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Painted Over


Painted Over

 


Quen reads his monologue as he auditions for the role of the King in the Brophy-Xavier spring production of The King and I. He stands tall and regal. He enunciates divinely and projects a stately presence throughout the auditorium. The King’s pompous, chauvinistic attitude comes naturally to Quen, and it shines through in his performance. If there ever was someone who could credibly play the King of Siam (or any king, for that matter), it is Quen. With his exotic mixed-blood appearance, he even looks like Siamese royalty, or at least much more so than Yul Brynner or Leo, the white Brophy senior who is also trying out for the role. After he finishes, I go over to congratulate him. He nailed it. Now I just need to ace my audition for Prince Chulalongkorn, the King’s eldest son and heir to the throne.

Under the direction of Father Babington, Brophy and Xavier combine forces to put on two musical productions each school year. These highly acclaimed shows feature elaborate sets, gorgeous costumes, excellent technical effects and crew work, and some remarkable actors, singers, and dancers. I had been introduced to it all when I attended the spring production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum with Mom, Dad, and Mei.

Sure, the musical featured the outstanding Stephen Sondheim music and lyrics, fantastic production values, and a hilarious story. However, I had been most thoroughly hypnotized by the courtesans Tintinabula, Panacea, The Geminae (twins!), Vibrata, and Gymnasia that appear in the show. All played by beautiful, scantily costumed Xavier girls who unabashedly strutted, sashayed, and shimmied their nubile bodies across the stage, stirring my heart and one other vital organ along the way.

At Brophy, joining the theater group would be the only way for me to spend time with these heavenly creatures. Hence, I got involved with Brophy-Xavier theater's fall semester production of Anything Goes. As a sophomore with no prior stage experience, I earned a minor role. I didn’t care. More importantly, I had found a way to re-introduce some estrogen into my daily school life.

Quen disparagingly called the musical Anything Blows, as he hated it for its racist themes. He was pissed I had taken the role of Ching while Leonard played Ling. Or maybe it was the other way around, and I played Ling and Leonard played Ching. It didn’t really matter as both were bigoted caricatures of two Chinese gamblers. They suffer the indignity of getting beat up by some white gangsters who then steal their clothes and make a mockery of Chinese with exaggerated accents and behaviors. He was also incensed at how the show hypersexualized the female Chinese character of Plum Blossom, with whom a male character states he had enjoyed an “unpremeditated romp in the rice.”

Therefore, when Father Babington announces that The King and I would be the next musical production, Quen feels certain that this is Father Babington and the school’s way of atoning for the sins of Anything Goes. He persuades me that this is our chance to “set the record straight,” the opportunity for each of us, “a strong, powerful, handsome” Asian male, to take on the two main Asian leads and demonstrate to the world the glory of the Asian man.

Just before my audition, James Milton goes up first for the same role. James is also a junior, but he has been involved in Brophy-Xavier theater since his freshman year and already has a couple of featured roles and one lead to his credit. He is clearly one of Father Babington’s favorites. Moreover, he has a beautiful tenor voice that is strong and projects well, yet can convey tenderness and vulnerability. As we listen to his mellifluous voice, I am not at all confident I can best him. Nonetheless, Quen tells me my voice is every bit as good as his and that, as an Asian, I should have the edge.

“Remember, Asian pride,” he whispers to me with an encouraging smile as I go up on stage.

I start well enough, but when I glance at Father Babington, I see him speaking with Marie, the assistant director. I feel my throat constrict, and my voice strains and wobbles through some of the song’s middle notes. I recall and start to fret over Lesley’s comment about me being pitchy at times. I quickly look over at Quen, who appears a bit nervous for me but then flashes me one of his winning smiles. I steady myself, my voice settles in, and I literally finish on a good note. I look over at Father Babington, who is still speaking with Marie. She motions with her head, and he realizes I have finished.

“That was good, uh…” Father Babington says.

“Richard,” I say helpfully.

“Right, Richard,” says Father Babington. Then he continues with a smile, “But it’s not customary to sing a song from the musical you are auditioning for. Next time, sing something else, and you’ll do even better. Next!”

“Wait, shall I do my monologue now?” I ask.

“Nah, you’re fine. I’ve got something interesting in mind for you. I’ll see you at callbacks.”

*****

“That’s fucking racist bullshit.”

