Racial exclusion has seen an evolvement from Asiatic fears in what was known as the “yellow peril” to modern ideas of the “model minority”. In a long historical timeline, the acts of exclusion and views of Asian Americans has shifted with historical context and events. In order to properly understand the racist tropes that exist against Asian Americans in Hollywood, we must first understand the origination of racism and stereotypes against Asians and how the first Asians in Hollywood were presented to the public.

This 1912 cartoon portrays Uncle Sam, an iconic caricature of American nationalism, holding a protest flyer against Russia’s exclusion of Jewish Americans and being haunted by the “skeleton in his closet” that is the Chinese Exclusion Act

      Anti-Asian racism has roots that date back to the 1850s when the United States saw an influx of roughly 25,000 Chinese immigrants with the California Gold Rush and expansion of the Transcontinental Railroad. This subsequently led to a belief that Asians were coming to steal “white jobs” and sparked the vicious cycle of discrimination and racist stereotypes that persist today. Discrimination continued as Chinese immigrants faced mass lynching and violent attacks in their communities, unable to defend themselves and testify against white witnesses as ruled by the California Supreme Court in People v. Hall in 1853. As the fear of an “orient” invasion grew, the United States government enacted exclusionary immigration policies in the forms of the Page Act of 1875, which prohibited the recruitment of laborers from Asian nations who were brought for “lewd and immoral purposes” and explicitly forbade “the importation of women for the purposes of prostitution”1, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, an act that suspended immigration of Chinese for ten years and declared Chinese immigrants ineligible for naturalization. Both of these Acts made legal Chinese immigration nearly impossible. Japanese immigration rose in the late 1880s and was likewise curtailed by The Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907; this took the form of a Japanese note which agreed to deny passports to laborers intending to enter the United States and recognized the U.S. right to exclude Japanese immigrants holding passports originally issued for other countries as an attempt to appease the American people while maintaining friendly relations with Japan. South Asian immigration also fluctuated with the 1917 Immigration Act, an expansion of the Chinese Exclusion Act that created an “Asiatic Barred Zone” from which all Asian immigration was completely banned. Filipino immigrants were the only immigrants not targeted by these exclusion acts due to the annexation of the Philippines by the U.S. after the Spanish-American War, but quickly saw resistance in the form of the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934 after they began immigrating to the U.S. and American citizens became aggravated once more. With the continuation and progression of each of these acts came a persistent aggression against Asian Americans and Asian immigrants in which they faced harassment and violence, being painted as racial, economic, and sexual heathens that threatened the integrity of a pure white, Christian America. Anti-Asian racism took aim at those of Japanese nationality during World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Racial hysteria became the basis for Executive Order 9066, passed on February 19, 1942, and the establishment of Japanese internment camps where 120,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated. During this time, people belonging to other Asian ethnicities made great attempts at presenting themselves as non-Japanese in order to avoid immense discrimination and began to assimilate themselves more deeply into American society; this would become one of the roots of the “model minority” trope.2 As relations with various Asian nations shifted, so did the stereotypes surrounding the various Asian groups. Despite immense differences in relationships as history progressed, the sentiments of the Asian villain, the sexualized Asian female, the assimilated Asian, and the forever excluded foreigner dug their claws deep in American society and have remained ever present in public narrative. When Hollywood arose during its Golden Age in the 1920s and 30s, it seized the opportunity to portray the world as seen through the lens of American society and inevitably presented Asian Americans as the racial caricature that the American people thought them to be. 

This is a collage of various cartoons from the late 1800s that display anti-Asian sentiments and warns of the “dangers” of Chinese immigrants to the United States

Asians in Early Hollywood

Hollywood reflected and perpetuated the overall distrust of Asian peoples through films and added fuel to the idea that Asians threatened the Western way of life and sought ways to destroy it. Very few Asians were given roles in Hollywood films, and those that were, played a limited number of typecasts. It is vital to understand the roles given to the select few Asians permitted in Hollywood as well as the racist practices employed and caricatures created in the early years of Hollywood film. 

