Why Do Asian-Americans Remain Largely Unseen in Film?

THEIR FACES ARE familiar with the horror and shame that they create in me. Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi stumbled around his Manhattan apartment in a blue bathrobe in 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” his face twisted— lips barely closed over grotesquely pronounced buckteeth, slicked-back hair dyed jet black.Ashton Kutcher, as a Bollywood actor, Raj, darkened his skin in a 2012 advert, a black mustache stuck to his nose, singing in a cheap music accent, swaying his hair, dressed in a sherwani bright blue dress, back and forth to mimic the Indian head waggle.Tilda Swinton, a character originally intended to be Tibetan in 2016’s “Doctor Strange,” otherworldly her beauty, as always, but monkishly bald as Ancient One.More discreet, yet just as shocking: Emma Stone — blonde and green-eyed — like Allison Ng, sitting against a kitchen island in a 2015 “Aloha” scene and saying. “My father was half Japanese, half Hawaiian,” as breezily as if she were saying goodbye to someone on the line.

I, too, am half Chinese, although I have always been told (by other Chinese-Americans, by white people who had the illusion that I was one of them) that I am not right kind of Chinese.I’m over 6 feet tall, and my eyelids have creases,  I’ve come to expect a pause in conversation with people as I watch them — like someone else’s apartment weighing the scale — equate my race to my presence.I never saw myself on the computer.

Having been raised on a standard diet of American television and Hollywood blockbuster films, I can count the Asian origin celebrities who made an impression on me growing up on one side.Their works have stuck with me, like a book that you may not read again, but every time you pass, you bring with you.


The first, as the loyal and level-headed “Star Trek” character Hikaru Sulu, was George Takei, a Japanese-American. He spoke — I remember finding it amazing, and I’m still doing it in a way, considering that the series produced in 1966—with no accent.Sulu eventually becomes his own ship’s captain in a subsequent feature-length film. In times of danger, he showed sound judgment and character. He was leading.

Then there was Sandra Oh, a Korean-Canadian, played by Thomas Haden Church as the furious Stephanie in the “Sideways” of 2004, who has a love affair with a stupid man called Jack.Upon hearing that he’s engaged with another woman, she tears her nose; I’ve never seen a Korean woman losing her temper in the vicinity of a Saab convertible and against the backdrop of a California vineyard. Her anger has justified. Her feelings have been genuine, not cartoonish.

These shows made me realize that I didn’t have to ask to carry on the same rights as those around me — but I didn’t have to claim to be someone I wasn’t. I also spoke to some of me, the Chinese half of me, who never thought that it could act as carelessly as the other half of me.


THERE HAVE BEEN efforts by Hollywood to integrate real people of color — in this case, Asian Americans — into film and television’s cultural landscape. Recently, in this year’s “Tomb Raider,” starring Alicia Vikander, Daniel Wu has been cast as Lu Ren.He was as good-looking as complicated, but where there might have been some spark usually between two young and beautiful men embarking on a great adventure, Wu was reduced to the friendly, if gorgeous, pal by the end.The reboot “Hawaii Five-0” added more nuances to Asian characters that were missing from the original version, played by such players as Grace Park, Daniel Dae Kim or Masi Oka, and to new productions, including the “Silicon Valley,” cast Jimmy O.Ang and Nanjiani. In traditional but more Pleasant nuanced support roles.Even after the box office success this year’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” the first Hollywood film with an all-Asian ensemble since “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993, you’re unlikely to see Asian-Americans in leading roles in big studio films without the suggestion of tokenism.

The American performing arts, the presence of Asians have always been alarmingly poor.A recent study by Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California found that Asian-Americans accounted for only 1% of all leading roles in Hollywood (the 2017 U.S.


Census Bureau estimated that there were 18 million Asian-Americans or around 6% of the population).Just one Asian descent star has ever won an Academy Award for best actor: Ben Kingsley, whose father was Pakistani, for portraying Gandhi in 1983 (on three other occasions, Kingsley nominated). Twelve actors of Asian descent have ever been chosen by the academy to support roles, except Merle Oberon, half British and half Sri Lankan, in 1936.Individual stars include Japanese-American actor Pat Morita, Cambodian actor Haing S. Ngor; Japanese actors Mako Iwamatsu, Ken Watanabe, Rinko Kikuchi, and Sessue Hayakawa; Chinese-American actresses and sisters Jennifer and Meg Tilly; Philippine-American actress Hailee Steinfeld; and British-Indian actor Dev Patel.This year, Sandra Oh made history as the first actress of Asian descent to be nominated for a leading Emmy in a dramatic role, including Eve Polastri in “Killing Eve.” Even earlier this year, the Golden Globes, the first actor of Asian descent to do so, named the Indian-American actor Aziz Ansari the best actor for a T.V. comedy.The last female of Asian descent to host was Lucy Liu in 2000, 18 years ago, when “Saturday Night Live” revealed that actress Awkwafina would host the show this past October.New York Times recently reported that one of the producers of the film told by several prominent American theater schools in the search for the male lead in “Crazy Rich Asians” that they hadn’t had male Asian graduates in years.A multi-university study found that of the 242 scripted shows on radio, cable, and online television over one year, about one-third had a weekly Asian-American or Pacific Islander series.These are shows set in cities like San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles, all of which have significant populations of Asian-American and Pacific Islanders (33%, 12%, and 24%, respectively). And another U.S.C. Annenberg Inclusion Initiative report stated that 37 of last year’s top 100 films didn’t include a single Asian character with a speaking role.

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