The skin disease that is turning faces pale in Hollywood
By Nury Vittachi
This horrendous disease was first noticed in 1956, when my father watched a movie called The Conqueror, about Mongol warlord Genghis Khan. It revealed that on his way to the screen Mr Khan acquired white skin and an American accent. “Yah didn't suckle me ta be slain by Tarters, mah muth-err,” Genghis (played by John Wayne) said to his parent.
This scary ailment struck again in 1961, when Mr Yunioshi, a Japanese character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, turned completely Caucasian on set. The props department had to disguise the actor (Mickey Rooney) with thick glasses and fake buck teeth to help him revert to the Asianness the character demanded.
The most shocking case of trans-racial mutation occurred in The Mighty Gorga, a 1969 movie in which American explorers go to Africa where they discover a tribe of, er, Indians. (Apparently the producers of the film never realized that Indians live in India and Africans live in Africa.) But when the film was screened, every single one of the Indian/ Africans described in the trailer turned out to be Caucasians.
In the 1970s, I was interested to hear about the development of a TV series about a wandering Shaolin monk. But by the time Kung Fu screened, he had become Caucasian. The series was followed by Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, in which the monk (David Carradine) discovers he has a son, Peter. Peter (Chris Potter) is clearly Caucasian, so I supposed the mutation must be hereditary.
Further evidence for this comes from HBO’s Marco Polo movie featuring Kublai Khan. Like his grandfather Genghis Khan, young Kublai (Brian Dennehy) became completely white on his way to the screen.
On stage, I saw the Cameron Mackintosh production of Miss Saigon, in which the Eurasian character looked suspiciously like British actor Jonathan Pryce with tape over his eyelids.
Looking ahead, this racial morphing is escalating nightmarishly.
In the Hollywood pipeline for 2008 release is Dragonball Z. In the original story, the main character Goku has alien blood but in terms of looks, is unmistakably a Japanese anime boy. But sneak previews of the big screen version show Goku as a cute all-American mop-headed Caucasian (Justin Chatwin). In May this year, Hollywood launches Speed Racer, a movie adaption of the classic 1960s Japanese tale about boy driver Go Mifune. Lo and behold, fans will find that Go Mifune will be played by a pretty white boy (Emile Hirsch).
Opening on cinema screens worldwide over the next few weeks is 21, the true story of a group of Asian-Americans (some students and their teacher) who used their math-geek ability to legally win millions of US dollars at casinos. But when their story hits the screen, we find the main characters have mysteriously become white. Student leader Jeff Ma is played by Jim Sturgess and teacher John Chang by Kevin Spacey.
This one dismayed me. After all, we Asians spent decades honing our reputations as bookish math geeks!
Now I’m not saying that all Asian characters become Caucasians when they reach the big screen. Consider the 1990s remake of The Jungle Book. It started Jason Scott Lee as Mowgli. Yes, finally, an actor of Chinese ethnicity gets a starring role—as Mowgli, an Indian.