The Sinophile’s Dilemma: from Yellow Face to Angel Island

Several museum staff members recently enjoyed a Sneak Peak of Mo’olelo’s production of Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang, the comedic story of a playwright who accidentally casts a Caucasian in an Asian role, which leads the actor to claim a fictitious Asian ancestry and launches his career as an Asian American actor and activist. Both actor and playwright then become embroiled in the campaign finance controversy of 1996, in which Chinese Americans’ loyalty was called into question. Such accusations are reminiscent of the days of Chinese exclusion and the “yellow peril,” and make studies like Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America by Judy Yung and Erika Lee (who will be speaking at the museum September 11) all the more important today. Comedy is an effective means of addressing this unfortunate legacy and dealing with uncomfortable questions like whether it is possible to move past a heritage of racism, to what extent (if any) a white man can understand the experience of minorities, and what a post-race society would look like.

I’m not Chinese, nor do I pretend to be, but I did feel a strange affinity with the character Marcus, who is a white imposter in the Asian American community. I speak Chinese, run the education department at a Chinese history museum, and often lecture to groups of Chinese Americans about their own culture and history. Marcus and I are both white males who participate in and even represent Asian American culture, but neither of us has experienced the involuntary plight of a minority.

I was once called the N-word. I’m not sure why. I have dreadlocks and a tan, but I'm not that tan. Someone just yelled it out the window of a passing car. The novelty made it absolutely hysterical; I couldn’t stop laughing. So, not your typical reaction to being slurred…

All over the world, and especially in the United States, skin color is inseparable from notions of race. Despite loud and often-violent outcries about Irish, German, Italian, Polish, and other European immigrants, the Chinese were the first ethnic group to be legally barred from immigration with an 1882 ban that was later extended to all immigrants from the “Asiatic Barred Zone.” While Europeans passed through Ellis Island in New York, Asians were detained, interrogated, and often deported at Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay. In examining immigration records, oral histories, and inscriptions on detention center barrack walls, Erika Lee and Judy Yung address some of the same issues as Yellow Face. One would hope that most people today (at least outside of Arizona) realize one’s appearance does not reveal national loyalties or likelihood to assimilate, and Yellow Face brings up the possibility that racial identity can even be adopted or fabricated.

Curly blond hair and a full beard make me look even less Chinese than Brian Bielawski (the actor who ably plays Marcus), but people still ask if I’m part Chinese all the time. I used to dress up in a Chinese-style jacket when going to teach at local schools, but I stopped wearing it because it got too hot when performing the animated gesticulations necessary to hold children’s’ attention. Now that I think of it, I was not far from dressing up in “yellow face.” When students call me “the Chinese guy,” I try to use it as a teachable moment to tell them it’s acceptable and enjoyable to explore other cultures, but some people (who haven’t seen me teach, of course) actually have said they would prefer someone more “authentic.”

As a white male, I have no room to complain, but it gets a little tiresome having museum visitors tell me that I’m not Chinese (although it was entertaining when one stated unequivocally that I was Chinese in a former life). On the other hand, the museum’s Japanese American graphic designer Jessica has to deal with people asking her why she doesn’t speak Chinese, and then, why she’s allowed to work here in light of the acrimonious history between Japan and China. Likewise, I recall pitying my poor Chinese American classmates at Nanjing University who sometimes were treated like illiterate halfwits because of their poor Chinese language skills, while I received effusive compliments for saying “Ni hao” (hello).

So, to me, yellow face, means my amateur Mandarin appears much better than an equally incompetent Chinese American’s; it means Jessica gets more awkward questions than me, but people still will be confused when they walk into the museum and see me, and I’ll never be authentic (but I would argue there’s no such thing, anyway). Yellow face means that many people might never escape the legacy of racism, and that I might never fully understand some of the experiences I try to teach. But perhaps the fact that people like my colleagues at the museum, and even “ethnic tourists” like Marcus, are willing to study, embrace, and even adopt another culture means that we eventually can move past superficial prejudice to combine and integrate our cultures into a progressively more cosmopolitan and enlightened society.

Indeed, it may be that white Anglo-muts like myself and Marcus, who repeatedly says that his “background is so mixed up,” harbor an incipient desire to belong to a community with an ancient, continuous and comprehensive historical heritage. There’s no Scottish-Italian-Russian-maybe-some-Dominican community or New Year celebration for me to participate in, and trying to rediscover, combine and claim each of these identities would be no more authentic than me claiming to be Chinese.


  1. Bravo, Alex! What an interesting, insightful, and mind-opening blog post! Thank you! - Seema


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