The orientalist and I

It’s 2014 and Australia is gearing up for a tour of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s King and I; advertisements line the streets. If you pick up the papers the reviewers are urging us to put away our political correctness and go see the fantastic show.

Never mind that it is a musical about a white-woman teaching the Orientals how to be ‘modern’. That a dumb and confused backwards Asian monarch has to learn European habits to prove himself to the British. That if you’re in Sydney or Brisbane you will be treated to a white-man putting on an accent of Asian broken English for two and half hours. What more could one ask for?

The King and I is out-dated and racist, there are no two ways about. The content is highly offensive and carries strong colonialist overtures. The fact that the show is still put on mainstream theatre and the tickets still sell makes a laughing stock of any claims of post-racist Australia.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s play was a smash hit in the 50s. Based off a 1944 novel by Margaret Landon, it went on to win five Tony awards and be remade into a popular 1956 film.

The plot is centred on a British schoolteacher, played by Lisa McCune, who is employed by the King of Siam to teach his children about the western world. Later she teaches the king how to act European so he can convince visiting British diplomats that his empire is civilised and doesn’t need to be colonised.

The producers of the show, Opera Australia and John Frost have bet big on the show, sinking in a $6 million dollar budget.  Strangely, director Christopher Renshaw chose to employ an American actor of Chinese descent (Jason Scott Lee) for the Melbourne season but retained New Zealander Teddy Tahu Rhodes for the Sydney and Brisbane seasons – as if the show wasn’t racist enough without a white actor to play the role of the King.

Perhaps equally disturbing is our media institutions willingness to get behind the project. Nowhere in the mainstream media is there any critique of the appropriateness of the show, while Fairfax gave it four-stars and urged musical theatre lovers to go along.

Both (white) reviewers briefly acknowledge that the show is racist and then go straight on to praising the work.

Natalie Bochenski writes, ‘Hearing Rhodes take on the King of Siam’s broken English is initially jarring, like listening to everyone’s least favourite uncle do his best joke about Chinese drivers at a family gathering.’

Cameron Woodhead says the production

looks decidedly un-PC in what has, after all, been dubbed ‘the Asian century’. But it’s also one the boomers grew up with and their children probably saw the film.

He adds: ‘It’s still enchanting – just don’t mention Edward Said.’

While it is disappointing to see relatively (emphasis) progressive papers get so firmly behind such racist work, Fairfax hasn’t had the best track record on racism as of late.

After giving loads of publicity and rave reviews to Chris Lilley’s new brown-face Jonah From Tonga, last week Fairfax journalist Mark Sawyer wrote an unrelated-to-anything tirade about Australians not really being racist these days. The article ‘How racist are you?’ basically argues that, apart from the few Australians who yell at people of colour on the street, no-one is really racist these days.

It may pay to look at the bigger picture. After all, aren’t we living in an era when evil is an outmoded concept, when there are no bad people, only bad acts? On that basis it seems counter-intuitive and frankly crazy to label people racist on the basis on one or two remarks.

He goes on to argue that everyone just takes things too seriously and, though some people make slips of the tongue, they are never really racist. He even argues that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was hard-done by the media attacks upon him.

How does Sawyer understand racism so well that Fairfax pay him to write articles on the issue?

I’m sorry but I have walked past it plenty. I walked past it when a man in Spain told me he was ‘working like a black’, when an old girlfriend asked whether I still ‘smoke like a Turk’ and when a fella in country NSW offered me his ultimate accolade: ‘’Thanks mate, you’re a white man.’

Perhaps the reason Woodhead suggested not to mention Edward Said in conjunction with the King and I, is because to start considering the racial effects media have on our society would lead to some damning conclusions.

In Said’s acclaimed book Orientalism, he charts how literature and art written by Europeans has shaped European thinking towards Asians from the crusades to the present day. Said draws clear connections between the strains of thought expressed in Orientalist art and the pretext of colonisation – connections that can be seen at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne this week, tickets selling fast.

Jarni Blakkarly

Jarni Blakkarly is a Melbourne based journalist who has written for Al Jazeera English, ABC Religion and Ethics, Griffith Review, Agence France Presse and Crikey among others. You can follow him on Twitter @JarniBlakkarly.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. While I get the concern, really the underlying premise that some works of art are outdated and racist, however true in cases, may create a form of ridiculous PC censorship. Many works of art and literature, may seem racist, sexist and bigoted in all sorts of ways by our standards, so what do we do? Do we no longer read Robinson Crusoe due to the paternalism towards indigenous people, or do we read it and contextualise it as probably one of the more progressive works of its time? Do we no longer read Marx because of his narrow Orientalist view of the Asia? Or we avoid reading Herodotus because of his view of who ‘barbarians’ were? No, we read them, we watch them, we try to see them as art reflecting the concerns of its time and dealing with the human condition, which hasn’t changed in over 5000 years. What we shouldn’t do is relegate work of art, be it paintings from the renaissance, 19th century literature, or musicals by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s based based on Said’s thesis of occidentalism and orientalism. Maybe a better director could have taken some of the original intent from the show and made it more relevant to now – I always found Rodgers and Hammerstein boring anyway. But to me Plutarch’s views on power and politics over 2000 years ago, regardless of his deep Hellenocentric view is still extremely relevant. I would put more energy into fighting those racist in Bendigo attacking the building of a mosque rather than The King and I. It seems the PC crew are a little like the puritans of 100 years ago.

