Keep on Wondering...

What are the connections between social and historical forces and the representations we see?
Why is yellowface still acceptable? When and how did yellowface turn into whitewashing?
How do these representations create and/or perpetuate stereotypes that are present in our world? What is the impact?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Sagwa: The Chinese-Siamese Cat

Confession: This used to be my favorite show as a kid. So forgive me if I'm not as critical as I should be. 
Based on the children's book by Amy Tan, this show features a family of cats who write calligraphy with their tails for their master, who is the magistrate of a Chinese province in the countryside. Sagwa, Sheegwa, Dongwa, and their friend Fu-Fu the bat go on adventures together that always end with a moral lesson. Really cute moral lessons, like "Don't turn your back on your friends," or "Don't steal." 

And listen to that music. Sounds nothing like Mr. Yunioshi's theme song. No obscenely loud gongs. The music isn't a specific/traditional Chinese song - but it's using the traditional instruments and structure as a backbone to all of the songs used in the series. It sounds like the composer for this show sat down and really studied traditional Chinese instruments and songs. And do you hear that? That's singing in Mandarin. About half of the singing in the theme song is in Mandarin. Not in English. Not in some made-up "Chinese" language. In Mandarin. Whooohoo! 
What's lovely about this show, you ask? It's cute little cats who write with their tails. Little Chinese cats who write in very accurate and traditional-looking calligraphy. Cute little Chinese cats who go on adventures with their best friend who is a bat. Cats who write with their tails and live in ancient China (social history lessons, kids!). Most of the character's names are derived from actual Chinese words/names. This is probably the most accurate and positive portrayal on a children's television show of (specifically) ancient Chinese culture, therefore instilling a respect towards China and it's history. Is that not cause for celebration? 
I have no complaints about any of the cat characters, because they are not based on any caricatures of Chinese people. They're generic kid show characters. There's the cute, cheerful, slightly ditzy little sister (Sheegwa), the whiney, slightly myopic and dramatic cool older brother (Dongwa), the curious, kind and occasionally very bossy middle sister (Sagwa), the strict yet funny dad (Baba Miao), the gentle but strict mommy (Mama Miao), and the clumsy but very smart sidekick (Fu-Fu the bat). There's also a gang of alley cats (Aristocats, anyone?), three Pekingese "sleeve" dogs, some mice, and cat grandparents. Ignore the fact that they're cats in China. This ensemble cast could be any kid's television show. They just happen to be cats and they just happen to be Chinese cats who write calligraphy with their tails. Nothing else.

Now the humans, on the other hand, that's where this show teeters on the brink of being potentially (mildly) offensive. There's the gluttonous, absent-minded Foolish Magistrate, a dumbed-down Charlie Chan character, who keeps potstickers in the sleeves of his robes and enjoys eating noodles and making up silly rules. There's his demanding wife Tai-Tai who keeps Pekingese dogs in her sleeves and is an extremely watered-down Fu Manchu/Dragon Lady combo what with her ability to manipulate her husband into doing whatever she wants. There are their three daughters, dumbed-down Lotus Blossom girls who giggle pointlessly and don't really serve a purpose except as stock characters. There's the Cook, a cheerful man who cooks for the magistrate and his family, and is subservient, rotund, and just like Charlie Chan, except he doesn't solve mysteries. He does use a lot of aphorisms. Then there's the Reader, the slapstick comic relief man who reads the rules set out by the magistrate to the rest of the village/province. He falls down a lot - he's the human manifestation of Fu-Fu the bat. Both are wise, clumsy, sometimes silly, and wear glasses. Almost all of the human characters in the TV show of Sagwa are based in strange, old, funky stereotypes, even though they are watered down considerably and aren't portrayed as caricatures or meant to be racist.

There is the concern that the main characters of Sagwa (the cats) are voiced by white people, and this raises the issue of whitewashing - giving a role that could be for any actor of any race that ends up being played by a white actor just because. Look out for whitewashing in upcoming film/television posts! Was denying an Asian vocal actor the chance to play a Chinese cat wrong? Was there ever any denial of an Asian vocal actor? Was an Asian vocal actor ever considered for one of the lead roles? Is it because it's only the role of a cat that the race of the actor doesn't matter? Thankfully, a majority of the human caricatures (oops, I mean characters) are voiced by people of Asian descent, albeit relatively unknown/unrecognized actors. So is casting a white actor (rather, using a white actor's voice) to play an Asian character in a vocal role whitewashing? Or... not?

In the past, cartoons depicting Chinese people always featured prominent teeth and slanty eyes on the people. Not so here! Nobody's eyes are drawn as a diagonal line. Most of them even have whites around their irises! Everyone can see in this show! And not one of them has buck teeth. Not one. I don't think any of the characters are actually drawn with teeth, so I guess teeth are irrelevant here. 
 Effort was put into making this show accurate and a good representation, which sets it apart from shows like Juniper Lee or Jake Long. The theme song, the drawings, the usage of real Chinese words, the references to Chinese history: it all screams of effort and research on the part of the creators. How awesome is that? 


  1. Thank you. Very good writing and informative. I loved this show and I was not a kid when it came out. I watched it with my grand daughter.

  2. Hi I loved watching this show was very interesting and fun.