The following is a guest blog post by Josephine Lee, author of Oriental, Black, and White: The Formation of Racial Habits in American Theater, available now wherever books are sold.
Much like the 1996 comedy The Nutty Professor, the 2007 Norbit served as a star vehicle for Eddie Murphy’s impersonations. Murphy played both the nebbish Norbit and Rasputia, his tyrannical wife (the latter complete with a foam and spandex “fat suit”). Despite Murphy’s considerable comic skills, it is hard to watch any part of this film without cringing. Another egregiously stereotypical role is Murphy’s rendition of Norbit’s adoptive father, Mr. Wong, a Chinese immigrant distinguished by an exaggerated accent and odd behavior. Mr. Wong runs The Golden Wonton, a restaurant that doubles as Norbit’s orphanage. At one point he decapitates Norbit’s pet duck, and throws its head on the floor, telling Norbit, “Play with that.” He abuses Norbit as “a “stupid orphan,” and throws a harpoon at a cardboard whale carried by the children.
Of course, the typecasting of Chinese immigrant men as abject or menacing outsiders did not originate with Eddie Murphy’s Mr. Wong. Similar caricatures appeared first on the stage, one of the many “racial habits” that can be traced from the nineteenth century on. As documented in Oriental, Black, and White, these comic turns were performed not only by white but also African American performers who appeared in minstrel shows, vaudeville and musicals after the Civil War. For instance, the African American newspaper The Freeman (Indianapolis) in 1911 praises the impersonator Frank Walker for his Chinese acts as “in a class by himself.”
Early Black minstrel and vaudeville performers used oriental roles to expand their repertoire beyond the constraints of blackface type, sometimes juxtaposing both kinds of racial typecasting in the same show. Oriental, Black, and White contemplates these troubling cross-racial performances to see whether we might make distinctions between white and African American yellowface performances. Did these comic oriental roles change in nature or purpose when performed by actors who were themselves all too aware of American racism?
As with blackface, it is hard to see past yellowface performance’s immediate gut punch of racial hostility and xenophobia. Yet, these different racial impersonations in vaudeville and the early Black musical do suggest some common ground between Chinese immigrants and the African Americans who lampooned them onstage. Considered a source of cheap labor to replace emancipated African Americans, and later reviled as figures of “wage slavery,” Chinese immigrants were already perceived through the lens of anti-Black racism. Anti-Asian sentiment and exclusion laws successively restricted aspects of status, mobility, marriage, and property rights, just as Jim Crow laws and racism restricted the ability of newly emancipated slaves to live, travel, work, and thrive. In certain parts of the U.S., African Americans occupied many of the same jobs as well as lived in the same neighborhoods as Chinese immigrants, and both faced the disadvantages of poverty, poor working conditions, and racial hostility. Within these shared spaces, both Black and Chinese people developed parallel and sometimes interlinked strategies of survival and sustenance.
In light of this interracial history, even a comic romp such as Norbit might have a slightly more complicated racial story to tell. In one pivotal scene Mr. Wong takes the stage as best man at the adult Norbit’s wedding. Mr. Wong exercises the paternal power of embarrassing recollection, telling the wedding party that Norbit “had a peepee the size of an egg roll.” He later tells Norbit “I love you like my own child,” and helps him escape his marriage with Rasputia. He even uses his harpoon in heroic battles with Rasputia and her villainous brothers and helps save Norbit at the end of the film. Murphy’s performance as Mr. Wong not only emphasizes the racist typecasting of the comic foreigner, but also evokes a degree of familial intimacy.
Films such as Norbit are indeed guilty of typecasting, yellowface performance, and other troubling racial habits made all too familiar through constant repetition on stage and screen. But the film’s juxtaposition of different racial caricatures also points back in time to an established performance tradition by which Black performers played Chinese immigrants and other oriental types alongside comic blackface roles. In its outrageous use of yellowface, Murphy’s Mr. Wong signals the legacy of a much more complicated racial history as well as a theatrical tradition that is not just Black and white.
Josephine Lee is professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota.