The old 'white actor playing a Chinese man' trick: Get Smart and race

Harmes, Meredith A. and Harmes, Marcus K. ORCID: and Harmes, Barbara ORCID: (2015) The old 'white actor playing a Chinese man' trick: Get Smart and race. The Australasian Journal of Popular Culture, 4 (1). pp. 43-55. ISSN 2045-5852


This article examines the portrayal of Chinese characters in Get Smart (1965–70). Get Smart was a 1960s American spy comedy based on the premise of good (Control) against evil (KAOS) set against the back drop of the Cold War. Many of the episodes in this comedy featured a Chinese character as the enemy. This article will examine the way the characterization and performance of the Chinese roles play out in Get Smart. It locates them within the long-standing but now highly dubious tradition of ‘yellowface’ casting in American vaudeville, theatre and cinema, as Caucasian actors almost always played the Chinese roles in Get Smart. More particularly it examines Get Smart and especially the episodes with Chinese characters as examples of adaptation. Doing so suggests that different and at times competing conceptions of Chinese archetypes have been brought onto the screen, from the oriental villainy of Sax Rohmer and Ian Fleming to the criminal detective genius of Earl Derr Biggers’ Chan stories. These archetypes (and indeed stereotypes would be a better word in some instances), nonetheless permit the argument that Get Smart brings onto the screen a reasonably complex understanding of its Chinese characters and a critical view of the American characters.

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Item Type: Article (Commonwealth Reporting Category C)
Refereed: Yes
Item Status: Live Archive
Additional Information: Files associated with this item cannot be displayed due to copyright restrictions.
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Historic - Open Access College (1 Jul 2013 - 7 Jun 2020)
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Historic - Open Access College (1 Jul 2013 - 7 Jun 2020)
Date Deposited: 25 Aug 2015 05:42
Last Modified: 30 Jun 2016 03:17
Uncontrolled Keywords: Get Smart, American television comedy, race, Fu Manchu, yellowface casting, espionage
Fields of Research (2008): 21 History and Archaeology > 2103 Historical Studies > 210312 North American History
19 Studies in Creative Arts and Writing > 1902 Film, Television and Digital Media > 190204 Film and Television
20 Language, Communication and Culture > 2002 Cultural Studies > 200212 Screen and Media Culture
Fields of Research (2020): 43 HISTORY, HERITAGE AND ARCHAEOLOGY > 4303 Historical studies > 430321 North American history
36 CREATIVE ARTS AND WRITING > 3605 Screen and digital media > 360505 Screen media
47 LANGUAGE, COMMUNICATION AND CULTURE > 4702 Cultural studies > 470214 Screen and media culture
Socio-Economic Objectives (2008): E Expanding Knowledge > 97 Expanding Knowledge > 970121 Expanding Knowledge in History and Archaeology
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