“Keanu Reeves is Asian?” I muttered, confused. It was a Sunday afternoon and I, veering from the beaten weekend path of getting drunk and nursing hangovers, had gone to see a play with a couple of friends. It’s better to feel cultured than nauseous and dehydrated, I figured. The play was titled “Yellowface,” and its subject was…well…yellowface. If you’re not familiar with what that is, here’s a quick definition:
Yellowface: Yellowface is the practice in American cinema, American theatre, and American television where East Asian characters are portrayed by predominantly white actors, often while artificially changing their looks with makeup in order to approximate East Asia facial characteristics.
Sis was sitting next to me, and I poked her arm. “Seriously, Keanu Reeves is Asian?” She shrugged. (He’s part Chinese.)
I was referring to a line in the play in which the main character uses Reeves as an example of a successful actor of Asian decent. Written by David Henry Hwang (who wrote a famous play called M. Butterfly which I have heard of, though I know nothing about), “Yellowface” is about an Asian playwright named, boringly enough, David Henry Hwang (what a lack of creativity, eh?). At the start of the play, Hwang protests the casting of Jonathan Pryce, a white actor, as the lead in a production of “Miss Saigon.” This actually happened in real life: Pryce wore yellow makeup and tape around his eyes to look Vietnamese, a decision that infuriated the Asian community. The Hwang character decides to produce his own play in response, casting a real Asian actor in the lead role but, to comic and dramatic effect, mistakenly casts a white guy by accident. On a related note, believe it or not, I myself have never been mistaken for being Korean.
This got me thinking: If I was watching a movie and there was a white actor wearing blackface, I would obviously be taken aback and would probably turn it off. Why, then, don’t I have the same guttural reaction if it’s a white actor wearing yellowface? While I recognize that what I’m seeing is bad, I’m not that offended by it. For instance, I love the movie “Living It Up,” starring Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. I’ve seen it several times, and I always laugh when Jerry puts in fake buck-teeth and pretends to be an Asian doctor. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is another movie I think is fantastic, and although I shake my head during the scenes with Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese man, it’s more with a smirk than in angry befuddlement. The list goes on and on.
Exploring the Internet, I found this excellent site, which presents a history of yellowface in pictures. It’s worth looking at, not only because it’s informative, but also because there are hilarious photos of John Wayne playing Genghis Khan and Christopher Walken dressed up like a geisha.
“Sis,” I said during intermission of the play, “you’re Asian. How offensive do you find yellowface?”
We got into a decent discussion revolving around the TV show Kung Fu. The play mentioned how Bruce Lee was initially supposed to star in Kung Fu but was replaced by David Carradine because the producers didn’t feel viewers would watch a show with an Asian lead. “I loved Kung Fu,” Sis said. “David Carradine was great.”
“He was Caine,” I said, agreeing. “He was brilliant.”
“It wouldn’t have been as good if it was Bruce Lee. Say, Bro, were you a kid when that show was on TV?”
“I’m only 33. I’m not that old. I watched reruns.”
“So you’re what…a year or two younger than Kung Fu?”
The conclusion of our discussion was that we can tolerate yellowface just fine as long as the movie or television show is good. It’s not a very strong stance to have, really. Gutless. It’s also very similar to how I feel about racist jokes; I know I shouldn’t laugh, but if the joke is playful enough and not especially hateful, I’ll probably find it funny. And it helps if the person making the joke is of the race the joke is about. For instance, I’ll laugh when Chris Rock does a routine about black people. If a white comedian like, say, Larry the Cable Guy, were to do a routine about black people, I wouldn’t be so comfortable.
If this is my position on yellowface, it’s horribly wrong, isn’t it? There shouldn’t be scale of racism, where certain things are acceptable and others aren’t. Where would the line be? I brought this up with my girlfriend, who is Korean. She objected right away, because she didn’t like being thought of as “yellow.”
“Yes,” she said, sarcastically, “I am yellow. I am like The Simpsons.”
I laughed. We got to talking and I realized, to my surprise, that she thought The Simpsons are, in fact, supposed to be an Asian family. The idea amazed me.
“The Simpsons are Caucasian, baby,” I said.
“Then why is their skin yellow?”
“I don’t know…it’s a creative decision…like a caricature…it’s hard to explain. Anyways, they’re not Asian.”
“Yes, The Simpsons are Asian,” she said, “and so is Spongebob.” It was at that point I realized she was just messing with me. But in doing so, she had made a valid point. In my head, there was a simple truth: The Simpsons are white. It was ridiculous to think, even for a second, that they could be anything else.
As silly as that sounds, perhaps it made me understand, if only superficially, how an Asian would feel when David Carradine is cast as a character named Kwai Chang Caine or when “The Last Airbender” stars a bunch of white kids. There is a truth to things, a reality to be conscious of.
People don’t always have to be white. Take Keanu Reeves for instance.