Nine Decades of Asian “Whitewashing” in Cinema

Joel Grey as Master Chiun in Remo Williams

When the American producers of Ghost in the Shell cast Scarlett Johansson as a character who was ostensibly Japanese in Ghost's original comic book and anime versions, fans cried "whitewashing" – turning a nonwhite character into a white one in order to justify the casting of a white actor. It's only slightly less offensive than putting said white actor in "yellowface", which was done for decades until people protested Jonathan Pryce's slanty-eyed makeup in Broadway's Miss Saigon. That was in 1990; the struggle for Asian representation continues, decade by decade.

  1. The 1930s. Ridiculous but true: because there were still anti-miscegenation laws in the US, Hollywood star Anna May Wong could not play Paul Muni's wife in The Good Earth because Wong was Chinese-American and Muni was a white man playing a Chinese man in yellowface. So the part went to a yellowfaced Luise Rainer. The Good Earth was a prestige picture; a bigger trend in '30s cinema was the "Oriental detective" movie, which inevitably starred a white actor: Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto, Boris Karloff as Mr. Wong, and Swedish thespian Warner Oland as Charlie Chan.
  2. The 1940s. Dragon Seed was the second movie adapted from a Pearl S. Buck novel; as with The Good Earth, Caucasian performers, led by Katharine Hepburn, portrayed Buck's Chinese characters in yellowface. With its tale of peaceful Chinese villagers oppressed by evil Japanese invaders, Dragon Seed was blatant WWII propaganda. Meanwhile, Anna and the King of Siam came out with Rex Harrison as King Mongkut.
  3. The 1950s. After the war, American soldiers brought home a new interest in foreign cultures. It would change what we ate, how we dressed, and what movies we watched. Akira Kurosawa led the pack of Japanese directors whose work screened in our art houses, and Hollywood hits like Sayonara and Bridge Over the River Kwai featured actual Japanese actors. Yet just a year before he starred in Sayonara, Marlon Brando donned yellowface for Teahouse of the August Moon. Meanwhile, Jennifer Jones played the half-Chinese Han Suyin in Love Is a Many Splendored Thing. Then there's the strange case of South Pacific, in which African-American actress Juanita Hall played Vietnamese mama Bloody Mary. (Blackwashing?) Finally, who could forget John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror? On the upside, Japanese-American actor James Shigeta became Hollywood's first Asian male romantic lead since silent star Sessue Hayakawa, thanks to Samuel Fuller's terrific The Crimson Kimono. (Hayakawa himself, now in his sixties, was Oscar-nominated for River Kwai.)
  4. The 1960s. 1961 was a landmark year for Asian screen actors, as the Chinese-American musical Flower Drum Song hit theaters. (Its entire cast was Asian, save for good old Juanita Hall as Auntie Liang.) Unfortunately, that same year gave us a buck-toothed Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's, the most egregious yellowface performance of all time. On the other end of the Asian spectrum, Peter Sellers donned "brownface" to play an Indian man in The Party, which like Breakfast at Tiffany's was directed by Blake Edwards. The jury's still out on Tony Randall's multiple personae in 7 Faces of Dr. Lao.
  5. The 1970s. I couldn't find any signs of whitewashing or yellowface in all that gritty '70s cinema. (Outside of Bruce Lee and Pink Panther costar Burt Kwouk, I couldn't find any notable Asians in gritty '70s cinema either.) The best I can give you is David Carradine as the half-Chinese Kwai Chang Kaine in the Kung Fu TV series.
  6. The 1980s. As '70s realism gave way to '80s fantasy, a few phony Asians emerged: first, Linda Hunt's half-Chinese, half-Australian male dwarf in The Year of Living Dangerously. (It's such a specific role that the filmmakers might be excused for casting against race and gender in order to find the best performer – Hunt did win an Oscar for her work.) Next, there's Joel Grey's Korean martial arts master in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins. And Indians were still fair game, as evidenced by Alec Guinness in A Passage to India and Fisher Stevens in the Short Circuit movies, which famously convinced a young Aziz Ansari that Stevens really was Indian.
  7. The 1990s. Cultural sensitivity was on the rise during this decade, and thanks to the stink over Jonathan Pryce in Miss Saigon, yellowface was now (mostly) over. Enter whitewashing! There are actually few examples in the '90s; one that stands out is the fleetingly popular Casper Van Dien in Starship Troopers. His character was revealed to be Filipino near the end of Robert A. Heinlein's original novel. Then "Juan Rico" became "John Rico" for the film.
  8. The 2000s. Yellowface made a brief reemergence in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, with Rob Schneider as an Asian minister. Schneider's a quarter Filipino, but that doesn't forgive his slit eyes, bowl cut, buck teeth, and Japanesy accent in the film. If he was trying to be ironic, it didn't work. Same goes for Mike Myers as an Indian in The Love Guru, the film that killed his career. Meanwhile, whitewashing was gaining steam: Chinese-American blackjack hustler Jeff Ma was transformed into European-American "Ben Campbell" in 21, and was played by Jim Sturgess. Dragonball Evolution and Speed Racer had white actors playing characters who were Japanese in origin; said characters' racially vague representations in manga and anime provided, like Ghost in the Shell, a convenient excuse to cast a Caucasian.
  9. The 2010s. This is when whitewashing as we know it truly ran rampant. So along with Scarlett Johansson as the Major formerly known as Motoko Kusanagi, a Taiwanese doctor became Harrison Ford in Extraordinary Measures, an Eastern mystic became Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, a half-Japanese embassy worker became Clea DuVall in Argo, and the list goes on. Jim Sturgess, he of the whitewashed 21, went full yellowface for Cloud Atlas, as did his costars Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, and James D'Arcy. (To be fair, Cloud Atlas is about transcending individual identity; Korean actress Doona Bae played a Caucasian and a Latina, while Halle Berry played just about every race you can think of.) Most inexplicable is Emma Stone as a half-Asian in Cameron Crowe's Aloha. Since Crowe created the character himself, if he wouldn't cast a hapa actress, then why didn't he just make the character white?