Representation of Asian Americans in Film: No Joy, No Luck

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Racial representation, or lack thereof, in the media is not specific to any one ethnic group. Since its infancy, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science has failed to recognize the talents and other works of many actors of color while continuing to praise white actors for roles they have no business playing; this is the whitewashed reality of Hollywood. In 2018, Asian American director Jon M. Chu released his film Crazy Rich Asians, the first Hollywood feature film with an all-Asian cast since Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club which premiered in 1993. Although the release of Chu marks a great moment for East Asian Americans, it lacks the intersectionality to provide an accurate image of the Asian American experience. Chu’s film highlights a significant moment for Asian representation but only for those who conform to the model minority myth. As a Hollywood film, it will always reflect the fantasies of the Asian Diaspora about the mother country rather than the experiences and realities of the model minority which include but are not limited to yellowface and whitewashing. To have a better understanding of these issues, it is important to first examine its origins in yellow peril.

Hollywood images of Asians in social and sexual roles serve a more invidious service. These images reinforce the ideologies of the dominant white middle-class views on ethnicity, gender, and social class. Prevalent sentiments at the turn of the century regarding Asians had their origins deeply rooted in yellow peril which is defined by the fear that the racial other would undermine Western values. White Americans during and even before the early 1900s believed that the “irresistible, dark occult forces of the East” (Wong) were undeniable threats. Subsequent impulses from the West ultimately led to anti-miscegenation laws, punishing any kind of interracial relationship and ensuring the eventual return to an acceptable social order. This mentality was further reinforced with the help of early films as the entertainment industry produced movies such as Broken Blossoms (1919), The House Without A Key (1926)- the first of many Charlie Chan films, and The Good Earth (1937); all of which star white actors and actresses dressed up in the yellow face. Take almost any film produced during the early years of Hollywood with Asian characters and they will almost always be played by a white actor mimicking the “melodramatic mannerisms of the otherworldly Chinaman” with “narrowed eyes; the delicate, bowing movements; the sing-song syntax; the relentless politeness, and the suggestion of opium smoked depravity” (Wong 4). Due to this framework, actors like Warner Oland were able to rise to the top of Hollywood’s elite while many other names like Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa still do not garner the recognition they deserve.

Few remember Sessue Hayakawa despite the fact that he was one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood during the 1910s and the 1920s. Hayakawa was most well-known for his “roles as a romantic leading man” (Glenn) but by the 1930s he had fallen from the ranks. He was eventually forgotten in the United States “as Asian men were no longer considered ‘proper’ romantic leads” (Glenn). The Japanese actor later found success internationally in England, France, and Japan; Hayakawa continued to deny that “he was forced out [of Hollywood] by anti-Japanese sentiment” (Glenn) despite racial tensions against the Japanese were only increasing as was the overall anti-Asian sentiment.

The growing anti-Asian sentiment in Hollywood at the turn of the century is reflective of the national historic anti-Asian sentiment. This popular opinion began when the United States started to see an increase in Chinese immigration during the late 1800s after gold was discovered along the west coast and the establishment of the railroad industry provides employment opportunities as a reason for immigrating. According to the U.S. Census of 1870, the total population of California was 582,031; Chinese immigrants accounted for 49.310 while Japanese accounted for 33. It is practical to focus on the California population during this time period as the state provided the majority of the Asian population in the nation. By 1880, the Chinese population increased exponentially as it was reported that 804,694 immigrants were living across the state while the Japanese population also indicated a slightly increased to 86. In response to the sudden change in demographics, Congress passed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act; the first law to prevent immigration and naturalization solely based on race. Following the exclusion act, a large number of Japanese, Korean and Indian immigrants began arriving on the West

Coast to provide labor, replacing the Chinese in the railroad and agricultural industries. According to the 1890 census, the Chinese population dropped to 72,472 while the Japanese population showed a steadier increase to 1,147. In 1910, it was reported that the Chinese population in California had dropped to 36,248 while the Japanese population held steady at 41, 356, the Hindu population was 1,948, the Korean population was 305 and there were a reported 5 Filipino immigrants at the time. Not long after, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924 which placed a national origins quota on all immigrants; while it seemed that immigrants of all origins would be given equal quotas, the law essentially barred any further Asian immigration.

