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Are Asians Just Not Cool Enough?

Samantha Toh

Fri Aug 09 2013


IN LIGHT of the recent spate of Hollywood remakes of Asian films, Samantha Toh asks why Asians are still being vilified, ridiculed and overlooked for leading roles. 

While written about and discussed countless times before, I thought it fitting to write about the issue of race and representation in the media, inspired by the recent mockumentary video by Wong Fu Productions (video above).

The video highlights the ‘whitewashing’ trend in Hollywood, which involves replacing or downplaying the roles of Asian characters in movies. I think this is strange considering the supposed ‘Asian Century’ we now live in.

I mean, we’re everywhere. Literally. We have sizable communities in countries ranging from Panama and Brazil to France, the United States and Australia. People love our food, our beaches and our cultures, but where do we figure in when it comes to the entertainment industry?

It doesn’t take a genius to realise that Asians are incredibly underrepresented in Western movies and television shows. Why is that? Why don’t we have Asian actors and actresses taking Hollywood by storm, starring in the lead roles both on the big and small screens? Why are we always relegated to supporting roles that have little – if any – impact on the story line?

‘Whitewashing’ doesn’t apply just to Asians, mind you. There was uproar in the Native American community when Taylor Lautner was cast as Jacob Black in the Twilight series. Why? Because Lautner is supposedly not a Native American. While he may look the part and is said to have conveniently, post-uproar, discovered Native roots in his family tree, but one question remains: Why didn’t the producers just cast a full Native American actor in the first place?

The same can be said for Johnny Depp’s role in The Lone Ranger. Yes, Johnny Depp is extremely good looking and a box office draw (though apparently not this time), but why not give a Native American actor a chance?

Let’s take a very cursory look at Hollywood’s history of Asian representation. While there has been progress over the years (we love you Mindy Kaling), it would be impossible to ignore the following missteps. First up is a look into 1980s Hollywood, specifically 1984, when Sixteen Candles was released.

For those of you who grew up in the ’80s or simply love a good John Hughes flick, you will know who I’m talking about. That’s right, foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong, the bumbling fool whose famous lines included, “What’s happenin’, hot stuff?”, “Oh, sexy girlfriend!” and “Oh, no more yanky my wanky.”

Long Duk Dong

Long Duk Dong, gif from tumblr

The film, now ranked as one of the most racist films in history by Complex, undoubtedly made the lives of Asian Americans in the ’80s a living hell. As said by Martin Wong, co-founder of the magazine Giant Robot which focuses on Asian-American and Asian pop culture, “If you’re being called Long Duk Dong, you’re comic relief among a sea of people unlike you.”

Fast forward to the 2000s and the drunken and drug-related debauchery of The Hangover. While the film has its humorous moments, the perpetuation of the weak Asian man can’t go unnoticed. Whatever bravado Bruce Lee provided for the Asian male, Mr. Chow promptly stripped away with his small penis and ridiculously exaggerated Asian accent, which begets the question – are Asian actors only shown on screen for comic relief? And what happens where there are no laughs to be had?

Judging from a slate of recent films that revolve around Asian lead characters, it appears Asians simply cannot make the smooth transition from being the butt of a joke to a leading role. Dragonball Z, Avatar: The Last Airbender, 21 and Street Fighter all replaced what should’ve been leading Asian roles with white actors.

Granted, Kristin Kreuk who played Chun Li in Street Fighter is half Chinese (a defense used by those who support her casting in the film), but she barely looks Asian enough to be playing a Chinese/Cantonese speaking role, let alone one that is so revered in the Asian community. It’s the same for the role of Goku from Dragon Ball Z, a famous and much loved Japanese character out of a manga that was given to a white actor. Whaaat?

Curious to see what the public opinion is, Meld asked a couple of Melbourne-based Asian students for their opinions on Asian representation in the media.

Thai-born international studies major Wynn expressed his displeasure at the portrayal of Thai women in movies like The Hangover and TV shows like Little Britain. In the latter, a Thai character named ‘Ting Tong Macadangdang’ is the mail order bride of a balding social recluse. Oh, Ting Tong is also a transexual. Right.

Wynn says the image people have of Thai women as being submissive, gold diggers and obsessed with white men is a product of sex tourism in Thailand, where hoards of male tourists favour seedy spots like Patong Beach, lined with suspicious ‘massage parlours’, bars and brothels. This image is then exported to the rest of the world and before you know it, “me love you long time” has become a socially accepted and “hilarious” line to use on Asian women. No. Just no.

Similarly, Hong Kong psychology masters student Paul believes Asian women are exotified in Western culture, which has given them more exposure than their male counterparts – who continue to be seen as bumbling fools. Take for example Jackie Chan in Rush Hour.

Paul says the physical traits of Asian men, such as their smaller stature and youthful appearance, has tricked the masculine Western media into thinking it is acceptable to poke fun and emasculate Asian men.

But Paul envisages big changes to the way Asians are viewed in mainstream media, thanks to breakout basketball star Jeremy Lin, as well as Youtubers like Niga Higa, KevJumba, Wong Fu Productions and Michelle Phan, who are successful entrepreneurs in their own right. Their mass appeal and success are showing the world that being Asian doesn’t mean being one dimensional, cringe worthy or submissive to anyone.

Do you feel underrepresented in the media? What are your views on representation in television shows and movies? Share your thoughts with us in the comments box below.