"Yellowface" is funny, according to a bevy of non-east Asians

No matter the degree, racism hurts, regresses and divides, but it needn't conquer.

There is a seminal scene in the 1993 movie Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, where the title character sits stone-faced in a cinema while his date and the audience laugh enthusiastically at a yellowfaced Mickey Rooney who plays a Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany's. After realising the severity of this transgression, Lee's date suggests they hightail it out of there. 2013 was the 40th anniversary of Bruce Lee's death, the film was released 20 years ago, and not two weeks ago I experienced a mirror of the exact situation in an Edinburgh Fringe play by Yale graduates.

The play, Beijing Cake, opens with two Caucasian and two African-American actors dressed in traditional Chinese garb, doing what can best be described as a 'chinky-chonky' dance. The black actors spoke in broken English as well as a made up 'Chinese' language. Then there was the ghost of tyrant Mao Zedong, responsible for the deaths of 50 million Chinese, portrayed as a friendly paternal figure. When the black actor (Gabriel Christian) threw money towards white American (Sarah Rosen) to buy her baby, myself and two other British East Asian actresses Julie Cheung-Inhin and Siu-see Hung, left the theatre.

“Would it be acceptable to call it 'Lagos Cake' and have people black up and talk made up 'African'?” asks London-based actor Daniel York. “I don't think so.” York spearheaded the protest against the Royal Shakespeare Company's predominantly white casting of Chinese play The Orphan of Zhao in late 2012. As a result, Equity, Arts Council and SOLT/TMA are now working to increase opportunities for East Asian artists. It's long overdue considering the acceptability of blackface ended in America in the 1960s with the civil rights movement, with a last major appearance in primetime TV in the UK in 1981.

Perhaps worse than the play itself and its failure at being an absurd satire – which requires relevancy – are the reactions to our reaction. The producer of the play dismissed our concerns, stating that white actors should be able to play any colour role as the industry would otherwise be very limiting. Playwright Rachel Kauder Nalebuff explained that she did not want to pinpoint China particularly, hence the made up language. She wanted audiences to ruminate on stereotypes in general. Um. The play is called Beijing Cake, the actors wear Chinese costumes and Mao Zedong is on the poster. The play also skewers Americans, but given Kauder Nalebuff's background, this is not so off-piste.

Complaints were filed with the Fringe Society and the venue The SpaceUK. In response, the show added a disclaimer and a post-show Q & A to explain the context of the piece. Fringe Society venue and companies officer Kevin Kimber responded with a padded and not unexpected statement: the Fringe Society does not have jurisdiction over the content of shows and is unable to modify or otherwise influence the work of companies participating in the Fringe.

I spoke to Charles Pamment at The SpaceUK to alert him of our offense and that media had been contacted (full-disclosure, my own play, a contemporary Chinese fairy tale, was also hosted at The SpaceUK). He summarily tried to ignore, patronise, silence, and when I wrote this blog post about the situation  that caused a Twitter storm amongst British East Asian artists, urged me to edit my “Twitter page accordingly.” I checked my Twitter for defamatory statements. None. My editor and I re-read the blog post for instances of unfair or irresponsible reporting. Covered. Then came the following text message: I just have no idea why you want to cause so much upset Anna. We are simply trying to look after shows. This is when the irony of the situation hit me. My name is not Anna. But there is a London writer, performer and broadcaster who had written a piece based on our experience.

Her name is Anna Chen.

I guess we do all look the same after all.

The exploitation of any culture by those outside it is not new. I get it. Look no further than cultural imperialism to see the roots of appropriation's current fixture in modern commerce. The nuances are found in the approach. Is a culture glorified or villified? Has it been thoroughly researched or glossed over? Is the representation or commentary skillfully done or just plain derogatory? One moment it's the RSC, next time it's a Fringe production, then a seemingly benign joke from a friend. No matter the degree, racism hurts, regresses and divides, but it needn't conquer. It mustn't continue to be glorified in culture and the arts. Another culture shouldn't be exploited and co-opted by those outside the culture they seek to represent. This is just my opinion, but I think Bruce Lee would agree.

Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

Anh Chu is a TV editor/producer, journalist, food critic and communications specialist, turned actress and playwright. Her plays Something There That’s Missing, Bonk! (co-writer) premiered at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. She has written sustainability and lifestyle pieces for Canada’s The Globe & Mail, Avenue magazine, Metro, and Writers of Colour. Tweet her @AnhChuWriter.

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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue