Recently, we’ve been getting a lot of questions about the history of racism at Princeton University. As we’ve worked to help those trying to research this topic, we realized that we’ve highlighted some types of racism more than others on this blog. In order to help researchers locate materials that may assist them in constructing a fuller picture of the history of white supremacy at Princeton, today’s post considers some examples of racism against Asians through the lens of yellowface in Triangle Club performances in the first half of 20th century.
Yellowface is a form of minstrelsy that mocks East Asians. It rose in popularity in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and was closely linked to anti-Black prejudice. As Krystyn R. Moon has explained, both blackface minstrelsy and yellowface are uniquely American phenomena, and yellowface drew on the tropes of blackface (including physical caricature, hybridized musical styles, and deliberate mockery of accents and dialects) to convey messages about nonwhite inferiority. Blackface primed audiences to understand the underlying meaning of yellowface. Yellowface became one of many ways Americans expressed strong anti-Asian (especially anti-Chinese) sentiment in this period and emphasized the idea that Asians could never become Americans.
Alongside the examples of redface and blackface in the University Archives, we also find incidents of yellowface in Princeton’s past. White students frequently played roles of non-white characters in the Triangle Club prior to World War II. Though the most common non-white characters they played were Native Americans, there were also a handful of East Asian characters in Triangle productions. These show evidence of the minstrelsy inherent in yellowface.
An early example is Triangle’s “The Pursuit of Priscilla,” performed during their 1913-1914 season. The play included Wun Lung, a Chinese cook, and Tong, a dishwasher, who were working in the American West. Tong sang “Chinee Laundry Boy,” perhaps the clearest example of yellowface I’ve seen in the University Archives. In the song, Tong (played by John Chambers Hughes, Class of 1914) tells a story about a man trying to woo a woman by giving her “rats and candied figs.” The lyrics are written in a manner that mocks Chinese accents and immigrant dialects, with the chorus having Tong say, “Me washee, me scrubee, me scald and rinse and rubbee, me starchee the shirtee,” and verses frequently replacing an “r” with an “l” (“Such a velly, velly, plitty thing”).
Another yellowface character appeared in the 1920-1921 Triangle Club production of “They Never Came Back,” which cast Malcolm Southard Douglas, Class of 1922, in the role of Niko Teen, a Japanese chemist. Douglas sang “Shikoku” in the second act, which gives us fewer hints about the depiction than “Chinee Laundry Boy” gives us about Hughes’s portrayal of Tong in “The Pursuit of Priscilla.” The musical score does not misspell words to indicate an accent, but there are some stereotypical references, as when Niko sings, “Back in old Japan I know a man who marries very nice/His only toll is one big bowl of rice.” It’s worth noting that “They Never Came Back” also includes other marginalized populations in its cast of characters, including several East Indians and Native Americans, all played by white actors.
A decade later in “The Tiger Smiles,” performed in the 1930-1931 season, Triangle Club looked toward the future. In a play within a play, they envisioned their own performance in 1990 to contrast with their fanciful depiction of what it had been in 1890. As M. Andre Maurois, a visiting professor of French literature, described it, “in the first case  the characters are dressed up as Indians, while in the second , they are Chinese.” Here the characters are the actors who were engaging in redface and yellowface, rather than a direct redface or yellowface portrayal, and thus the minstrelsy is less evident in the playbill. We note a similar approach in 1948-1949’s “All in Favor,” in which blackface minstrelsy is a show within a show rather than the main theme of the production itself.
As with blackface, yellowface did not take place in a vacuum. Students who engaged in it were influenced by the culture at large and in turn influenced others. Triangle Club went on an annual tour each year, exposing audiences across America to a reinforcement of anti-Asian prejudice when their shows included yellowface. Sitting U.S. President Woodrow Wilson attended the Washington performance of “The Pursuit of Priscilla,” for example, and invited Triangle Club performers to the White House afterward. Closer to home, there were Chinese students at Princeton who would have had to counteract the stereotypes such performances promoted. Yellowface was one of many ways that many white Princetonians of the past upheld and sustained white supremacy on campus and in the world at large.
Although we do not currently have access to the physical collections as Mudd Library’s renovation is ongoing, we would expect that those who look through the Triangle Club Records for materials related to these and other productions in the future could very well find yellowface imagery in the photographs of these shows. Meanwhile, those interested in this and related topics can find fully digitized playbills and musical scores for these and other shows attached to the finding aid for the collection.
Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112)
Papers of Princeton
Triangle Club Records (AC122)
For further reading:
Armstrong, April C. “Solitary Interment: Kentaro Ikeda ’44.”
Lee, Josephine. The Japan of Pure Invention: Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
Ma, Sheng-mei. Off-White: Yellowface and Chinglish by Anglo-American Culture. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.
Moon, Krystyn R. Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s-1920s. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005.
Tillman, Teri. “Performing Between the Lines: AfroAsian Encounters Between African American and Japanese American Performers.” Senior Thesis, Princeton University, 2016.