As a kid, playing the game “what actor would play you in a film,” Seattle-based actor and writer Michael Yichao was often frustrated when the only actors people would suggest for him were Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee.
The fact that no one could name other Asian American actors highlighted for Yichao the scarcity of roles and homogeneity of stories for Asian American actors in mainstream film.
Though he is now a global icon and symbol of triumph over the racist stereotypes about Asian American men that had long dominated Hollywood portrayals, Lee himself had to go to Hong Kong to make his breakthrough as a leading man in film after facing racism and being passed over in Hollywood.
“The limited amount of representation is something I think is changing now — the much belated first Asian American nominated for best actor, [and] there are more actors in more roles,” said Yichao.
Yichao is right. The past couple of years have seen an explosion of nuanced stories featuring Asian American leads in major films and TV series like “The Farewell,” “Searching,” “Minari,” “Always Be My Maybe,” “Never Have I Ever,” and the Netflix movie “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.”
Nearly 50 years after Lee’s death, this fresh wave of Asian American artists and creators are expanding upon Lee’s legacy by creating roles for Asian American actors that center their nuanced characters in films that highlight the diverse experiences, cultures and stories that exist under the broad blanket term “Asian American.”
Still, data shows that Asian Americans are still woefully underrepresented in major films.
Evaluating leads and speaking characters in top-grossing films from 2007 to 2019, a report from Nancy Wang Yuen, Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that out of 51,159 speaking characters in 1,300 top-grossing movies, only 5.9% were Asian American or Pacific Islander characters. There were only 44 films over the 13-year span featuring Asian American or Pacific Islanders as lead characters. In those 44 films, the roles were populated by just 22 individual actors. More than 40% of the 1,300 films didn’t have even one Asian character.
Additionally, Asian American actors continue to face some of the same challenges and stereotypes that Lee faced when he navigated Hollywood as a young Asian American actor in the 1960s and ’70s, as well as some new ones.
At a time when Asian American men were often portrayed as submissive, unattractive and weak, Lee with his deadly skill, six-pack abs and smoldering stare on camera, became the very image of masculinity.
The characters he played also sidestepped the racist caricatures that abounded in Hollywood films at the time, such as the character of Mr. Yunioshi, played by white American actor Mickey Rooney, in the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Sometimes these caricatures were white actors dressing up in what became known as “yellowface” to portray racist versions of Asian Americans. (Hollywood hasn’t completely abandoned the practice either. While you’ll rarely see overtly racist caricatures anymore, several high profile actors like Emma Stone and Scarlett Johansson have been cast in roles where they played Asian or half-Asian American characters, raising an outcry from Asian American communities who already feel underrepresented in film.)
Lee played lead characters who were strong, righteous, angry and more dynamic than most depictions of Asian Americans in Hollywood before him. But Lee’s posthumous icon status in martial arts films created a new box that Asian American actors were stuffed into — the stoic martial artist.
Still, there’s hope on the horizon as Asian American film creators start to make waves behind the camera and in the producer’s chair with films like “Minari.” Many Asian American leaders aren’t waiting around for Hollywood to accept them, but are rather leading the way in community-level film festivals and organizations, several of them right here in Seattle.
The perpetual foreigner stereotype
When Seattle-based filmmaker Bao Tran began pitching his martial arts comedy film “The Paper Tigers” around Hollywood and L.A. several years ago, studios and producers told him he would have to replace the three characters of color at the center of the story with white actors.
“What we’re trying to do is not just tell stories so we can be included at the table, but we’re making our own table,” said Tran.
Fifty years ago, Bruce Lee faced a similar struggle when a TV series he pitched in Hollywood was taken up and he was replaced by a white actor as the lead character. In 2019, Lee’s daughter helped bring his original concept to fruition with “Warrior,” a Cinemax TV series that follows a martial artist who moves from China to San Francisco and becomes embroiled in a crime family. The series was almost axed after one season and was brought back after a campaign by fans.
Attempting to break into Hollywood in the ’60s, Lee, who was born in San Francisco and lived in Seattle from 1959 to 1964, was often told he was “too Chinese” for leading roles in U.S. films and was relegated to the “sidekick” roles, like his role as Kato in the 1966 TV series “Green Hornet,” that continue to marginalize Asian American actors.