This historic national Asian exclusion was also seen throughout and reinforced by Hollywood and the entertainment industry. In 1914, Sessue Hayakawa starred in the film adaptation of The Typhoon where he played a Japanese diplomat in France who ends up killing a chorus girl after a passionate encounter turns violent. “Despite the negative stereotyping of his character, Hayakawa’s brooding good looks made him an undeniable sex symbol amongst white women across America” (Buscher) contributing to the concept of yellow peril. The following year, Hayakawa played a similar role in The Cheat where he shared the “first-ever on-screen interracial kiss with a white woman” (Buscher). Producers ultimately branded his character as the villain after he takes a hot iron to his lover after she attempts to end the affair. Fed up with the consistent typecasting by the major Hollywood studios, he decided to fund his own corporation. Hayworth Pictures Corp. ended up releasing 19 films between 1918 and 1922. When reflecting on Hayakawa’s body of work, Center for Asian American Media Executive Director Steven Gong said in an interview that he believed “Hayakawa was aware of the racism behind his character in The Cheat and was determined to play the hero in his own Hayworth and Hayakawa films” (Buscher). Unfortunately, with the growing anti-Japanese sentiment in California, Hayakawa’s de facto exclusion sent him to Europe where he would continue his work as an actor for the next decade. Sessue Hayakawa returned to Hollywood in the 1930s only to be pigeonholed by his thick Japanese accent in the new talkie era.

Anna May Wong was a silent film star in the 1920s, but she too often found herself limited to stereotypical Asian roles. When Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth was released in 1931, Wong publicly expressed her desire to be cast in the film adaptation as it was an extremely rare opportunity for the Chinese American actress to play a Chinese character like this in Hollywood. “During her career, Wong suffered from frequent stereotypes of Asian women as China dolls or dragon ladies” (Buscher). Despite her talents and on-screen presence, she was usually relegated to supporting roles. The closest Wong ever came to playing the lead role was in The Good Earth. It wasn’t until later that she discovered that she was not even considered for the role. Because of the Hays Code which outlined what would and would not be permitted on screens and because of anti-miscegenation laws, Wong was prevented from taking on a lot of roles that involved a romantic white male lead; this was exactly the case during The Good Earth as she lost the role to Luise Rainer who later went on to earn an Oscar for her yellowface performance. Wong was later offered a supporting role as a concubine to which she refused. This decade also brought to the screen the yellowface characters of Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan which were “stereotypical Asian roles played by white actors and were products of Western imagination” (Buscher). By the 1930s, romantic Asian male roles were virtually nonexistent. When the script called for one, a white man was hired and dressed up to appear Asian. Even in the cases when a white actor would portray an Asian man, interracial relationships were too taboo and were forbidden from getting any screen time preventing Wong and others like her from playing roles that should have been intended for them.

Yellowface in Hollywood resulted from Asian exclusion. Casting white actors also played a key role in box office calculation. Hollywood capitalized on these fears accordingly as can be seen in their creations of Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. some try to justify the use of yellowface by arguing that well-known white actors would be seen as more relatable to audiences thus generating more ticket sales. When white actor Warner Orland replaced his Asian predecessors as Charlie Chane, the film’s success was amplified making it difficult to counter this argument. “Giving the people what they wanted” (Kayimaya) was justification enough for this one-sided deal. Another argument used to justify the use of yellowface was the “lack of qualified or talented Asian or Asian American actors” (Kayimaya) yet we know this to be false because Wong and Hayakawa exist. While the circumstances regarding their careers may have differed, there is one thing that can be said about the two for certain; their careers came to a premature end. One can only wonder where their potential would have taken them had they not had to face racism and discrimination on a daily basis. The use of yellowface grew to be very common among the major Hollywood studios. Other famous actors known to have performed in yellowface include Katharine Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Marlon Brando, Mickey Rooney, and John Wayne. Other contemporary examples include Eddie Murphy’s performance as Mr. Wong in Norbit (2007) and the majority of the cast of Cloud Atlas (2012). Instances of yellowface have become more scarcer in recent years, although it has been replaced with another strategy allowing for the continued prioritization of white actors over Asian and Asian American actors.

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Whitewashing, the contemporary yellowface, is another strategy Hollywood uses to maintain its status as a predominantly white institution. This approach calls for the altering of lead characters allowing for white leads without the use of prosthetics, makeup, or other special effects. This technique has resulted in Scarlett Johansson being cast as Motoko Kusanagi in the film adaptation of the popular anime The Ghost in the Shell despite an online petition protesting Johansson's involvement in the film which garnered over 100,000 signatures (Lee). By using this approach, filmmakers were also able to get away with casting Emma Stone to play Allison Ng, a Chinese-Hawaiian character in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha (2015) as well as casting Tilda Swinton to play the Ancient One in Marvel’s Doctor Strange (2016). When asked about Swinton’s performance in the superhero film, Korean American comedian Margaret Cho talked about the many frustrations throughout the Asian American community as she heard many voices their concerns over the role. Many expressed how they felt that “the role should have gone to a person of Asian descent” (Lee). In response to the criticism, Swinton defended the film arguing that it was “whitewashing in the name of diversity” (Lee) as she explained how the writers wanted to avoid the “orientalist stereotype of the wise old geezer or the Fu Manchu type while also trying to avoid the dragon lady type” (Lee). In the case of Doctor Strange’s Ancient One, writers attempted to avoid falling into historical stereotypes by erasing the character completely and giving it a new face.

