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Another Redhead Against Racism
"One of us is yellow." 
16th-Oct-2009 05:12 pm
racism bites
Right: I want to talk about Chinese characters in Doctor Who. This will take more than one posting!

To start with, I want to talk about "yellowface" - that is, casting White actors in Asian roles, using makeup and prostheses to make them look the part, generally with a resounding lack of success. It's an issue Who fans have to face squarely; there's only one example in the whole series there are only a handful of examples in the show, but one of them happens to be in one of our favourite stories.

Figure 1. Honourable master is kind to bestow praise on humble
Chang's miserable unworthy head, etc etc etc.

This is of course the baddie Li H'Sen Chang in the 1976 Tom Baker story The Talons of Weng-Chiang, a consistent poll-topper. The character is played by White actor John Bennett1. Despite looking rather like a cut-price Star Trek alien, Bennett escapes with his dignity, partly because Li H'Sen Chang escapes with his: the character repeatedly uses the racist assumptions of the English people around him for his own purposes, cloaking himself in the "Chinaman" stereotype as easily offstage as he does onstage.

But I'm afraid that's the kindest thing I can say about the story. Actual Asian actors are relegated to the role of fanatical Tong members. The Doctor's spoken "Chinese" had a Chinese-Australian friend of mine and his family falling about laughing2. And I'm reasonably certain that the rather sad-looking symbol on Chang's magic cabinet was copied from a restaurant menu.

Anyway, here we see the two problems with yellowface: firstly, it makes fun of Asian people. That's obviously not the intention with Talons, but it's still the effect: Chang is just another rather silly-looking monster played by a man in a rubber mask3. And secondly, it keeps Asian actors out of work, and stalled in their careers, by reserving leading roles for White actors.

Now. Fandom (and indeed people generally) have a tendency to think of things as either completely good or completely bad. A story (or a person) is either racist or not racist, either irredeemably offensive or squeaky clean. This attitude is a mistake. Most stories, like most people, contain a mixture of prejudice and more enlightened ideas. But because of this either-or thinking, it's difficult for fans to acknowledge the racism in Talons. It can't be both a classic and racist. Can it?

The use of yellowface in Talons is defended by fans in a number of ways. Bennett's performance is pretty terrific, and Chang is sympathetic; the English characters are also stereotypes4; the whole story is a pastiche of Victorian fiction; it was common practice on TV at the time5; and that there were no Asian actors available who were suitable for the part.

Even at the time, yellowface was not cheerfully accepted by all viewing audiences. In 1982, DWM reported that TVOntario declined to repeat screen the story after the Chinese community expressed concern. [ETA: outsdr helped me track down the full story from DWM 71. TVOntario is an educational network; broadcasts of Who were followed by a five-minute discussion chaired by SF legend Judith Merrill. Members of Ontario's Chinese community were shown the story privately before its planned broadcast. Their concerns about its racism influenced the decision not to screen it. The station considered asking Chinese community members to discuss the story with Merrill, but realised they'd need to do it for all six episodes, for six nights running.]

The question is: how did Bennett come to be cast? Were there auditions for the role, and if so, were any Asian actors considered? Is it true that few Asian actors were available - or is that just the impression we're left with by their absence from the screen? In what way was Bennett more "suitable"? I've been poking through DWMs, books, and Web sites all day without being able to find any details.

So that leaves me with so many questions. If it was a question of Chang's age (Bennett was in his early forties), why not cast a younger Asian actor and put him in ageing makeup6? It might look just as unconvincing, but at least he'd be able to use his eyes and forehead! Bennett's rubber forehead is always smooth, robbing him of expression; according to DWM's Complete Fourth Doctor special, he had to take care "not to blink his eyes beneath the rubber eyelids applied to his face". (And what was Burt Kwouk doing that week?) Alternatively, why not just have Bennett play the role as an Englishman who has returned from many years in China?

Figure 2. An expression which Mr Bennett would have been unable to produce.

Anyway, I'll keep looking for the skinny on this. But looking round the net, it's clear that a lot of fans do cherish the story while also acknowledging the racism of Chang's rubber face. If we can acknowledge that lolarious giant rat, without dismissing the entire story as worthless rubbish, then I reckon we can acknowledge the racist elements too.

More on this subject later. (If I don't go and do the washing up it's going to walk off!)

1 There are also White stunt performers in yellowface; they're uncredited, but are briefly visible in episode 1, when the Tong thugs flee the police whistle. Thankfully, Asian actors are used when a closeup is needed.

2 I wonder if it was any better in Mind of Evil. For that matter, how's his Tibetan?

3 If, like me, you've been watching this story all your life and Li H'Sen Chang just looks like, well, Li H'Sen Chang, try comparing him with any of the actual Asian actors in the story; the difference will jump right out at you.

