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"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.

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

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.