Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing
Dir: Otto Lang, Henry King
Our theme, started last week with 'Butterfly Man' is that of Westerners falling in love with Eastern women.
It is a theme that seems particularly pertinent in Thailand.
It is certainly a subject which we could talk a lot about.
However, I'd like to talk about another aspect of 'Love is a Many-Splendored Thing' - the use of 'yellowface' - casting Caucasian actors in Asian roles.
Jennifer Jones who stars as Dr. Han Suyin was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is about as Asian as apple pie.
The film had censor troubles from the very start. The book was determined to be unfit for filming by the Production Code Administration. The prime source of its unacceptability was the fact that the male lead is married, and therefore leading an adulterous affair.
However, it is certainly true that the concept of an interracial relationship added to the problems.
The producers made two changes. Firstly they convinced the censors that the relationship would not be portrayed as a sexual relationship.
Secondly, they cast Jennifer Jones.
Back then, just as Hollywood gave us 'blackface', they were equally likely to give us 'yellowface'.
In '55 Days at Peking', every single Chinese character with dialogue is played by a white actor.
The first three Charlie Chan films in fact starred Asian actors. Okay, they weren't really Chinese. They were two Japanese and one Korean actor. But one can't really expect Hollywood to tell the difference, can you?
But they weren't great commercial successes, and it wasn't until the role was played by Swedish actor, Warner Oland, that the series took off. Later, Peter Ustinov played, the role, and the character was parodied by Peter Sellers in 'Murder By Death'
It bothered few people at the time that David Carradine played the part of the Eurasian hero in 'Kung Fu'.
There are numerous other examples, including 'Mr Moto', 'Dragon Seed', 'The King and I', and 'The Inn of the Sixth Happiness'.
And the real Asian actors of the time had a tough time, usually finding work only as the bad guys.
In 1935, Anna May Wong was considered a top contender for the role of O-lan, the Chinese heroine of 'The Good Earth'. However, because Paul Muni was of European descent, the Hays Code's anti-miscegenation rules meant his character's wife had to be played by a white woman. So, MGM gave the role of O-lan to a white actress and offered Wong the role of Lotus, the story’s villain, but Wong refused, stating: "...I won't play the part. You're asking me - with Chinese blood - to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast portraying Chinese characters."
But perhaps the most famous and offensive portrayal of an Asian character by a Western actor comes from Mickey Rooney in 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'.
His portrayal of Mr Yunioshi is perhaps the most outrageous stereotype ever put on film.
Both producer Richard Shepherd and director Blake Edwards have since expressed their regrets and apologies for this character.
Mickey Rooney said, "I was downright ashamed of my role in Breakfast at Tiffany's."
Public screenings of 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' have been cancelled after protests by anti-racism groups.
But this is surely wrong.
These films were a product of their time. And what was acceptable in that time was very different.
We should not excuse the mistakes and injustices of the past. But nor should we pretend they didn't exist and try to expel them from the record.
It's also worth pointing out that to a large extent, the degree of offence caused by such portrayals has increased over the years.
When these films were released, it is arguable that Asian audiences found them nowhere near as offensive.
The US-made Charlie Chan films were by far the most popular American films shown in China in the 1930s. The depiction of a smart, resourceful, and respected Asian character was seen as an extremely positive element to the films.
When actor Warner Oland visited China, he was welcomed by crowds, reported extensively in newspapers, and respectfully greeted as 'Mr Chan'.