Controversy over the casting of white actors for the film version of The Last Airbender, a show filled with Asian characters, and the producers’ sketchy decision to re-cast one evil character as Asian in response to the protests, inspired Claire at Hyphen to put together a trajectory of the whitewashing of Asian characters through U.S. history.
There’s a lot of examples, so I’ve placed them after the jump.
Warner Oland plays Charlie Chan in Charlie Chan Goes to Shanghai (1935):
The Good Earth (1937) didn’t have a single Asian person in a lead role:
Jennifer Jones as Han Suyin in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955):
John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956):
Tony Randall as Dr. Lao in The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964):
David Carradine beats out Bruce Lee for the starring role in the TV series Kung Fu (1972):
Linda Hunt won an Oscar for her portrayal of Billy Kwan in The Year of Living Dangerously (1982):
Peter Weller as Buckaroo Banzai in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai (1984):
Claire argues that around this time yellowface became unacceptable, so producers just started re-racing Asian characters as white. Some examples:
In the book, A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged is described as having red-brown skin. In the TV series, Earthsea (2004), he’s white:
In the movie 21 (2008), based on a true story involving Asian Americans, several Asian characters are changed to white:
Finally, in Dragonball: Evolution (2009), a Japanese character Son Goku is rewritten as a white character:
Jen S. alerts us to a Disney movie in development based on a comic called The Weapon (2012). According to the Hollywood Reporter, the main character, a Chinese American named Tommy Zhou, will be played by a white actor named David Henrie.
See also our post, by guest blogger Dustin Collins, on Ming the Merciless.