confronting Hollywood’s racist past
When the topic of yellowface is broached, most Asian Americans can readily recall the insulting images of Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) or David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine (a role that was originally pitched by and for Bruce Lee) in the TV series Kung Fu (1972). But this demeaning practice has been around for much longer than the 1960s.
Just as blackface was established in the 1830s as America’s first national entertainment, yellowface has been part and parcel of the film industry for more than a century. In the early days of the cinema, playing a “screen Oriental” was practically a rite of passage for most Hollywood starlets. Mary Pickford, Norma Talmadge, Alla Nazimova, Pola Negri, Bessie Love, and Laska Winter (who I once mistakenly thought was Asian) all had stints putting on the yellow mask.
Myrna Loy got her start in Hollywood by playing “exotica.” Leading ladies were narrowly defined as blonde and blue-eyed beauties back then. Loy was a freckled redhead from Montana and producers didn’t quite know what to do with her, as she later explained in an interview for the Columbia University Oral History Project. Then she got a part in a Natacha Rambova vehicle called What Price Beauty? (1925) as a bewitching, ethnicized vamp and the type seemed to stick.
“With the structure around my eyes, it turned out, makeup could make me look Oriental,” Loy wrote in her autobiography. “They just whitened my upper lids, accented the natural line, and I got away with it. So what do they do back at Warners? They cast me as a Chinese in The Crimson City, with Anna May Wong. Up against her, of course, I looked about as Chinese as Raggedy Ann.”
Even Loy’s stage name — her real name being Myrna Williams — was crafted in a way to insinuate that she could be more than just white. “Some felt for a time that possibly I had some Oriental blood,” Loy confessed. “How nice that would be, but however, it doesn’t happen to be true. I’m Welsh, Scotch, and Swedish.”
For years, Loy was typecast in “Oriental villainess” roles like the one she played in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) as the supervillain’s daughter. “Interviewers often assume that I had a miserable time playing all…