Erasure is not the answer to ending stereotypes. In the case of Doctor Strange’s Ancient One, instead of addressing the stereotypes and their roots in racism, they chose to ignore them completely by giving the caricature a white face rather than keep the character Asian; essentially saying that Asians cannot exist outside the parameters of these stereotypes. Another part of the issue relates back to Swinton’s interview in which she described how the film was “whitewashed for diversity.” In the interview, she goes on to say how her character was rewritten to be of Celtic origin to be more complex. By doing so, she implies that the character cannot be as dynamic if they were to remain of Asian origin.

Hollywood has whitewashed Asians for decades, but this pattern may be reaching a turning point. The controversy around this issue is growing stronger and people can no longer stay quiet about it. In August of 2017, British actor Ed Skrein “made the decision to quit Lionsgate and Millennium’s Hellboy reboot” (Sun) after facing criticism for taking on the role of the Japanese American character. Many are now regarding Skein’s decision as a tipping point for Hollywood’s discriminatory practice. Others see the actor’s actions as nothing more than giving into societal pressures as many turn to social media to urge him to resign. Regardless if it was for ethical reasons or not, Director Jon M. Chu believes that Skrein set a new precedent by leaving the film production. While Emma Stone only apologized later after the release of Aloha (2015), Skrein is the first actor to address this issue by stepping down from a role. By doing so, he not only used his platform to bring attention to this issue, but he also opened the door for others in the industry to get involved in the conversation because “this isn’t just an Asian American issue” (Sun). Because of Skrein, Hellboy producers have vowed to recast his part with an actor “more consistent with the character in the source material” (Sun) which could ultimately impact Asian American representation by setting a new standard. This is similar to what happened in 1990 during the production of Miss Saigon. Yellowface came full circle as Asian Americans protested the “casting of a white actor for the role of a Eurasian pimp” (Kayimaya). In response to the public outcry, the newly revived production team for The King and I decided to cast part Filipino actor Lou Diamond Phillips as the King of Siam in an attempt to avoid backlash or controversy. So it seems as though yellowface’s successor will soon follow suit. Following Skrein’s departure, the production company announced that Korean American actor Daniel Kim would be taking over the role. This announcement came after Kim made headlines the previous summer when he announced that he and fellow Asian actress Grace Park would be leaving the CBS show “Hawaii 5-0.”

The Hawaii 5-0 case study illustrates just some of the disparities faced by Asian Americans in the entertainment industry that have resulted from their historic exclusion. The New York Times article discusses how actors Grace Park and Daniel Kim decided to leave the NBC show Hawaii 5-0 amid reports of unequal pay. The two Asian American actors decided to leave the show after they were unable to come to an agreement for the contracts presented to them by the show’s executives. In a Facebook statement following the incident, Daniel Kim addressed the situation implying that unequal pay was the reason for their departure further fueling speculations, stating that “the path to equality is rarely easy.” This is the result of the historic exclusion of Asians in the United States. Their departure from the show represents the longstanding difficulties for Asian American actors who struggle to find steady work and equitable pay to their white counterparts like Scarlett Johansson, one of many white actors who benefit from being able to cross racial boundaries to play any role they please. Kim and Park’s departure from the show highlights a certain lack of diversity necessary for any show that is based in Hawaii needs to be believable or representative of the communities. Their actions also give light to the lack of diversity and equitable pay all throughout Hollywood. The case study also illustrates the power in Hollywood in relation to race. To this day, the American entertainment industry is dominated by white executives, producers, directors, and actors mirroring the pattern of all other institutions in the United States. The race relations graph can be applied to this case study to see how power is unequally distributed and maintained through and by whiteness. Although Kim and Park were doing the same work as the other actors and performing with the same quality, they were not equally compensated by CBS executives for their labor.

Hollywood Chinese was written, produced, and edited by Asian American filmmaker Arthur Dong. The documentary chronicles a century of Chinese American images in a film by including the personal accounts of several well-known actors of both Asian and White ancestry including Joan Chen, Tai Chin, James Hong, Nancy Kwan, Christopher Lee, and B.D. Wong as well as some directors such as Ang Lee to illustrate how Hollywood has contributed to the historic marginalization of the Chinese as “other.” Dong provides a view of Hollywood through the perspective of the Asian American experience to bring light to many patterns that are still a problem in Hollywood today including yellowface, the simultaneous hyper-sexualization of Asian women and emasculation of Asian men, and a greater theme of yellow peril which has resulted in the invisibility of Asian Americans in film today and an obscure Asian American identity.

