Recently, we announced some subtle but important changes we have made to our production of The Nutcracker and, in particular, to the Chinese-inspired Tea Dance. 

This has provoked significant media coverage and, while many people understand and welcome the changes we have made, we have also been accused of ‘woke virtue-signalling'. This phrase suggests that our efforts are disingenuous.

We want to be clear about why this update really matters. In this article, we will address the increased discrimination East and Southeast Asians are facing in our communities, and reflect on the impact of yellow face in the performing arts. 

What is Stop Asian Hate? 

Stop Asian Hate is a response to the increased hatred the East and Southeast Asian (ESA) community have been facing largely due to negative stereotypes and fear from the Covid-19 pandemic. In the UK, campaign group End the Virus of Racism estimated hate crimes and racist abuse have increased by 300% towards ESA people, including verbal abuse and physical violence. Elderly people from the community have also been a common target.  

However, racism towards East and Southeast Asian people did not begin with Covid-19, and it is not limited to verbal and physical harassment.  

Yellow Face 

The dance industry, and ballet in particular, has a problematic track record with its depictions of marginalised groups. Past representations have often been ignorant imitations and unintentionally harmful caricatures of cultures that are poorly researched. The Nutcracker, for example, features the Chinese Tea Dance, a section that still to this day often features yellow face, poorly designed costumes and stereotypical choreography. This is an inaccurate and uncomfortable depiction: a caricature.  

Throughout culture and the media, ESA people are often used for comedic purposes. For example, Mickey Rooney in yellow face as Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Japanese twins ‘Fook Mi’ and ‘Fook Yu’ of Austin Powers, or more recently Dong Nguyen from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and comedians David Walliams and Matt Lucas as Japanese school girls in Come Fly With Me.

Diving deeper into these caricatures leads to a history of the fetishisation of Asian women, and the emasculation of Asian men. It is clear that these depictions flow from our screen to our own biases in myriad ways; from Asian men being discriminated against on dating apps to the more extreme example of the Atlanta spa shootings, in which six of the nine victims were women of Asian descent. The gunman’s reasoning was that Asian-owned spas were a ‘temptation he wanted to eliminate’.

How does this impact others?

For many Asian people, it can be distressing and humiliating to see their culture, appearance, accents and names used as a punchline. What's more, the media often portrays East and Southeast Asia as a single culture – further erasing their unique identities.  

Our past productions of The Nutcracker have contributed to this issue, and the proliferation of Asian caricatures. Our choreography involved bowing, whispering behind fans and overexcited head nodding. The choreography used ESA cultures and stereotypes as a source of comedy within the dance, adding to the canon of Asian roles that serve as a punchline. We recognise that this may have been uncomfortable to view, particularly for our ESA audience members, and perpetuated outdated stereotypes.  

We’re torn away from the magical experience of watching great dance, jarred by something sour in the midst of what’s supposed to be the land of sweets” - Phil Chan, Final Bow for Yellow Face 

Racial trauma is a term used to describe the negative impact on mental health that many People of Colour (POC) experience as a result of the media displaying violent videos, articles about attacks and everyday racism. Media coverage and education is important, however can be tiring and distressing for those affected. Caricatures are a source of humiliation and another reminder of what the outside world may think of their culture.  

What is Scottish Ballet doing? 

Last year we made a commitment to help drive anti-racism within our industry. Part of this journey includes better representing POC and all cultures authentically and respectfully. We began this improvement within our feature film The Secret Theatre, by creating a more accurate representation of Gypsy, Roma & Traveller (GRT) communities

This year, in our production of The Nutcracker, we have improved the Chinese-inspired Tea Dance following consultation with Phil Chan of Final Bow for Yellow Face. The changes we have made are: 

  • New choreography with input from traditional Chinese dance specialist, Annie Au. We have taken the dance off pointe and the dancers are in flat shoes so they can perform the required footwork. By reaching out to the Chinese community, we now have a Chinese Tea Dance that will feel welcoming and more authentic to everyone.  
  • Updated costumes that focus on inspiration over imitation. We have jettisoned the reference to the ‘queue’ (the ponytail) and opted for a more traditional flower in the hair at Annie Au’s suggestion. For our Arabian-inspired scene, we have removed the long, see-through trousers under the tutu.

The enduring appeal of The Nutcracker is its ability to transport us. When it was created in 1892, the ballet brought snippets of cultures from around the world to audiences in Russia. As ballet evolves to meet the needs and expectations of our globally connected world, we recognise the importance of doing this more accurately, positively and respectfully to ensure this production can be enjoyed by all.  

Further reading

If you would like to understand more, we recommend the following (content warning: slurs, examples of harassment):

Final Bow for Yellow Face – Racism in The Nutcracker (Website) 

Anti-Asian racism – How bad is it??? (YouTube, 5mins) 

Racism Unmasked Edinburgh (Instagram) 

Responding as a Bystander (Article) 

Support for those affected by Asian hate: 

Dear Asian Youth London (Instagram) 

ESA Scotland – Community Wellbeing (Website)