Escaping from the biting chill, I hurriedly enter into a beautiful historic building downtown. One bonus to arriving early to appointments is getting to explore the nearby scenery, local shops, businesses or just people watch. With thirty minutes before my appointment, I panned the area. A charming coffee shop instantly caught my eye. Quaint coffee shops often to do that. I advanced towards the counter and voiced two magic words. “Chai latte”. The remedy to calm my shiver and artic temperature hands.
Equipped with my toasty concoction, I made my way upstairs in the same building and arrived at a chic reception area. I leisurely wait to be called for my appointment. Both hands securely wrapped around a steaming cup of heaven. The steam swirled in the air and blanketed across my face. Soft coffee house music swirled in the background. Tranquility.
My eyes meandered across the room. A small television mounted on an adjacent wall was playing a classic film. It was easy to arrive at this conclusion. Any movie that stars Audrey Hepburn is by most standards deemed as a classic. She was unquestionably recognizable, but the film wasn’t. I’m probably one of the few people in the US who hasn’t watched any of her films. I couldn’t tell you the plot for a single one.
This is how Hollywood viewed us. Foreign. Absurd. Subhuman. Laughable. Pathetic.
This film epitomized glamor. Holly Golightly, played by Hepburn donned flawless hairdos, dinner guests pristinely dressed, Givenchy cocktail parties and high-end department stores. One scene has Golighlty mingling at a cocktail party with the who’s who of New York. The room brimmed with self-importance and guests were lost in inconsequential conversation. I still had no idea the title of this movie, still my concentration remained fixed.
My eyes widened and I grimaced at what I came next. The scene centered on Mr. Yunioshi, a stereotypical caricature of a Japanese photographer played by Mickey Rooney. He had protruding buck teeth, thick black glasses and a thick Asian accent while stumbling around his apartment that doubles as a photography studio. His slanted eyes that were taped back to counterfeit that he’s somehow Asian. This is how Hollywood viewed us. Foreign. Absurd. Subhuman. Laughable. Pathetic.
I had seen this scene before. But where? That’s impossible since I hadn’t watched any Hepburn movies. Then I dawned on me. This scene made a cameo in the 1993 film Dragon: the Bruce Lee Story where he was on a date with his then girlfriend and future wife Linda. They attended a showing of the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. While the entire theater audience was laughing at Mr. Yunioshi, Bruce was noticeably disturbed by this emblematic portrayal of Asians. As was I.
Wearing buck teeth, slanting your eyes and using a thick Asian accent in a film is okay if you grew up poor, if you have an acupuncturist and of course if it’s all done in “fun”.
The film was an instant success upon its release in 1961 and is still regarded as a timeless classic. It’s a telling reflection of the collective consciousness of the US in the 1960’s, even with the progressive changes that followed. In fact, some people will continue to turn a blind eye to, or even corroborate with the dangerous principles underlying it.
Changing public perspective of this warped practice is probably why it took four decades for director Blake Edwards and Mickey Rooney to apologize for the representation of Yunioshi. Prior to his apology, Rooney explained that he “…was born in Brooklyn, delivered by a Chinese doctor on a table in a boardinghouse. We came from a poor family.[…] We didn’t have anything but mush for breakfast.” His wife Jan even explained that they love Chinese art, food, culture and medicine, explained that “The film role was meant to be fun.” That pretty much explains everything. Wearing buck teeth, slanting your eyes and using a thick Asian accent in a film is okay if you grew up poor, have an acupuncturist and of course it’s all done in “fun”.
You may ask “Isn’t this faux pas a thing of the past?” Unfortunately no. I had read a story in 2019 on how Knoxville Opera used yellow face instead casting Asian actors in its production of Madame Butterfly. Not only is Madame Butterfly problematic for monetizing on an Asian-fetish tale about buying a 15-year-old girl for sex, but there’s absolutely zero excuse for using yellow face in this day and age or any age for that matter. Fortunately the play shut down quickly after community criticism and a social media firestorm. As it should.
Ensuring that race specific roles have actors who are of the corresponding race isn’t just common sense. It’s the right thing to do.
The New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players’ 2015 production of The Mikado also did something similar. Its Japanese characters have typically been casted by white actors in wigs and kimonos, with tape-backed eyes and kabuki-style makeup. It was only after the production company consulted with actual Asian artists that it redesigned The Mikado, performed it one year later and called it The Mikado: Re-Imagined. Imagine that. Speaking to an actual Asian person about Asian roles for authenticity and perspective.
Theaters may say that casting is difficult due to the lack of Asian actors for the roles. But what efforts have they made to seek out actors of a specific ethnicity or race? Shouldn’t they exhaust their efforts to ensure that these missteps don’t happen? If it’s not the onus of this and other companies, than whose is it? Ensuring that race specific roles have actors who are of the corresponding race isn’t just common sense. It’s the right thing to do.
Why is yellow face still an issue? It seems so simple. Why not cast Asian people in Asian roles, right? How did this practice begin? Why did it become an accepted practice? I found that the Hays Code had impacted some of these practices. It’s a set of guidelines used between 1930 and 1968 by major studios as enforcement for films before they were distributed. It prohibited sexual encounter of actors of different races. It dissuaded films to hire Asian actors since it would prohibit them from any sexual relations with other actors unless they were also Asian. But that wasn’t the only reason. Production companies knew that white actors are more well-known than Asian actors which leads to higher tickets sales. For these cynics, I have five words: Crazy Rich Asians $100 million.
Yellow face has a perverse place in the entertainment industry. It’s a way for non-Asian actors to wear costumes and make-up in order to mock or villainize Asians in a way that’s entertaining for their audiences. Fact is, entertainment has been embedded in the nation’s fabric and is highly profitable. For actors who accept these roles, it not far-fetched to say that they may even view these roles as opportunities to showcase their “versatility and diversity”. It explains why there was no public outcry over this practice until the mid to late 1900s.
Ignoring and minimizing how past and current variations of Mr. Yunioshi impressions cause harm for us. From playground taunts, stereotypical depiction in films, being excluded from immigrating, interned for being Asian, scapegoated for viruses to being met with violence and murders.
I don’t care how much you love Asian food or if you can pronounce two words in my mother tongue. This inexcusable portrayal doesn’t reverse the harm already caused by the perceptions and treatment of Asians by mass media, Hollywood and Western society, now and throughout history.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s? No thanks.