’s The Queen of Chinatown (1899), and David Belasco’s Madame Butterfly (1900) not only used yellowface acting but also expressed anxieties about interracial interactions and the potential for racial contamination produced by U.S. imperialism and Chinese immigration. Both yellowface and “whitewashing” (the erasure of Asian and Asian American characterizations from film and theater in order to benefit white actors) continue to be used in U.S. theater and film. In addition to protesting, Asian American performing artists have responded by creating alternative venues for Asian American performers and writers to make their talents known, such as Los Angeles’s East West Players (established in 1965). Asian Americans have also fully engaged with these issues through writing a host of plays that feature characterizations of actors who suffer the effects of discriminatory casting practices. Two plays in particular, David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face (2007) and Lloyd Suh’s Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery (2015) not only critique the legacies of yellowface representation but also prompt broader reflection on how contemporary Asian American identities are shaped by both political radicalism and “model minority” conformity. These plays re-appropriate yellowface to comment on the changing and contested nature of racial categories such as “Asian American” as well as the continuing problems of racial typecasting.


  • North American Literatures
  • Film, TV, and Media
  • Theater and Drama

Ornamental Orientals: Reassessing Yellowface

In 1990, Actors Equity led protests against the decision to cast white actor Jonathan Pryce in the role of the Engineer, a biracial character, in the Broadway production of Miss Saigon.1 In 2012, California’s La Jolla Playhouse employed a primarily non-Asian cast for its production of The Nightingale, a play set in ancient China.2 In 2014, community activists challenged a Seattle Opera production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado that, in keeping with casting practices hearkening back to the opera’s 1885 premiere, used white performers in exaggerated makeup to play faux-Japanese characters.3 In these and other examples, the practices of “yellowface” (non-Asian actors playing Asian or Asian American characters) and “whitewashing” (the erasure of Asian or Asian American characters in favor of white casting) have been drawn into the public eye.4 Advocacy groups such as the Asian American Performers Action Coalition and the Media Action Network for Asian Americans continue to contest continuing racial disparities in casting both in theater and film, pointing to examples of yellowface casting and whitewashing that include the films 21 (2008), The Last Airbender (2010), Aloha (2015), Doctor Strange (2016), and Ghost in the Shell (2017).5 These protests have effectively challenged this long history of yellowface acting in the United States, drawing attention to both the racial hierarchies inherent in the theatrical and cinematic production and the complex nature of racial representation. They question deeply entrenched practices of both employment and representation that give white actors the privilege of playing across racial lines, while denying Asian American and other actors of color employment and artistic expression.6 Furthermore, they argue that the portrayal of Asians and Asian Americans by white actors has produced stereotypes that continue to recirculate in revivals of popular standards for theater, music, and dance such as The Mikado, Madame Butterfly, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Anything Goes, Miss Saigon, and The Nutcracker.

By literally making racial types come to life on the stage or screen, yellowface acting helps to sustain a set of imaginative fantasies by which, as Edward Said put it, “the Orient” becomes “the stage on which the whole East is confined.”7 Looking more closely at how yellowface has been employed in theater and film underscores its significance not only to the ethical and professional concerns of actors but also to understanding anxieties about interracial interactions more broadly. While yellowface acting often reinforced the perceived racial differences between the white actor and the oriental role, it also was employed to highlight the inherent dangers of cross-racial performance, such as the corruption of white characters by values associated with orientalism. As it is imagined both on and off the stage, yellowface thus raises questions about how “playing yellow” might indeed complicate the success and security of “acting white” and vice versa.

For several centuries, the acting of Asian roles by non-Asian actors has been a standard part of intercultural theatrical practices in Europe and North America. European adaptations of Chinese classical drama, such as the 18th-century translations of the 13th-century dramatist Ji Junxiang’s Great Revenge of the Orphan of Zhao, were tremendously popular. American theater production embraced these productions and practices of yellowface casting as well; Voltaire’s L’Orphelin de la Chine (1755) was adapted by Irish playwright Arthur Murphy into the Orphan of China (1759), first performed in New York in 1768.8 A number of other heroic dramas presented multifaceted portrayals of Chinese subjects. Harry Benrimo and George C. Hazelton Jr.’s The Yellow Jacket (1913) (described by Brander Matthews as “a Chinese drama, dealing with Chinese motives, and presented in the Chinese manner”) attempted to translate Chinese theater conventions in ways that might appeal to a white American audience and greatly influenced playwrights such as Thornton Wilder.9 Plays such as Francis Powers’s The First Born (1897) attempted a realistic presentation of Chinese immigrants, even hiring some of the first Asian American actors to play minor roles.10 That these characters, though still considered racially distinct, could be portrayed by white actors in sympathetic ways was evidenced by one review of a production of The First Born, which stated that leading actor Bertram Lytell made the audience aware of the full humanity of his character: “As Chang Wang he is all man—though yellow with the tint of the Mongolian.”11

However, such earnest endeavors at theatrical interculturalism or dramatic realism were far outweighed by other yellowface roles that lacked any deep or concerted engagement with Asian or Asian American people or culture. Much more stereotypical modes of yellowface acting became the dominant forms of representing Asian and American characters on the American stage; these pervasive and influential characterizations emphasized the racial distinctions between white and oriental through associating the latter with exaggerated spectacles of luxury, excess, depravity, and evil.