Asian American invisibility in the media is a reflection of their historic exclusion. Hollywood has come a long way since its days with yellowface. The adversities faced by Asian American actors today are much more covert. In this modern day, it is generally frowned upon to imitate the appearance of monoliths through the use of makeup and other to tools just as was done to American actor Christopher Lee for his role as Chung King in the 1961 film The Terror of Tongs. Instead, it is commonplace for white actors and actresses to be cast in roles originally intended for Asian actors. This process is known as whitewashing. One current and popular example of this process can be seen with the reproduction of Ghost in the Shell in 2017. The film, based on a Japanese manga series, is based in Japan, written with a majority Japanese cast, yet the lead role was cast to Scarlett Johansson. This pattern of modern Asian exclusion continues with Emma Stone’s involvement in the film Aloha where she plays a half-Asian character.

In other cases, it is not the issue of an Asian role going to an Asian actor, but the issue of the protagonist always being cast as white in a story that originates from or takes place in Asia, creating the white savior archetype; just like Matt Damon’s role in The Great Wall or Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai. When Asians are cast in movies, they usually type cast for supporting roles which add to the breakout success of Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians. When the film was released in 2018, it was the first time a major motion picture featured an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club, the film adaptation of Amy Tan’s novel, which was released in 1993.

Representation of Asians and Asian Americans has always been alarmingly small and, for the most part, from the white perspective. In a recent study, the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism concluded that Asian Americans only account for 1% of all Hollywood roles despite Asian Americans making up 6% of the national population according to the 2017 United States Federal Census Bureau report. In the history of the Academy Awards, there has only ever been one recipient of Asian descent, Ben Kingsley who is half Indian. Kingsley won the award for Best Actor in 1983. During the 2019 Golden Globes, Sandra Oh made history by being the first-ever host of Asian descent. She also went on to become the second Asian woman to win a Golden Globe for a leading role 39 years after Yoko Shimada was awarded for her role in Shogun (1980). When Saturday Night Live announced that Awkwafina would be hosting, many were quick to note that she would be the first Asian host since Lucy Liu 18 years prior in 2000. In May of 2019, Lucy Liu became the second Asian woman to receive a star on the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame. The first star was awarded to Anna May Wong in 1960. Yet elsewhere in the arts, Asians have flourished as writers, directors, and fashion designers. In other words, it seems as though it is only when Asians are invisible are they allowed to succeed but recent events may indicate a coming change in the status quo.

Works Cited

  1. Buscher, Rob. “The Untold Story of Asian Americans in Early Hollywood.” Pacific Citizen: The National Newspaper of the JACL, 18 Aug. 2017.
  2. Dong, Arthur E., et al. Hollywood Chinese. DeepFocus Productions, 2007.
  3. Films for the Humanities & Sciences. The Slanted Screen: Asian Men in Film and Television. Infobase, 2010.
  4. Glenn Norio Masuchika, (2013) '“Yellowface” in movies: a survey of American academic collections', Collection Building, Vol. 32 Issue: 1, pp.31-36, https://doi-org.proxy.lib.csus.edu/10.1108/01604951311295076
  5. Kamiyama, Kay M. 'Hollywood Slant: Hugh Son Looks at Yellow-Face and how it Evolved Over the Decades.' A.Magazine Nov 30, 1996: 20. ProQuest. Web. 3 May 2019.
  6. Lee, Joann. 'ASIAN AMERICAN ACTORS IN FILM, TELEVISION AND THEATER, AN ETHNOGRAPHIC CASE STUDY.' Race, Gender & Class 8.4 (2001): 176. ProQuest. Web. 5 May 2019.
  7. Mizuno, Sachiko. The Journal of Asian Studies, vol. 69, no. 1, 2010, pp. 266–268. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20721806.
  8. 'THE YELLOWFACE FILM HALL OF INFAMY.' A.Magazine Nov 30, 1996: 20. ProQuest. Web. 3 May 2019.
  9. SUN, REBECCA. “‘Where’s the Line?’ Whitewashing Hits a Tipping Point.” Hollywood Reporter, vol. 423, no. 27, Sept. 2017, pp. 9–10. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=126057272.
  10. United States Census Bureau. 'Population Division.' census.gov. 11 Sep. 2002. Web. 4 April. 2018.https://census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/working-papers/2002/demo/POP-twps0056.pdf
  11. Wong, Cynthia F. MELUS, vol. 22, no. 2, 1997, pp. 119–121. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/468139.
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Representation of Asian Americans in Film: No Joy, No Luck. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 23, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/representation-of-asian-americans-in-film-no-joy-no-luck/
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