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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.

Article

Koreans have been represented in North American film and television for almost a century. However, in the early part of the 20th century most representations took place only through the actual bodies of Korean American actors who were portraying Chinese or Japanese characters in American films. The practice of crossethnic, and even crossracial, casting was common for Asian characters in these earlier productions. It was not until the mid-20th century that Korean American actors began to portray ethnically Korean characters. However, these roles often required them to speak, dress, and act as if they were not assimilated to American culture, contributing to the stereotype of Asians as perpetual foreigners to Western society. Since the turn of the 21st century there have been more opportunities for Korean Americans and Korean Canadians to draw from their own lived experiences in their portrayals of characters who speak unaccented English and whose cultural backgrounds are not necessarily their most distinguishing features. Consciously challenging discriminatory practices and countering stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans led to shifts in media representations and more fully developed portrayals of Korean North American characters.

Article

From the dawn of cinema in 1895 to the coming of World War II, the representation of Asian immigrants on the American screen shifted from unwanted aliens to accepted, if exotic, citizens—in other words, from Asian immigrants to Asian Americans. Since World War II, American race relations have been defined mainly through the comparison of white and black experiences; however, in the latter half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, white American fears about racial and cultural purity focused on Asian immigration. Although there was immigration from other Asian countries, at the time, the vast majority of Asian immigrants were arriving from China. In newspaper articles and popular fiction, writers exploited and extended Yellow Peril fears about Chinese immigration through tales of Chinese immorality and criminality. American filmmakers then capitalized on these familiar stories and repeated the stereotypes of the evil “Oriental villain” such as Dr. Fu Manchu and the benign “model minority” such as detective Charlie Chan. American culture more broadly, and American film more specifically, conflated different Asian peoples and cultures and represented Asian immigration, for the most part, through white American attitudes toward Chinese immigrants. In film, this resulted in Japanese and Korean American actors playing Chinese and Chinese American characters before the war, and Chinese and Korean American actors playing Japanese characters during and after the war. More notoriously, however, American films often cast white actors in Chinese roles, especially when those characters were more prominent in the narrative. This practice of “yellowface” contributed to the continuance of stereotyped representations of Chinese characters in film and exposed the systemic racism of a film industry that rarely allowed Asian Americans to represent themselves. With World War II, the Japanese replaced the Chinese as America’s Yellow Peril villain, and American race relations turned from the question of Asian immigration to that of African American civil rights.

Article

Chinese opera in America has several intertwined histories that have developed from the mid-19th century onward to inform performances and representations of Asian Americans on the opera stage. These histories include Chinese opera theater in North America from 1852 to 1940, Chinese opera performance in the ubiquitous Chinese villages at various World Fairs in the United States from 1890 to 1915, the famous US tour of Peking opera singer Mei Lanfang from New York to Chicago and San Francisco in 1930, a constellation of imagined “Chinese” opera and yellowface plays from 1880 to 1930, and the more recent history of contemporary opera created by Asian Americans commissioned by major opera houses. Some of these varied histories are closely intertwined, not all are well understood, and some have been simply forgotten. Since the mid-19th century, Chinese opera theater has become part of US urban history and has left a significant imprint on the collective cultural and historical memory of Chinese America. Outside of Chinese American communities arose well-known instances of imagined “Chinese” opera, yellowface works that employ the “Chinese opera trope” as a source of inspiration, or Western-style theatrical works based on Chinese themes or plotlines. These histories are interrelated, and have also significantly shaped the reception and understanding of contemporary operas created by Asian American composers and writers. While these operatic works of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are significantly different from those of earlier moments in history, their production and interpretation cannot escape this influence.