White Skin, Yellow Masks

Yellowface roles were standard fare in 19th-century theatrical spectacles popular in both Europe and the United States. In pantomimes, burlesques, and extravaganzas, as well as elaborate settings for more realistic plays, the imagined Orient was portrayed as the antithesis of Western civilization. Ross Forman has suggested that in Victorian Britain, theatrical spectacles set in China foregrounded “ornament and adornment, pageantry and display” and gave viewers “a sense of mastery over a conceptually imperialized space of China.”12 Such spectacles clearly captivated US audiences as well in productions such as the Ravel family’s 1852 pantomime Kim-Ka! or, The Misfortunes of Ventilator. This popular entertainment by a French troupe featured the comic antics of the bold “French Aeronaut Ventillateur,” who unwittingly flies his balloon to Peking during a storm and lands in the court of the emperor Kim-Ka and his beautiful daughter Lei. Memorable effects such as Ventillateur’s fiery balloon and a final tableau with “a grand display of Chinese fireworks” are combined with “a splendid Chinese tent, supported by richly carved columns” juxtaposed with “porphyr baths” and “a magnificent pavilion” against the backdrop of a “picturesque garden on the margin of a silvery lake.”13 These imaginary settings emphasized the Orient mainly as a decorative surface, with little effort made to provide accuracy or consistency.

Yellowface actors played the inhabitants of these fantastical locales in characterizations notable for their colorful appearance rather than their psychological depth. Some of the most popular instances of these types of yellowface performance were patently “see-through”—lighthearted and lightweight racial impersonations that included the popular adaptations of Jacques Offenbach’s 1855 Ba-ta-clan produced in both London and New York. This operetta, retitled Ching Chow Hi or Chang Hi Wang, depicted Chinese characters who were ultimately revealed to be French, English, or American, depending on the venue.14 For some musical entertainments, even a glimpse of an oriental setting or casual reference to Asia could provide a sense of novelty and romance. The 1872 extravaganza by James Barnes, Chow Chow; or A Tale of Pekin, based “loosely and irreverently on the adventures of Byron’s pirate chief in a harem,” only briefly depicts China when late in the final act the white protagonists travel to “Pekin” to meet the relatively minor characters Chow Chow, Pig-Taili, and Sing Sing.15 A popular 1891 work by Charles Hoyt and Percy Gaunt, A Trip to Chinatown, does not in fact take place in Chinatown at all and includes little that might be construed as Chinese other than a brief “Chinese specialty,” a musical number performed by a character “in white Chinese dress.”16 Blackface minstrelsy also incorporated yellowface performance, which greatly influenced the popular presentation of oriental acts in vaudeville and musical theater.17

Other works used yellowface acting and characterization in more sustained ways. Sketches such as The Yankees in China (1839), Irishman in China (1842), The Cockney in China (1848), and Mose in China (1850) adapted British yellowface traditions to American terms, as different Anglo-American stage types tested their ingenuity and resourcefulness in new and exotic settings.18 W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s ninth collaboration, The Mikado (1885), was imported from London and performed across the United States. Set in the fictional Japanese town of Titipu, the opera depicts the exploits of characters with fanciful names such as Nanki Poo, Yum-Yum, Pish-Tush, Pitti-Sing, and Peep-Bo. The Mikado made yellowface practice broadly popular as its songs, characterizations, and stage motifs became common in American homes as well as in revivals.19 As John Kuo Wei Tchen points out, The Mikado is not original in its comic uses of yellowface; more than forty years before, Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera, China, or Tricks Upon Travelers, performed at Mitchell’s Olympic Extravaganza in 1841, featured white actors in the roles of “Ching Chong Chow” and “Fouchafee” as well as other characters named Prince Pretty Pill, Pig-Taili, and Skidamalink.20 Nonetheless, the success of The Mikado paved the way for other successful productions to be brought to the United States from the London stage, such as Sidney Jones’s The Geisha (1896) and George Dance’s A Chinese Honeymoon (1899); it also encouraged shows written and produced for Broadway such as Wang (1891), Panjandrum (1893), A China Doll (1904), and Chin Chin (1914).

While oriental stereotypes appeared in many different forms in the United States, including literature, journalism, political cartoons, and advertising, yellowface performance was a particularly powerful way of conveying anti-Asian sentiment and reinforcing racial hierarchies. Yellowface reflected the privilege of the white actor to define nonwhite characters for audiences who might never come into close proximity with real members of these other racial groups. Theatrical productions thus were key to how particular stereotypes, no matter how absurdly drawn, came to dominate the popular imagination and be resurrected time and time again. Theatrical stereotypes—heightened, exaggerated, one-dimensional, and emotional—had a representational power that ordinary people did not.

