Words by Sam Tanabe
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Since 2017, almost every major American ballet company has signed the Final Bow for Yellowface pledge. It states: "I love ballet as an art form, and acknowledge that to achieve a diversity amongst our artists, audiences, donors, students, volunteers, and staff, I am committed to eliminating outdated and offensive stereotypes of Asians (Yellowface) on our stages."
Phil Chan is one of the co-founders of Final Bow For Yellowface, alongside New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin. Both are mixed Asian! In his recently released book, Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing Between Intention and Impact, Phil discusses his perspective on how we should be approaching race in both the dance and real worlds. He also addresses his personal journey toward accepting his mixed-cultural identity. Phil and Georgina have initiated ground-breaking dialogue regarding outdated and insensitive representations of Asians in ballet and theatre. Their achievements will have a lasting, powerful impact on young Asian dancers, who will now see themselves properly portrayed on the stage. Check out an interview with Phil below, along with an excerpt from his book on “being both.”
You’ve lived in Hong Kong, California, and New York City. Have you experienced dramatic differences in how you're perceived and treated in each location due to your mixed heritage?
Absolutely. Growing up in Hong Kong in the waning years of British colonial rule, I was seen as "white" and was often made to feel less than Chinese, or as enough of an outsider not to belong. You can imagine my surprise when our family moved to Berkeley, California, and suddenly I was the fresh-of-the-boat Chinese kid. There were also many more identity boxes I had to learn to navigate than there were in Hong Kong. I think that's why I feel the most comfortable in New York; so many people here are from somewhere else, and that makes everyone belong just as much as the next person. That's not to say I haven't experienced racism in New York City, it just means I can focus on being an individual without the pressure of defining an entire minority group.
Do you have an Asian stereotype you’re personally sick of seeing in dance, and/or in life?
In ballet, I'm pretty tired of seeing Chinese-ness represented by our first ancestors who came over in the 1850s. They were poor, working-class men who were looking to make their fortune. This image of "Chinese" is the one we see the most caricatures of in ballet. With his queue hairstyle (a symbol of Manchu subjugation), rice paddy hat (a symbol of low class), painted eyes, Fu Manchu mustache, and bobbing and shuffling gait… I'm just so tired. It's so boring. We're in the arts, we're supposed to be creative. Is this really the best we can do for "Chinese?" Imagine if we similarly froze German representation based on how they looked in the 1940s, would anyone similarly not see a problem with that?
Growing up, how did you view outdated, yellowface portrayals in classical dance? At what point did you recognize, “This is racist”?
I don't think for a long time, honestly. Perhaps too long? It just seemed like that was the way it was always done. Tradition. And also with so many Asians making headway in so many dance companies, maybe it's OK? I talk a little bit about this in the book, but I think the real game changer was my meeting with then-New York City Ballet Artistic Director Peter Martins, who had called me in to discuss how to update George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. He had previously done a ballet called The Magic Flute (no relation to the Mozart opera) with a "coolie" character in it, and sitting there in the dark hearing 2,500 laughing at the buffoonish “chink” made me very uncomfortable. I didn't go back to New York City Ballet for a few years after that, which isn't fair, because as an audience member, Balanchine's ballets belong to me too. This was probably about 10 years ago now, but our work with Final Bow for Yellowface didn't really happen until that meeting in November of 2017.
Was there a specific moment when you realized nothing was going to be done to challenge these stereotypes unless you initiated the change yourself?
I was coming out of that meeting and I called my co-founder Georgina "Gina" Pazcoguin (who is also biracial, of Filipino and Italian heritage) and said, "I think Peter Martins is going to change The Nutcracker. If someone with such a conservative responsibility to maintain Balanchine's legacy AS IS was willing to have this conversation and change, we asked ourselves, why not every ballet company in the country? With both of us having busy day jobs, we needed to figure out how to get as many of the industry's biggest and most influential gatekeepers to engage with this conversation in order to have a larger trickle-down effect, with minimal time and effort on our part. So we bought yellowface.org and put up a pledge that affirms support for elimination of yellowface and Asian caricature on our stages.
