I have a confession to make: I absolutely love the Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto franchises. Charlie Chan was a lot more personable than Sherlock Holmes and injected lots of humor into the otherwise dour murder mystery genre. As for Mr. Moto, he was a groundbreaking character. Years before James Bond, Man from UNCLE, The Saint and Mission Impossible, there was the diminutive Japanese secret agent spying on behalf of Interpol (the Japanese government in the novels) fighting spies and agent provocateurs.
But (and you knew this was coming, didn’t you?), there’s a major issue with both movie series. They’ve become shameful reminders of the Hollywood practice of hiring white actors to play Asian characters, called “yellow face”. Although understood as a dated and racist practice, it’s a tradition that refuses to die. Not only did it last well into the 1960s and 1970s with Breakfast at Tiffanys and Kung Fu, it inexplicably saw a resurgence in recent movies like Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange.
Not surprisingly, yellow face is a very controversial issue. Besides being discriminatory against Asian actors, it was based around an offensive stereotype of how Asians looked, talked and acted. To make the Caucasian actors look Asian, makeup artists would slather them in a ridiculous amount of makeup (which included fish skin and fake buck teeth). Actors would also speak in a ridiculous accent, in which R’s and L’s were switched, and they’d often say things like “ah so” or utter phrases meant to sound “Confuscian” but sounded more like corny fortune cookie expressions.
The excuse for yellow face could’ve been made that white actors had to be cast because there was such a shortage of Asian actors in Hollywood at the time. The problem is that movies that used yellow face always made sure to stock all the secondary characters with Asian actors. In fact, the more unconvincing the white lead was, the more Asian actors were crammed into the background to force the illusion that the white lead actor was really Asian.
This practice not only flew in the face of the excuse that there weren’t enough Asian actors in Hollywood to play Mr. Moto or Charlie Chan, it started playing out in increasingly absurd ways, even by 1930s and 1940s standards. For example, in Mr. Moto’s Last Warning (1939), Japanese actor Teru Shimada (You Only Live Twice), played Mr. Moto’s decoy. The casting of Shimada as a stand-in for a Japanese character played by a Hungarian was so ridiculous, there must have been audience members at the time who wondered, “If they could get a real Japanese guy to play Mr. Moto’s stand in, why not hire one instead?”
Although both yellow face and blackface were equally discriminatory, I think yellow face was a more stinging type of racism. The reason is that while blackface was about stereotyping black people as complete buffoons with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, yellow face was steeped in an infuriating double standard. On one hand, it was Hollywood acknowledging that Asians could possess positive traits like intelligence, resourcefulness and wit. On the other hand, it was saying that Asians were so inferior to whites that they couldn’t even play themselves in these types of roles; only whites were good enough to play them. The type of roles Asian actors were good for? The coolie, second banana, wise sage or inscrutable villain.
Naturally, because of yellow face, many people have issues with Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan, and to this day actors like George Takei have made it a point of using them as examples of everything that is wrong about Hollywood’s racism against Asians–as well is their right. Unlike so many people today who weren’t old enough to have seen or experienced yellow face, Asian actors like Takei not only experienced it firsthand but had to jump through enormous hurdles in Hollywood because of it.
In spite of the racism behind yellow face, I agree with those who feel that though we should frown on movies that used it, we shouldn’t consign Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan to the garbage bin of cinematic history. The reason why is that these characters, as they were written (not portrayed) were not meant to be racist. That is to say, yes–of course it was demeaning to have white actors squinting through fish skin, talking through comically large teeth and switching their Rs and Ls. Of course it was terrible to prevent Asian actors from playing Asian protagonists out of the superiority of feeling that only whites deserved to play them.
But when you get down to it, Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan were meant to be cool, intelligent crime fighters and mystery solvers cut from the same cloth as other fictional detectives of the time, such as Nick and Nora Charles, Miss Marples and Hercule Poirot. Charlie Chan, in spite of the silly accent and unconvincing make up, was witty, charming and cool under pressure, as well as a highly regarded member of the police force and the equal of every white person in his movies. Mr. Moto was a slick secret agent always a step ahead of the bad guys and doing his part to stop saboteurs and agent provocateurs from exacerbating military tensions in Asia. Their portrayals may have been undignified but the characters themselves were meant to be anything but.
So, given all this I say: let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater and ditch these movies because in the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood studios were just too stupid and racist to have Asian actors play Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan. Let’s bring them back and finally do them justice. Let’s drop the stupid fish skin eyes, buck teeth and heavy makeup. Let’s drop the cheesy dialogues and accents. And let’s, for the love of God, finally have Asian actors play them as the cool, intelligent and clever crime fighters and spies that they were originally written as. I hate reboots as much as the next person, but these are two I would definitely get behind.
Oh ye millenials and Gen-Z’ers who love to lambast older films for not complying with your social standards. Here is something you need to realize, Chinese people LOVED Charlie Chan. When Warner Oland, the first successful actor to play the part, went over to Shanghai, everyone there loved him and chatted him up n Chinese. This is because Oland exhaustively made an effort to read up on Chinese culture and philosophy and could both read and write in the language. His on-screen son Keye Luke, an Asian American, LOVED Oland and thought he was respectful to the people and the culture. He avidly defended the series and always affectionately referred to Oland as “Pop.” Victor Sen Yung also loved working on the films and defended the second Charlie Chan, Sidney Toler. Sen Yung is quoted as saying, “Movies aren’t about protecting national identiy, they are about the right person playing their part.” I’m wondering, Mr. Authour, if you have an issue with non-Autistic people playing Autistic people, ala Dustin Hoffman in RAIN MAN. If such a practice, namely ABLEFACE, doesn’t offend or upset you, I insist you keep your fake social justice to yourself.
What are you talking about? (Where is this GenZ or millennial stuff coming from?) Who are you yelling at?
This issue with Mr. Moto and Charlie Chan has nothing to do with GenZs or millennials. Yellowface was a problem for actors of George Takei’s generation. Even Mickey Rooney expressed regret over his role in Breakfast at Tiffanys.
The whole point of this article was to point out the fact that these characters WERE problematic but that we shouldn’t banish them because Hollywood was so bigoted that it couldn’t even have Asian actors play them. We should, if anything, bring them back but in the right way–using Asian actors and giving them as much dignity as they were originally intended.