I readYellowfacebyR.F. KuangonSep 10th, 2023

Spoiler alert: The plot of the book might be disclosed in the discussion, please stop here if you don't want this ruins your reading fun.

I kind of like this book for its fast-pace, riveting plots, and the satirical storytelling style. It also uncovered the cut-throat competition in the publishing industry, the turf war of heritages, and the internet trolling. I just feel these contradictions are merely used to propel the progress. There are missing opportunities for the authors to dig deep for the root causes. Maybe I am just spoiled by the nonfiction, and become biased against fictions.

Culture appropriation

When June, the protagonist, published a novel about Chinese workers in the WWI, readers criticized that she was disqualified to explore Chinese culture due to the lack of heritage. June argued that the icon of American-Chinese community, Athena Liu, was raised in the United State and barely spoke Chinese. How come she was more qualified, just because of her yellow face?

This is coined as culture appropriation, defined as:

the inappropriate or unacknowledged adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity.

I am not a lawyer, but the definition leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Who can make the call of inappropriate? Is it possible that the native could also make the same mistakes by lack of understanding? Or they’re entitled to adopt the culture just because their biological traits without regards their ethnicity?

As an immigrant from China, I am particularly puzzled by the inappropriate use. The Chinese community welcomes foreigners dressed in traditional Chinese garments, which is typically considered as culture influences. I consider the perception is cultivated due to that Chinese culture is mainstream in East Asia. When I migrated to the United States, I still hold the same point of view even though the ground is shifting.


Athena Liu is darling of the publishing industry, partly for her storytelling capability, and partly contributed by her yellow face. The publishing house needs a mascot to demonstrate their diversity and inclusiveness. In this context, it does not matter whether Athena represents the community, as long as it looks like so.

That is why June could not replicate Athena’s success even she took the similar path to tell stories about the minority group. This was an interesting A/B test.

Rat race

The novel suggests publishing industry is another mafia-like hierarchy besides entertainment industry. The 10% in the pyramid top grab 90% benefits, while the walkers live on the minium wages. They still committed to this career on the hope that one day they could rise to the top. It also reinforced my stereotype that brown graduates with elegancy and sophistication make minium wages in publishing houses.

Other thoughts

I feel the ending is implausible. It is almost impossible for an amateur to launch such an sophisticated social engineering attack. For the sake of drama, June should accidentally mute the whistleblower, and get away with it, like Gone girl.