There was definitely a moment where I thought to myself, do we do this? Are we making a big deal about nothing? There's no turning back if it goes beyond one quiet meeting. Looking back over the progress the conversation has had over the last two years, it has definitely been worth it to be able to bring about so much positive change in such a short amount of time.
What is the most common pushback you receive when working on updating traditional, but offensive, caricatures?
The biggest pushback we have received is that we're being "overly politically correct." Some would argue that these classic works must be treated like historic time capsules, and sorry if people today are offended but that's just the way the ballet was created and is a product of a different time and place and we have to accept that. That excuse is just not good enough for me though. Would those same people clamour for a blackface revival, which is also arguably an important American theatrical tradition that is part of our shared history? I would hope not.
Ballet, like all of the performing arts, differs from their visual arts counterparts in that the performing arts are constantly changing. The “Mona Lisa” will always be the “Mona Lisa.” The Wizard of Oz will be the same movie every time you watch it. Not so with Swan Lake. The performing arts are constantly changing, evolving. In ballet, legs have gotten higher, tutus have gotten shorter. The art form itself has transformed from an aristocratic, elitist, Old World art form, into one that is vibrant and rich in a New World: diverse, democratic, and for everyone. If we acknowledge and welcome ballet's changes in some areas, why can't we open our minds a little when it comes to how we represent "other" or minority racial groups? If we truly are committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, we have to realize that repeating repertory that is outdated or offensive when it comes to race is incongruent with these ideals.
How are international reactions to these changes different from America’s?
In America, we can adopt a more global and broad worldview when we make work. We are more diverse, and so are our audiences. This conversation around race and representation around yellowface has done fairly well in other heterogeneous societies like Canada, the U.K., and Australia where Asians have assimilated. In less diverse countries, I think there is less of a perceived need to address this issue. Many balletomanes in Russia bristled when Misty Copeland called out blackface at the Bolshoi Ballet, who then stepped up to defend their strong cultural tradition of doing blackface on their stages. So it may be a while before this conversation takes hold in Old World and more homogeneous societies like Russia.
Finally, any advice for our mixed-race readers who struggle to find their cultural identity?
I'm very thankful that my white mother made sure that I also grew up Chinese. She made sure I took Chinese classes and spoke the language, ate the food, spent time with my Chinese family, celebrated the holidays, and felt comfortable truly owning my Chinese heritage. I think anyone who is struggling with feeling less than a full part of their culture, or perhaps like they aren't allowed to claim it because they are disconnected from it, my advice would be to step up and put in the effort to make it a part of your life. Learn a language of your ancestors (I also speak German and am excellent at the polka), learn to prepare food from your family heritage (I'm currently cooking my way through Martin Yan's cookbook, of “Yan Can Cook” fame), and build a community of your kind of people beyond family to be connected to (I've started hosting a regular dinner of "Crazy Creative Asians" that meets to check in, collaborate, and have a sense of creative Asian community). All of this is work, but you get back what you put in tenfold.
An excerpt from: Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing Between Intention and Impact by Phil Chan, 2020
What I bring to these discussions is more than just a deep experience in dance and an Asian-ness. My mixed race heritage means I have a sense of having more than one set of lenses through which to view the world. When you’re a mixed-race person, sometimes it can seem like you don’t belong to anyone, as I experienced growing up in Hong Kong: Chinese people always saw me as White, and White people always saw me as Chinese. All of that made me realize that while “who you are” is important, so is how you’re seen, because that will shape a lot about your life. This insight has helped me understand that ballet in our diverse societies must take into account the lived experiences of any recognizable groups that dance across our stages.
When you’re forming your identity as a young person, you want to belong to a group to provide a foundation for understanding who you are in relation so you can develop your own individuality. Having more than one strong culture you belong to at the same time can feel, not like having two legs to stand on, but like not having a place to stand at all. Really hard. To know you look like your parents but are different from both of them, and will have drastically different experiences because you don’t fully belong to either of your parents, your race, or your heritage.
