Esther Kim Lee

Perhaps you’ve seen “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” the Audrey Hepburn movie with a stereotyped character of an Asian man, played by Mickey Rooney, a white actor.

Or maybe you know of “Madam Butterfly,” with Mary Pickford, a white movie star playing an Asian woman. Add names like Katharine Hepburn, Boris Karloff, John Wayne and others to the list of non-Asian stars of the early 20th century who played East Asian characters.

This practice – wearing makeup and costume to mimic the appearance of an East Asian – is known as yellowface.

Duke Francis Hill Fox Professor of Theater Studies Esther Kim Lee wanted to know why this was popular. “What was it about seeing fictional Asian characters played by white actors that was so entertaining?” asked Lee in a Duke Alumni Lifelong Learning video. With this in mind, she set out to write her book, “Made Up Asians: Yellowface During the Exclusion Era,” which won the 2023 Barnard Hewitt Award for Outstanding Research in Theatre History.

The Exclusion Era refers to the period between the 1860s and 1940s when Asians were barred by law from immigration and naturalization in the United States. These laws were in part to blame for Hollywood not casting Asians to play East Asian characters. Fictional Asian characters played by non Asian actors have persisted on stage and screen for decades, into the 21st century.

Lee had discovered through research for her first book, “History of Asian American Theater,” that many Asian American actors were inspired to get into acting specifically to fight against yellowface.

She dedicated her new book to Asian American actors. “I hope the gates will open for you,” she said.

Lee was born in Seoul, Korea, and spent her youth in Santa Barbara, California. She joined Duke in 2018.