Yellowface Film Review #4: Madame Butterfly

Madame Butterfly (1915)


Not a film of the opera but supposedly based on the original John Luther Long book in which interestingly enough Cho-Cho-San doesn’t commit suicide at the end (in the book). Indeed, the briefest glance at the synopsis is deeply revealing of just how Colonial-Orientalist thinking has conspired to create an enduring cliché. It’s notable how much feistier Cho-Cho-San is in the original novel (at one point she asks Sharpless to write a letter to Pinkerton where she threatens to marry Yamadori and take their son with her) and how much more unsympathetic Pinkerton (who Sharpless finds himself feeling “contempt” for) and Adelaide are.  The latter is portrayed as utterly callous sending the following telegram upon discovery of her husband’s son “Just saw the baby and his nurse. Can’t we have him at once? He is lovely.  Shall see the mother about it tomorrow.  Was not at home when I was there today.  Expect to join you Wednesday week per Kioto Maru. May I bring him along? Adelaide.” At the end of the book Cho-Cho vanishes with Suzuki and her baby after being prevented from committing suicide in what really feels like an “Up yours, Whitey!” moment.

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A far cry from the “dying Oriental swan” and consciense-stricken Westerners who nevertheless must return to “civilisation” taking the child with them to a “better life”.  What of this film? There’s no soundtrack and one gets the impression it was lost for a long time. As well as looking like it was shot in a corner of Kew Gardens it’s also risibly patronising, especially with its use of pidgin English captions when the Japanese characters are speaking to each other, one particularly ghastly example being “I choke him with much big American cocktail. He get mad, and no come back”. Just keep talking to him in that doggerel, love, that’ll do the trick.

"He told me he do not want my relatives." "There is an American battleship in the harbor."

Yellowface watch

Pinkerton and Cho-Cho’s genuine (looking) Eurasian baby aside this film is populated by Caucasians in silk robes and kimonos with their hairstyles the only authentic looking thing about them. Cho-Cho is of course played by the great Mary Pickford , co-founder of United Artists studio and also known as “America’s sweetheart” , though her trademark curls are naturally hidden here.  She and director Sidney Olcott apparently clashed repeatedly over the fact he thought her “too Americanized to play a Japanese” Quelle surprise! True to form, Mary has one or two stabs at coy “oriental” flirting near the beginning but for the most part just acts herself, as does everyone else in the cast with the possible exception of David Burton as Prince Yamadori who perhaps feels he has to ham up his “Japaneseness” because he’s in ostensibly Western dress.

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Fave scene? All of the scenes featuring Cho-Cho’s family are unintentially hilarious, particularly the one where they sit in two lines facing each and bang their fists repeatedly as they decide to disown Cho-Cho. Because they do that in Japan. Obviously.


Our next Yellowface Film Review will follow shortly. Meanwhile don’t forget to book your tickets for The Fu Manchu Complex a production The Public Reviews describes “incredibly guiltily hilarious” and The Upcoming says is “wildly satirical and steeped in sexual innuendo”


Yellowface Film Review #3: The Bitter Tea Of General Yen

The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (1933)

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Proving the case that yellowface is the undoing of many a great director, Frank Capra (It’s A Wonderful Life amongst countless other outstanding films) comes a cropper with this unwittingly (by all accounts) brave and ambitious tale of inter-racial sexual tension between a young American missionary and a man in ludicrous looking make-up during the Chinese Civil War. The acclaimed critic Derek Malcolm named this one of his hundred best films in The Century of Films but, while impressively mounted and with a compelling premise, the film lumbers somewhat, despite its relatively brief running time, and is IMHO undone entirely by the central casting.

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A flop on first release, the film’s female star, Barbara Stanwyck, blamed its poor showing on “racist blacklash”. McBride quotes her as saying, “The women’s clubs came out very strongly against it….I was so shocked. [Such a reaction] never occurred to me, and I don’t think it occurred to Mr. Capra when we were doing it.” The generally sympathetic portrayal of miscegenation proving particularly unpalatable at the time.  The film’s sexuality is palpably conveyed, with Stanwyck appearing in several quite revealing (for the time) costumes and in one scene dreaming she succumbs to Yen,  who she first imagines as a Fu Manchu-type rapist with long tapering nailes, but who then melts into a gentle, courtly suitor. The New York Times described the film as “barely plausible”.

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Yellowface watch

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The film is notable for featuring genuine East Asians, most notably Japanese actress Toshia Mori, who features strongly throughout as the treacherous concubine Mah-Li , Time magazine describing her as a “a sloe-eyed Japanese girl” but praising her performance as “the most noteworthy“ of the film’s female performers. As her partner in duplicity  Chinese-American cinema mainstay Richard Loo is also given reasonable screen-time.

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Yet, proving once again Western media’s curious antipathy towards strong and dominant East Asian male figures, Nils Asther gives one of the famous yellowface performances of all time. Smiling serenely beneath make-up that looks like Botox gone wrong, Asther appears to be attempting some sort of “Oriental” accent as the film plays out King & I style tropes of “civilised white woman and exotically suave brute with a tender side”. Asther (along with Myrna Loy and Warner Oland) is one of several Swedes to have “yellowed up” and proves that, along with Germans Luise Rainer and Curt Jurgens, dusky North Europeans were often Hollywood’s yellowface actors of choice.

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There are several scenes where Asther appears to be talking some strange gibberish that I utterly failed to recognise as any Chinese language I’ve ever heard and his character seems to have been constructed around all-purpose Eastern clichés of vaguely sinister inscrutability and stoic “ honour” with his eventual suicide method (the “bitter tea” of the title) obviously designed to arouse lurid fascination.

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My favourite scene is the one where General Yen is shown to have some human consideration as he yells at his troops who are busily assassinating captured enemies right outside Stanwyck’s bedroom, thereby disturbing poor old Babs’ sleep, to go and do their grisly business elsewhere. A gentleman and a yellowface for sure.

The-Bitter-Tea-of-General-Yen-1933-4   The-Bitter-Tea-of-General-Yen-1933

Our next Yellowface Film Review will follow shortly. Meantime don’t forget to book your tickets for The Fu Manchu Complex on now until October 19th

Yellowface Film Review #2: Broken Blossoms

Broken Blossoms (1919)

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Or The Yellow Man and the Girl as it’s charmingly also known as, though If you find that offensive it’s worth bearing in mind that the Thomas Burke Limehouse Nights short story it’s based on is charmingly titled The Chink and the Child.


That said this is a generally well thought of slice of social realism directed with a fair degree of flair by one of silent cinema’s better known directors, D.W. Griffith (who earlier courted controversy for his positive depiction of slavery and the Klu Klux Klan in  Birth Of A Nation). Maybe he felt the need to atone because this is a sympathetic (if somewhat patronising) tale of an abused young girl, Lucy Burrows, played by Lillian Gish (often known as The First Lady Of American Cinema) and a kind-hearted Chinese man who falls in love with her, albeit somewhat chastely.

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The Chinese man does have a name (Cheng Huan) but he’s only ever referred to as “The Yellow Man”.  He leaves his native China because he “dreams to spread the gentle message of Buddha to the Anglo-Saxon lands.” This seems to result in him opening a shop in Limehouse and smoking opium (naturally) when he’s depressed until he rescues Lucy from the clutches her rather brilliantly monikered violent alcoholic prize-fighter father, Battling Burrows.

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The film is renowned  and praised for its small-scale aesthetic , with one critic Richard Schickel crediting it with inspiring “the likes of Pabst, Stiller, von Sternberg, and others, [and then] re-emerging in the United States in the sound era, in the genre identified as film noir” and it’s certainly fair to say it pulls very few punches in its depiction of child abuse which audiences of the time were said to find “nauseating”. Of particular note is the scene where Gish is locked in a cupboard, “writhing like a tortured animal who knows there is no escape” (Wiki). On the day of filming her screams are said to have attracted a crowd of people who had to be held back outside the studio.

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Yellowface watch

“The Yellow(face) Man” is portrayed by Richard Bathelmess as a kind of idiot-savant simpleton in the mould, perhaps, of a silent “oriental” Forrest Gump but with none of Forrest’s renowned luck. The character is clearly sympathetic in the writing and playing but there’s something very irksome about his good natured and asexual (or so it’s intended) fawning over young Lucy. I have to say, as well, that even for a silent movie star Barthelmess has a quite deathly pallor.

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The one other Chinese character of note is the unsubtly named Evil Eye (it’s fairly easy to gauge his dramatic function) who is again portrayed by a (unconvincing) Caucasian. Incidentally there is one scene that juxtaposes between The Yellow Man and Evil Eye both leering at the hapless Lucy in the cobbled Limehouse street where we’re obviously meant to contrast the protagonist and antagonist but I have to say that if anyone were to see just that scene in isolation they’d be hard-pressed to tell which is the villain.

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My favourite scene? When The Yellow(face) Man wraps Lucy in an ornate chioiserie blanket and all is tender until we see a subtitle of Lucy’s dialogue which reads “What makes you so good to me, Chinky?” though I have to say so pale is he perhaps she should have substituted “Chalkie” for “Chinky”.


Stay tuned for the next in our series of Yellowface Film Reviews where we get our talons into the Yellowface “classic” that is The Bitter Tea Of General Yen and don’t forget to book your tickets for The Fu Manchu Complex running till October 19th

Yellowface Film Review #1: The Hatchet Man

The Hatchet Man (1932)

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This veritable cornucopia of yellowface features Edward G. Robinson as the unlikely named Wong Low Get, a most highly respected “hatchet man” (every Tong gang had one apparently) who, having sworn total allegiance, cannot turn down an order, even one to kill his best friend Sun Yat Ming (named after anyone perhaps?).  Sun accepts his fate (in rather stilted faux-Confucian dialogue) but begs Wong to raise his daughter, Toya (is that like any Chinese name you’ve ever heard?), as his own.

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Wong dutifully obliges (he is an “honourable” hatchet man after all) but, in a somewhat pervy plot development, when she grows older he falls in love with her and proposes. Despite looking somewhat crestfallen , Toya, who we we’ve already seen flirting with dapper young gangster type Harry En Hai (jeez, those names!), agrees to marry Wong. Later, when Wong catches Toya and Flash Harry blatantly post-coital (the film’s portrayal of adultery and narcotics was quite daring for its time) he makes the young man swear an oath to Buddha that he will take care of the fragrant Toya and effectively gives her away.  Later though Wong receives a letter from Toya, who has been deported to a brothel in China after Harry was busted for opium dealing in NYC, begging to be rescued and that it’s the honourable hatchet man she truly loves (somewhat unsurprisingly in light of the fate that’s befallen her). Wong sets out to “Old China” to rescue his young lover/step-daughter.