Anna May Wong 

Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American Hollywood movie star and the first Chinese American actress to gain international stardom. Wong made her first appearance in a major Hollywood film in 1922 at the age of seventeen.3 Despite her talents as an actress, Wong was diminished as an “Oriental beauty” and limited to supporting roles as the demure Lotus Blossom or calculating and cruel Dragon Lady. Hollywood deemed Wong’s race unfitting for a leading lady and she was passed over numerous times for leading Asian roles that were instead played by white actresses using yellowface. Wong’s first film was titled Toll of the Sea in which she plays a meek Chinese woman named Lotus Flower who is hopelessly devoted to her American husband. Lotus Flower never fails to wear elaborate Chinese gowns and is ultimately abandoned by her husband for a white woman, subsequently drowning herself in the sea following her husband’s departure with their child.4 The character of Lotus Flower embodies its eponymous trope and creates a narrative of an Asian woman who is timid, oriental, pathologically devoted, and meaningless without a white “savior” in her life. Among Wong’s most notable films was Daughter of the Dragon (1931), where she plays a scheming, murderous, beauty who kills without mercy.This character lures in a white male with her exotic features and attempts to ruthlessly murder him as he falls for her tricks and beauty, perpetuating the narratives of the dangers of the Orient. Anna May Wong was subjected to playing demeaning characters throughout her career that embodied the false Western narratives of the evil and sexual East. The characters she played and the tropes they embodied and created would continue to persist within Hollywood and shift to fit the societal narratives of their time. 

Philip Ahn 

Philip Ahn was a Korean American actor who successfully launched his Hollywood career in the 1930s and continued to star in movies and television until the 70s. Throughout this time, Ahn was given little leading roles, often playing supporting roles as oriental archetypes such as the sympathetic Chinese hero or sidekick in Oriental detective films and China epics. In King of Chinatown, Ahn partnered with Anna May Wong to portray an ideal Oriental that emphasized homogeneity and compatibility. This was not only an elimination of miscegenation threats to white America, but also showcased assimilated Asian Americans that imitated the white, middle-class, heterosexual union and would be important for the later creation of the “model minority” ideal. During World War II, Ahn shifted his screen persona and began to play evil and menacing Japanese villains in response to the absence of Japanese American actors due to internment and a growing demand for cross-ethnic performers to play the Japanese “heavies” that white actors refused to play. The Korean War began a short five years after Japanese surrender and the identity of “yellow peril” enemies modified to include Chinese and North Korean communists, once again altering Ahn’s on-screen persona. With Ahn’s portrayal of various Asian caricatures came confusion about his ethnicity where he ultimately received harassment and portrayals for his villian roles as filmgoers confused them with his true identity. Ahn ultimately became the face of the quintessential Oriental to those that recognized him from film, and Hollywood seized this opportunity to orientalize him further through the use of aging makeup, traditional costumes, and a forced accent, tactics that maintain a “forever foreigner” ideology despite complete American background of the Asian actors. Philip Ahn is indicative of not only the few caricatures Asian Americans were subjected to play, but how historical events and societal perspective can alter the portrayals within Hollywood cinema.5 

Fu Manchu

Fu Manchu was a creation of Sax Rohmer, who perceived the Chinese and Chinatown as a “faceless, exotic and mysterious evil”6, a traditional Western prejudice that was reinforced by the Boxer Rebellion. Hollywood took hold of the character of Fu Manchu and portrayed him for the first time in 1929 in The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu starring Warner Oland. The character of Dr. Fu Manchu became increasingly popular as it reaffirmed the imagined threat that Asians and Eastern nations posed to the Western world order; the character also became linked to the actual historical figure of Genghis Khan and created a balance between a menacing creature of mythic proportions and a real menace to society.7 The character of Fu Manchu operated within the white homeland, primarily in the grimy enclaves of Chinatown, and carried and deep hatred and envy of the west. The character itself battled white counterparts, creating a narrative of the Asian challenge and threat to whiteness. The white hero would inevitably come out on top to attest to white supremacy and European superiority. One of the key features of this character was the villian’s ability to be a master of disguise, furthering a prejudice that no matter how much Asian Americans would claim to be integrated into society, they would never truly accept Western ways and would always pose as a deviant, ready to commit criminal behavior. Alongside the character Fu Manchu was his daughter who was presented as cunning and equally slimy with a taste for white men. This furthered a villian trope that crossed gender boundaries and presented Asians as not only a physical, but a sexual threat to Western society.8 Although Yellow Peril rhetoric began to subside as the United States and China became allies in the 1930s, the overall structure of the character would remain in films and make frequent appearances or see likenesses as the United states found conflict with other Asian nations. 

