"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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To heal Britain’s cracks, it’s time for us northern graduates in London to return home

Isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

I’m from Warrington. The least cultured town in the UK. My town.

I moved to London almost exactly five years ago. Not because I particularly wanted to. Not because I wanted to depart the raucous northern town that I still call home. Because it was my only choice, really. I’d done my stint in the call centres and had some fun. But that couldn’t, surely, be my lot?

After university, I’d already started feeling a little weird and out of place back in Wazza. There were fewer and fewer people who didn’t look at me like I’d just fallen off a futuristic space flight that’d given me a different accent and lofty ideals.

Of course, that’s because most people like me had already skipped town without looking back and were all in the capital trying to strike beyond the ordinary.

The young, the cities, the metropolitan elite are still reeling after last week’s vote and wondering how people, half of our people, have got it so horribly wrong. We’re different, divided, done for.  

One thing I’ve clung onto while I’ve been in London is the fact that I’m from Warrington and proud. It might not be a cultured town, but it’s my town.

But I wasn’t proud of the outcome of the EU referendum that saw my town vote 54.3 per cent to 45.7 per cent to leave.

To be fair, even in my new “home” borough of Hackney, east London, the place with the third-largest Remain vote, one in five people voted for Brexit.

Yes, in one of London’s hottest and most international neighbourhoods, there are quite a lot of people who don’t feel like they’re being taken along to the discotheque.

Perversely, it was the poorest places in the UK that voted in largest numbers to leave the EU – that’s the same EU that provides big chunks of funding to try to save those local economies from ruin.

In many ways, of course, I understand the feelings of those people back in the place I still sometimes think of as home.

Compared to many suffering places in the UK, Warrington is a “boom town” and was one of the only places that grew during the last recession.

It’s a hub for telecoms and logistics companies, because, ironically, its good transport links make it an easy place to leave.

But there are many people who aren’t “living the dream” and, like anywhere else, they aren’t immune from the newspaper headlines that penetrate our brains with stories of strivers and scroungers.

Warrington is one of the whitest places in the UK, and I’m sure, to many locals, that means those immigrants are only a few towns away. There’s already a Polski sklep or two. And a few foreign taxi drivers. Those enterprising bastards.

We have never seriously addressed the economic imbalance in our economy. The gaping north-south divide. The post-industrial problem that politicians in Westminster have handily ignored, allowing the gap to be filled by those who find it quick and easy to blame immigrants.

When schemes like HS2, which is plotted to smash right through the place I grew up, are pushed against all of the evidence, instead of a much-needed, intercity Leeds to Liverpool investment to replace the two-carriage hourly service, it’s like positively sticking two fingers up to the north.

But I am also a big problem. People like me, who get educated and quickly head off to London when things aren’t going our way. We invested in ourselves, sometimes at state expense, and never really thought about putting that back into the places where we grew up.

There weren’t the right opportunities back home and that still stands. But, rather than doing something about that, people like me lazily joined the gravy train for London and now we’re surprised we feel more kinship with a 20-something from Norway than we do with someone who we used to knock on for when we should have been at school.

That’s not to suggest that our experiences in the capital – or mine at least – haven’t made us a thousand, million times better. 

I’ve met people who’ve lived lives I would never have known and I’m a profoundly better person for having the chance to meet people who aren’t just like me. But to take that view back home is increasingly like translating a message to someone from an entirely different world.

“You know, it’s only because you live in a country like this that a woman like you is allowed to even say things like that,” assured one of my dad’s friends down at the British Legion after we’d had a beer, and an argument or two.

Too right, pal. We live in what we all like to think is an open and tolerant and progressive society. And you’re now saying I shouldn’t use that right to call you out for your ignorance?

We’re both Warringtonians, English, British and European but I can increasingly find more agreement with a woman from Senegal who’s working in tech than I can with you.

It’s absolutely no secret that London has drained brains from the rest of the country, and even the rest of the world, to power its knowledge economy.

It’s a special place, but we have to see that there are many people clamouring for jobs they are far too qualified for, with no hope of saving for a home of their own, at the expense of the places they call home.

It’s been suggested in the past that London becomes its own city-state, now Londoners are petitioning to leave the UK.

But isn’t it time for people like me, who’ve had privileges and experiences not open to everyone, to start heading back to our local communities, rather than reinforcing London’s suffocating dominance?

We can expect local governments to do more with less, but when will we accept we need people power back in places like Warrington if we want to change the story to one of hope?

If this sounds like a patronising plan to parachute the north London intelligentsia into northern communities to ensure they don’t make the same mistake twice... Get fucked, as they say in Warrington.

It was Warrington that raised me. It’s time I gave something back.

Kirsty Styles is editor of the New Statesman's B2B tech site, NS Tech.