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Yellowface watch

None of these characters is played by an Asian actor and all wear ludicrous make up in order to appear Chinese, though Robinson’s seems stronger in some scenes than in others. According to Wiki “makeup artists had noticed that audiences were more likely to reject Western actors in Asian disguise if the faces of actual Asians were in near proximity. “ Maybe they were more likely to reject Western actors in Asian disguise ‘cos they look like a bunch of freaks?


In terms of portrayal, most of the main players don’t even bother to make any concession to the fact they’re meant to be Chinese and it’s easy to forget they are. Robinson sometimes attempts to be slightly portentous in what seems like “honourable Chinaman” acting but merely comes across like he’s in a bit of a daze most of the time. Loretta Young (as Toya) and Leslie Fenton (as Harry En Hai) simply play their roles like regular Americans with taped eyes. Some of the minor characters are hammed up a bit to give a sense of “Chineseness”  and there’s also some rather clumsy attempts at “Eastern” dialogue –my particular favourite being “Love is as useful as wings on a cat” – but it all feels a little half-baked in all honesty. Meanwhile oaths are sworn to Buddha and the oath-swearers are warned that Buddha will hunt them down if they foreswear. Now, I’m no expert on Eastern religions but it doesn’t sound like any practice I recognise.  The names have already been commented on but I’ve saved my personal favourite for last-Lip Hop Fat. I ask you.


Some very minor characters are played by genuine Asians including the Japanese actress Toshia Mori who was to have a much more central role in the following years yellowface classic The Bitter Tea Of General Yen.

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The Hatchet Man was apparently based on stage-play titled The Honorable Mr. Wong. I shouldn’t expect a revival any time soon.

200px-Poster_of_the_movie_The_Hatchet_Man Our next Yellowface film review will follow very shortly. Meanwhile don’t forget The Fu Manchu Complex opens Tuesday, October 1st and runs till the 19th October. Book tickets here

Fu Manchu On Screen

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So inherently theatrical were Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels that it was only natural that his vivid and pruriently imagined central character would be re-interpreted on celluloid. The evil doctor made his screen debut in 1923 in a 15 episode serial entitled Mystery Of Dr. Fu Manchu followed a year later with the 8 episode The Further Mysteries Of Dr. Fu Manchu. The eponymous Chinese criminal mastermind was portrayed by Irish actor Harry Agar Lyons-yellow_claw_1921_harry_agar_lyons_als_fu_machu  Lyons long Fu stoll1

There’s nothing from these serials online and indeed only a couple of episodes survive from the second series, but Jeffrey Richards, professor of cultural history at Lancaster University, describes Harry’s performance as “extraordinarily hammy, even for a silent film villain. Sneering, cackling, gloating and screwing up his eyes with excessive relish, he doesn’t look remotely Chinese and comes across more as a pantomime villain than a sinister criminal mastermind”. Photographs from the production would appear to lend weight to this appraisal. Professor Richards goes on to say that the series appears to suffer from a severe lack of East Asian “extras” with only three appearing in one episode, with the rest of Fu Manchu’s followers portrayed by occidentals in “yellowface” make up. This is possibly owing to a campaign at the time by Chinese students in Britain to persuade Chinese people not to appear in productions that were “anti-Chinese”. One is forced to wonder what kind of success such a campaign would have in this day and age?

Harry Agar Lyons Fu       stoll17

Hollywood began to mine the Fu Manchu character not long after the advent of “talkies”. Paramount Pictures produced a trilogy of Fu Manchu movies beginning with The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu in 1929 followed by The Return Of Fu Manchu a year later and, in 1931, The Daughter Of Fu Manchu. The films used elements from Sax Rohmer’s novels but turned the character of Fu Manchu into a grief-stricken figure of vengeance after his wife and son are killed by the colonial powers during the Boxer Rebellion, with a particular emphasis on retribution directed at the Petrie family as it was a Colonel Petrie who was in command of the troops responsible for his families’ deaths. The films are flat, dull and rather prosaic, starring yellowface “specialist” Warner Oland as Fu Manchu in a performance which seems to consist mainly of him intoning his rather repetitive lines sonorously and portentously in what one assumes is an attempt to appear exotically obsessive and it’s an interesting insight into the nature of showbusiness to bear in mind that this performance made Warner a star. In fairness the preponderance of obviously middle-class actors doing “cockney-voice” is possibly almost as offensive.

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Warner Oland was, along with fellow “yellowface” actors Myrna Loy and Nils Asther, of Swedish descent proving that exotic Scandinavians were often Hollywood’s first choice to portray onscreen “Orientals”. Although he acted in other films (including becoming the first ever actor to play a werewolf in a Hollywood movie) it’s fair to say that his impersonations of East Asians were his main line of work enabled by facial features that needed little or no make-up, according to his Chinese-American colleague Keye Luke, save “a little goatee on his chin”. Goatee in place, Oland went on to portray the detective Charlie Chan on screen in some 16 films commanding a fee of £40,000 per picture. His Charlie Chan is no negative stereotype though, clever, urbane and generally one step ahead of his Caucasian allies/foes it’s fair to say Charlie was a relatively positive role model, albeit one portrayed by a white man. Warner took his yellowface responsibilities extremely seriously, studying Chinese language and calligraphy.

