Austin is no place for “Yellow-face”

This piece is submitted by Drs. Madeline Hsu, Julia Lee, Nhi Lieu, Naomi Paik, Sharmila Rudrappa, Snehal Shingavi and Eric Tang of The Center for Asian American Studies, University of Texas at Austin

There is a cultural practice called “yellow face.”  It began in the late 19th century as a way to portray Asians in a negative light in drama and fiction in response to the increase in immigration to western countries, greater political tensions between the West and the East, and anxieties about exotic Orientals. Similar to the blackface minstrelsy that emerged out of the white popular culture’s simultaneous fascination and contempt for black life, yellow face is literally the practice of white actors dressing up in stereotypical Asian garb and make-up and lampooning or satirizing Asian cultures and histories for comic effect.  One of the most unfortunate legacies of that anti-Asian racism is the long legacy that it has in mainstream theater and film, so much so that it gets considered one of the hallmarks of humor rather than an odious practice that has long outlived its time.

Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” stands, embarrassingly, in the tradition of “yellow face” theater.  The plot is a simple one of romance at odds with marriage, but it moves forward, we are led to believe, because Japan has passed anti-flirting laws making flirting punishable by death: burying alive wives, burning others in oil, and on and on.  All of this is carried out by characters acting out debased and absurd tropes of anti-Asian racism: sexual repression and oversexed characters; fantastical feudal laws and tyrannical rulers; violence crying out for western order and morality.  And, to make matters worse, every character is played by a white actor, giving a wink and a nod (and using the familiar “ching-chonging”, short, staccato steps, ridiculous names like Yum-yum and Titi-Poo, and the interminable bowing, which were the bread-and-butter of anti-Asian racism) to the ease of the comedy and simplicity of the caricature.

According to Josephine Lee, professor or English at the University of Minnesota and author of Japan: the Pure Invention, “The Mikado does more than simply use yellow face as a convention; it celebrates its continued privilege.  Yellow face is so ingrained in The Mikado that it is a shock even to contemporary viewers to see anything but white actors in these roles.  What also happens is that there is no longer any responsibility to represent a real Japan, or to acknowledge the presence of actual Japanese (or other Asian) people. This faux-Japan becomes an exotic and imaginary world of the far East that was more familiar to many Westerners than any real Japan could be.”

The decision of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Austin’s decision to produce “The Mikado” this month at the Travis High Theater without even bothering to offer some historical context for the racial past of the play is a disappointment.  Equally unfortunate is the City of Austin’s decision to have taxpayers pay for the production.  At best this is irresponsible, at worst it demonstrates that racism against Asians is so widespread in both government and civil society that it is undetectable, even in supposedly liberal Austin.

There is a common rebuttal among those who defend “The Mikado”: this is not a play about stereotyping Asians, but about making fun of Europeans who act the fool. It’s really a witty satire about nineteenth-century Britain. In other words, the opera is so over the top that nobody can really take it seriously as a performance that is supposed to be about Japan. But isn’t this precisely the staying power of racism? The refusal to seriously acknowledge blatantly degrading images is precisely what sustains white privilege.

These are not abstract academic points; they have relevance to everyday life. Some of us have children, and on the occasion that one of them is taunted by another child who performs “chinky-eyes,” while other kids erupt in laughter, we are painfully aware that nobody is laughing at the foolishness of the perpetrator.  They are laughing at our child’s expense.

Yellow face, however “lighthearted” and “witty” it claims to be, is reprehensible and damaging to our shared community.  While we adamantly support public funding of the arts, perhaps the city government should choose to fund productions that refuse, or better yet, challenge racist images. (Incidentally, this month’s “Black Arts Movement,” organized by Austin’s ProArts Collective provides such an opportunity:

We are not calling for censorship. Rather, we are calling-out public performances of racism. The Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Austin should take note that other production companies in the US have found ways of performing this opera by addressing if not subverting its racism, by not only setting aside yellow face, but challenging it outright. Austin–particularly its arts and culture community—prides itself on being original, progressive and diverse.  This week’s production of “The Mikado” fails on all fronts.


4 thoughts on “Austin is no place for “Yellow-face”

  1. Pingback: Austin is no place for yellow face

  2. Sincerely, thank you for posting this. People still need to be *told* that this show is racist as hell? I guess they do. Cheez.

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