The following is a letter from The Greater Seattle Chapter of AdvOCAte in response to the controversy surrounding the recent Seattle production of The Mikado:
The Greater Seattle Chapter of AdvOCAte (formerly the Organization of Chinese Americans) would like to thank Sharon Pian Chan for her thoughtful editorial, “Yellowface in Your Face” (Seattle Times, 7/14/14) regarding the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s production of The Mikado.
We are, however, dismayed by the producers’ and bloggers’ insensitivity and unwillingness to understand why many Asian Americans may be offended by The Mikado. Instead, these defenders of The Mikado seem to delight in offending Asians and Asian Americans, and minimizing/dismissing their concerns. In essence, they assert it’s far more important to look at what the play means to the British than how it perpetuates stereotypes of Japan and people of Japanese/Asian descent. For them, it is acceptable for the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society to use Japan as a comic trope to satirize the oddities of British manners. In other words, the dignity and feelings of Japanese (and other Asian people) are expendable for a theatrical laugh/“entertainment.”
Even more alarming in the blogs that followed the publication of Chan’s article are sentiments ranging from how Asian Americans are “doing too well” to how China is even more racist than Gilbert & Sullivan (?) (ironically, these bloggers show an inability to distinguish Japan from China). Many defenders also say the use of white actors in yellow face in The Mikado has been “acceptable” for 150 years, so why complain now?
While we doubt that Asian Americans ever really liked having non-Asians put on white-powdered make-up, slant their eyes with tape to make them squint, create buckteeth, and bow excessively (although you can always find one or two Asian people who would disagree), we find it odd how, in 2014, 40 non-Asian cast members would want to continue this warped caricature of Asian people.
And yes, while some Asian countries may not be that “nice,” this does not excuse the insensitivity of Gilbert and Sullivan during the 19th century (the peak of British imperialism), and it does not excuse the producers of the current production of The Mikado. By labeling those offended by The Mikado as too “PC,” the defenders suggest we should remain as we were to them back in the 19th century—invisible and irrelevant.
For those who believe we are exaggerating the consequences of productions like The Mikado, consider the many portrayals of yellow face in American entertainment from the demonic Dr. Fu Manchu (1932) to the “Wise Ones” episode of How I Met Your Mother (2014). Note that among the most infamous caricatures was Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), who, unlike what we are hearing from the current cast of The Mikado, expressed regret for his actions. Constant caricaturing has relevance. Thank you, Sharon Pian Chan, for standing up; for being visible and relevant.
Asian Pacific American Advocates
Judy Lam Maxwell
Editorial Board: ‘The Mikado’ controversy an opportunity to create and educate