Rather than providing the opportunity for actors (and, in turn, audiences) to identify with Asians or Asian Americans, most of these comic roles emphasized a distance between performer and character that also reinforced racial distinctions. The white actor could demonstrate skill and control over parts that emphasized extravagance, deviance, and novelty. For instance, the cross-racial and cross-gender casting of the “Widow Twankey,” a character familiar to British audiences from the pantomime versions of the Aladdin story, appeared in Broadway’s biggest success of 1914: Anne Caldwell, R .H. Burnside, and Ivan Caryll’s Chin-Chin with Dave Montgomery and Fred Stone. The Widow was staged alongside other oriental characters borrowed from Aladdin or created, like the “Chinese mannequins” Chin-Hop-Hi and Chin-Hop-Lo, specifically to give actors like Montgomery and Stone star turns.21

In yellowface performances of Chinese immigrant characters, physical comedy also often supported the effects of racial alienation. One of the best-known yellowface actors of his day was Charles Parsloe, who appeared in 19th-century melodramas in the roles of Hop Sing in Bret Harte’s Two Men of Sandy Bar (1876) and the title character in Harte and Mark Twain’s Ah Sin (based on Harte’s popular 1870 poem “Plain Language from Truthful James or the Heathen Chinee” and produced in 1877), Washee Washee in Joaquin Miller’s The Danites in the Sierras (1877), and Wing Lee in Bartley Theodore Campbell’s My Partner (1879). Parsloe’s trademarks included heavily accented English and a queue attached to a skullcap and a gap between his teeth that suggested what Mark Twain called “the true Mongrel look”; though these were sidekick roles rather than main characters, Parsloe endeared himself to audiences with multiple scenes of mischief, theft, and slapstick comedy.22 By the time he finished his final appearance as Wing Lee in Bartley Theodore Campbell’s My Partner (1879), he earned the praise of the New York Mirror for his portrayals of Chinese immigrant characters: “in Chinese roles Mr. Parsloe is inimitable.”23

Yet Parsloe’s yellowface performance also accentuated the racial distinctions between character and actor/audience. While Parsloe was praised by some reviewers for the accuracy of his portrayal of a Chinese immigrant man,24 others found his performance less convincing. The reviewer for the New York Sun found Parsloe’s performance of Ah Sin to be predictable: “Ah Sin as we have him here, has been seen for years in intermittent flashes of local humor upon our variety and minstrel stage. He was then and he is still a caricature made up of two or three external oddities of manner, and entirely devoid of any of the mental and moral peculiarities which mark his race.”25 The review in the New York Spirit of the Times sees his portrayal to be “a reflection of the American burlesque of the Chinaman” rather than “a correct portraiture of the Chinaman”:

It is not intended to be true or to be typical—only to be funny, and Mr. Parsloe knows very well how to be funny without being correct. In the first place, he does not use the language of the imported Asiatic. It is the language that the Western humorists impute to him, when they would be intelligently funny at his expense. In the second place, he does not make himself up like the Chinese. His is not the Mongol face, or demeanor, only the Chinaman's dress, and one or two of his antics. It is a Bowery boy in a short gown, grinning, and mixing the dialect of Washington Market with the business of Tony Pastor’s.26

Sean Metzger has suggested that Parsloe’s performance in these Chinese roles was “ventriloquistic” insofar as he could be seen “as the manipulator of his body as a dummy”: “No one thinks Parsloe is actually Chinese even if he acts Chinese parts convincingly; his performance serves as a convenient fiction that he literally enacts over and over again to secure its veracity (that is, Chinese people are foolish and, even if dangerous, can be controlled).”27 This effect of transparency in yellowface acting made it easy for actors such as Parsloe not only to distance themselves from their abject characterizations but also to win praise for their transformative abilities in playing such racially distinctive characters.

Given the prevailing impression of oriental characters as exotic curiosities, yellowface roles could be easily promoted as a novelty act for even well-established white actors. As Robert Ito comments, “[t]he list of actors appearing in yellowface is disturbingly long” and includes film and television appearances by “Katharine Hepburn; Fred Astaire; Myrna Loy; Ricardo Montalban; Ingrid Bergman; John Wayne as Genghis Khan; Marlon Brando as a comical Okinawan; Mickey Rooney, complete with ‘slanted eyes,’ thick glasses, and buck teeth, doing the ‘Jap thing’ in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; Peter Sellers; Helen Hayes; Peter Lorre; Lon Chaney; Anthony Quinn; and that perennial, ‘probably still believes he’s an Asian’ David Carradine.”28 Film and television made theatrical yellowface characterizations available to a much broader audience; certain qualities described in Parsloe’s comic Chinese immigrant character, for instance, became iconic through Mickey Rooney’s appearance in Blake Edwards’s 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s as the irritable, bumbling, and buck-toothed Mr. Yunioshi.

As Robert Lee has suggested, yellowface “marks the Asian body as unmistakably Oriental” and “sharply defines the Oriental in a racial opposition to whiteness.” It does so by exaggerating certain bodily characteristics: those “‘racial’ features that have been designated ‘Oriental,’ such as ‘slanted’ eyes, overbite, and mustard-yellow skin color.”29 This provides a formula for makeup and costume books that emphasize taping or adding latex appliances to the eyes, covering skin with a particular shade of greasepaint (such as “No. 16, otherwise known as ‘Chinese’”), wearing queues or braids, moustaches and goatees, and “coolie” hats.30 The transformation of white actors into convincing oriental figures—often portrayed as distinctly alien and even monstrous—was seen as a mark of artistry. Makeup books such as Yoti Lane’s Stage Make-up (1950) stressed how “Of all make-up the transformation of Europeans into Orientals is the most difficult.”31 Film actors, like Tony Randall in The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964), were aided in this racial impersonation through elaborate techniques of sponge rubber and spirit gum; newer technologies of prosthetics (and rumors of computer-generated facial alteration or enhancement) have been noted in the making of films such as Cloud Atlas (2012) or Ghost in the Shell (2017).32 Contemporary concerns over yellowface casting highlight this rooted assumption that yellowface serves as a temporary racial gig for white actors who are not really required to acquire a deep knowledge of Asian cultural practices or history for these roles. That yellowface acting only requires a racial surface rather than depth of characterization is reflected in a 1989 television interview between Terry Wogan and Jonathan Pryce. Asked to talk about his use of latex eye prosthetics for the controversial role of the biracial Engineer, Pryce said that “the great thing about them” was that there is “no acting required once you’ve got those on. You just stand there and it all happens.”33