    1. You are right Fotis in that what has happened in Bendigo over the last week is deeply deplorable and should be fought and condemned. Racism has many fronts, some tying black balloons to peoples houses, others on a stage mocking and othering people of colour and promoting the ongoing beliefs of White-Supremacy. Racism is inter-sectional and everything is linked. Said argues and shows how art shaped the view of the colonist that enabled them to justify colonisation. And while I do agree that there is value to remembering and understand out-dated offensive works of art to understand the context it is who is doing it that makes all the difference. If an Asian theater company in Australia put on the show in order to showcase and analysis the racist content I would have no opposition what so ever. However this is a white production, with white producers and directors and even a white-man in yellow face playing the lead. This is not criticism, this is racism.

  2. Attitudes often become outmoded and past texts decline in popularity because a dead audience or readership would need to be dug up to appreciate such art forms; it says a lot about contemporary Austrlalian attitudes to ethnicity that audiences continue to be reborn for this sort of crap.

  3. If Lenny Henry is arguing about racism in Britain, you can be sure there’ll be that discussion here in about 2064. For now, if you don’t like the lack of diversity/true representation of Australia in media ‘you can bugger off back to where you came from’ and let the rest of us watch random white people with no qualifications apart from being white read us the news, talk about sport.

  4. I think u made some really good points in terms of orientalism. But I think the main reason it is popular is because the music is classic, and I went for the very same reason. I’ve watched the original movie with my family over ten times just because it’s simply a nice musical hence the large stage production in Australia or anywhere else. The story may be outdated, but that’s because the background is set almost 300 years ago, and that is based on real history. The King and I talks about cultural differences and how people of different cultures learn about each other and adapt. The King learns about western culture and teaches his children, and he says in the story ” do not be afraid and not believe what you haven’t seen before”. He encourages his people to look beyond Siam and that there is more in the world than Siam. Anna, who is from England, also tries to learn about Siam’s customs and adapts to them to respect the King. Actually, I personally think the story sets a good path on cross-cultural considering how long ago this was. Being Asian, I do not find this musical offensive or racist but rather explains history. The story will always remain the same because it’s the story we know, and it’s a nice story. If you talk about outdated, most Broadway productions or classic novels are basically set in a timeline which the culture is probably unacceptable nowadays. It’s a way of understanding how people in the past felt. Even if it is from the West’s point of view, then it’s a way of understanding them, not saying it’s the correct view, but that’s just because of cultural differences. However, I do agree with the points you made political and socio-cultural wise.

  5. Devil’s Advocacy/ caveat:
    Rodgers & Hammerstein might’ve done an orientalist parody of Mongkut’s reign, but we’re basically dealing with a royal family here and I’m not sure occidental royal families (the Bourbons? the Julio-Claudians?) were exactly known for their rationality either.
    Regarding the Thai Royal Family, you can’t always guess what’s Thai culture and what’s aristocratic lunacy, but the truth seems quite a bit stranger than fiction, even up to the present day. (I’d give my left ring finger to have a decent chat with anyone who PROPERLY knew Prince Maha back in Duntroon or King’s School!)
    Can’t think of any Thai monarchs who weren’t far more interesting than Yul Brynner in real life: Queen Suriyothai riding on elephant-back against the Burmese… Chulalongkorn building the Asian answer to Versailles… Prince Damrong Rajanubhab compiling “Thai Rop Phama,” the great chauvinistic masterpiece of Thai military history… the unsolved gunshot incident that elevated the current King Bhumibol to the throne…
    A very impressive and enigmatic family situation!

  6. It’s a musical, and I hope will be fun for my granddaughter and I with its cast of little children, dancing and songs. The film of the musical was/is banned in Thailand because it was seen as disrespectful of the Chakri dynasty and also fanciful, even though actually based on the English governess Anna Leonowens, a person who fascinatingly re-invented herself. the Chakri dynasty practised polygamy until the early 1900’s and King Mongkut’s progeny numbered about 80. That in itself is a cultural difference that requires understanding but people go to musicals for entertainment not education. But I appreciated your piece and agree that it is racist. So is South Pacific, and I guess so many entertainments of that era. If you had been a child whose parents bought all the albums and had listened to the music sitting next to the record player, ears glued to the speakers, you would know also that it didn’t turn us into racists.

  7. I went to it 2 days ago. Interesting, after reading this. Very dated story – pre suffragette gender politics meant that a governess and her employer the king of Siam seemed to be locked in a shouting match. The king portrayed as an angry man. Much sentimentality in many of the songs, visually gorgeous. Bread and circus entertainment for the folks who can afford to go to the theatre these days. Full house so there are plenty who can.

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