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The third film in the Oland Fu Manchu “trilogy” is notable in that, following the eponymous doctor’s early on-screen death, the main antagonist of the picture becomes his daughter, Ling Moy, who inherits her father’s quest for revenge though she seems to have to battle her own feelings for the heroic Petrie along the way. She is eventually shot dead by the Chinese detective Ah Kee who is played by the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa so the series does at least conclude with genuine East Asian actors in central roles though the “dominant” and “powerful” male figure, Fu Manchu himself, has never been portrayed by an actor of East Asian descent. May Wong and Hayakawa are important figures in terms of Asian representation in early Hollywood, both possessing on-screen glamour and sex appeal by the bucket-load, both continually passed over for strong leading roles as Western media displayed its omnipresent antipathy towards powerful East Asian performers playing characters that would capture the Western public’s imagination. What’s interesting about both May Wong and Hayakawa is both also attempted to assert themselves and refuse to play characters they considered demeaning to their talents and their race, a position of integrity rare in a profession so fraught with insecurity and dependence on the approval of decision-makers.

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However it was a “return to yellowface” for MGM’s The Mask Of Fu Manchu in 1932 which starred the iconic Boris Karloff (best known for playing Frankenstein) in the title role and Swedish actress Myrna Loy as his daughter (here called Fah Lo See).

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The film is now regarded as something of a cult camp classic, featuring as it does exotic and melodramatic sets as well as performances and scenes of slalacious torture and sadism. Karloff and Loy (despite some truly hilarious make-up in the case of the former) largely eschew any overt “Orientalism” but instead play up the lurid aspects of their characters with some relish (sinister villainy in Boris’s case and sadistic nymphomania in Myrna’s) in an archetypal “yellow peril” plot involving Fu Manchu attempting to appropriate the sword (and thereby the identity) of Ghengis Khan in order to inflame the peoples of Asia to rise up against the white race.

loy-starrett-karloff     Possibly the most memorable scene is one featuring the square-jawed Caucasian hero being stripped and flogged by two black men in their underpants whilst Loy as Fah Lo See quivers in orgiastic pleasure whilst screaming “Faster! Faster!”  She is later  prevented from seducing him in his sleep by the interruption of her father who, whilst agreeing with his daughter’s assertion that “he is not entirely unhandsomefor a white man” suggests a “slight delay” in her “customary procedure”.

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MGM actually deemed the film so sadistic it was cut and partially reshot before release but still incurred the ire of the Chinese government particularly for the scene where Fu Manchu urges his followers to “Kill all the white men and mate with their women!” As recently as 1972 the Japanese-American Citizens League considered the film “offensive and demeaning to Asian-Americans” and it had to be edited for its 1990’s DVD release.

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Both Karloff and Loy can be regarded as “yellowface regulars”, she in particular, a stereotyping she had to struggle to overcome as she was cast again and again as vamps and femme-fatales of Asian or Eurasian background in films such as Across the Pacific, A Girl in Every Port, The Crimson City, The Black Watch, and The Desert Song, the irony of a Caucasian actress being type-cast in “Oriental” roles inescapable. Karloff, on the other hand, went on to portray far more sympathetic East Asian characters in West Of Shanghai and the Mr. Wong, Detective series, almost as if to atone for the gratuitous oriental villainy of his turn as Sax Rohmer’s evil doctor. In real life Boris was a kind and considerate person from humble beginnings who gave generously to children’s charities and risked his entire career as a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild speaking out against the appalling conditions suffered by actors at the time.

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Perennial silent movie “yellowface veteran” E. Alyn Warren (The Forbidden City, Outside The Law, The Hatchet Man) also pops up in The Mask Of Fu Manchu as an uncredited messenger. EA (irony!) also has a role in Daughter Of Fu Manchu.

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Fu Manchu’s next screen outing was in a 15 part serial produced by Republic Pictures entitled The Drums Of Fu Manchu with the action relocated to California. The series is notable for its hilarious opening credits featuring the regular characters rising from a flaming urn, the leering yellowface figures of Henry Brandon as Fu Manchu and Gloria Franklyn as his daughter Fah Lo Suee in marked contrast to the genial and heroic smiles of the occidental protagonists.


The statuesque Brandon, of German descent (proving once again Hollywood’s predilection for casting Northern Europeans as Asians), portrays Fu Manchu bald of head with heavy make-up including thickly arched brows and even fangs as teeth, resembling an “Oriental” Nosferatu vampire figure with the production deliberately lighting him in as much sinister shadow as possible.

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He affects a strange and high-pitched accent which, whilst definitely “foreign” sounding, doesn’t resemble anything recognisably “Chinese” and indulges in lurid torture methods including The Seven Gates To Paradise involving hungry rats. Hans J. Wollstein, writing at Allmovie, describes Henry as a “compelling and strangely ageless fiend” whilst another critic called it “a performance that stands alone” (which could be taken in many ways and is therefore difficult to disagree with).

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Gloria Franklin as Fah Lo Suee, on the other hand, seems to have been cast for her obvious glamour as opposed to any obvious ability to impersonate an “Oriental”. She plays her character competently but entirely blandly with a regular American accent.

henry-brandon-fu-manchu-2  It was 1956 when Fu Manchu’s next on-screen incarnation appeared, this time in a rather stolid TV production by Republic Pictures of which only 13 of a planned 78 episodes were made due to protracted court battle with Sax Rohmer over the rights. Again, set in America, each episode would begin with a chess board-at the start with Nayland Smith (here a law enforcement official) and Fu Manchu playing together as a doomy voice-over intoned “It is said the Devil plays for men’s souls. So does Dr. Fu Manchu, Satan himself, evil incarnate” and conclude at the end with the sinister doctor knocking over a black chess piece as his evil plans are foiled once again.  On this occasion Fu Manchu was portrayed by Glen Gordon, once more bald headed and moustached, with a penchant for squinting his eyes when smiling slyly but stiltedly whilst attempting a staccato hodgepodge Sino-Japanese mish-mash of an accent which only succeeds in making him sound like a very bad actor – a quality which many casting directors to this day seem to find “authentic”.

