On an unusually empty street in New York City, a single cab drops off a woman clad in diamonds and a Givenchy dress in front of Tiffany’s & Co. As she casually gazes up, the iconic opening scene of Breakfast at Tiffany’s is underway. But it’s not long before many viewers are jolted out of the film’s transporting charm with the introduction of Mr. Yunioshi, a bucktoothed man with a loud, thick Asian accent played by Mickey Rooney.
Rooney’s portrayal of Yunioshi has come to epitomize ethnic stereotypes and often prompts protests whenever the film is screened. But, at the time of the classic film’s release in 1961, Hollywood already had a long history of casting white actors in Asian roles—a tradition known as “yellowface.”
Yellowface dates to early forms of minstrelsy when ethnic white actors would darken their faces and use prosthetics and costumes to appear Asian. The term itself came from similar acts of blackface that were popular, when white actors colored their skin to caricature black people and culture.
“In minstrelsy, that was part of the performance. Putting on a costume, and everyone knew you were in a costume, and then using that yellowface performance to ridicule or villainize Asians in a way that was entertaining for its audience,” says Nancy Wang Yuen, Associate Professor at Biola University and author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism.
One of the earliest known performances of American yellowface comes from the theatrical show, An Orphan of China, performed in 1767 and based on a play by Voltaire. This early exposure of dramatized Asian culture would persist for centuries, particularly in film.
Among the first appearances of yellowface in film was in a work by D.W. Griffith, best known for The Birth of a Nation, a racially-charged epic featuring characters in blackface that became so popular it reignited the Klan. Before that film, Griffith targeted Asians through yellowface in his 1910 short, The Chink at Golden Gulch.
“Like a lot of Griffith’s films at that period it was about a white woman in jeopardy and peril, and a white man coming to save them,” says Dr. Daniel Bernardi, author of Classic Hollywood, Classic Whiteness.
Yellowface characters would persist through the 1930s, as contrarian and villainous characters in The Mask of Fu Manchu, or in meek and withdrawn roles as in Madam Butterfly. Even as Asian characters became more complex in the 1940s and 50s, the roles were still played by white actors, like Katherine Hepburn in the 1944 drama, Dragon Seed.
Why not cast ethnically Asian people in Asian roles? One reason was the Hays Code, an internal set of guidelines that major studios enforced before films could be distributed from 1930 to 1968. The code included an array of requirements that were indicative of society in America, including the prohibition of any sexual encounter between actors of different races. With that restriction, hiring an Asian person as a lead actor in a film would rule out that character having any sexual relations with another unless they were Asian as well.
This code could help explain why the 1937 film The Good Earth featured two white actors in the lead roles as Chinese farmers – Luise Ranier would become the only actor to win an Academy Award for a role in yellowface for her performance in the film.
Casting white actors was also part of a crude box office calculation. Jenn Fang, founder of the Asian-American blog Reappropriate, explains that since white actors were better-known and seen as more relatable to audiences, producers figured featuring them would generate more ticket sales. When white actor Warner Oland replaced Asian lead actors in the Charlie Chan films of the 1930s, the films skyrocketed to success, making it hard to argue with the results.
Until the mid to late-2000s, there was also no public outcry over yellowface roles, according to Fang. Actors saw chances to play different ethnicities as a challenge to be taken on and show their versatility, offensive or not. That creative liberty is something that Bernardi explains should be examined thoroughly.
“You cannot deny the history of yellowface being patently and overtly racist and painful to a host of people,” says Bernardi. “And actors need to act. And that if we start drawing strict racial lines when it comes to casting, we only redefine the problem that exists now.”
Instances of blatant yellowface have become scarcer in recent years, although it has been replaced with another strategy–altering lead characters to allow for white leads without the use of prosthetics and makeup. Whitewashing continues to be common, as in the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the 2017 film, Ghost in a Shell, which was based on a series made up entirely of Japanese characters.
The long history of erasing Asian actors in films makes the release of 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, which features an all-Asian cast, that much more significant. The film marks the first time that Hollywood has produced a movie with an all-Asian cast since the critically-acclaimed film, The Joy Luck Club, was released 25 years earlier. And with growing appetite for diverse representation in media, Crazy Rich Asians could represent just the beginning.