4 Not to mention the drunken and superstitious but loveable Irish stagehand!

5 There's an indescribably awful example in 1977 New Avengers episode Trap.

6 How about Tony Then, who plays Chang's stage assistant, Lee? Watch him in the background in the scene where cabbie Buller confronts Chang - he's acting his socks off! (John Wu, pulling the face above, gives good value too, even without any lines.)
16th-Oct-2009 07:01 am (UTC)
I'd never heard the one about there being no Chinese actors suitable for the part. That may well have been true, but it smells like bullshit to me.

I will agree with the fact that white actors in yellowface was a common enough practice in the UK at the time. Whenever I see it done in shows from that period I just accept that that's how it was done back then. I do think that films and TV shows need to be taken on the values that were present at the time.

That said, while I'll defend them on the 'common practice' argument, that doesn't mean it didn't come from a basic racist assumption, that Chinese couldn't act, couldn't be leads, wouldn't be able to talk 'proper' English, etc. It may have been common practice, but it was also wrong.

The story was almost certainly a deliberate pastiche on Fu Manchu, and if that's what Robert Holmes was aiming for then all the Chinese being bad-guys works, in that limited context.

What I can't help but wonder is, was Bob Holmes himself a racist, or merely insensitive to such issues as many people can be? The abandoned Auton story set in Singapore that he was going to write was called, according to BBC documentation, Yellow Fever and How to Cure It. Was that title his, was it proposed by the production office, what is the story there? Other titles for the story have been bandied about, such as Made in Singapore, Evil of the Autons and Return of the Autons, but we always come back to the Yellow Peril title as the one.

Of course if we start talking about Robert Holmes as a racist, then fandom will implode, because someone can't be a highly talented writer and a racist, can they?
16th-Oct-2009 11:05 am (UTC)
I will agree with the fact that white actors in yellowface was a common enough practice in the UK at the time. Whenever I see it done in shows from that period I just accept that that's how it was done back then.

There are some notable exceptions, though - see the contemporary programme Gangsters, series 2 (1978) for example - several recurring Actual Chinese Actors (caveat: theme being some rather daft/2D Triad stuff, although the whole absurdist tone of s2 probably accounts for that to some degree, given s1' less "typed" approach to a multiracial cast/characters)... perhaps also The Chinese Detective, although admittedly that was made a little later (1981) and (given the premise) really couldn't have got away with the practice.
16th-Oct-2009 11:17 am (UTC)
I seem to recall an interview comment (possibly from David Maloney, though I'm not sure) on the subject of Holmes and Asians, which put his racial attitudes in the "tacky old grandpa" bracket rather than the "actively malicious" one. It probably came from the same sort of wellspring of unexamined assumptions as the howlingly awful Mexican bandito in "War Games", as written by Terrance Dicks and Mac Hulke (whose general lefty liberalism is pretty unquestionable)...
16th-Oct-2009 07:29 am (UTC)
By all the small gods, I do like The Talons of Weng-Chiang ;)

I will however poke at your argument a little.

Anyway, here we see the two problems with yellowface: firstly, it makes fun of Asian people. That's obviously not the intention with Talons, but it's still the effect: Chang is just another rather silly-looking monster played by a man in a rubber mask.

"Makes fun of". Really? A poorly executed imitation, done without intent to mock, constitutes mockery?

I would submit that it constitutes prejudice on the basis of favoritism for White actors over Asian actors, and demonstrates a shabbily provincial point of view with regard to a rich foreign culture.

There are far too many examples of yellowface in Western media where the mockery, the condescension, is teeth-grindingly evident. It's not necessary to invent it where it does not exist. Neither should it be ignored where it does exist; the banality of racism is, for example, all too evident in E.R. Burroughs' The Lost World, to my dismay on the bus this morning.

But I agree that there is no apparent intent to mock with The Talons of Weng-Chiang. I submit that if poorly executed imitation of another culture is racism, the local high school's presentation of The Mikado is racism.

The selection of a White actor to play an Asian role, given that this is a professional television show made for a national television channel, is on the other hand indefensible. Just another part of the ubiquitous but largely unspoken racism of the period.

16th-Oct-2009 10:33 am (UTC)
On the casting issue, a major factor to take into account is the "rep company" (or to be less kind, "jobs for the boys") approach that was normal practice at the time: Directors chose their own casts, and tended to pick from within a pool of people they'd worked with before and got along well with, unless some requirement forced them to look outside. Just looking within Who, notice how often Bernard Horsefall's appearance on screen coincides with a director's credit for David Maloney, for example.

So it wasn't just actors of particular ethnic background who were disadvantaged (being less likely to have ever come to the director's attention), it was *anyone* who wasn't already an old pal of the director, or someone they'd been impressed by elsewhere and thought "I must give that guy a job sometime, see if I can get him to join my team". Add in the inherent inequity of, er, Equity (where you couldn't get an acting job without being a member, and you couldn't become a member unless you had an acting job), and the situation was basically thoroughly elitist all round.

