Copyright free images of Bruce Lee
The Martial Artist, Bruce Lee internationally elevated Asian attractiveness during the 1960s. Before (and unfortunately after) him, both Asian men and women were depicted as unattractive and/or villianously alien but at least his magnetic presence propped open the door to eventual positive Asian portrayal in media. The standard depiction was often staged by non-asian actors who had thick, exaggeratedly puffed, prosthetic eyelids (which resembled aspirin tablets, a circle with a line etched in half). The masks that these actors wore were caricatures of asian faces and the clothes were stereotypical costumes, (not all Asians have their hair cut into straight bangs, they don’t wear red all the time or attack ‘Flash Gordon’ in long-sleeved mandarin robes or have Guinness book of world record grotesquely coiled fingernails…).
copyright free still images from “Flash Gordon”
My childhood days were spent reading books and watching free, local tv stations. Back then, it was a hyper technicolor world, one that switched from demure black and white to funkadelic color suddenly. I liked watching musicals, especially ones with Elvis Presley, or Shirley Temple tapdancing with her quick little smiling feet and twirled curls. I cried over the love tragedy of “West Side Story” (although Natalie Woods was white not a Latina! It was a common racist practice to replace an ethnic character with a white actor). I was a loyal audience, each time “The Wizard of Oz” aired I rewatched it with as much awe as when I first saw it. I was fascinated with the magical illusion of Hollywood although the shows and films all focused on White American culture. I watched the classic American shows, “The Andy Griffith Show”, “Leave it to Beaver”, “My Three Sons” in black and white, but in those imaginary places, no people of color existed.
Mickey Rooney in yellow-face, images from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”
I was subconsciously indoctrinated into that world, it was my televised model to imitate as an immigrant. I could only be a follower, a fan; not the lead, the hero, the sex symbol or the star. My culture could only participate as an Outsider/Other: different, ugly, vilified as an enemy or disempowered as passive servants with heavy, grammar butchering accents with phrases like, “Me go to kitchen, Boss”. Remember the western show, “Bonanza” with an asian servant/cook? Or the “Charlie Chan” movies that were shot in black and white. Even as a child I wondered why an actual Asian actor wasn’t allowed to play the titled role. Instead a very chubby Caucasian man, wore thick plastic-looking shiny appendages above his eyes, I think the slanted upwards tilt was even accentuated with eye shadow, to increase the drama! Stranger still, his young sidekick apprentice detective was an authentic Asian actor, but he was delegated the dumb role, he was the clueless ‘Watson’ to the genius of Charlie Chan’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’. Was that a subversive message? That even a pretend Asian was superior to a real Asian? We weren’t supposed to notice the difference, or we were supposed to simply accept caricature as truth. Similar to the bizarre Disney characters, Pluto and Goofy, inequality was a naturally accepted part of life. Why was Goofy a fully dressed dog who could talk and walk upright like Mickey, Donald etc. but Pluto was Mickey’s naked pet, he walked on all fours, barked, wore a collar and a leash? Was Pluto a sub-dog? A slave? Why weren’t we supposed to notice these discrepancies? Anyone could see that the white Charlie Chan actor was portraying his version of a freak, but no one said it was unacceptable, wrong or racist.
Charlie Chan posters and screen images of non-Asian actors in yellow-face.
Disturbing Disney characters showing species inequity. The popular, Hello Kitty character by Sanrio also depicts Hello Kitty with a pet cat. How bizarre that Sanrio imitated Disney’s bizarre animal hierarchical message.