We have had an off-blog discussion about fake chirayliqs some time. Hollywood has a long tradition of casting white people in crappy makeup as "Asians", which is very annoying for anyone who likes handsome Asian men, and very demeaning to the excellent Asian actors who have been struggling for decent roles throughout cinema history. This phenomenon is often referred to as "yellowface".
I'm a huge George Raft fan, so I was surprised to discover this "yellowface" performance from the 1934 film Limehouse Blues. I haven't seen the movie in its entirety, but here is a summary from IMDB:
Fresh from Chinatown in New York, Harry Young [Raft] has taken over the illegal import business in the seamy Limehouse district of London, where he cold-bloodedly disposes of rivals and runs a smoky nightclub. He falls for a low-class, white pickpocket [Jean Parker], diminishing his pride in the Chinese half of his heritage and sparking the jealousy of the nightclub's moody star performer [Anna May Wong].One, if not THE reason for "yellowface", was that romantic and/or sexual relations between whites and non-whites were seen as immoral (and were also illegal in many states). In the infancy of Hollywood, this hadn't been enforced very strictly - Japanese-American star Sessue Hayakawa could play suggestive scenes with white actresses until the mid-twenties (though he never "got the girl" in the end). We're still suffering from the consequences of discrimination - can you think of one movie, Hollywood or not, where an Asian man has had successful romantic relationship with a non-Asian woman? Or a relationship at all? (French movies don't count!)
A reviewer notes that Raft didn't need much makeup to pull off a "half-and-half"-looking character - you be the judge.
Raft's parents were German immigrants in New York. He started his career as a professional dancer, but he often played vaguely ethnic gangsters. Apparently there was something in his looks that made him "foreign" enough to play different nationalities, as well as criminals. Coincidence? Check out groundbreaking criminologist Cesare Lombroso's physiognomy of criminals. All the physical traits that were argued to be typical of criminals, were also aberrations from the Eurocentric beauty standards of the time. Both in popular culture and "scientific" racism, non-white people were pushed out of normality, while people on the margins - whites who weren't quite "white" enough - led a precarious existence, sometimes having to prove their normality (=whiteness) by dressing up as the racial Other. Think about the Jazz Singer, a son of Jewish immigrants, proving his American identity by painting his face black and acting out a grotesque caricature of African-American entertainment (never mind that it was meant to honour it).
George Raft clearly didn't care much either way; he enjoyed a gangster lifestyle both on and off screen, and wasn't trying to prove his "whiteness". He didn't have to, he was on the safe side of the fence. Many popular "yellowface" actors were immigrants; interestingly, many were Scandinavians. Nils Asther, Warner Oland, Max von Sydow... Why would the blondest people in Europe make the most convincing "yellowface" actors? Or was there another reason?
If you want to know more, I'll continue this series of "Faux Chirayliqs".