Why do Asian-Americans remain largely unseen in film and television? | The Star
Their faces are familiar for the feelings of horror and shame they produce in me. Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” stumbling around his Manhattan apartment in a blue bathrobe, his face contorted — lips barely closing over grotesquely pronounced buckteeth, slicked-back hair dyed jet black. Ashton Kutcher as a Bollywood producer, Raj, in a 2012 commercial, his skin darkened, a brown moustache affixed to his face, speaking in a cheap singsong voice, swaying his body, which is clad in a bright blue silk sherwani, back and forth to imitate the Indian head waggle. Tilda Swinton, otherworldly in her beauty, as always, but monkishly bald as the Ancient One, a character originally intended to be Tibetan, in 2016’s “Doctor Strange.” More subtle, but still just as shocking: Emma Stone — blond and green-eyed — as Allison Ng, leaning against a kitchen island in a scene from 2015’s “Aloha” and saying, “My dad was half Chinese, half Hawaiian,” as breezily as if she were saying goodbye to someone on the telephone.
I, too, am half Chinese, though I have always been told (by other Chinese-Americans, by white people who were under the impression I was one of them) that I’m not the right kind of Chinese. I’m over six feet tall and my eyelids have creases, and I have come to anticipate the pause in a conversation with strangers as I watch them — like someone calculating the size of someone else’s apartment — square the fact of my ethnicity with my appearance. I have never quite seen myself onscreen. Maybe in Keanu Reeves or Olivia Munn, but even so, the side of myself that is understood as Asian — that is seen — is as washed away as theirs, and that is because we live in a world that doesn’t make time for ambiguity, that continues to reward whiteness with privilege.
Having been raised on a mediocre diet of American television and mainstream Hollywood movies, I can count on one hand the actors of Asian descent who made an impression on me growing up. Their performances have stayed with me, like a novel you may never read again but pack with you every time you move.
There are two I’ll mention here.
The first was George Takei, a Japanese-American, as the steadfast and level-headed “Star Trek” officer Hikaru Sulu. He spoke — I remember finding this remarkable, and, in a way, I still do, given the show was created in 1966 — without an accent. In a subsequent feature-length film, Sulu eventually becomes captain of his own ship. He showed sound judgment and character in times of danger. He led.
Then there was Sandra Oh, a Korean-Canadian, as the enraged Stephanie in 2004’s “Sideways,” who has a love affair with a feckless man named Jack, played by Thomas Haden Church. She breaks his nose after learning he is engaged to another woman; I had never seen a Korean woman onscreen lose her temper within the proximity of a Saab convertible and against the backdrop of a California vineyard. Her anger was justified. Her emotions were real, not cartoonish.
Both performances let me understand that I didn’t have to ask to assume the same privileges as those around me — but nor should I pretend to be someone I wasn’t. They also spoke to a part of me, the Chinese half of me, that never felt it could behave as carelessly as the other half of me did.
There have been attempts by Hollywood to insert real people of colour — in this case, Asian-Americans — into the cultural landscape of film and television. Most recently, Daniel Wu was cast as Lu Ren in this year’s “Tomb Raider,” starring Alicia Vikander. He was as good-looking as he was complicated, but where typically there might have been some chemistry between two young and beautiful people embarking on a grand adventure, Wu was relegated by the end to the benign, if handsome, friend. The television reboot “Hawaii Five-0” has added more nuanced Asian characters who were missing from the original version, played by actors such as Grace Park, Daniel Dae Kim or Masi Oka, and newer creations, including “Silicon Valley,” have cast Jimmy O. Yang and Kumail Nanjiani in stereotypical but still more rewardingly complex supporting roles (Yang plays a ruthless if talentless app developer; Nanjiani, as a software engineer, steals the scene in nearly every episode). But these are still small changes, and this so-called progress rings hollow. You remain unlikely to see Asian-Americans in lead roles in big studios films without the hint of tokenism, even after the box office success of this year’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” the first studio film with an all-Asian cast since “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993.