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He is assisted by a mute yellowface midget in chinoiserie played by John George, who appears at all times suitably unimpressed to be there, fu_manchu_pri303 and the slave girl based on Rohmer’s own creation, Karamaneh portrayed by Hawaiian-Portuguese actress/model Laurette Luez who seems to have specialised in exotic sexpot roles, here, her chief dramatic function seems to be to stand behind Fu Manchu when he is sitting on his “throne” and gently massage his bald pate.

 Glen Gordon and Laurette Luez in The Adventures of Fu Manchu   64820_f4

Following the successful re-release of the Fu Manchu novels in the 60’s producer Harry Alan Towers decided to make a series of films based on the character of Fu Manchu but not on the actual novels themselves. Thus it was then that five Fu Manchu films appeared between 1965 and 1969 with the usual law of diminishing returns, the first being easily the best of the series and the last two being all but unwatchable. All five starred Christopher Lee as the evil doctor with Tsai Chin as his daughter, here called Lin Tang.

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Lee, a veteran screen villain still going strong today, like Karloff before him, has way too much class to attempt any kind of racial impersonation and plays the role surprisingly straight, indeed where it not for his rather fantastic chinoise wardrobe one would be forgiven for at times for not noticing the character is actually intended to be Chinese.

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Alongside him, iconic Chinese actress Tsai Chin, already a well-known stage performer and singer, is likewise understated and here we see the standard Western entertainment “template” of dominant East Asian male character portrayed by a Caucasian and  “Oriental” glamour girl portrayed by a genuine East Asian.

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One or two pastiche send-ups aside, The Castle Of Fu Manchu (Lee’s final outing in the role) was the last time the character has been seen onscreen, though there have been several unsuccessful attempts to revive the character, the last as recently as 2007. Someone who sometimes posts replies to these blogs insists there’s a movie revival due in in 2014. We shall see. The Christopher Lee Fu Manchu films would conclude with Lee intoning doomily over the closing credits that “The world will hear from me again”.

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Next we’ll be posting reviews of (in)famous “yellowface” films for your kind perusal. Do follow and enjoy. And, of course, feel free to contribute whenever the whim takes you. Whatever your predeliction do not forget that The Fu Manchu Complex opens at Ovalhouse on October 1st. Tickets here and more details (including trailer) here

What Is Yellowface?

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In short, “yellowface” is when an actor who is not of East Asian descent portrays a character who is of East Asian descent. This has become associated with make-up and prosthetics though some of the earliest “yellowface” film performances didn’t use make-up at all leaving the “Orientalism” merely to costume and “mannerisms”. Indeed it is sometimes used as a justification in our supposedly more enlightened age, that if the actors aren’t actually taping their eyelids and colouring themselves then this does not constitute yellowface and is therefore acceptable.

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Whatever one’s opinion of this rationalisation there is no doubting that yellowface has proved infinitely more enduring than “blackface” which is now deemed more or less taboo. It is worth bearing in mind though that the last blackface Othello in Britain was Michael Gambon as recently as 1991. In fact in 1979 the BBC pointedly refused to cast a black British actor as the Moor and instead cast Antony Hopkins after Equity had refused to allow the black American actor James Earl Jones to take the role. Leading black actor Rudolph Walker (now a BBC mainstay after a successful classical career) is on record saying how distressing this blanket rejection of the British black acting community was and in this incident we can see clearly all the hallmarks of modern racial appropriation manifested in the extreme reluctance to look outside the accepted “circle” when casting any kind of substantial role. That “circle” will of course consist only of very tokenistic (at best) minority ethnic presence unless some form of risk is taken to open up to the possibilities offered by actors from different backgrounds.


Theatre, film & TV is, contrary to many peoples’ preconceptions, a deeply conservative medium that time and again has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world.  The age-old justification of course is that there is no one available or good enough.  It is arguable that who is and isn’t allowed on stages is a deeply political decision often made by people who, for whatever reason, are uneasy about allowing the floodgates to open. In Shakespeare’s day there were no women on stage. Was this because it was not in the female DNA to be able to perform at that time? One only has to look at old black & white films to see obviously posh actors portraying working-class characters, acting being at that time a genteel profession and not generally for the “riff-raff”. And then there was the whole struggle in the 70’s and 80’s for black actors to be seen on UK stages. One particular theatre director around the time even attempted to argue that Shakespeare was difficult for black actors as it was “not part of their culture”.

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Yellowface (the last acceptable bastion of racial impersonation) originated in a time (late 19th-early 20th Century) when the combination of two opium wars and an outpouring of cheap labour had made East Asians very possibly the most despised minority group in the Western world. Paradoxically though “Oriental” clothing, décor and ornamentation were very much in fashion in good society, especially London.  There was at one point in the 1920’s five plays running concurrently in the West End that featured Chinese characters (all played by Caucasian actors) though all five prompted complaints from Chinese students about the manner in which the Chinese were portrayed. Something of a running theme developed around this time with the Chinese government actually advising its overseas citizens not to appear as extras in films where the Chinese were shown in a derogatory light (which was practically all of the time in truth).  This controversy has continued since with Mickey Rooney’s legendarily infamous turn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s still causing offence to this day. It’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that this appropriation of identity and culture (sometimes, as in Rooney’s case, for the purposes of “fun”),  whilst not allowing any meaningful contribution from the people whose identity and culture is being appropriated, is in its very essence colonial.

