You might have heard a lot about "yellowface" in recent months. It's the word widely used to refer to someone donning makeup or clothing to present the appearance of looking Asian. But why are we seeing the word — and the phenomenon it refers to — so much this year? Is it because it's happening more? Or are we just more aware?
In the past month, Seattle's Gilbert and Sullivan Society came under fire for its production of The Mikado. The operetta premiered in London in 1885 and was intended to be a satirical commentary of British society — except it was set in Japan. (The Mikado was banned in Japan in the opera's early years.)
Sharon Pian Chan, a columnist for The Seattle Times, penned an op-ed that sparked another wave of discussion:
"The opera is a fossil from an era when America was as homogeneous as milk, planes did not depart daily for other continents and immigrants did not fuel the economy."
The Gilbert and Sullivan Society in Seattle wrote its own op-ed in the same paper. Mike Storie, the show's producer, and Gene Ma, a board member of the group, wrote that "the ethnicity of the actor or the production is only an issue if one is looking for issues."
A few years ago, Rick Shiomi found a way to produce The Mikado in Minneapolis with no yellowface.
"I decided to change the names, for example, one of the names was 'Nanky Poo.' I changed it to 'Frankie Poo,' " Shiomi says. "Instead of the performers coming out and doing faux Japanese cultural activities, I had the chorus come out, and they're playing cricket."
He set the play in England, not Japan. Asian-Americans had several lead roles, and he even rewrote some of the lyrics.
Shiomi says theater companies have the right to perform The Mikado the way it was originally written, but he wonders, why do that? Art, he says, is rethought, and recast, all the time.
The Seattle production is not alone in its use of yellowface: In January, the cast of How I Met Your Mother parodied martial arts movies and tried to make themselves look Asian, and the new Woody Allen film Magic in the Moonlight features a white magician in yellowface. Pop singer Katy Perry dressed like a geisha during her performance at the 2013 American Music Awards. And, a few months ago, a clothing store called Topshop sold a necklace that had a string of canary yellow faces that looked indisputably Asian. Every single one of these incidents was called out on blogs and social media.
"This isn't necessarily a sign that yellowface is becoming more popular, that there's a yellowface renaissance of sorts," says Jeff Yang, a Wall Street Journal columnist who often writes about Asian-Americans. "One of the things I think is becoming more clear is that we're noticing it more."
"If there were not an Asian-American columnist at the Seattle Times this year, no one would have written about it here," Chan says.
There are more Asian-Americans now than ever who are observing the culture and speaking about it. Social media, blogging and the like have given people the tools to discuss issues in ways that historically weren't available.
And Yang says one of the reasons there hasn't been a unified response to yellowface and stereotyped depictions of Asians or Asian-Americans is that the term "Asian-American" is really broad.
"Asian-Americans have come in multiple waves, distinguished by different experiences, ethnicity, language, faith [and] cultural practice. There has been this disaggregation," Yang says. "It's been a lot harder for [an organization] like the NAACP to emerge that is representative of a pan-Asian sensibility and a pan-Asian political position."
This story is part one of a Code Switch discussion about the practice often referred to as yellowface. Come back Thursday as we chat more about this topic with three experts.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
.This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel. Performing in blackface was once common - actors or singers portrayed black stereotypes by putting on dark makeup, or speaking and singing in exaggerated dialect.
(SOUBITE OF SONG, "MY MAMMY")
AL JOLSEN: Mammy, mammy my heart sings are tangled around Alabammy.
SIEGEL: That's Al Jolson in blackface back in 1927. Well, even today there's something called yellowface too. It's when non-Asians adopt stereotypical Asian personas, often with makeup or taped eyelids or costumes. It's been part of Western culture for centuries but as we hear from NPR Sam Sanders, yellowface has become the focus of new criticism.
SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: "The Mikado" is a comic opera more than 100 years old. It was written by two Englishmen and it's usually cast with white actors playing exaggerated Japanese characters.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE MIKADO")
SANDERS: That's the D'Oyly Carte Opera Companty. Last month, Seattle's Gilbert and Sullivan Society put on the show and Seattle Times editor Sharon Chan went to see it.