Quen stands there, floored, as we stare at the callback list. I look at it intently, trying to see whether I might glean something more after a second or a third look. Nothing changes. He and I have both been called back…for the role of the Interpreter and other ensemble roles. Leo has won the part of the King and James that of Prince Chulalongkorn.

“Just like Broadway and Hollywood. Casting white actors in the principal Asian male roles,” says Quen, “while, of course, they cast us Asians in the non-speaking, non-singing supporting roles. Just like in the real worldwe’ve been whitewashed!”

“The Interpreter is a speaking role,” I offer rather weakly. “And the ensemble sings in quite a few songs.”

“Fuck the Interpreter. He’s got like six lines. And three of them are in mock Siamese just like you and Leonard spoke in fake Chinese in Anything Blows,” Quen says with venom. “And fuck being in the chorus. You have a beautiful, strong voice and Father Babington chose James because he’s been grooming him all along. Notice, neither of you had to do a monologue. You didn’t have a chance as James was already pre-cast!”

“I think James sang much better,” I say, perhaps to console him as much as myself.

“Well, that’s subjective. But in any case, who looks more like a Siamese? Who doesn’t need to have yellowface painted all over him to appear Asian?” asks Quen. “This is like John Wayne playing Genghis Khan. What’s that all about? Would Hollywood ever consider having Bruce Lee play Rooster Cogburn?”

“That would be rather odd,” I say as I try to imagine The Dragon as the irascible Marshall from True Grit.

“Of course, it is! They wouldn’t even allow Bruce Lee to play Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu, based on an idea he came up with! Does David Carradine look Chinese? Is he a fucking master of martial arts? Did he invent his own kung fu discipline and teach it to James Coburn, Steve McQueen, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? No, I don’t think so.”

Quen is so worked up I am afraid he will go full Bruce Lee and start a kung fu killing rampage through the streets of Phoenix. I elect not to huo shang jia you (“add fuel to the fire”) by mentioning how Marlon Brando played an Okinawan native in The Teahouse of the August Moon. Nor do I bring up four-time Oscar-winner Katharine Hepburn playing a Chinese woman with prosthetics drawing her eyes into an exaggerated slant in Dragon Seed. And I definitely do not highlight how Luise Rainer scored an Academy Award for her portrayal as O-Lan in the Best Picture-nominated adaption of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, a film set in China but without a single ethnic Chinese actor in it. Every actor in the epic movie about Chinese farmers struggling to survive was a Caucasian in yellowface.

“You’d think Brophy would be different,” Quen says quietly. “You’d think they would give us our fair share of the stage finally, just a tiny sliver of the spotlight. But no. They just add a dab of bronzer to their faces, squint a bit, and then they just white us out, right off the page.”

 

 Richard C. Lin

 

After thirty years as an executive in the corporate world, Richard C Lin recently retired when Covid-19 taught me that there is much more to life than struggling to get into a Zoom meeting at 2 am. He now focuses on writing, supporting young adult orphans in Taiwan, and guiding a spirited family of one wife, three kids, and nine hamsters.  “Painted Over” is one of his narrative non-fiction pieces that center on themes of interracial relationships, immigrant intergenerational conflict, and ethnic tensions in America, China, and Taiwan. Richard is honored to have his work appear or slated to appear in The Dillydoun ReviewThe Write LaunchPotato Soup Journal, and Drunk Monkeys. He lives in Shanghai and may be reached at richardclin@ucla.edu and via his website.

 


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5 Comments

  1. no doubt this is a problem but i see it resolving. what is not resolving is china placing minorities in concentration camps. maybe we can see some literature about this.

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  2. the facts are not in question but it is questionable to bring this up while the author is pointing out a legit concern regarding racist casting in the arts.

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  3. SSGT Larry CogswellFebruary 6, 2021 at 12:19 AM

    i disagree with both of you. if you are going to point out offenses don't forget the one in your back yard.

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  4. I am glad this piece can stir up conversation about these issues, which are very real and need to be brought to light on both sides of the Pacific. As someone who has lived in the US and China for many years, I see much of the good in the people of both countries. But certainly both countries are plagued by cultural and racial challenges that need to be addressed more widely.

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    1. you are entirely correct. i just want balance. it's easy to ridicule america while white washing china's murderous rampage against minorities, christians and anyone else who doesn't agree with their godless communism.

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