Lee turned to his own “Kickstarter” by moving back Hong Kong, where he was able to star in several films as a lead character.
This year saw a monumental first as Korean American actor Steven Yeun became the first Asian American actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for best actor for his role as Jacob in the film “Minari,” which was up for six Oscars, including best picture.
The Golden Globe Awards, however, classified “Minari” as a foreign-language film, despite being created by American filmmaker Lee Isaac Chung, cast with American actors, and set in the U.S. The foreign-language film classification made it ineligible for the top awards like best picture.
The classification sparked backlash from many Asian American film artists who saw the decision as a reflection of the xenophobic “perpetual foreigner” stereotype that designates Americans of Asian descent as foreigners regardless of their U.S. nationality.
This perception of Asian Americans as foreigners perpetuates the idea among mainstream film producers and consumers that they could not relate to Asian American protagonists.
But money talks, says Kathy Hsieh, co-executive producer of the Seattle-based Asian American theater company SIS Productions. As Bruce Lee’s star rose internationally in the ’60s and ’70s, Hollywood producers saw an opportunity, and the age of the kung fu movie struck the U.S.
Hsieh says something similar happened again in 2018 when the film “Crazy Rich Asians,” featuring an all-Asian descendant cast, was a box office success.
“That’s what Hollywood is looking for — box office success,” said Hsieh. “‘Crazy Rich Asians’ proved you could have an entire [Asian and] Asian American cast and make money.”
Whether or not “Crazy Rich Asians” is to credit with the increase in nuanced stories featuring Asian American casts in recent years, it did notably feature another rarely occurring event for Asian American characters in major films — romance.
Breaking down the sexless martial artist stereotype
Yichao remembers, as a kid, watching movies where the actors kissed and finding it scandalous. “Asian people don’t do that,” he remembers thinking, because he had literally never seen Asian characters kissing in a film until he saw “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
Even Bruce Lee never got the girl in his films.
“Either we’re nonsexualized martial artists or we’re hypersexualized,” said Yichao, referring to the hypersexualized portrayals of Asian and Asian American women that abound, giving rise to the Lotus Flower and Dragon Lady tropes.
“We’ve gone from there to shows like ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ where the main [love interest] is Asian,” said Yichao. “Finally things are starting to crack open in this moment and have been for a little while. I’m hoping that this momentum that we’re seeing continues and grows.”
Yichao laments that these things feel revolutionary at all.
Watching the television show “Sense8,” Yichao remembers seeing an Asian woman and a Black man as main characters having an intimate conversation and being blown away by something so simple.
“I can’t think of other examples of seeing this in film,” said Yichao. “This is a thing that happens all the time with my friends and you never see it represented on screen. Just these very basic experiences where characters who are nonwhite are the main focus of the story feels revolutionary in a way that hopefully feels less and less revolutionary as time goes on.”
A 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report found that 93% of senior studio executives were white and 80% were men. The USC Annenberg report found that just 6.4% of all executives across eight film and streaming companies (including Netflix, Sony, Warner Bros. and Universal Studios) were Asian American or Pacific Islander. None were at the very top as chairs or CEOs.
As more Asian American creators find passage into roles behind the scenes as producers, directors, writers, some feel that the industry is on the precipice of a change that may see more diverse depictions of Asian American culture, sexuality and stories.
“In the past seven to 10 years, I think we’re seeing more and more characters in theater and film where the Asian American characters have sexuality and they can be attractive,” said Roger Tang, executive producer of Seattle-based Asian American theater company Pork Filled Productions and occasional playwright. “Masculinity was mostly an ability to win a fight basically. You’re seeing now people are able to build that into more of a person [with] more passion and sexuality, both straight and gay.”
In late June this year, it was announced that Asian American actors Bowen Yang and Joel Kim Booster will be starring in a gay romantic comedy film “Fire Island” written by Korean American filmmaker Andrew Ahn.
Yichao reacted to the news with glee.
“I am super thrilled. Bruce Lee broke the stereotypes around Asian American masculinity in a really important way. I think this is similar,” he said. “Stories like this expand and reclaim the breadth of masculinity and Asian American masculinity in a way that is awesome; whereas I felt I had to avoid playing effeminate characters to not feed into stereotypes. I love that we’re at a place where these actors can authentically play themselves and who they are and not apologize for it or feel like they have to minimize themselves for other people’s comfort.”
