Yellow Voice and the Chinese International Student: Ricky Wong in "We Can Be Heroes"

Curator's Note

This clip comes from comedy series, We Can Be Heroes, which aired originally in 2005 on the Australian Broadcast Channel (ABC). Created and written by comedian Chris Lilley, the critically acclaimed mockumenary follows the lives of five nominees for the coveted Australian of the Year award: Daniel Sims, a rural young man who donates his eardrum to his deaf brother; Jam’ie King, a private-school girl who holds the national record for sponsoring Sudanese children; Pat Mullins, a middle-aged housewife whose mission is to roll on her side to the famous sacred site of Uluru; police officer Phil Olivetti who rescued children from an unmoored jumping castle; and finally, Ricky Wong, a Chinese physics student renowned for his research but whose secret ambition is to be an actor. Immensely talented Lilley plays all five characters in drag, and each episode develops the multiple character narratives until the climatic final episode which reveals the winner of the award.

I am fascinated by the character of Ricky Wong for the following reasons: 1 He is the only nonwhite candidate nominated for this national honor but his racial difference is subsumed by his cultural difference (predictably played out in the binary of Confucian family expectations versus Ricky’s individual desire) 2. He is played less in yellowface as in "yellowvoice" — Lilley affects a Chinese accent and wears a dishevelled black wig. This is interesting since yellowface is considered less racially offensive in Australia (c.f. comedienne Pam Ann) and Lilley himself has ‘blacked up’ to play a Tongan character in Summer Heights High 3. Ricky’s surprising artistic talents are displayed ironically in a musical play he has written that features Chinese international students playing Aboriginal characters in racial drag. Indigenous culture, then, is a structuring absence in this predominantly white Australian narrative, performed as spectacle by visiting nonwhite foreigners or reduced to stunning landscape (Uluru). Meanwhile, the show cannot imagine a space for Chinese or Asian Australians who do not speak with an Asian accent, a population that certainly exists but is seldom represented in popular media as such.

My questions are: to what extent can satire be used to excuse - and in some cases, celebrate - the comic portrayal of a nonwhite character by a white performer?  And how might a comparative cultural and national approach to racial drag in popular media open up different ways of thinking about white privilege?

Comments

Richard Newton's picture

Faces

Wonderful post.

I think a comparative analysis of racializing face-play would be really helpful in thinking through privilege, dominance, and subversion. The power dynamics seem to go in various directions. I’m particularly thinking of black comic Dave Chappelle’s donning of white face to portray a newscaster in various sketches

Contrasting Asian voices

Jane,

Great post!  In the clip we do see an alternative to Ricky Wong and that is Prof. Lee who does not speak with a "foreign" accent.   So we do see competing definitions of "Asian-ness" and it seems to separate out "Asian-ness" from foreign-ness.  

Your idea about comparative national and cultural expressions of what is foreign is intriguing.  Do we see a variation of American accents discussed as foreign in the same way Ricky’s accent is discussed?

 

Allen Goolsby's picture

Yellowness

I was really intrigued by this program and the signs and markers of asianness which its comments on. As a singular and mainstream observer of American programes i admit to never being  introduced to such images of culturally expanded signs of asianess. This figure visually holds all the cultural signs of asianess that American society is attuned to. What intrigues me the most that since it is set withing a social environement and era where race in the face of science would have no meaning ,we are given a racial stereotype to complicate our own visual connantations of race within our hegemonic tropes. Although humours for its obvious racial questioning i believe this is a bold statement made by non asian comedians attempting to bring to light very obvious racial tropes that have for long been made hegemonically acceptable. 

Alena McLucas's picture

 The first question posed,

 The first question posed, and the one I have taken great interest in, is asking for purely opinion so my response is acknowledged to be one perspective of many. Satire should not be used to excuse the comic portrayal of any minorities. By using humor to create a discourse that perpetuates stereotypes about race only serves to glorify them. For instance, the Dancing Itos on normal”>The Tonight Show were often used as comic relief and satirized Asian Americans. However, the actors were covered when doing their routine, had moustaches, and wore thick glasses that reflected light so that the camera could not pick up the actors’ eyes. Special attention should be given to the fact that the eyes, which were often used to determine whether people were Chinese or Japanese (and ‘friend or foe’) during World War II, were concealed. By not showing them, the network dodged accusations of blatant racism and perceived by many at the time as being “excusable.” Even in an extremely satirical context, I cannot see this kind of masquerade as being constructive.

 

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