Monday, June 21, 2010

Yellow Face and Miss Saigon

Yellow Face:  This was one of the things that almost completely derailed the introduction of Miss Saigon on Broadway.  Jonathan Pryce, who played the original role of the Engineer in yellow face, became a topic of much rancor at the time.  His casting was considered to be really offensive to the APA community.  I'm not so certain.  The character engineers sex transactions for military service men.  Why a pimp has to be a happa (half Asian) escapes me.  Better to just have left him as a French man.  He doesn't look remotely Asian at all.  Much of the controversy surrounding the casting is outlined in Bright Lights Film Journal.

David Henry Hwang recently wrote a play called Yellowface.  It is very closely tied to the casting of Jonathan Pryce as he was heavily involved in the discourse.   The play further explores the identity politics in the discourse.  For Asian Americans, it is an issue of the signifier of the cultural act.  

The issue has arisen again with the 2010 release of the Last Airbender.  Go to this site to find out about the boycott proposals.  There were similar issues with the Prince of Persia casting, as none of the lead actors are Persian.  The 18 Mighty Mountain Warrior comedy group had a few things to say about that.  It's towards the end of the sequence.  

What I found fascinating about the discourse was that it was nothing new.  We are having this discussion about the Last Airbender in 2010.  Flying a bunch of academics to South East Asia may not fully ameliorate the issue of some very long standing stereotypical perceptions of Asians in America.  What I do know is that I have to create a text to delineate all these connections.  There is in some ways, a sort of fear/attraction of the Asian male, as embodied in Bruce Lee, and yet there is this patent emasculation of the Asian male as evident in Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's or Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles.  Mr Yunioshi is particularly disturbing to me.

The best example of the mixed reaction to the Asian male is Kung Fu, the TV series.  If you watch some of it, it is actually not too bad.
Now for the analysis.  Kung Fu was originally a project of Bruce Lee, but the producers did not feel comfortable having an Asian lead for a show, so they cast David Carradine.  Basically an entire TV series needed the lead actor to be in yellow face.  The one problem with that show was that some of the supporting roles for Asian American actors were pretty good.  There is actually some substance to the roles especially with the Shaolin temple scenes.  The other problem for me is that I liked certain aspects of the series.  The whole grasshopper term used by his Shaolin mentor is a part of our subculture.  The fact seems to be this:  if I want to be an APA actor in America, I need to old, and I must be a martial artist.  It would just be easier if I was a Hong Kong Kung Fu movie guy, but then I would be Chinese not American.  Regardless, I must also be able to quote Lao Tzu, Sun Tzu and maybe a few Buddhist or Confucian sayings.

All joking aside, as we are increasingly interconnected, we must expand our perceptions.  There are still difficulties.