As a queer Asian American actor, Yichao is hungry for many more nuanced portrayals of Asian American men in film, TV, and on theatrical stages.
That, he said, is why after 15 years of acting, he decided to start writing the stories himself. Right now, he is doing so as a game developer for Wizards of the Coast.
“So much of the things I’m doing now as a creator, I didn’t have people like me as a young person doing it,” said Yichao. “Being a queer actor and talking openly about that does provide that moment where hopefully someone else can be like, ‘I can also see myself now doing these things that I didn’t think were for people like me.’”
Creating their own stories and platforms
While Asian American stories and lead roles have only begun to expand in the past couple of years in Hollywood and in major films, Asian American actors and creators have been hard at work creating their own platforms and telling their own stories for decades and continue to do so now.
They’ve been producing all over Seattle — on small stages, at community film festivals, and in Chinatown International District. And some are taking the productions they started here to broader acclaim. Sara Porkalob cut her teeth on Seattle stages and rose to national prominence with her “Dragon Cycle” series — a trilogy of plays honoring her Filipino American family — before finding her way to Broadway.
“The majority of writers in Hollywood and producers are still white men and that is their stereotype of us,” said Hsieh, who noticed that most of the roles she and her friends were called for when she was acting were prostitute roles.
According to the USC Annenberg data, only one-third of the roles in major films that went to Asian Americans from 2007-2019 went to Asian American women.
“That’s one of the reasons my friends and I started SIS Productions,” said Hsieh. “So that we could actually start writing and creating more roles that showed three-dimensionality and that we’re not all alike, we’re not all the model minority myth.”
Without having to combat such stereotypes or fight their way into the white-dominated industry, these community-based organizations can take on some of the issues and stereotypes that persist in mainstream depictions of Asian American stories beyond simple representation.
For one, even as the number of films and TV shows with Asian American leads grows, most of those leading actors are of East Asian descent.
“When producers think of the term Asian American, they’re thinking East Asian,” said Hsieh.
And the data backs her up.
According to the USC Annenberg study, East Asians were the largest group of Asian American characters cast (45.5% of the Asian American and Pacific Islander leads were East Asian; 36.4% were South Asian, and only 9.1% were Southeast Asian).
In 2018, Adrian Ellis Alarilla was a student at the University of Washington studying Southeast Asian studies when he revived the Southeast Asia x Seattle Film Festival (SEAxSEA Film Festival), a festival that highlights films from Southeast Asia and the Southeast Asian diaspora.
While Alarilla believes that portrayals of Southeast Asian Americans in major films have improved recently, Southeast Asian American filmmakers and actors remain marginalized even among the increase in Asian American roles and stories in film.
But, he says, real change is happening at the grassroots and community level, where young filmmakers and actors are pushing aside previous generations’ concerns about assimilating into American culture and are seeking to reconnect with their Southeast Asian identities.
“In the realm of the mainstream there’s still a lot to be done,” said Alarilla. “In our little film festival we’re trying to show that these mainstream channels may not feature your story but there’s so many more venues now where Asian American stories are being featured. It’s so much more impactful, so much more real.”
With Seattle’s large Asian American population, Alarilla says it’s even more important for people to support community-level projects, citing Tran’s “The Paper Tigers.”
Responding to community need is what inspired locals Farah Nousheen and Rita Meher to found Tasveer, a local organization that aims to combat stereotyped and racist images of South Asians in mainstream media. The two formed the organization in 2002 shortly after the 9/11 attacks and the racist hate against Asian Americans that followed.
Tasveer now runs an annual film festival, literary festival, a youth program, and a program specifically for women, trans and gender nonconforming artists, taking the reins toward creating more inclusive and diverse images of South Asian Americans in the arts.
After 40 years working with actors in theater, Tang, of Pork Filled Productions, says he is heartened by the increase in Asian American stories showing up in major films, but says Asian Americans are still being tokenized in the mainstream.
“When it’s no longer remarkable to see Asian American characters in a series and in plays, when they’re not token but a serious part of your work, that’s what we’re looking for,” said Tang.
He hopes one day the mainstream will look more like the films and theater coming out of community-level organizations.
“A fuller range of human emotions are now available to Asian American characters,” he said. “In stuff we write ourselves, of course, it’s been there all along.”