Article

The study of accent is related to word and language pronunciation that can be linked to a social class, a nationality, a part of the world, or a historic time period. Accent can be characterized as an “identifier” based on sound and sound production rather than visual cues. Accent is thus linked to fields such as linguistics and pronunciation, language education, drama, literature and performance, sound studies, disability studies (communication disorders to hearing to speech), as well as to sociology and global studies (how do people speak and understand each other in different parts of the world and across geographical borders), to nationalism (how does language bring communities and societies together), and to media (how is communication presented and how is language received). Phonetic literacy (as studied by socio-linguists) involves subcategories such as speech and accent (from access to learning English by non-native speakers to the ability to speak English), dialect (variations of English based on geography), and slang. A cultural and interdisciplinary study of accents allow for inquiries about national community that move beyond legal and geographical forms of community and identity. Looking at accents emphasize the linguistic and sonic components of American global cultural values that are present in media representation, performance, and the politics of social relations. In particular, the study of Asian American accents in popular culture lies at the intersection of interpretations of text and sound where standard American English (the language taught in American schools) is positioned as the normative mode of communication and the criterion that non-native speakers are often judged upon in American culture. An accent is both a phonetic and visual means of interpreting the assimilation of immigrants in general, and Asians, more specifically, in relation to themes of American citizenship. Focusing on accent allows for a linguistic and narrative composition of how racial difference goes beyond a visual physical difference and is embedded in the systemic nature of how race and privilege operate in culture. Asian American and South Asian American vocal accents and other kinds of cultural “accents” offer an alternative approach to discuss American racial and ethnic performances because the notion of an accent is also inherently comparative. Accents appear only in comparison to what is considered normal or accepted universal speech, such as Standard American English. An accent can mark or distinguish someone or something in relation to something else or a prevailing norm. An accent can create contrast by its very difference. For Asian Americans, identifying how speech and communication is represented and produced in media and culture is a primary means of characterizing what is not only considered different but also what is seen to be foreign or outside definitions of American national identity. The media representations of Asian Americans exaggerate physical differences from a white American mainstream identity and dwell on alternative cultural values and behaviors that include accent and language.

Article

Asian American theater was created in the 1960s and the 1970s as a national movement by actors, playwrights, designers, directors, and producers who wanted to promote the inclusion and representation of Asian Americans in American culture. At the beginning of the 1960s, the concept of “Asian American theatre” did not exist, and “Asian American drama” was not a known genre. Instead, there were “oriental” actors who wanted to play non-stereotypical roles and to fight the practice of yellowface, a makeup convention in which white actors alter their face to look Asian. The “oriental” actors had a two-pronged agenda of art and activism to be taken seriously for their talent and experience. The first Asian American theater company, the East West Players, was founded in 1965 by actors in Los Angeles to further the agenda. In the 1970s, other Asian American theater companies and groups emerged around the country, and original Asian American plays began to be produced. Playwrights such as Frank Chin, Wakako Yamauchi, and Philip Kan Gotanda had their first plays produced at Asian American theater companies founded in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, Asian American plays began to be produced in mainstream theater, which includes Broadway, off-Broadway, and regional theaters. The success of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, which received the 1988 Tony Award for Best Play, brought much attention to Asian American drama, and a number of plays were produced and published subsequently. Playwrights such as Velina Hasu Houston, Elizabeth Wong, and Jeannie Barroga had their plays produced at major theater companies, and Asian American theater companies continued to support new playwrights. In nontraditional theater venues, multimedia and avant-garde artists such as Jessica Hagedorn and Ping Chong were active in creating original performance pieces. Additionally, solo performance became a major performance genre for Asian American artists who wanted to use their body and voice to tell their own stories. Dan Kwong, Denise Uyehara, and Brenda Wong Aoki were forerunners in launching the genre of Asian American solo performance. A number of Asian American actors such as B. D. Wong, John Lone, and Mia Katigbak also received significant opportunities and recognition, but their two-pronged agenda of art and activism remained relevant and urgent. In the early 1990s, Asian American actors led the protest of the Broadway production of the mega-musical Miss Saigon that featured a white actor in yellowface makeup in the original London production. The protest galvanized Asian American theater artists around the country and inspired a new generation of writers, actors, designers, directors, and producers to create what would become one of the fastest growing sectors of American theater.

Article

Performers of Asian ancestry worked in a variety of venues and media as part of the American entertainment industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some sang Tin Pan Alley numbers, while others performed light operatic works. Dancers appeared on the vaudeville stage, periodically in elaborate ensembles, while acrobats from China, India, and Japan wowed similar audiences. Asian immigrants also played musical instruments at community events. Finally, a small group lectured professionally on the Chautauqua Circuit. While on the stage, these performers had to navigate American racial attitudes that tried to marginalize them. To find steady work, performers of Asian ancestry often had to play to stereotypes popular with white audiences. Furthermore, they faced oversight by immigration authorities, who monitored their movements in and around the country and made it difficult for foreign entertainers to work in the country for long periods of time. Despite these hurdles, Asians and Asian Americans have appeared in the performing arts in the United States for over one hundred years.