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Despite all this there were East Asian actors in the early days of Hollywood who made a significant impact with the Japanese silent screen star Sessue Hayakawa possibly the first, his brooding good looks and easy charisma earning a sizeable following. Indeed it’s been argued that much “yellowface” casting was down to the establishment’s unease at Sessue’s popularity. Anything but the stereotypical asexual and subservient “oriental” male that Western media seems so fixated on, Hayakawa very much enjoyed the glamorous lifestyle of the early movie stars, throwing lavish parties and wearing expensive clothes and it is said that many were uncomfortable with both this and his evident popularity. His career certainly suffered in 1930’s though he was later nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Bridge Over The River Kwai.

Sessue Hayakawa (circa 1915)                       08anna

Hayakawa’s Daughter Of Fu Manchu co-star Anna May Wong was another to make a big impression. Glamorous and effortlessly iconoclastic May Wong was the first to break the anti-miscegenation taboo by playing opposite a white a romantic lead in 1922’s Toll Of The Sea. Despite this success, Anna cut a frustrated figure eventually abandoning Hollywood for Europe where she told Film Weekly she was “tired” of the roles she was given and that, there seems little for me in Hollywood, because, rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.”  May Wong showed the courage of her convictions in 1935 when she was passed over for the lead role in one of the most famous yellowface films of all time, The Good Earth. The producers elected to cast the Swedish actress Luise Rainer, instead offering Anna the stereotypical “Oriental Dragonlady” role which she bravely declined. It’s a little-noted fact that May Wong was Bertolt Brecht’s first choice to play the title role in his The Good Person Of Setzuan, a play it’s often argued that Brecht didn’t write with Chinese actors in mind. It is however there for all to see that one of the 20th Century’s greatest and most enduring dramatists was clearly far more open to the possibility of East Asian actors performing the play than many of today’s leading theatrical lights have been. In a further bitter footnote, Anna was vilified at the time by the Nationalist Kuomintang government of China where there were demontrations against her for what was perceived as her “unflattering” portrayals of Chinese characters, proving (not for the last time) the enormous difficulty of being an East Asian artist with any kind of integrity in the West, as she was shot mercilessly by both sides .

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The list of Hollywood actors to “yellow up” on screen is an impressive one including Lon Chaney, Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, Anthony Quinn, Warner Oland, Sydney Toler, Peter Ustinov, Shirley Maclaine, Katherine Hepburn, Rina Morena, Rex Harrion, John Wayne, Mickey Rooney, Marlon Brando, Alec Guiness, Tony Randall,, John Gielgud, Max Von Sydow, Linda Hunt, Jamie Lee Curtis, David Carradine, Joel Grey and many others. The Welsh-American Myrna Loy played Chinese/Eurasian dragon-ladies to such an extent (over a dozen films including Fu Manchu’s daughter in The Mask Of Fu Manchu) that she felt it was a stereotype she actually had to struggle to escape. A savage irony indeed.  Meanwhile Korean-American actor Philip Ahn (who did manage to go on and forge a career in film and television) was turned down for a role in the film of Anything Goes as his English was deemed too proficient, so demeaning was Hollywood’s view of genuine East Asian performers.

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What’s especially interesting is the level of defensiveness and indeed championing  that still exists to this day around yellowface.  As recently as 1985 Joel Grey was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Chiui in the now little-remembered Remo James. A search of the BBC’s Dr. Who website will reveal that John Bennet’s portrayal (in heavy make-up and accent) of Li H’sen Chang in 1977’s The Talons Of Weng-Chiang is considered by the nation’s favourite boradcaster  “faultless” and “so convincing that it is difficult to believe that he is not actually Chinese”.  They also describe Bennet’s character as “inscrutable

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Cameron Macintosh to this day defends and celebrates his casting of Jonathan Pryce in the original production of Miss Saigon, a decision that caused street protests when the play opened on Broadway (though nothing here sadly).  With the Vietnam-set musical due to be revived in 2014 one wonders what approach the producers will take this time. They may defend the casting of Pryce but it’s interesting that there are very few pictures of him online where his (heavily prostheticised)  face is visible and virtually none of his succesors, Nick Colder and Hilton Macrae.  Pryce himself showed how remarkably out of touch much of the establishment acting profession is with diversity issues when he argued in a TV interview that he’d never considered the implication of his taking on the role of The Engineer as he was used to being at the RSC where “colour-blind” casting was the norm. This would be the Royal Shakespeare Company where Jonathan had previously given a very fine performance as Macbeth that contained a grand total of two black actors (one of whom understudied the other).  One less than the number of East Asian actors playing roles described by critics as “minor” in the same company’s production of The Orphan Of Zhao in 2012. And we all know what happened there, don’t we?


