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Performances and Representations of Yellowface

Performances and Representations of Yellowface

Similar to the more widely-known practice of blackface minstrelsy, yellowface performance involved white actors portraying Asian American characters, or less frequently Asian Americans portraying Asian immigrants. Yellowface often emphasized Asian, usually Chinese, appearance, including skin color, facial features, clothing, hairstyle, diet, and manner of speaking. “John Chinaman” was a popular yellowface character used to ridicule Asian Americans by invoking common stereotypes, including the desire to marry white women. Typically, though, this desire is foiled when the white love interest is “stolen away” by a white man, in order to placate white fears about miscegenation (interracial sex).

Yellowface performances commonly featured characters speaking a mixture of Canton English (the pidgin language used by Chinese traders) and nonsense words, which served to infantilize and further exoticize Asian Americans. This practice also made the language, once of great importance to international trade, into an object of ridicule.

In addition to ridiculing Asian Americans, yellowface performance also worked as a means of giving white performers and audiences a sense of authority over Asian cultures. Apart from individual costumes and mannerisms, theatrical performances involving yellowface often incorporated backdrops, props, and stage conventions to create a narrative and world that could be claimed as “authentically” Chinese. As seen in Dr. Frederic Poole’s advertisement (Fig. 3), the inclusion of these elements in performances of plays originating in China were used to demonstrate the performers’ supposed knowledge of Chinese culture, legitimating their cultural authority and accuracy.

The tradition of yellowface performance continued in Hollywood portrayals of Asian and Asian American characters, especially in the Asian detective films of the 1930s, in which characters such as Charlie Chan were portrayed by white actors in yellowface makeup. The nickel weekly cover on this page similarly depicts the story’s white protagonist disguising himself as a Chinese man during his investigation (Fig. 1). Additionally, some images of Asians, such as the thread advertisement above (Fig. 2), go in the opposite direction by depicting “whitewashed” Asian characters who appear to look more typically European.