Representation of Asians within American performing arts has always been alarmingly small. A recent study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism showed Asian-Americans representing only 1 per cent of all leading roles in Hollywood (the 2017 United States Census Bureau reported that there are 18 million Americans of Asian descent, or roughly 6 per cent of the population). Only one actor of Asian heritage has ever won an Academy Award for best actor: Ben Kingsley, whose father was Indian, in 1983 for playing Gandhi (Kingsley has been nominated in three other instances). Twelve actors of Asian descent have ever received nominations from the academy — all largely for supporting roles, with the exception of Merle Oberon, who was half British and half Sri Lankan, in 1936. The others include the Japanese-American actor Pat Morita; the Cambodian actor Haing S. Ngor; the Japanese actors Mako Iwamatsu, Ken Watanabe, Rinko Kikuchi and Sessue Hayakawa; the Chinese-American actresses and sisters Jennifer and Meg Tilly; the Filipino-American actress Hailee Steinfeld; and the British-Indian actor Dev Patel. This year, Sandra Oh made history as the first woman of Asian descent to be nominated for an Emmy for the lead in a dramatic series, as Eve Polastri in “Killing Eve.” And earlier this year, the Indian-American actor Aziz Ansari was awarded best actor for a TV comedy by the Golden Globes, the first actor of Asian descent to do so. When “Saturday Night Live” announced that the actor Awkwafina would host the show this past October, it was noted that the last woman of Asian descent to host was Lucy Liu in 2000, 18 years ago. The New York Times recently reported that in the search for the male lead in “Crazy Rich Asians,” one of the movie’s producers was told by several prominent American theatre schools that they hadn’t had a male Asian graduate in years. A study by multiple universities reported that, over a one-year period, of the 242 scripted shows on broadcast, cable and streaming TV, just one-third had a series regular who was Asian-American or Pacific Islander. These are shows, mind you, set in cities such as San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles, which all have significant Asian-American and Pacific Islander populations (33 per cent, 12 per cent and 24 per cent, respectively). And another report by the U.S.C. Annenberg Inclusion Initiative stated that of the top 100 films of last year, 37 didn’t include a single Asian character with a speaking role.
Yet elsewhere in the arts, Asian-Americans have flourished: as poets, writers, directors, photographers, fashion designers, architects, interior decorators and visual artists. The creative offerings of Asian-Americans — from Vera Wang’s fantasy wedding dresses to the fiction of Jhumpa Lahiri to the haunting cinematography of Hiro Murai, the director of Donald Glover’s television show “Atlanta” — aren’t just accepted but celebrated. Only in the representational arts do Asians remain unseen — mostly in film and television, but in music, too, and, to a lesser degree, on the runway.
Their arrival was called the Yellow Peril. Asian immigrants were seen as invasive and threatening to an entire American way of life, and over the next century, a series of laws were passed that excluded first the Chinese, but then also those from other Asian countries. By 1924, all Asian immigrants (with the exception of those from the Philippines, a country that had been annexed by the United States) were refused citizenship, naturalization, land ownership and, in some states, prevented from marrying those of another race.
Hollywood capitalized on these fears accordingly in their creations of Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. The former, a calculating villain who appeared in a series of films beginning in the 1920s (the name, invented by its British creator, is a crude jingoist rhyme, neither Mandarin nor Cantonese), is a mask of a Chinese man, always portrayed with crudely slanted eyes, eyebrows like caterpillars and a thin dangling beard. The latter was a benevolent but subservient detective in a bowler hat who was popularized by a series of white actors in dozens of films beginning in the 1920s and into the 1980s. And even if Asian men weren’t portrayed as the yellow-faced villain or the neutered helpmate, they were still always the other. As with almost any reviled minority group in America, the fear traces back to sex — the men were either sexless or sex-crazed. The women were conniving dragon ladies or docile concubines.