The Pleasures and Perils of “Playing Yellow”: The Sultan of Sulu, The Queen of Chinatown, and Madame Butterfly

Scholars have noted the consistent association of Western orientalism with aesthetic styles that stress artifice, ornament, decoration, and superficiality rather than depth.34 Yellowface performance likewise often plays variations on these themes, associating the oriental with either a kind of gaudy, harmless excess or a more serious danger to civilization and restraint. In late-19th- and early-20th-century American theater, the particular figurations of yellowface say much about characteristic formations of race and national identity and imperial expansion. The many scenarios of adventure, danger, and desire in the Orient implied how Americans saw themselves as upholding a set of Western values and as members of a modern nation and a rising imperial power. While different in style and genre, George Ade’s The Sultan of Sulu (1902), Joseph Jarrow’s The Queen of Chinatown (1899), and versions of the Madame Butterfly story all express the broader tensions imagined between racial uplift and imperial exploitation, white Christian morality and Asian vice, or Puritan discipline and hedonistic pleasure.

As used in comedy and satire, yellowface was often considered to be harmless fun, disclaiming its lack of real insult even as it harbored a powerful dismissal of the peoples and cultures it purports to represent. Works such as George Ade’s successful comic operetta The Sultan of Sulu (1902) were lighthearted but nonetheless extremely topical.35 As Victor Mendoza points out, Ade was inspired by real-life events in the Muslim Sulu region of the southern part of the Philippines; as President William McKinley declared sovereignty over the region, the Bates treaty offered a salary to the historical Sultan of Sulu, Hadji Mohammad Jamalul Kiram, in exchange for his help with American commerce and settlement. Inspired by a performance of The Mikado during his undergraduate days at Purdue University, Ade’s play features a version of the familiar oriental despot, a sultan whose marriage to seven wives registered the early-20th-century American public’s fascination with the “twin relics of barbarism,” slavery and polygamy, to be found in the Philippines.36

Ade satirized the terms of US imperial rule and the principles of “benevolent assimilation” by staging the arrival of both white American schoolteachers and American military troops who sing, “though we come in warlike guise / All battle-font arrayed, / It’s all a business enterprise; / We’re seeking foreign trade.”37 Yet the play still supports a picture of imperial power as comically benign. One St. Louis reviewer called Ade’s “excruciatingly funny” play “the best thing we’ve gotten out [of the] Philippines yet. . . . It almost reconciles one to the $20,000,000 we blew in for the archipelago.”38 Ade used yellowface judiciously to depict Filipina/o characters as infantile, impressionable, and easily adaptable to American rule. Ki-Ram takes immediately to the practice of drinking American cocktails, and seven of his wives readily leave him for American husbands.39 Aside from elaborate headpieces and singing a song that references Spanish colonialism (alluding to their “wifely duty” to “tap upon the castanet / And do our Spanish glides”), the white actresses wore little makeup or dress that distinguished them as Filipinas; one of the wives, Pepita, is even referred to as “the Gibson girl of the Philippine Islands.” By the end of the play, they reappear in fashionable American dress, anticipating divorce from Ki-Ram and matched up with various American soldiers; one of the American characters marvels that they have been so easily “assimilated”: “Only to think—yesterday morning an untamed creature of the jungle, and now, thanks to our new policy, a genuine American girl.”40 Fred Moulan, who played the role of the humorously lascivious, jovial, and sometimes drunken Ki-Ram on Broadway, was made up to look like the familiar character of Koko in the Savoy Mikado (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Fred Moulan as Kiram in the 1903 production of George Ade’s The Sultan of Sulu at Wallack’s Theatre, New York.

Much less lighthearted instances of yellowface acting were part of theatrical propaganda such as Henry Grimm’s The Chinese Must Go (1879). Grimm’s sinister Chinese characters, who scheme to enslave white women and dominate white men, were clearly designed to arouse the same anti-Chinese sentiments that drove passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. But similar depictions of Chinese immigrants also pervaded plays with less overtly political aims, such as Joseph Jarrow’s The Queen of Chinatown (1899). The Chinese immigrant characters in Jarrow’s play also abduct white missionary women in order to drug them with opium, torture them, and sell them into sexual slavery. Illicit pleasures and baser instincts are given free rein in Chinatown, which is seen as a space of corruption, gambling, opium, and prostitution, not to mention ravenous, flesh-eating rats. The Chinese characters, symbolically linked with the rats, inhabit the most sensationalized scenes of the play, demonstrating at every turn their extreme lack of civilized Christian behavior (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Poster for Broadway version of Joseph Jarrow’s The Queen of Chinatown (1899).

Library of Congress, Theatrical Poster Collection.

