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Discover the History of Asian Representation in the Film Industry

Ever since the first half of the 19th century, Asian Americans have been a part of the entertainment industry.  Mainly, acting roles in television, film, and theatre are relatively few. Not so surprisingly, many available roles were for narrow, stereotypical characters. Whereas early Asian American actors such as Sessue Hayakawa, Anna May Wong, and Bruce Lee encountered a movie-making culture and industry that wanted to cast them as caricatures. While some, like actress Merle Oberon, hid their ethnicity to avoid discrimination by Hollywood’s racist laws.

Recently, young Asian American comedians and filmmakers are finding an outlet on YouTube and the Internet, allowing them to gain a strong, loyal and global fanbase. Notable YouTubers include comedians such as Ryan Higa and Kevin Wu; entertainers such as Dan Chan and Christine Gambito; musicians such as MC Jin, Far East Movement, Sam Tsui, David Choi, and Kina Grannis; and the filmmaking group Wong Fu Productions. Mainly, these entertainers are gaining notable followings, mainly with young Asian American students, mainly through solo and collaborative videos, short films, and tours.

Asian Representation in Hollywood

Lana Condor, John Cho,Michelle Yeoh, Steven Yeuh, Awkafina
Lana Condor, John Cho,Michelle Yeoh, Steven Yeuh, Awkafina

Image Source : Coldteacollective.com

Additionally, other Asian American artists have broken out into mainstream audiences beyond the Asian American community. Such as  Bruno Mars, Darren Criss, and The Slants. The most significant success in this sphere is that of the film ” Crazy Rich Asians”. The film is a celebration of being a rare Hollywood studio film in which all the main actors are of Asian descent. Moreover, adapted from Kevin Kwan’s best-selling book, the glitzy romantic comedy stars Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Awkwafina, and Michelle Yeoh.

Whereas the director Jon M. Chu has said that his goal is for “Crazy Rich Asians” to be not just a landmark film and it did much more than being a film. Mainly, it kickstarted a movement for greater Asian American representation in Hollywood. It is a daunting task, especially considering that Asian Americans (and Pacific Islanders, who are often clubbed in creating the broader category “Asian Pacific American”). Who embodies a vast array of cultural, religious, linguistic, and economic backgrounds. Furthermore, Hollywood movies have had a rocky history when it comes to their portrayals of Asian Americans. Mainly, from the early yellow-face roles to the still-present examples of whitewashing. But there is also a lot to admire.

 Sessue Hayakawa creates a film studio(1918)

Mainly, silent film actor Sessue Hayakawa was the first Asian American movie star. By 1918, he had enough clout to start his own film studio, Haworth Pictures Corp. However, he began to feel frustration over Hollywood’s offensive and inaccurate depictions of Asians. While he was running Haworth, 23 films under his belt as a producer and one of the highest-paid actors of his time. However, he left Hollywood in 1922 because of rising anti-Asian sentiment, eventually returning after World War II. In 1957, he received an Oscar nomination for his role in “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”

 Anna May Wong loses the Chinese American role to Luise Rainer(1935)

Mainly, Wong was a silent film star in the 1920s, but she often found herself limited to stereotypical Asian roles. When Pearl Buck’s novel “The Good Earth” (1931), Wong made her desire to be cast in the film adaptation public because a rare opportunity arose to play a Chinese character in Hollywood. However, she later learns that she isn’t the right choice as the producers want a white male actor for the Chinese lead. Moreover, anti-miscegenation laws prevent a nonwhite woman from being cast opposite a white man. Instead, Wong has the role of the concubine but she refuses. Surprisingly, Luise Rainer won an Oscar for her portrayal of a Chinese woman. Additionally, this was also the decade that brought us the yellow-faced characters Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. The typical white characters portrayed stereotypical Asian roles as this was the product of the Western imagination.

“Flower Drum Song” is the first Hollywood movie musical with Asian Americans Leads(1961)

At the time, it was a risky choice to make a movie about Asian Americans. Whereas this was the same year that it is perfectly acceptable for Mickey Rooney to play a bucktooth Japanese neighbor in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” For many years, Asian Americans still had mixed feelings about the film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein stage musical. Mainly because it is made by non-Asians and features Asian stereotypes, including a docile picture bride and a gold-digging showgirl. However, in recent years, the musical ( with five Oscar nominations) has been more acceptable. Mainly, in part because, 57 years later, we’ve still never seen Asian Americans singing and dancing on this grand of a stage in Hollywood.

