Yellowface © Anna Chen – reproduced here with permission.
Linking to the Special Issue’s exploration of the politics of cross-racial performance, here Anna Chen performs her poem Yellowface. An excerpt from Chen’s poem appears in my article as an epigraph, but in this video the piece is performed in its entirety.
As I highlight in the longer piece, yellowface is a practice historically associated with the stereotypical impersonation of Asian, particularly Chinese, identities through the use of make-up and prosthetics. These practices reflect anxieties around racial difference in mainstream culture, working to exert power over Chinese bodies by controlling and demeaning their representation. In Classical Hollywood cinema, yellowface became justified on the basis that there were not enough qualified Asian actors to fill leading roles. Although Asians were cast as supporting actors, under the studio system white actors began to perform all leading Asian parts (using yellowface make-up and prosthetics), including characters that were not stereotyped. Yellowface therefore took on a new dimension as it excluded Asian actors from racially-specific roles, allowing it to embody both racial impersonation and racial discrimination.
Chen’s poem Yellowface speaks to this legacy. In it, she reappropriates the term by satirically performing as the dominant position: ‘I’m yellow face’. Indeed, the visibility of her racial and cultural background in the video reinforces the critique. As Chen highlights the lure of yellowface, the desire for, and attraction towards, cultural difference, the poem’s satire emphasises how such dynamics contain the potential to dehumanise those of East Asian descent and erase them from popular culture. The poem constantly provides us with images of smallness, invisibility, obliteration and denial. Chen’s message is that any performance of yellowface, any exclusion of East Asian actors from roles linked to their own racial-ethnic background, is an act of cultural appropriation. It ‘scoop[s] you out’ and ‘eat[s] your soul’, leaving East Asians degraded and without access to their cultural roots. During The Orphan of Zhao controversy, Chen posted the poem on social media, using her artistic abilities to reinforce cultural activism. Indeed, the poem became an apt touchstone for many British East Asian artists protesting the casting of The Orphan of Zhao.
Chen also created a full chronology of The Orphan of Zhao protests which can be accessed here: http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/p/rsc-orphan-of-zhao.html