Despite a series of striking lithographs advertising the play, The Queen of Chinatown had a limited run and, like so many other plays of its time, has fallen into obscurity. However, the play remains of interest not only in its depictions of Chinatown as a place of racialized danger and its Chinese inhabitants as “yellow devils,” but also because it suggests yet another dimension of what it means for white characters to “play yellow.” While the cunning and sadistic Chinese characters are central to the play’s melodramatic presentation, they remain secondary in terms of its emotional arc. Much more at the fore are the feelings of the heroic Lieutenant Harry Hildreth, who comes to Chinatown to rescue his sister, the dissolute Dan Driscoll, and Beezie, the opium-addicted “Queen of Chinatown.” Like the white women who are forcibly kidnapped and drugged into submission, Dan and Beezie have fallen into the moral decrepitude associated with Chinatown. Though the dying Beezie urges Dan to “leave Chinatown forever,” he casts his lot with the Chinese characters and is ultimately murdered by one of them. The anxiety in this play is generated not just by the menacing Chinese characters but also a more generalized concern about the vices associated with “playing yellow”—gambling, opium, prostitution—that cause white characters to lose their moral compass. Sabine Haenni suggests that turn-of-the-century New York Chinatown became associated with a gaudy “surface aesthetic” expressing “the fear that ‘Chineseness’ may be beyond the bounds of an intelligible identity or a coherent self, especially when excessive decorations seem to mark mere profusion and lack of order.”41 The Queen of Chinatown obviously demonizes Chinese characters, but its deeper worry is how the pleasures of Chinatown will entice white Americans to lose the rational control and moral discipline that presumably define their racial identity.

The Queen of Chinatown thus integrated yellowface acting with a related kind of racial figuration revolving around the actions of white characters who take on behaviors associated with the Orient. Fears of interracial intermingling deepened the complexity of storylines that explored the boundaries of whiteness and the moral consequences of interracial involvement. Another work that addressed these concerns, though in a very different manner from Jarrow’s play, was Madame Butterfly. Based on the 1898 short story by John Luther Long, Madame Butterfly appeared first on the stage as David Belasco’s 1900 stage play, Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan, which inspired Giacomo Puccini’s 1903 opera. At its center is Cho-Cho-San, a young Japanese woman who enters into a “temporary” marriage with Pinkerton, an officer in the US Navy, with whom she has a son. While he leaves her, she believes that he truly loves her and rejoices when he returns to Japan after a three-year absence. It is only after she encounters his American wife that she despairs and commits suicide, leaving her son to be adopted by the American couple (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Geraldine Farrar as Madame Butterfly (1908).

Library of Congress, prints and photographs collection.

Cho-Cho-San, or “Butterfly,” was one of many portrayals of Asian women as exotic objects of white male desire and domination. Like popular American characterizations of “sing-song girls” or geishas, her figuration associates racial difference with sexual commodification, turning even the innocent Cho-Cho-San into an unwitting temptress.42 Different versions of the “Butterfly” story consistently not only fetishize the Japanese heroine but also emphasize the dissolute behavior of Pinkerton, who epitomizes the potential dangers for white men in the irresistible attractions of imperial power. Pinkerton finds himself bewitched not only by the beauty of the teenage Cho-Cho-San but also by his ability to acquire and dispose of her company so conveniently. (Puccini’s operatic version aptly gives him the song “Dovunque al mondo” or “The Whole World Over,” which describes how “lo Yankee vagabond / si gode e traffic / sprezzando rischi” (“On business and pleasure bent / the Yankee travels, all danger scorning”).43 In the final acts of both Belasco’s play and Puccini’s opera, Pinkerton does little except express his increasing guilt at Cho-Cho-San’s suffering and suicide; however, in the climactic ending, his final utterance of “Butterfly, Butterfly” recenters his character as emblematic of white masculine remorse. As with The Queen of Chinatown, Madame Butterfly emphasizes the tragic consequences of white characters who “go native” and yield to the temptations of sexual and material pleasures in oriental lands.

Contemporary Drama and the Legacies of Yellowface

Whether in older stereotypes such as the comic sidekick, the menacing yellow peril, the exotic and self-sacrificing butterfly, or more contemporary versions of the wise “guru” or martial arts hero, the racialized figures played by yellowface actors have conditioned how Asian and Asian American actors perform and how they are perceived. Even relatively successful early film actors such as Anna May Wong, Sessue Hayakawa, and Philip Ahn were limited in the roles they were given and the public images that they maintained.44 Anna May Wong, for instance, suffered the indignities not only of being passed over for films such as The Good Earth (1937) but also of having to coach white actresses on how to perform in yellowface. Elizabeth Wong’s one-act China Doll (2005) depicts Wong as giving this advice to an ingénue: “But remember darling, you are playing a Chinese. Therefore, you are a fantasy. You are sandalwood and jasmine. You are the promise of faraway places. But you are never real. You are not the mother. You are never the wife. You do not perspire. You are only a plaything—a China doll. (Bitterly) China doll. Like me.”45 Anti-yellowface activism became more publicly visible with the 1968 protests by New York’s Oriental Actors of America (OAA), a group of actors that picketed shows such as Here’s Where I Belong (a musical adaptation of East of Eden by John Steinbeck, which featured a yellowface portrayal of a Chinese servant) at the Billy Rose Theatre and the revival production of The King and I at New York City Center (with eight out of nine Asian roles cast with white actors); OAA also filed a formal complaint to Mayor John Lindsay, the city council, and the city and state Commissions on Human Rights.46 Since the 1960s, challenges to these practices of yellowface representation have come not only in protests from Asian American activists but also in the establishment of Asian American theater companies. Beginning with East West Players (Los Angeles, est. 1965), companies such as Kumu Kahua Theatre (Honolulu, est. 1971), Pan Asian Repertory Theatre (New York, est. 1977), Ma-Yi Theater Company (New York, est. 1989), the National Asian American Theatre Company (New York, est. 1991), and Theater Mu (Minneapolis/St. Paul, est. 1992) have generated alternative venues for Asian American performers to make their talents known.

