Hollywood has a storied history of tapping white actors to play Asian roles, traditionally in yellowface and now by simply “reimagining” them as white. It hides behind the capitalist claim of “marketability” – the notion that people don’t pay to see movies with Asian leads or casts.
The Whitewash is Siang Lu’s novelistic commentary on this aspect of the film industry through the rise and fall of Brood Empire, a fictional spy thriller with an Asian man as its lead. Presented as an oral history before its publication online and its final incarnation as a physical book, The Whitewash features a series of interviews with staff at Click Bae, a TMZ-like “journalism” website that peddles mainly gossip; Brood Empire producers; and corporate figures from S.H.A.M.E.L.E.S.S. Productions, the company tapped to produce and distribute Brood Empire to the masses.
These interviews are interspersed with remarks by an unnamed Asian expert in Hong Kong–American film studies read by Eric Dutton, a non-Asian adjunct professor of Chinese Cultural Studies at the University of Queensland. This academic voice, along with the footnotes spread throughout the novel, lends a legitimacy to the work that is, in keeping with the theme of the novel, a fictional conceit.
The Whitewash is a searing commentary on the nature of our modern, online world – how news and gossip can be constructed and construed in ways that can end up rewriting history. Fact and fiction are melded seamlessly through the novel. Fake film references sitting comfortably alongside real ones compound the story’s absurdity but are also a stark reminder of the ease with which disinformation can be spread.
Even though The Whitewash focuses on the whitewashing of Asian roles, there is a sensitivity to the ways in which appropriation isn’t just restricted to the domain of white people. Click Bae’s editor-in-chief is called LeBron Chew, a reference to the many instances of Asian pop culture superficially ripping off Black cultures.
The Whitewash also touches on the fickle and seemingly arbitrary trajectory of social media stardom, and how it can make and destroy lives in an instant. Lu’s tongue-in-cheek tone makes this novel a delightful read, a brilliant work of satire that hits close to home in the best and most unexpected ways.
UQP, 288pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2022 as "The Whitewash, Siang Lu".
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