It’s clear there are all sorts of issues with actors of East Asian descent appearing on UK stages and screens. Headlong Artistic Director Rupert Goold has even been muttering darkly on Twitter about “institutional prejudices” that needed to be overcome in order for the recent smash-hit Chimerica to be brought to the stage. David Henry Hwang’s Yellowface also enjoyed a successful run at London’s new Park Theatre recently but only after it was self-produced with no Arts Council support by actor Kevin Shen. The play was refused by several established theatres with the resources to present it. One can only wonder why. Hwang’s previous London produced play, M. Butterfly, in the late ‘80’s, ran for six months at the Shaftesbury Theatre. It’s next to impossible to imagine a black American writer with a similar pedigree to David’s with such a (relatively) inexpensive play with such incendiary, thought-provoking and funny subject matter being ignored in this way by the London mainstream theatre industry. Even without this kind of innate resistance there’s the “perennial foreigner” factor to overcome. The National Theatre Of Scotland in early 2013 defended their decision to have a small majority of Caucasian actors perform in their China plays season on the grounds they wanted to explore the cultural exchange between Chinese and Scottish performers and writers. Yet considering that the East Asian actors they did cast were indigenous home-grown ones are the two “cultures” really so far removed from each other in 2013?

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In the end, though, perhaps it’s sheer economics that have been the biggest barrier to casting East Asian descended actors. In Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet (about the trail-blazing black actor Ira Aldridge) one character asks another how they will feel when the likes of Aldridge are “taking your jobs”.  Asian-American dancer/actor Robert Ito wrote in an article, “With the relatively small percentage of actors that support themselves by acting, it was only logical that they should try to limit the available talent pool as much as possible. One way of doing this was by placing restrictions on minority actors, which, in the case of Asian actors, meant that they could usually only get roles as houseboys, cooks, laundrymen, and crazed war enemies, with the rare “white hero’s loyal sidekick” roles going to the big name actors. When the script called for a larger Asian role, it was almost inevitably given to a white actor.”

Marie Tempest             optimized-katharine-hepburn-dragon-seed      mr-yunioshi2  13_mrmoto4

Soon we will be uploading reviews of actual yellowface films (the ones we could find online that is). But first we will examine Fu Manchu (a yellowface legend if ever there was one) on screen. Do join us and remember to book your tickets for The Fu Manchu Complex Oct. 1st-19th. More details (including trailer) here

What Was The Yellow Peril?

The term “Yellow Peril” is often attributed to the German Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1895 although this is disputed by arguments that the Hungarian General Turr used the expression earlier that year in reference to Japan: “The ‘yellow peril’ is more threatening than ever. Japan has made in a few years as much progress as other nations have made in centuries.”  The Kaiser, though, was certainly virulently ill-disposed towards East Asians and in fact commissioned a painting which was intended to encourage Europeans to cooperate against the Eastern menace. The painting, which was made into a widely used poster, showed a distant Buddha-like figure sitting in an approaching firestorm while an Ayran messenger warns the womenfolk of various European countries of their impending doom.


Even as early as 1803 however, none other than Napoleon is said to have pointed to China on a map and remarked “Here lies a sleeping giant (or lion or dragon, depending on the source), let him sleep, for when he wakes up, he will shock the world“.  In Britain, according to Dr. Jeffrey Richards in a recent lecture at a China In Britain seminar, “the colonial mind-set was governed by a paradoxical mix of supreme confidence and fear.  Confidence in the rightness of British presence in far-off places and at the same time fear that British rule would be violently overthrown.”  Dr. Richards goes on to remark that there was ample justification for this fear. British rule in Africa had only been established after several revolts and the Indian mutiny in 1857, as well as the one in Jamaica around the same time, had traumatised British society, leaving “indelible fingerprints on the British psyche

With regards China, the two Opium Wars in 1839 and 1856 (which you’ll be hard-pressed to find on any British school history syllabus today), so named because they were literally fought over the British Empire’s determination to sell opium to the Chinese populace, may well have left something of a guilty conscience. The two conflicts in fact are barely deserving of the name as the decadent and crumbling Qing Dynasty’s unprepared and ill-equipped army proved embarrassingly ill-matched with state-of-the-art British gunboats, the result being ignominious defeat for the Chinese on both occasions, the ceding of Hong Kong to British rule (whence it remained until 1997) being but the most obvious of a whole series of humiliating penalties exacted by the victors.


The wars were controversial in Britain at the time and at least one general election was fought over the issue, yet the prevailing  thinking seems to have been that China was an obstinate, backward and untrustworthy nation that needed to be kept in line and therefore receptive to the virtues of free trade and the Christian religion. None other than opium trader William Jardine (often “credited” as one of the architects of the first Opium War) opined that the Chinese  “are a people characterised by a marvellous degree of imbecility, avarice, conceit, and obstinacy…It has been the policy of this extraordinary people to shroud themselves and all belonging to them in mystery impenetrable….(to) exhibit a spirit of exclusiveness on a grand scale”.  Second Opium War British consul, Harry Parkes, extrapolated this down to the far simpler “I have taken their measure and know precisely how and where to plant the blow when blows are needed…The only way to gain respect in China is to command”. Even the renowned humanist Charles Dickens seemed to regard the Chinese with a fair measure of contempt, remarking on “the extraordinary littleness of the Chinese…Consider the materials employed at the great Teacup Works of Kiang-tiht-Chin(or Tight-Chin)…the laboriously carved ivory balls of the flowery empire, ball within ball and circle within circle, which have made no advance and been of no earthly use for thousands of years…”


It is often argued that China (unlike Africa and India) was never colonised by Britain. Yet none other than Sun Yat Sen (founder of the Chinese republic) maintained that “China has suffered at the hands of the Great Powers for decades…has become a colony of the Great Powers…(actually worse), a hyper-colony …not the slaves of one country but of all…” In fact, Western powers occupied China to such a degree that in 1897 the Boxer Rebellion, led by the Righteous Harmony Society, actively sought to expel foreign imperialists and Christian missionaries until it was eventually defeated by the Eight Nation Alliance of Western powers in 1901, spelling the final end of the Qing Dynasty in the process.


