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
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!)
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
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.)