Western Visions:
Fu Manchu and the Yellow Peril

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The minstrel shows of the nineteenth century, in which comic skits were played depicting every racial stereotype imaginable, can be seen as a direct precursor to yellowface acting in film. The minstrel shows would encourage audiences to laugh with some stereotypical characters, laugh at others. They compared and contrasted unacceptable, non-assimilating groups such as African-Americans and Chinese with funny but acceptable Irish, German, and English stereotypes.

In the 1850s, almost every minstrel show had at least one yellowface act, and San Francisco a major stop on the minstrelry circuit. The character of "John Chinaman" typically illustrated the reasons why Chinese were not assimilable, and therefore have no real right to citizenship or a voice in America. Three characteristics were almost always present in John Chinaman: poor, pidgin English, which is mocked as nonsense; disgusting and transgressive eating habits, wherein dog, cat, and rat are eaten; and the queue, which, since white men of that time all had short cropped hair, represented a gender transgressive element and therefore dangerous. A short minstrel song will suffice to illustrate two of these three characteristics:
Lady she am vellie good, make plenty chow chow
She live way up top side house,
Take a little pussy cat and a little bow wow
Boil em in a pot of stew wit a little mouse
Hi! hi! hi!
Most importantly, yellowface minstrelry was a means by which people of the working class could safely view the unknowable oriental. To view an actual oriental would be possibly polluting and offensive to the audience. The yellowface minstrel was a 'safe' way for white Americans to create, codify, and confirm a racial stereotype, without the interference of an actual oriental to possibly confuse the matter.


Hollywood yellowface was not necessarily as calculated as that, but it may have been. Asian actors did find work in silent movies, but the move to talkies made it more difficult for them, especially if their accent was too strong or not clear enough. It was for this reason, perhaps, that Warner Oland was given the role of Fu Manchu in the first Fu Manchu talkie, The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu. Scenes are very stationary, everyone clustered close together to make sure they were on mike. Oland spoke quite clearly (and without a Chinese accent). His features were vaguely Chinese, even though he was Scandanavian. For these reasons, Warner Oland may perhaps rank as one of the least offensive yellowface performers.

But there are more, many more. Long after poor sound equipment could be an excuse, white actors continued to play asian roles. This has been a frustration and impediment to Asian and Asian-American actors since Hollywood's beginnings. Part of the reasoning for these casting decisions are rooted in the minstrel shows and in America's century of Yellow Peril paranoia. Films in which a Chinese man threatened to rape or have a romantic relationship with a white woman would have been too much to bear for audiences, had the actor playing the asian actually been Chinese. By substituting a white actor in yellowface, the audience can experience outrage at the story, but at the same time be soothed by the fact that it is not real. Once again, like John Chinaman in minstrel shows, the yellowface actor plays out white fantasies of race in a safe environment.

Yellowface performances can be unbelievably offensive, completely unnecessary, or absurdly unreal. Sometimes, they are entirely respectable, like the above mentioned Warner Oland as Charlie Chan, or Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto. And sometimes, perhaps, they are somehow necessary. Like in the case of Fu Manchu.

I feel the role of Fu Manchu is appropriately played in yellowface. Warner Oland, Boris Karloff, and Christopher Lee all play the role to perfection. The secret in their success is this: Fu Manchu, the character, is in no way Chinese. As a personification of the Yellow Peril, Fu Manchu is the personification of the West's irrational fears and phobias. He is a rare mirror, through which we can see the pathetic characature of the Oriental that exists in the minds of so many Americans throughout history. By being a white actor in yellowface, the character's illusory, fantasy quality becomes underscored. Like children who playact as doctors and nurses, Fu Manchu is the outward representation of the childish playacting of a nation.

Watching movies which feature yellowface actors is sometimes fun, sometimes offensive, but always educational. In the next section we take a look at some of those films.

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