Charlie Chan 

In 1919, author Earl Derr Biggers was inspired to write about a Chinese detective while in Hawaii and realized his first Charlie Chan novel in 1925. This novel and subsequent others were a relative success, but Hollywood was hesitant to portray an Asian character that was the good guy rather than the villian, sidekick, or sexual object. In 1931, the portrayal of the sympathetic Charlie Chan became popular with the release of Charlie Chan Carries On starring Warner Oland. This success created the Oriental detective that negotiated a complex set of traits, finding a balance between the evil Orient and the hero of the Western world. The character came with elements that could be potentially sinister such as the master-of-disguise ability that was possessed by the character of Dr. Fu Manchu. This was balanced with accomplishments and intelligence with the character often spewing wise statements beginning with the problematic phrasing of “Confucious say…”9 Although this character portrayed Asians in a more positive light, the Oriental nature persisted and created a new stereotype of an Asian man who was inferior to his white counterparts with minimal masculinity, a passive nature, and a broken English speech pattern. Another hallmark of the character was his explicit association with the United States and/or Europe. This distinguished Charlie Chan from the villainous Asians and created an ideology that the institutions of Western authority could create a heroic character that non-Western nations were incapable of creating.10 

For the sake of avoiding a display of racism and harmful actions towards Asians, I have not included any examples of yellowface. Images are available to view on the internet at your own discretion. Please be wary of any use and presentation of such images as they may cause discomfort and distress for members of the community.

Yellow Face

Yellowface refers to a non-Asian actor portraying an Asian character with the use of makeup, prosthetics, and costumes to give them “Asian features” that would often include exaggerated stereotypes, such as extremely slanted eyes, large buck teeth, and flat noses. White actors would wear overly “Oriental” costumes that made them easily identifiable as Asian characters and were made to look as sinister or as buffoonish as possible. This practice is clearly racist and problematic, but was employed in Hollywood for years with little push back from individuals outside of the Asian American community. Yellowface was common in part because interracial contact and romantic relationships were barred by legal government action and casting white actors were better-known and more relatable to audiences, generating greater revenue. Characters such as Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu were largely played by Caucasian actors in yellowface, actors such as Sidney Toler, Roland Winters, Peter Ustinov, Ross Martin, Boris Karloff, and Warner Oland. The characteristics embodied through yellowface were founded upon features that merely opposed Western qualities and values, and was often a tactic to belittle Asians. These portrayals reproduced the stereotypes that were existent in society and reinforced nativism and xenophobia. When yellowface was found to be increasingly problematic, Hollywood instead employed the tactic of whitewashing, which involves the complete replacement of an Asian character with a white one or simply a white actor under an Asian name (examples include Ghost in the Shell and Aloha).11


  1. Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. “Before the Chinese Exclusion Act, This Anti-Immigrant Law Targeted Asian Women.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, March 19, 2021. https://www.history.com/news/chinese-immigration-page-act-women.
  2. Lee, Erika. The Making of Asian America: A History. New York: Simon et Schuster Paperbacks, 2016.
  3. “Museum of Chinese in America.” Museum of Chinese in America Anna May Wong Comments. Accessed December 10, 2021. https://www.mocanyc.org/collections/stories/anna-may-wong/.
  4. Shimizu Celine Parreñas. The Hypersexuality of Race Performing Asian/American Women on Screen and Scene. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.
  5. Fuller, Karla Rae. Hollywood Goes Oriental: CaucAsian Performance in American Film. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010. Accessed October 3, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central..
  6. Park, Jane Chi Hyun. Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema. NED-New edition. University of Minnesota Press, 2010. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.cttttcj1.
  7. Fuller, Karla Rae. Hollywood Goes Oriental: CaucAsian Performance in American Film. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010. Accessed October 3, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.
  8. Pomerance, Murray. “From Fu Manchu to M. Butterfly and Irma Vep: Cinematic Incarnations of Chinese Villainy.” Essay. In Bad: Infamy, Darkness, Evil, and Slime on Screen, 187–200. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004. 
  9. Park, Jane Chi Hyun. Yellow Future: Oriental Style in Hollywood Cinema. NED-New edition. University of Minnesota Press, 2010. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.cttttcj1.
  10. Fuller, Karla Rae. Hollywood Goes Oriental: CaucAsian Performance in American Film. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010. Accessed October 3, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.
  11. Morgan, Thad. “How Hollywood Cast White Actors in Caricatured Asian Roles.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, August 20, 2018. https://www.history.com/news/yellowface-whitewashing-in-film-america.