“Enter the Dragon” makes Bruce Lee a posthumous icon ( 1973)

After starring as Kato in the TV series “The Green Hornet,” Lee struggled to find leading roles in Hollywood. Even developing a TV project for himself proves to be an impossible task. As the TV project is later reforming as “Kung Fu,” starring David Carradine. This led to him leaving for Hong Kong, where he filmed three hit movies, before getting the attention of Warner Bros., which offered him the lead in “Enter the Dragon.” Sadly, Lee died six days before the film’s release, just as his career in the United States was about to take off. That said, not only has Lee become a global legend, but he set the stage for martial arts stars such as Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

“Gandhi”(1983) and “The Killing Fields”(1985) won big at the Oscars

The Mohandas Gandhi biopic won eight Oscars, including best picture, and best actor for Ben Kingsley (who’s half-British, half-Indian). Moreover, two years later, “The Killing Fields,” about two journalists’ escape from Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, won best supporting actor for Haing S. Ngor. Kingsley, Ngor, and Miyoshi Umeki (who won for 1957’s “Sayonara”) . Furthermore, they are still the only three Asian actors to ever win Oscars for acting. Later, “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008) would be another British film about India that was celebrated at the Oscars.

“The Joy Luck Club” finds success as a film(1993)

Director Wayne Wang gained some recognition with 1982’s “Chan Is Missing”. Moreover, this film is considered the first independent film directed by an Asian American to resonate outside of the Asian American community. But “The Joy Luck Club,” based on the book by Amy Tan, was his first mainstream Hollywood film which became a commercial and critical success.

“The Wedding Banquet” kick-starts Ang Lee’s Hollywood reign(1993)

Lee’s comedy “The Wedding Banquet” became the most profitable film of the year. Especially when it measures the percentage of cost, earning a whopping $23.6 million from a budget of $1 million. He would later make history as the first non-white filmmaker to win an Oscar for best director, for 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” and he’d nab a second one for 2012’s “Life of Pi.” His 2000 martial arts film “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” is still the highest-grossing foreign-language film in America.

“Mulan” is the first Disney animated film with the leads predominantly voiced by Asian Americans (1998)

The Chinese legend of Hua Mulan is a story that has stood the test of time. It is about an aging warrior’s daughter who disguises herself as a man to take her father’s place in battle. Especially for its adaptation, Disney hires a Chinese American writer (Rita Hsiao) and hires mostly Asian Americans for the voices. Mainly, including Ming-Na Wen, B.D. Wong, James Hong, Pat Morita, and George Takei. Moreover, Disney would later score more hits with Asian American and Pacific Islander stories. Mainly, such as “Lilo and Stitch,” “Big Hero 6″ and ” Moana”.And a live-action adaptation of “Mulan” is in the works for 2020.

“The Sixth Sense” is a cultural phenomenon(1999)

Haley Joel Osment saying “I see dead people” has left an indelible mark on the memories of a generation. In particular, the director M. Night Shyamalan’s name is now synonymous with a certain type of supernatural horror film that ends with a jaw-dropping twist. Although he’s suffering some setbacks – most notably the failure of “The Last Airbender,” for which he is under fire for whitewashing the Inuit and Asian characters in the original animation series – he’s been finishing up his successful “Unbreakable” trilogy, which will end with “Glass” in 2019.

“Harold & Kumar” is the first Hollywood franchise led by Asian American actors (2004)

When “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle,” a stoner comedy starring John Cho and Kal Penn, premiered in 2004, it was not a huge box office hit. But as the film came out on DVD, it gained a cult following and gave birth to two more sequels, 2008’s “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay” and 2012’s “A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas.”

 Justin Lin helped turn the “Fast and the Furious” films into an international moneymaker(2009)

After Justin Lin scored an indie hit with “Better Luck Tomorrow,” he directed 2006’s “Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift.” Even though none of the original stars were even in it, other than a quick cameo by Vin Diesel, but in Lin’s next movie, 2009’s “Fast & Furious,” Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, and Jordana Brewster were back. And now, the series has made over $1.5 billion. Significantly, Lin took a break from the franchise for a few years, but he’ll be back for No. 9 and 10, expected to be the final two installments.