But that was OK, because they were all such *jolly nice people*... =:o\
17th-Oct-2009 07:59 am (UTC)
I think that's a good point - the infotext on the DVD notes the previous occasions on which the director had worked with some of the cast. Given that apparently no-one thought the yellowface was a problem, it may not even have occurred to Maloney to consider a fresh face (one which didn't need rubber glued to it).
16th-Oct-2009 11:12 am (UTC)
There are a couple of other yellowface examples in Who, actually -- "Marco Polo", "Celestial Toymaker", and "Abominable Snowmen" come to mind! Though it's harder to see the makeup in black and white, I guess. I wonder if they would have made up Michael Gough again for "Nightmare Fair"...?

As for the "adapt the part to be an Englishman" idea, that probably wouldn't be practical -- the plot depends on Chang actually worshipping Weng-Chiang, which would be rather odd for a Brit. It would require more than a few dialogue tweaks to make that work -- and given how insanely last-minute the script was (Holmes finished the last part a couple of days before they started shooting), I can see why that wouldn't exactly cross his mind!
16th-Oct-2009 11:18 am (UTC)
Oh, and Kevin Lindsay as Cho-Je!
16th-Oct-2009 04:46 pm (UTC)
That's some seriously bad makeup. John Wu in aging makeup would have been a much better choice.
Considering it was 1976 I'm sure they could have found a suitable Asian actor somewhere if they had looked. It isn't as if Europe and China had no communication with each other whatsoever.
It bothers me beyond belief that in this day & age we still have remarkably little diversity on screen. It might be because I live in a city with several universities and a large number of students who come from other countries, but when I walk down the street I see more than one or two cultures represented, and I see them represented in a huge array of different people -- students, parents with small children, businessmen. Why can't the media reflect this?
17th-Oct-2009 11:30 am (UTC)
It isn't as if Europe and China had no communication with each other whatsoever.

Well they didn't have much communication. Little thing called the Cultural Revolution kind of messed up the channels a bit.
16th-Oct-2009 11:40 pm (UTC)
The story I've heard (I don't recall where, but I've come across it more than once) was that there was one Asian actor who impressed the production team, but they decided he was too young. I've never seen the actor named, so it may be a lame excuse. I think a young Chang would have made more sense than a middle-aged man--after all, for Magnus Greel to lead Chang around the way he does, Chang must be pretty impressionable. (Or gullible--I don't recall whether he really believes Greel is Weng-Chiang.)
17th-Oct-2009 09:36 am (UTC)
I wonder if it was any better in Mind of Evil.

Surely at least better *written*, under the circumstances, but I wouldn't want to place money on it being any better *executed*.
17th-Oct-2009 10:47 am (UTC)
The Doctor's brief effort at Mandarin does start with a recognisable "Ni hao ma?". My guess is the words are right, but the pronunciation is all over the shop - especially the tones. (There was a script book! I wonder if it gives the actual line.)
17th-Oct-2009 12:31 pm (UTC)
I'm not a particular devotee of Talons. It's at least an episode too long, and it rambles all over the place (but it does also have a joke about Birmingham and the 'Show us a trick' moment in Episode One). But I got bored with fandom's brow-beating over Chang about a decade ago. No one can ever think of an alternative apart from Burt Kwouk, who was in the middle of the Pink Panther films and clearly had better things to do.

Now that you've broadened the criteria to 'any Asian actor who happens to appear in the serial, regardless of experience or ability' we've still only two more choices, and for all your bigging up of Tony Then's reacting skills, they do smack of straw-clutching.

Your suggestion of having Bennett play the part as a returning Englishman is also disingenuous, you know Talons was a very late replacement script as it was, and such a heavy rewrite of Chang's character would have been well-nigh impossible in the time available.

Chang's portrayal is unfortunate, from a 21st Century point of view, but I think it's an understandable casting decision given the time and Doctor Who's production constraints. It's something to be winced at, possibly even tutted at, but it's pretty small beer. And as for Tom Baker's 'Mandarin' being off, I do hope you pointed out to your friend that he was an English-speaking actor on week 21 of a 26 week season. I was present when an American friend of mine called Nicola Bryant the 'Dick Van Dyke of American accents' right to her face, and it's just a bit unkind, really.
17th-Oct-2009 01:01 pm (UTC)
"I was present when an American friend of mine called Nicola Bryant the 'Dick Van Dyke of American accents' right to her face, and it's just a bit unkind, really."

OUCH! Yes. Dare one ask how she reacted, or would that be just being nosey? I can construe a version of the conversation in which is wasn't unkindly meant, and was taken in the spirit intended, but...

And when she managed a more accurate New York accent for one of the Big Finish stories, it just sounded *wrong*. "Where did Peri go?" =:o\

(Apologies seeingred for wandering way off topic.)
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