It was only in 1965, when immigration laws changed again, and the United States eliminated national-origin quotas and introduced a preference system based on family relationships as well as skills, that a new wave of Asian immigrants arrived. With them came a new stereotype, one that persists today: the model minority — competitive, goal-oriented and hard-working (but, notably, lacking in creativity, charm, sex appeal and humour). A recent lawsuit against Harvard University revealed how it systematically discriminates against Asian-American applicants, alleging that though Asian-American students consistently performed higher than other applicants when it came to test scores, grades and extracurriculars, they were consistently given lower scores for “positive personality,” likability, courage, kindness and being “widely respected,” according to the 160,000 student records included in the lawsuit’s filing. (Harvard has denied the charges.)
Inscrutable. High-achieving. Soulless.
Why is it that the challenges of becoming part of a new country, of overcoming an immense language barrier or working twice as hard and twice as long are so rarely prized? I think often of the leap, for example, my mother made immigrating to this country from Taiwan, and how much she lost in translation. It’s the little things you forget to explain or can’t, at least right away, put into words. For years, my mother would tell me she was afraid of snakes, and I never understood why until we visited the house where she grew up in Keelung, a port city in northern Taiwan where the weather can shift in an instant, blue sky darkening to black. There, alongside a small garden, was a creek, and as we passed it, my mother remarked that that was where the bodies of dead snakes accumulated after each typhoon. The Chinese-American writer Weike Wang’s short story “Omakase,” published this year in the New Yorker, captures this cultural muteness as well. In it, a young Chinese-American woman goes on a date with her white boyfriend to a sushi restaurant in Harlem. His relative ease in the restaurant and in his interactions with the Japanese chef show, on the one hand, a charismatic personality. But on the other, it reveals a white man’s assumption of being understood, in being welcome. It causes, at one point, the protagonist to reflect on an earlier moment when she introduced her boyfriend to her parents:
Her mother was a housewife. Back in China, they’d had different jobs. Her father had been a computer-science professor and her mother had been a salesclerk, but their success in those former roles had hinged on being loquacious and witty in their native language, none of which translated into English.
It’s an obvious but understated point — the lack of charisma and expression that the protagonist’s father possesses in English is not because he is a humourless and charmless man, but that the nuances of such expression are not, at that moment, available to him. It calls to mind the coded language used to describe Asians and Asian-Americans: “hard-working” instead of brilliant, “diligent” but not dazzling, “focused” but not naturally gifted.
But even if we can prove to you that we are as good as you, the underlying message we get from the culture is that there is something else that separates us, some quality that’s impossible to quantify — originality, spark, winsome impulsivity, intuition. We are tireless workers, but all that diligence amounts to in the eyes of others is a kind of empty ambition. We don’t seduce, we don’t inspire, we don’t go by our gut. These are skills the American workplace fetishizes, and it has been decided that we don’t possess them. Recent studies have found that Asian-Americans are the least likely of all races to be promoted into managerial positions.
The bamboo ceiling
And so it all comes back to how we are allowed to see ourselves on the screen: worker bees but not the inventor. Comical helpmeets but never the alpha. Filial sons and daughters who have abandoned emotional fulfilment in order to satisfy our parents. These stereotypes are, not incidentally, the absolute inverse of the types and tropes celebrated in American cinema: the rebel, the bad boy, the iconoclast, the prankster. The people we worship in our popular culture — from James Dean to Steve Jobs, Marilyn Monroe to Princess Diana — don’t play by the rules. It’s a Western myth that those we love distinguish themselves by their differences, that their faults are their virtues. Asians are seen differently: pathetic perfectionists who never got the meaning of life, who’re unable to live with abandon and therefore with romance. And that is why we will never be compelling enough to be the hero in your eyes.