It’s taken me a while to feel complete in my cultural identity as a biracial person. I only recently rejected the idea of being “Half.” Why am I “half” Chinese, when my cousins, who were also brought to the US around puberty—who are “full” Chinese—don’t speak the language, don’t celebrate the holidays, don’t cook the food, and are otherwise 100% American? So I’ve started claiming I’m Both. As with the optical illusion of the old woman and the young woman: the image itself hasn’t changed; just how you are looking at it changes. Being biracial, and in my case, bicultural, has allowed me to question what aspects of both of my cultures do I actually own. Can cultures be owned? I can think about the meanings of “cultural appropriation,” inclusion, and diversity in the arts, in America, in interesting ways that I hope to share.
Being mixed-race gives me an opportunity to think about these issues from perspectives that are a bit different from the way things are thought about by people who identify as only White or Black, Brown or Yellow—as just one race. It gives me the ability to convincingly speak to people of color as well as to White people because I’ve experienced life both as a White person (how I was seen growing up in Hong Kong) and as a Chinese person (how I’m seen in America).
You might get some understanding of how it feels to be “Both” if you’ve ever had the experience of traveling abroad during some big news happening and you read the English language newspaper in the country you’re visiting. Isn’t it strange how that same big news story is told, from another point of view, tied to a different place and people? Or you live with your spouse for awhile and keep having these surprising conversations about how to do basic things together in day-to-day life. Perhaps you used to (unknowingly) believe that your family’s ways are how everyone does things. This kind of experience is what it’s like to be mixed-race all the time. You intrinsically understand that there is not just one, fixed, default point of view or outlook holding the world together. It’s insecure, and it’s freeing. One of the ways it’s freeing is that I’m not really able to think of myself as or be used as “the voice of Asians” or of Chinese (were such a thing even possible).
It’s also germane to know that I’m the son of a Chinese American immigrant and a White woman who can trace her ancestry back to the Mayflower. I was born outside the US and lived my first ten years in a different country. (You say “a foreign country” but to me it’s not “foreign,” and I wasn’t “living abroad,” though I am also a White American.) I was born at the Matilda Hospital on the peak of Hong Kong in the final decade of British colonial rule. My mother was born and raised in working class Ohio. My father was born and raised in Hong Kong, one of nine siblings living in a cramped two-bedroom flat. Through an international student scholarship program, he made it to a small university in rural Ohio, where my mother was also enrolled. They fell in love, got married, and moved to Hong Kong, where they had me.
In 1995, right before the handover of Hong Kong back to China, ending British colonial rule, my family decided to move to California. Having been treated as a White person in the minority my entire life, you can imagine my surprise when, upon arriving to America, I was suddenly labeled a Fresh Off the Boat Chinese minority! It was also the first time I really noticed more than an East/West binary when looking at racial and cultural differences. Berkeley, California was a mix of peoples from all over, and more identity labels than I could keep up with: Hapa. Mixed. Biracial. Gay. Queer. Immigrant. Tall.
Growing up dancing, I made my way to New York City after college. It has become my home as an adult, in part, because I have fallen deeply in love with dance, and New York is a (if not, the) dance capital of the world. New York is where I first studied the Horton technique at the Ailey school, the beat of the drums matching the beating in my chest. New York is where I stood behind Wendy Whelan at Steps on Broadway, both of us working furiously to practice the perfect tendu. New York is where I saw everything I could from the Balanchine and Robbins catalogue at New York City Ballet, and where I used my student ID as long as I could to get cheap tickets to see the story ballets at American Ballet Theatre.
Unlike living on the West Coast, where I felt the burden of identity boxes, being a New Yorker means that I’m just another asshole trying to get through the world, just like the next New Yorker. In that same spirit, it’s time for ballet in America to do a better job of carrying ballet from its Old World foundations into the New World of diverse societies in the 21st Century. This means so much more than just including dancers of every color, as essential as that is.
This story was originally published on Mixed Asian Media in May 2020.
Published on August 25, 2022
Words by Sam Tanabe
Sam Tanabe is a NYC-based actor and writer. Struggling to find his identity as a mixed race performer led him to help found Mixed Asian Media as the Managing Editor. You can find him around Manhattan with a bubble tea in hand, and online @tanablems.