Asian American playwrights have also challenged the primacy of yellowface casting by writing a variety of roles for Asian American actors. Some of these works directly address the history of yellowface casting and its discriminatory effects on Asian American performers. Philip Kan Gotanda’s Yankee Dawg You Die (1988) and Natalie Wood is Dead (2005), Eric Michael Zee’s Exit the Dragon (1993), Sun Mee Chomet’s Asiamnesia (2008), and Han Ong’s Chairs and a Long Table (2014) depict professional actors who struggle to find meaningful roles as well as protest the damage inflicted by racial stereotypes. For instance, Yankee Dawg You Die features the Hollywood veteran Vincent Chang, who has made a lucrative career playing oriental types such as the villainous “Sergeant Moto,” who is shown torturing American GI’s, or a bowing, grinning “Chinese Stepinfetchit,” a reminder of the racial caricature of the “Laziest Man in the World” created by African American actor Lincoln Perry. The younger actor Bradley Yamashita challenges his participation in these demeaning roles as they perpetuate both internalized racism and public violence: “Don’t you see that every time you do that millions of people in movie theaters will see it? Believe it. Every time you do any old stereotypic role just to pay the bills, someone has to pay for it—and it ain’t you. No. It’s some Asian kid innocently walking home. ‘Hey, it’s a Chinaman gook!’ ‘Rambo, Rambo, Rambo!’”47 Rather than limiting them to ludicrously exaggerated parts, these plays give cast members an opportunity to show off their acting prowess even as their characters discuss their professional woes. By including scenes in which Asian Americans actors perform in a variety of acting styles including Shakespeare, musical theater, and dramatic realism, these plays demonstrate the versatility and artistic power of Asian American actors.

Late-19th- and early-20th-century American dramas not only featured white actors playing exotic or evil oriental characters but also demonstrated the corrupting effects of the Orient on white Americans. Contemporary plays such as David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face (2007) and Lloyd Suh’s Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery (commissioned by the National Asian American Theatre Company, which staged its premiere in 2015) also explore tensions around cross-racial performance; however, like these other Asian American plays, they highlight the Asian American actor’s virtuosity and versatility in addition to exploring a much more multidimensional understanding of what it might mean to “play yellow.”

David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face is a “mockumentary” centering around the playwright’s own career. After the success of his Tony-award-winning M. Butterfly, Hwang (referred to as “DHH” in the play) becomes a role model for the rising Asian American movement and joins in protests over Miss Saigon’s casting of Jonathan Pryce in yellowface. Yellow Face then takes a turn into fiction, as DHH discovers a young actor, Marcus Dahlman, whom he believes to be part-Asian, and casts him as the lead in a new farce, Face Value. After discovering his mistake, DHH perpetuates the ruse by suggesting that Marcus change his last name to Gee and that he claim a “Siberian” background. Under this assumed Asian American identity, Marcus then goes on to great acclaim in traditionally yellowface roles such as The King and I (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Matt Rein, Randy Reyes, and Kurt Kwan in the 2010 Theater Mu/Guthrie production of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face.

Courtesy of Theater Mu.

That DHH encourages Marcus’s posing as an Asian American actor suggests his own ambivalence about what version of Asian American character to perform; he himself is torn between the contrast between what he is held up to be—a role model whose success suggests Asian American racial empowerment—and the less risky privileges of fame and success. Marcus, in contrast, begins to identify deeply with Asian American social justice causes as a direct result of his posing as an Asian American actor. Marcus tells DHH that he is adhering to the Chinese notion of “face”: that “the face we choose to show the world—reveals who we really are . . . Well, now I’ve chosen my face. And now I’m becoming the person I’ve always wanted to be.”48

The play draws attention to contrasting ways of performing Asian American identity in the late 1980s and 1990s, a period in which Asian Americans were increasingly visible in the public eye not only as activists committed to community empowerment but also as “model minorities,” figures whose high academic achievements, productive work ethic, and upward mobility were touted as exemplifying racial progress and implying the failures of “non-model” minorities, particularly African Americans and Latinos. Another set of possibilities for racial performance in Yellow Face emerges in the relationship between DHH and his father, HYH, a bank president, who is unabashedly proud of his image as the model minority (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. Randy Reyes, Rose Tran, Matt Rein, Kurt Kwan, and Erika Crane in the 2010 Theater Mu/Guthrie production of David Henry Hwang’s Yellow Face.

Courtesy of Theater Mu.

