In majority-white societies, anti-Asian racism has a long tradition. Clichés and stereotypes about Asian people are omnipresent—and the realms of music, theatre, and film are no exception.
Toxic representations of and narratives about Asians were a central theme of the panel discussion Anti-Asian Racism in Music, Theatre, and Film, which took place at the mdw as part of the May 2023 conference Un_Practicing. Diversity in the Arts, Culture, and Education as a Practice Critical of Discrimination. The conference panel, consisting of choreographer Dieu Hao Do, curator Olivia Hyunsin Kim, mdw Department of Music Sociology head Rosa Reitsamer, and the director, author, and producer Weina Zhao, formulated critiques of the status quo and discussed demands as well as counterstrategies aimed at confronting racist representations and instances of exclusion.
One point of discussion here was how anti-Asian racism surged sharply during the COVID-19 crisis. This was not, however, the first period to witness assaults and insults targeting Asian people (or people perceived as such); in fact, these most recent manifestations of #AsianHate encountered a soundboard that was already quite well established. Anti-Asian ressentiments have long been integral to the self-concept of white, Western societies, and taking a look back into history is important when it comes to recognising and problematising anti-Asian clichés. Passed down through the centuries and heavily influenced by colonial racism, their presence persists even today—such as in the most successful musicals and movies. One of the most shameful traditions here is yellowfacing, which denotes cliché-laden portrayals of Asians by white actors. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, yellowfacing was commonplace: eyes narrowed to “slits”, skin covered in yellow-brown makeup, a tripping gait, and ridiculously nasal pronunciation (often with “r” and “l” reversed) are mentioned by the online reference work Lexikon der Filmbegriffe as key features of such grotesque performances meant to highlight ethnocultural difference and inequality.
In Western art, yellowfacing—much like blackfacing—has long enjoyed an established place: from the performance of Arthur Murphy’s play The Orphan of China in 1767 to the silent movie Broken Blossoms (1919) by D. W. Griffith to the Oscar-winning portrayal of the character O-Lan by Luise Rainer in The Good Earth (1937), and the list goes on and on. One of the best-known and most hair-raising examples is from the classic film Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), in which Mickey Rooney plays the Japanese landlord Mr. Yunioshi. Asian-American activists have repeatedly pointed out how the character Yunioshi conforms exactly to the pictorial caricatures of Japanese people that had enjoyed currency in the USA during World War Two. However, anyone who would hold yellowfacing to be the relic of a distant past would be mistaken: as late as the 2010s, Wendy van Dijk enjoyed great popularity in the Netherlands as the hapless Japanese TV reporter Ushi Hirosaki. And most recently, an Asian-styled Scarlett Johansson as the protagonist of the cinematic manga adaptation Ghost in the Shell (2017) drew vocal criticism and touched off a renewed debate about whitewashing “made in Hollywood”.
A significant aspect is that racialised attributions as manifested in yellowfacing always go hand in hand with gendered stereotypes: “Asian women are thus sexualised, exoticised, and infantilised, while the men are desexualised and feminised,” ascertain researchers Kimiko Suda, Sabrina J. Mayer, and Christoph Nguyen regarding such gender-specific formations of anti-Asian modes of portrayal. Above all the view of the “Asian girl” as portrayed in culture and the media has a rich tradition. It can be found as early as the 13th-century writings of Marco Polo, who tells of Kublai Khan’s thousand women and of the prostitutes outside the ruler’s palace in what is now Beijing. Later on, as well, during the era of European colonialism, the “oriental woman” appears as a product of Western male imagination—passive, willing, cloaked in silence—with the Orient as a locus of seduction and forbidden sexuality. Western and European exoticisation of Asian woman reached an initial zenith during the late 19th century with Pierre Loti’s novel Madame Crysanthème, which became a bestseller. This novel went on to serve as the inspiration for Giacomo Puccini’s operatic smash hit Madama Butterfly and the later Broadway musical Miss Saigon.
The notion of the courtesan sacrificing herself for the white man also describes the essence of the character Suzie Wong, the title role of the 1960 Hollywood film starring Nancy Kwan, which projects pretty much the entire repertoire of anti-Asian stereotypes onto the screen and into the heads of the audience. And ever since then, depictions such as that of the nameless sex worker in Full Metal Jacket (1987) have been not only shaping Western pop culture but also repeatedly appearing to haunt Asian women in their current everyday reality.