OK you guys. This might be my favorite DIY project ever. It’s personal. And it’s weird. And I’m a little giddy about it. Excuse me while I go giggle behind my delicate Asian hand. 😉 It’s called Correcting Yellowface.
A few weeks ago, in a fit of frustration over the history of Hollywood whitewashing, I felt an urge to do something. I started taking pictures of myself. Not just random pictures. I took pictures of myself as Asian characters who were played by white women in film. And it felt sooooo good.
I put a chair in front of a white wall, set my camera timer, focused on my acting headshot (which had never seen so much action until this project) and ran into place hoping that my head was tilted just right and that I could get into character and emote something before the shutter started to click.
Why did I do this?
Growing up, I didn’t see many faces like mine on television and film. And because I wanted to be an actor it was really hard to believe that I could ever be one. Only women who had a certain skin color and eye shape were really allowed on screen, right? To this day white people are cast as Asians, deepening the message that Asians just aren’t wanted.
Hey, Hollywood is just a town of fallible humans. Producers, directors and casting agents? They make mistakes- and they need a little help. So, my friends, I decided to try my hand at correcting the yellowface.
I had doubts about my ability to pull off believable versions of these characters. Maybe I can’t do this, I thought. Maybe there’s a legit reason they don’t cast us. Maybe I’m not a good actor. Maybe I’m not beautiful enough.
But I kinda needed to know that I was. So I did this.
Luise Rainer in The Good Earth
Did y’all read The Good Earth in junior high? Do you remember when Olan birthed that baby and went right back to plowing the fields? Aw yeah. I was so proud to be of Chinese descent when I read that.
This role should have gone to my girl Anna May Wong but back then it was illegal for People of Color to play opposite white people as romantic leads. Since they had already cast a white actor to play the husband- the role of Olan was played by Luise Rainer- a white woman of German descent. The academy awarded her an Oscar for it.
I just have to say- I didn’t wear makeup in this shot. A challenge for me and perhaps I will grant myself my own award for that. But Olan was a Chinese farmer. She birthed her babies in the fields and got right back to plowing. I wanted my sun spots to show, because imagine being a Chinese farmer- how bad for your skin! I look at my driver’s side arm and imagine THAT all over my face. My grandfather’s family were farmers in China and I love hearing his stories about riding to Thailand on horseback and eating stone soup. This one’s for you, grandpa.
Katharine Hepburn in Dragon Seed
Katharine Hepburn. One of the greatest American actresses of all time. But hold up- what did they do to her face? Why I do believe they taped her eyes to make them appear more Chinese. This is yellowface with a capital yellow.
It was also one of the most challenging photos to shoot. One, because it’s Katharine Hepburn and I didn’t want to disrespect the queen may she rest in peace. And two, trying to recreate one of our greatest actors’ expressions while that actress’s face has been tampered with is just some crazy gymnastics. I really got into my head here and it wasn’t pretty. I considered calling this post Wictor Wictoria because it occurred to me that I was an Asian woman trying to be a white woman trying to be an Asian woman.
Myrna Loy in The Mask of Fu Manchu (and many more)
Myrna Loy was one hot white- I mean Chinese girl! Shooting this one really started to mess with me and my ideas of beauty. That face! Those eyes! Those gorgeous BLUE eyes! Let’s be honest, blue-eyed peoples’ eyes are like crystal prisms the way they catch the light and throw it around. When I was eight I wanted so desperately to look white that I used shampoo for blonde people and put clothespins on my nose to try to make it narrower. I’m proud of my half-Asian heritage now- very proud- but those were some dark days. Trying to recreate a pic of Myrna Loy brought me back.
Myrna Loy did yellowface many times so there were tons of great pics I wanted to play with. Why should white girls get to wear all the fun Asian costumes? This one sent me to Chinatown in search of a badass headdress.
Mm-hmm. That’s what I’m talkin’ about.
Rita Moreno in The King and I
Look, I know that Rita Moreno is hot. Like super hot. But she is of Latin descent, and since I am of Thai blood I had no choice but to take a shot at Tuptim. I went to Thai town and rented outfits from this awesome Thai clothing shop called The Phukaw and Tonk, a local Thai photographer, took my pics.
Years ago I auditioned for the role of Tuptim in the updated Anna and the King with Jodie Foster. I didn’t get the part- the role went to the gorgeous and talented Bai Ling. Tuptim is a Burmese princess who is given to the King of Thailand as a gift (slave) and lives in a gilded palace with a bunch of other wives. I am a mom from the Palisades having some kind of mid-life crisis dressed as a Thai fairy outside of Jumbo’s Clown Room. Tuptim and I have more in common than you think. I wish my grandma were alive so I could show her this picture. She’d have plenty to say about it. How suay (beautiful) my dress is, how nice my yim (smile) is, and how my hands are all… wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. Why aren’t you bending them back? You don’t look like dancer at all! Look like man hand!
This one’s for you grandma. We miss you.
Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell
Who doesn’t want to be a Japanese manga character!! You cannot blame Scarlett Johansson for wanting to play Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell, but maybe she could’ve just done some cosplay at Comicon and stepped aside for someone like Karen Fukuhara or Rinko Kukuchi or Kiki Sukezane or [insert Asian actress] or ME to have a turn?
As far as I know I do not have Japanese blood. But my mother and I are often mistaken for Japanese when we are in Thailand. Just the other day she told me people used to joke that when Japanese soldiers came to her village, my grandma… well you see where that joke goes.
I’ve sent away for AncestryDNA kits so stay tuned.
(*UPDATE: We might indeed be part Japanese! My mom is 89% East Asian, but hard to determine specifics as this category covers a lot of terrain. The fun surprise was learning she is also 11% Polynesian…)
Emma Stone in Aloha
Remember when we all heard that Emma Stone was playing a half-Asian woman in Aloha and we lost our shit? That felt good. We really bonded over that. But I have to admit in the midst of our outrage, I couldn’t help but notice this awesome vintage hat Emma was wearing in a publicity photo. Now, not only was I jealous that Emma Stone got to play opposite Bradley Cooper as half-Asian Allison Ng, but she also had a killer hat that was no where to be found on the internet. I needed to remedy this situation right quick.
My friend shot me at our local farmer’s market. And I made my own hat.
So, there it is. My adventures in correcting yellowface. Sometimes, when other people aren’t doing things right you just gotta Do IT Yourself. During this project there were moments of empowerment, sadness, frustration, satisfaction and glee. Also, a bunch of money spent on props. And it was so worth it. Like most of my creative endeavors I was motivated by the simple desire to entertain myself and my kooky inner circle of friends and family. But there’s more to this. This photographic journey is a love letter to all my Asian brothers and sisters out there trying to break into a tough business. I feel your struggle. But please keep fighting the fight. You are talented. You are beautiful. And goddammit, we belong in the picture. xo
Special thanks to
My sister-in-law Lu for her historical consultation and support.
My husband for telling me I looked “fucking dangerous.”
My kids for dealing with me this past month but especially that one weekend.
My entire kooky inner circle- you know who you are. 😉
I love you all.
For more, check out my HomeMadeMimi YouTube Channel where I DIY with power tools and funnies.
Here’s a link to my video about Correcting Yellowface!
And check out these awesome stories about Correcting Yellowface!