  Dwayne Johnson became the highest-paid actor in the world(2016)

Many still know him as “The Rock,” from his years as a professional wrestling champion, and some underestimated him when he moved to act in 2001’s “The Mummy Returns.” But 15 years later, he became the highest-paid actor in the world, in part through “Moana,” in which he wore his Polynesian heritage proudly as the voice of the demigod Maui.

“Ghost in the Shell” whitewashing controversy (2017)

Asian American activists have been speaking out against Hollywood whitewashing for years. Mainly, “Short Circuit 2,” “21,” “Aloha,” “Dragonball: Evolution,” “Dr. Strange”; the list goes on. However, the controversy around Scarlett Johansson’s casting as Major Motoko Kusanagi. The film adaptation of the Japanese manga “Ghost in the Shell”, it seemed like the first time Hollywood had heard it. Whereas Paramount executive Kyle Davies admitted that the whitewashing criticism was bad for business.

“The Big Sick” makes a star out of Kumail Nanjiani(2017)

Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon penned a script based on their real-life romance that eventually earned an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. Surprisingly, this is a first for a story that delves into the Asian American experience. Despite its acclaim, the film receives criticism for its stereotypical portrayal of South Asian women. (“The Joy Luck Club” was also a harshly critical review for its portrayal of Asian men.) This critique highlights the impossible task of having one story represent an entire community. And the array of stories that remain to be communicated on screen.

‘Crazy Rich Asians’ (2018) & The Farewell (2019) break barriers

Crazy Rich Asians Film Poster
Crazy Rich Asians Film Poster

Image Source : Commonsensemedia

Prior to Crazy Rich Asians, it had been 25 years since the world saw a predominantly Asian cast in a big-budget Hollywood that wasn’t about martial arts, nerds, or a period piece with subtitles. Rather, Crazy Rich Asians is a moving, funny, beautifully shot romantic comedy showcasing a modern Asian diaspora who speak English as their primary language.

While The Farewell with the director, Lulu Wang, with the cast of the breakout star, Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Lu Hong creating magic on screen. Highlighting tears, tenderness, and one majorly surreal “true lie” envelop Wang’s keenly observed semiautobiographical stunner. Additionally, a multigenerational, cross-cultural tale of an NYC artist paying one last visit to her grandmother in China.

“Shang-Chi and the Legends of the Ten Rings” gives us the first Asian-led Superhero Film

Shang Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings 3D Poster
Shang Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings 3D Poster

Image Source : Marvel

The brand new just released Marvel Phase 4 film ” Shang Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings” broke box-office records. In its opening three days at the North American box office, it collected $71.4 million. As well as smashing the record for a Labor Day weekend opening,  a fantastic return at a time when cinemas are still in pandemic recovery. The film has immense powerhouse performers and behind-the-scenes talent carrying the first Asian-led Marvel Superhero Film on their shoulders.

The film is directed by Asian-American filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton. Shang-Chi begins many centuries ago as a Chinese warlord named Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), aka The Mandarin, comes into possession of 10 magical rings that give him immense power for nearly a thousand years. The mystery of traditions, high action-packed sequences, friends, and love are the focuses of this highly awaited Marvel film.


If the problematic history wasn’t enough to open your eyes to the problem of lack of Asian representation in the media. Here are some numbers that should convince you to see the problem. According to the most recent report by the United Nations, Asians represent close to 60% of the world’s population, while a separate report conducted by USC Annenberg in 2017 revealed that out of 1100 popular films, 70.7% of the characters were Caucasian and only 6.3% were of Asian descent. Shockingly, this minuscule number should be enough to push big studios and filmmakers to make more Asian-centered stories.

With this significant imbalance, movie audiences have had very limited exposure on the big screen to the diversity they most likely see in everyday life. As well as alienating Asian viewers and doing nothing about preconceived, problematic notions of Asians. Mainly as the funny sidekick, the kung-fu master, the chopstick-yielding exchange student, and every other broad stereotype that has played out in the film.

Beyond the predictable and limited examples of Asians depicted in mainstream films. Furthermore, Hollywood also ostracized Asian actors through its tendency to whitewash film by casting Caucasian actors in Asian roles.

Now, you know the depth of the problem, but what can we do about it? I want to know your thoughts about representation in the media and how you support your favourite films and television shows?

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