This, along with the outpouring of Chinese workers (seen as cheaper and harder working) across the globe causing enormous panic amongst white workers, led to the Chinese, in the late nineteenth and first part of the twentieth century,  being easily the most vilified racial group in the Western world, a fact almost completely forgotten today. According to the great Chinese writer, Lao She (who lived in London between 1924 and 1929) “Foreigners picture Chinese as short, pig-tailed and pancake-faced, with hardly any nose, and eyes that are only two-inch cracks; their puckered lips are always crowned with a thin fluttering moustache, and they writhe when they walk with their little stubby Pekinese dog legs. Moreover, foreigners entertain a host of notions which go beyond mere appearances and which succeed in evoking even more chilling terror. The treachery endemic to Chinamen takes on a number of different sinister forms: in tucking venomous snakes up their sleeves, hiding arsenic in the cavity of their ears’, breathing smoke, or having the power to smite people dead with a twinkle of the eye.” 


Indeed not even celebrated British authors were free of Sinophobia (fear and loathing of everything Chinese). Rudyard Kipling (so long rationalised as merely “of his time”) declared that “I could quite understand…why the lower caste Anglo-Saxon hates the Celestial. I hated the Chinaman before; I hated him doubly as I choked for breath in his seething streets. I hate Chinamen.”  Kipling went on to maintain that “It is justifiable to kill him (the “Chinaman”)”.  Even a Girls Own Annual of the period warned that the “the readiness of the Chinese to settle in the midst of other nations, and the evils which may follow in its train…constitutes the Yellow Peril”.  In America this morbid fear of all things Eastern led to the Chinese Exclusion Act (which still stands today though all of its constituent sections have long been repealed) and in Australia there were organised campaigns to oust Chinese workers from the goldfields leading to various White Australia policies which directly favoured immigration from Caucasian settlers as opposed to Chinese.


Along with policies and campaigns, the Chinese were vilified in the British press, the tabloids being full of lurid tales of opium dens and white girls being drugged and seduced by sinister Chinaman. The Strand Magazine (to name but one) reported on a visit to an opium den by describing the occupants as having “parchment coloured features…small and cunning eyes…twisting and turning so horribly” and that even the staircase in the opium den was  “the most villainously treacherous…which it has ever been my lot to ascend”.


Nowhere more profoundly was this Yellow Peril manifested than in literature.  M.P. Shiel (actually of West Indian descent) began the trend with the invasion novel The Yellow Danger in 1898 which features a half Chinese  half Japanese villain, Dr. Yen How, who forms an “Oriental army” with China and Japan which sweeps through all of Europe. The book ends with the Chinese/Japanese army being wiped out by germ warfare.  In the book Shiel describes the principle points of the Chinese character as “an immeasurable greed, absolute contempt for the world outside China and a fiendish love of cruelty”.  So acceptable was this sort of portrayal at the time that The Academy Supplement ended their review of The Yellow Danger by describing it as “an exciting and persuasive romance, well worth packing up with one’s holiday outfit.”


This was followed in 1905 by French writer Capitaine Danrit’s The Yellow Invasion which centres around a world-spanning Sino-Japanese secret society named the Devouring Dragon attempting to destroy Western civilization. Then in 1913 Sax Rohmer himself entered the fray with the most enduring Yellow Peril icon of them all: Dr. Fu Manchu. One year later Jack London’s The Unparalleled Invasion portrayed a China with an ever-increasing population taking over and colonising its neighbours, with the intention of eventually taking over the entire Earth.  In 1916 J. Alan Dunn’s novel, The Peril of the Pacific, described an attempted invasion of the western United States by Japan. The very first Buck Rogers novella Armageddon 2419 A.D. depicted a future America which had been occupied and colonized by cruel invaders from China. Robert A. Heinlein‘s Sixth Column depicts American resistance to an invasion by a blatantly racist and genocidally cruel “PanAsian” empire whilst many of H.P.Lovecraft’s stories revealed a constant fear of Asiatic culture engulfing the world.


Naturally much of this made it to the stage (during the 1920’s Chinese students in London complained to Parliament about no less than five plays which they believed portrayed the Chinese in derogatory fashion) and screen with Fu Manchu himself being the subject of numerous films and TV serials though the characters were nearly always portrayed by Caucasian actors, highlighting the extreme reluctance of Western producers to show East Asian actors (particularly men)  in strong dominant roles, a reluctance that many would argue still persists to this day, as do some of the more dubious aspects of late 19th/early 20th Century portrayal of East Asians.


Perhaps the final word on the subject should go to Sax Rohmer himself who remarked that at the beginning of the twentieth century “Conditions for launching a Chinese villain on the market were ideal”.  A recent (2010) episode of the popular British TV series Spooks featured a plotline involving the Chinese Secret Service (in essence the Chinese government) planting a bomb in central London. China’s rise as a super –power has filled many in the  West with dread. Perhaps 100 years on from Fu Manchu conditions for “launching a Chinese villain on the market” are still ideal?


Next, we’ll be examining that most pernicious legacy of colonialism and the Yellow Peril, the practice of “yellowface”. Do stay tuned and book your tickets to see The Fu Manchu Complex