In watching movies, we project. It’s a basic impulse. We identify with who we see. We feel what the characters feel, perhaps because once in our life, we experienced something close to what the actor is living on the screen, even if our version was less dramatic, less violent. Very rarely do the stakes in our lives rise so high, nor do the contours of a movie mimic the passage of time that defines our existence — but the intensity of feeling can’t be diminished when we relate to someone else’s experience, when we see what we know being reenacted, and understand it to be true.
After the release this past summer of “Crazy Rich Asians,” a romantic comedy about a young woman who discovers her boyfriend’s enormous wealth (and one of only three major Hollywood films ever to have a majority Asian cast), I’ve fantasized about recasting various classic American films with faces that look like mine. What if “Ferris Bueller” took place in Pasadena and not Chicago, if its projection of youthful freedom and dilettantish attention span — youth is now, and now is free — were something you could see played out among a well-to-do Chinese family? Or if “The Graduate” was about Mrs. Kwan, not Mrs. Robinson, a complex woman with whom we could understand the isolation of an empty marriage? Or if “The Breakfast Club” was about a young Japanese-American woman in the suburbs of San Francisco just discovering the power of her sexuality? These coming-of-age films — however limited or dated they may seem today — did one specific thing for me when I first watched them: They allowed me to witness the complexity of an individual’s interiority. I saw characters who desired something or someone in life they didn’t have, I saw them stumble and learn from their mistakes and I saw them grow from them. It’s a redemptive, satisfying feeling.
All stereotypes reduce. Asian-American actors have largely been either fulfilments or denials of clichés. If we are never granted the right to a personality, if we are only perceived as heartless automatons just one point away from a perfect SAT score — then we are certainly never going to be granted the opportunity to live full lives on the screen. Robots, after all, are born fully formed.
Perhaps, other Asian-Americans have argued, we aren’t vocal enough. We don’t get worked up, we don’t cause a fuss. Our parents don’t encourage us to take risks, to rebel. We are too polite, too cautious.
But I don’t buy it. I think that you refuse to see us. To look at us for who we are. As with so many other minorities in America, you are comfortable enjoying the work we make. But representation is about demanding more: more leading Asian-American actors, more films in which we are allowed the everyday banalities of our existence. The anxieties, the boredom, the simple gestures of affection. It’s about showing that you are like us. Not the other way around. Not adjacent. Not other.
In all art, the specific is the universal. Today, society can see itself in films that star black people, gay people, older women and transgender people, because even though those stories are about experiences specific to them, they are also stories about being human. There is no perfect outcome in the battle of representation, at least not today, but their presence on screens is a bestowment of dignity, because it demands that society look at them — not past or through them.
In the critic Wesley Yang’s 2011 essay “Paper Tigers,” about the stereotypes surrounding Asian-American overachievers, he consistently returns to the face, his own or that of his subjects: “Sometimes I’ll glimpse my reflection in a window and feel astonished by what I see. Jet-black hair. Slanted eyes. A pancake-flat surface of yellow-and-green-toned skin. An expression that is nearly reptilian in its impassivity.” He speaks with a young man named Jefferson Mao, who aspires to be a writer but recalls his experience at Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School as being part “of a mob of ‘nameless, faceless Asian kids who were like a part of the decor of the place.’ ” Yang continues: “Here is what I sometimes suspect my face signifies to other Americans: an invisible person, barely distinguishable from a mass of faces that resemble it. A conspicuous person standing apart from the crowd and yet devoid of any individuality. An icon of so much that the culture pretends to honour but that it in fact patronizes and exploits.”
When I was 10 years old, I stole a blond wig from the theatre camp I attended that summer. I wore it alone in my room. I paraded in front of my mirror with it perched on my head like the feathers of a cockatoo. When it was on, I let myself fantasize about being a white girl. It was then that the more Chinese side of me became visible. The beige and yellow undertones of my skin clashed with the golden yellow of the wig. The almond shape of my brown eyes didn’t sit as well as the pretty blue eyes I imagined having beneath the flaxen bangs. I was trying to erase a side of myself. But in doing so, I only saw myself more clearly.