Martin Luther King Memorial Has Asian Eyes — Just Like Meryl Streep

The memorial’s outsourcing to a Chinese artist creates a firestorm — and is reminiscent of the Asianization of some Hollywood stars

 

No sooner did the new memorial to Martin Luther King go up in Washington, with newspaper stories and TV segments all archived on Google, than a sharp-eyed British news reporter in Shanghai — working for the Telegraph in London — reported that the large marble bust of MLK was ''outsourced'' to China and carved by a Chinese sculptor working in China — and that MLK's eyes even look a bit Asian in the artist's rendition.

I could be making this up, but I'm not.

Said Malcolm Moore, writing under a headline reading "Martin Luther King Memorial Made in China," notes that the MLK statue, standing in the shadow of the Washington Monument, shows King ''emerging from a mountain of Chinese granite with his arms crossed."

"However," Moore continues, "there has been [a mountain of] controversy over the choice of Yi-shin Lei, a 57-year-old master sculptor from Changsha in China's Hunan Province, to carry out the work. Critics have openly asked why a black, or at least an American, artist was not chosen and even remarked that King appears slightly Asian in Lei's rendering."

The comment that MLK appears slightly Asian in the rendering mirrors comments seen in some Asian blogs over the year about how some Hollywood stars are depicted with Asian eyes in movie ads in Japan and Taiwan.

You might not be aware of this, but when rural movie theaters in Taiwan hang handpainted advertising posters outside the theaters to attract moviegoers and introduce upcoming attractions (with Chinese Mandarin characters for the titles), American and European actors and actresses are invariably painted with Asian eyes.

I've been watching the phenomenon for many years, and while I can't get a handle on it exactly, I am getting close and closer.

For example, a few years ago, when I saw a huge movie banner poster for ''Mamma Mia!'' hanging over the main entrance of the Carnival Movie Theater fourplex in my little town in south Taiwan, it was at first hard to recognize the actors in the original Hollywood photo poster plastered inside the theater lobby: Pierce Brosnan, Meryl Streep and Colin Firth.

And an outdoor movie banner for "Don't Mess with the Zohan" also seemed to portray Adam Sandler with very Asian eyes, not his normal Caucasian eyes.

It's true, and I think most Americans and Europeans will be surprised to hear of this, but many of Taiwan's hand-painted movie posters — a dying art here, by the way, being quickly replaced by photographic replications — portray American actors and actresses with Asian eyes.

My guess is that the elderly men working on the large outdoor canvass banners are painting the posters using photos of the Hollywood stars, but as the paint job proceeds step by step, the eyes get reworked, unconciously, into "oriental" eyes, since the painter sees reality through that perspective and only knows how to draw and paint eyes that way.

When I asked for an explanation of this apparent sleight of hand, er, eye, Jessica Chen,  a staff member at the Carnival, said that she also noticed how Western actors routinely got Oriental eyes when the local poster painter did his magic. She added that she was sure Taiwanese people were not even aware of this slight changing of the eyes in such large-size, outdoor movie posters.

I asked a few movie-goers outside the theater, and they all told me they had never thought of this before. 

"I don't even think the painter is even aware of what he is doing," Chen continued. "I think he is using the Hollywood poster as the basis for his handpainted banner, painted on canvass, but that he unconciously forms the eyes of the characters in the only style he knows, which is the Asian style for Taiwanese, Chinese or Japanese actors. I am sure he is not aware that he has painted Meryl Streep with Asian eyes. It's simply a cultural and visual thing, I am sure, and he means no harm to anyone at all."

An Israeli friend living in Singapore, a longtime Asia expat, told me that he had seen similar Asian perspectives on movie posters around Asia, telling me by email: "Hmm, I find the eyes thing very subtle, as you point it out. But you know, I've seen these kinds of hand-painted posters in Asia before, too, especially in Viet Nam, but I never really noticed that."

So look again at the face on the MLK memorial now in Washington and let me know what see YOU see: Asian eyes on Dr. King, or the real thing?

It's true, perhaps, that we see what we are imprinted to see, all over the world, and that regional artists work from that set of brainwaves.