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.

The character:


The kid:


See also our post, by guest blogger Dustin Collins, on Ming the Merciless.


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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