For HYH, Asian American success lies in the presumed compliance with the values of hard work, heterosexual family norms, and acquisition of capital that allow Asian Americans access to what had been exclusively white privilege. The model minority myth and other prevalent fantasies—including the figure of the “Butterfly” as she is reincarnated in Miss Saigon’s protagonist Kim—heavily influence HYH’s understanding of his own racial identity as an immigrant success story. He tells DHH that he understands Kim’s despair: “I looked around, at my office on the 39th floor, my house the swankiest part of San Marino, my Mercedes, my kids all in top colleges—and I thought, now, I am finally living my real life—here in America,” and then explains her suicide: “[t]hat’s why the girl kills herself. Because when you can see your real life, and it’s someplace else, then what’s the point? If you lose hope you’ll ever get there, then even if you kill yourself, it makes no difference.”49 Unfortunately HYH’s fantasy of living a quintessentially American rags-to-riches story is interrupted when he becomes part of the 1990s “Chinagate” controversy that fueled fears of Chinese influence over US political campaigns. After HYH is singled out for Congressional interrogation, DHH points out the irony in the accusation that his father was disloyal to the United States; he attributes his father’s disillusionment and subsequent death to the betrayal of an American dream that “had been Dad’s whole life”: “his faith that in America, you can imagine who you want to be—and through sheer will and determination, become that person.”50

Each of the main characters thus takes on different versions of “yellow face,” signifying at times an Asian phenotype, a commitment to social justice movements, or a model minority image. Toward the end of Yellow Face, DHH muses that “[y]ears ago, I discovered a face—one I could live better and more fully than anything I’d ever tried. But as the years went by, my face became my mask. And I became just another actor—running around in yellow face.”51 Marcus, DHH, and HYH are all portrayed as racial actors, whose performances register the shifting of Asian American identities as increased Asian American visibility and social activism are coupled with a resurgence of “yellow peril” discourse. Yellow Face calls into question not only the legacies of old stereotypes and the allure of Asian American radicalism but also how performances of the “model minority” can make Asian Americans blind to or even complicit with new versions of white supremacy and racism that will inevitably target them.

Just as our previous examples of late-19th- and early-20th-century drama expressed anxieties about white characters “playing yellow,” so do these fears of “acting white” pervade both Hwang’s Yellow Face and Lloyd Suh’s Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery. Suh’s play presents an even more complex layering of these different formulations of Asian American character. Set in 1967, at a time when Asian American culture and activism was just finding its feet, the play’s protagonists Charles Francis Chan Jr. (Frank) and his wife Kathy are based on the iconic Asian American writer Frank Chin and the activist and artist Kathleen Chang (Kathy Change). These heavily fictionalized versions of real people are used to offset by other characters who are clearly drawn from myth, literature, and media, such as Monkey, who references both the Monkey King from the classic Chinese story Journey to the West and the 1989 novel Tripmaster Monkey by Maxine Hong Kingston. As Frank, Kathy, and others rehearse scenes from Frank’s play-within-a-play—a murder mystery featuring Charlie Chan, the Chinese American detective based on novels by Earl Biggers and popularized in film by Warner Oland’s yellowface acting—the lines between fictional and real, character and actor, are intentionally blurred (see Figure 6).

Figure 6. Jeff Biehl as Charlie Chan and Jeffrey Omura as Frank in Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Oriental Murder Mystery (2015).

Courtesy of the National Asian American Theatre Company. Photo by William B. Steele.

In Yellow Face, Marcus’s racial impersonation might be passed off as an embarrassing though relatively harmless instance of postracial confusion. By contrast, Suh’s play brings out all the theatrical horrors of yellowface misrepresentation. Charlie Chan’s yellowface makeup, exaggerated language (punctuated by frequent interjections of “ah so”), and mannerisms are linked to the direct expression of racist sentiments by the white actor who plays him. Through scenes of putting on both yellowface and whiteface makeup, Suh highlights not only the performative nature of racial categories but their potential for layered and unstable meanings. How different characters perform and interpret their racial roles not only delineates different meanings of “Asian American” as a phenotypical, cultural, and political term but also complicates the assumption that characters can only have one coherent identity. That Charlie Chan is played by a white man, for instance, suggests that he is both a fantasy produced by whiteness and an Asian American fantasy of whiteness. Likewise, an Asian American actress plays the white widow Mrs. Biggers, with a self-conscious monologue in which she revels in the wealth, privilege, and power that she associates with her white identity; the actor playing the radical Frank also plays the thoroughly racist detective Hastings in the Charlie Chan mystery (see Figure 7).

Figure 7. Jeff Biehl as Charlie Chan in Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Oriental Murder Mystery (2015).

Courtesy of the National Asian American Theatre Company. Photo by William B. Steele.

Both Hwang and Suh offer dramatic riffs on the differentiation of Asian American identities and recenter Asian American actors as being able to enact multiple and complex identities. Both also acknowledge the influence of the theatrical and critical writings of Frank Chin on Asian American performance. Chin’s memorable distinction (directly articulated in his essay, “Come all Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake”) opens up a performative rift between what he saw to be “real,” more radical identity for Asian Americans and the assimilationist tendencies of the model minority, guilty both of “playing white” and playing to whites.52 Chin appears briefly in Hwang’s Yellow Face to call DHH “a white racist asshole” (countering DHH’s proud claim that “I was a respected figure in the community, the first Asian playwright to have a play produced on Broadway”). This division of Asian American identity between racial accommodation and radicalism also is illustrated in the final act of Chin’s play The Chickencoop Chinaman (1972) in an argument between the rebellious protagonist Tam and the more conciliatory Tom (whose name directly evokes the racial stereotype of “Uncle Tom”). Tom says that Asian Americans ought to embrace their model minority success: “We used to be kicked around, but that’s history, bother. Today we have good jobs, good pay, and we’re lucky. Americans are proud to say we send more of our kids to college than any other race. We’re accepted. We worked hard for it.” Tam retorts with the accusations that “[y]our whole soul, man, has been all washed out, treated” and “Man, when they dig you up, they’re gonna find petrified Cheerios, gobs of Aunt Jemima pancakes, a shiny can of Chun King chopped phooey.”53