SHARON CHAN: Everyone's laughing, everyone's having a good time, but I can't get over the fact that there are 40 actors on stage all wearing kimonos - exaggerated eyebrows - there are men bowing. There are men shuffling. There are women giggling behind their fans. There is continual snapping of fans.
SANDERS: Chan says at some point she just sank down in her seat, and by the end of the show...
CHAN: I think I was in disbelief because the show also ended with a standing ovation. So there was just this massive gulf.
SANDERS: Chan, who is Chinese-American, wrote an op-ed criticizing the production. That led to protest and national news coverage - something that had never happened in the 10 times the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society had put on "The Mikado" before. The society declined to comment for our story. The Seattle production was not alone. There was an episode of "How I Met Your Mother" that parodied martial-arts movies. The new Woody Allen film "Magic In The Moonlight" features a white magician in yellowface. Pop singer Katy Perry dress like a geisha during her performance at the American Music Award, and a few months ago, clothing store Top Chop put a necklace on sale with multiple canary-yellow, exaggerated Asian faces. Every single one of these incidents was called out on blogs and social media.
JEFFREY YANG: This isn't necessarily a sign that yellowface as is suddenly becoming more popular - that there has been yellowface renaissance of some sort. One of the things that I think is more clear however, is that we're noticing it more.
SANDERS: That's Jeffrey Yang, he's a columnist for the Wall Street Journal Online and he says all of this attention is a fairly recent development.
YANG: A big reason for this is that there are more Asian-Americans I think now, than ever before who are not only observing the culture, but able to speak out about it. Social media, online reporting, blogging and the like have given Asian-Americans the tools to raise our voice in a way that historically hasn't been available.
SANDERS: And Yang says one of the reasons there hasn't been a unified response to yellowface and stereotyped depictions of Asians or Asian-Americans, is that the term Asian-Americans is really broad.
YANG: Asian-Americans have come in multiple waves. Those waves have been by and large distinguished by substantially different experiences in immigration, ethnicity, and in language and in faith. It's been a lot harder for an institution like say an NAACP to emerge that is representative of a pan-Asian sensibility and the pan-Asian political position.
SANDERS: Let's get back to "The Mikado." The Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society wrote its own op-ed in the Seattle Times saying quote, "The ethnicity of the actor or the production is only an issue if one is looking for issues." But a few years ago, Rick Shiomi found a way to produce "The Mikado" in Minneapolis - with NO yellowface
RICK SHIOMI: I decided to change the names. For example, one of the names was Nanky Poo and I changed it to Frankie Poo.
SANDERS: He set the play in England, not Japan. Asian-Americans had several lead roles. He even rewrote some of the lyrics.
(SOUNBITE OF OPERA, "THE MIKADO")
CHORUS: (Singing) If you want to know who we are - we are gentlemen of England. (Unintelligible).
SANDERS: Shiomi says theater companies have the right to perform "The Mikado" the way it was originally written, but he wonders - why do that? Art he says, is rethought and recast all the time.
SHIOMI: People could say well, we want to do Shakespeare with all men, and there are some companies that do that but in general, Shakespeare is now wide open to anyone in terms of race, in terms of gender - all those kinds of things because we found that to be more exciting.
SANDERS: As for yellowface, most recently it's come in a new shade. HBO's has come under fire for an Australian TV series that started airing in this country last Friday. It's called "Jonah From Tonga." Tongans are Polynesians natives of Australia. In the show, a white man plays a Tongan by wearing brown makeup and a curly wig. The Japanese American Citizens League is already calling for the show's cancellation. Sam Sanders, NPR News. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In referencing a character from the HBO show Jonah From Tonga in the audio version of this story, we incorrectly define Tongans as Polynesian natives living in Australia. Tongans are in fact people who originate from Tonga (or the Kingdom of Tonga), an independent island nation in the South Pacific.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.