In evoking the late 1960s as well as Chin’s rhapsodic prose style, Suh’s play hearkens back to the birth of a nascent radical Asian American identity that resisted the temptation to “play white,” coined the term “Asian American” to replace “Oriental,” and developed its own expressive vocabulary to raise consciousness about the dangers of racial stereotypes. But it does not celebrate what Chin deemed the “real” as a more authentic version of Asian Americanness. Rather, like Hwang’s Yellow Face, Suh’s play concludes that “real” and “fake”—and other ways of performing Asian American—are all social constructions that have been used to endure, thrive, or survive. As Asian Americans protest the “fake” roles of yellowface, they also confront their own participation in hierarchies of power and oppression. While showing yellowface as a revolting legacy from days past, Hwang and Suh’s dramatic meditations also become a way of contemplating racial performances more broadly: both as these performances might be understood as static, overdetermined types or as they demonstrate degrees of choice, flexibility, and multiplicity. Through characterization, casting, and story, these plays skillfully emphasize how “playing yellow” does not necessarily mean being locked into a mask or predictable role—but in fact demonstrates the ability to adapt, to change, and to perform in new ways.

Discussion of the Literature

There has been a significant body of work on the aesthetic and cultural history of orientalism in 19th- and early-20th-century American culture that discusses instances of yellowface acting in theater, film, and related performing arts, including Krystyn Moon’s comprehensive study Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s–1920s. Some, like James Moy’s Marginal Sights: Staging the Chinese in America, focus on theatrical performance; others, like Robert Lee’s Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture and Mari Yoshihara’s Embracing the East: White Women and Orientalism, emphasize the broader historical conditions and gendered nature of these representations. Focusing on colonial and earlier 19th-century contexts, John Kuo Wei Tchen’s New York Before Chinatown details the emergence of different modes of orientalism in art, commerce, and politics.

A selection of early plays featuring yellowface characterizations of Chinese characters such as The Chinese Must Go! and The Queen of Chinatown have been collected by Dave Williams in the anthology The Chinese Other 1850–1925. Madame Butterfly and The Mikado have been given considerable scholarly as well as popular attention54 and have inspired theatrical revision in plays such as David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly (1988), Doris Baizley and Ken Narasaki’s The Mikado Project (2007), and Lloyd Suh’s Charles Francis Chan Jr.’s Exotic Oriental Murder Mystery (2015). Though there has been relatively little scholarship on early yellowface actors, Sean Metzger and Jacqueline Romeo have done sustained research on Charles T. Parsloe, while Yunte Huang’s Charlie Chan traces the history of the Charlie Chan novels and films.55

Scholarship on Asian American theater and drama by Josephine Lee, Karen Shimakawa, Sean Metzger, Esther Kim Lee, Celine Parreñas Shimizu, Ju Yon Kim, and others have included sustained commentary on how yellowface and stereotyping have affected Asian American actors. Asian American resistance to yellowface, along with the protests of other artists of color, has been carefully documented by Angela Pao in her excellent study of race and theatrical casting in the late 20th century, No Safe Spaces. Nancy Yuen includes a number of interviews with Asian American actors in Reel Inequality, an inquiry into contemporary Hollywood’s continuing biases against actors of color. A set of interviews with an earlier generation of Asian American actors, agents, and managers by Joann Faung Jean Lee registers many of the same concerns about lack of opportunities and typecasting.56 Asian American theater and film artists have also contemplated and challenged the practices of yellowface. In addition to the plays already mentioned, yellowface and oriental stereotypes in film and television have been the subjects of Jeff Adachi, The Slanted Screen (2006), Deborah Gee’s Slaying the Dragon (1988), and Elaine H. Kim’s Slaying the Dragon Reloaded (2011). Justin Lin’s playful mockumentary Finishing the Game: The Search for a New Bruce Lee (2007) also depicts some of the challenges faced by Asian American actors.

Further Reading

  • Ito, Robert B.A Certain Slant: A Brief History of Hollywood Yellowface.” Bright Lights Film Journal, 1997.
  • Kim, Ju Yon. The Racial Mundane: Asian American Performance and the Embodied Everyday. New York: New York University Press, 2015.
  • Lee, Esther Kim. A History of Asian American Theatre. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • Lee, Josephine. Performing Asian America: Race and Ethnicity on the Contemporary Stage. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997.
  • Lee, Josephine. The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
  • Lee, Robert G. Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.
  • Metzger, Sean. Chinese Looks: Fashion, Performance, Race. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014.
  • Moon, Krystyn R. Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s–1920s. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005.
  • Moy, James S. Marginal Sights: Staging the Chinese in America. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1993.
  • Pao, Angela C. No Safe Spaces: Re-casting Race, Ethnicity, and Nationality in American Theater. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010.
  • Shimakawa, Karen. National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.
  • Shimizu, Celine Parreñas. The Hypersexuality of Race: Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.
  • Shimizu, Celine Parreñas. Straitjacket Sexualities: Unbinding Asian American Manhoods in the Movies. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012.
  • Tchen, John Kuo Wei. New York Before Chinatown. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.
  • Williams, Dave. The Chinese Other 1850–1925. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1997.
  • Yoshihara, Mari. Embracing the East: White Women and American Orientalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Yuen, Nancy. Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016.