Crazy Rich Asians

With the upcoming release of the film Crazy Rich Asians, many people ask the question: what is so special about another romantic comedy? The truth is, although there may be nothing new about the storyline, a Hollywood film has a fully Asian cast, making history. Asian-Americans everywhere are celebrating Crazy Rich Asians for its Asian cast as this representation is long overdue.

Growing up, films became a passion of mine and a way to enter into a story and another world. However, as a child and a teenager, I had barely seen an Asian character in Hollywood films, and often found myself rejoicing and cheering on the one or two Asian characters that I did see. That’s when I realized that representation is important, and being able to see someone that resembled me boosted my confidence and self-esteem in more ways than one.

In his opening monologue for the 2016 Oscar Academy Awards, the host of the award ceremony, Chris Rock, referred to the Oscars as the “White People Choice Awards”. This referenced the fact that no minorities were represented in the pool of Oscar nominees. A lack of diversity has been a long-standing problem within the Hollywood industry, dating back to the early 20th century (Quinn, 2012). D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, was regarded as one of the first major motion picture film. In the film, white actors used makeup to depict African Americans, portraying stereotypical and romanticized slave roles.  Even in the last decade, minorities are still underrepresented and depicted stereotypically in films (Yang. 2014). According to a study conducted by the University of Southern California, in 2014, out of 3000 Hollywood film characters, 73.1% were white, 12.5% were black, 5.3% were Asian, and 4.9% were Hispanic (Santhanam, 2015). Based on these statistics, Asians and Hispanics are two of the least represented minorities within Hollywood (Quinn, 2012).

In more recent films such as Joy Luck Club (1993) and A Native of Beijing in New York (1993), the depiction of East Asian characters has progressed as East Asians were portrayed in a more realistic way with less stereotypical features and more three-dimensional personalities.  However, despite the recent progression, certain stereotypical trends and practices are still present (Yang, 2014). This is especially evident in the Hollywood’s portrayal of women as their roles typically fall into a role of a single Asian female seeking her white knight (Hillenbrand, 2008). In 1922, Asian American actress Anna May Wong played the role of Lotus Flower in the film The Toll of the Sea (Yiman, 2005). The film is the tragic love story of the Chinese woman Lotus Flower as she meets and falls in love with an American. They marry and have a son, but the American leaves her and returns to America where he marries another American. The story ends in her suicide when she realizes she has lost everything she loved. Wong’s portrayal of Lotus Flower created the long-lasting stereotype of Asian females who were subservient and waiting to be saved by a white man (Yiman, 2005). Forty years later, Asian American actress Nancy Kwan portrayed Suzie Wong, a prostitute who depended on a white man to morally save her in the film The World of Suzie Wong (Rajgopal, 2010). Furthermore, this “white man save Asian female” trend has been reinforced in the 2011 film, The Flowers of War (Yang, 2014). In Flowers of War, Yu Mo, the Asian protagonist, is heroic in her own right in fighting the Japanese in the WWII; however, she is a prostitute and ultimately relies on a white male to morally save her from her previously corrupt life (Yang, 2014). These films are just a few examples of the portrayal of Asian women over time. However, the timeline of films which portray East Asian women in demure and dependent roles shows that  these derogatory portrayals of East Asian women have remained somewhat constant no matter how much society has progressed.

  Stereotypes of Asian men differ from females as they are usually stereotyped as triad members, Kung Fu masters, academics, or effeminate compared to other races (Tiana, 1995). For example, in the 1930s, the film series revolving around the Chinese detective Charlie Chan was created (Shah, 2003). Charlie Chan is mysterious, smart and heroic; however, he appears as a servant to Western interests, and is seen as non-threatening, effeminate and a sexual deviant (Gates, 2013). In 1998, Jackie Chan played Chief Inspector Lee in Rush Hour. Inspector Lee was effeminate compared to his partner Detective James Carter (Pham, 2004). Chan’s character was smaller and slimmer than that of the traditional American hero, and an emphasis was placed on his balletic martial arts fight sequences rather than traditional fist fights (Gates, 2012). To the audience, these movies showed a false depiction emasculates Asian men and shape the way society views men. Although the portrayal of Asian men in films has progressed in the past few decades, the foundations of stereotypes of Asian men still remain. Given that the core of Asian tereotypes still exists, however masked it may be, it would not be far-fetched to infer that society’s view on Asians have not altered greatly since the 20th century.

These portrayals leads us to ask the question: why has no one objected to these derogatory portrayals of Asian women throughout Hollywood history? The answer is underrepresentation. One of the leading causes for Asian underrepresentation is yellow-facing. The term yellow-facing refers to a white actor playing an Asian role within films, and this practice has been a major part of Hollywood for the past century (Yiman, 2005). Hollywood practices such as yellow-facing are detrimental to Asian representation because they tend to limit opportunities for Asian actors and propels traditional Hollywood Asian stereotypes (Yiman, 2005). Throughout Hollywood history, white actors have played the most famous Asians characters in films such as: Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu, and Mr. Moto (Lee, 2001). One example of yellow-face is the female Chinese character O-Lan in the 1937 film The Good Earth. The film received good reviews and was quite popular among the viewing audience. At the time, the famous and highly regarded 20th century Chinese-American Anna May Wong had auditioned for the role. However, at the end, it was given to the white actress, Luise Rainer (Yiman, 2005). Without proper representation in the film industry, Asian-Americans have no way of controlling how they are portrayed in movies or the number of Asian characters that will be shown in films.

Moving forward, we have to look at the Hollywood industry as a whole and realize that films such as Crazy Rich Asians are not a single solution but the first step in a larger plan to incorporate more cultures and people of color in Hollywood films. This is important because if changes are made, in the future, children of color can look up at the movie screen and know that they and their culture belongs in the media and society.

sCarissa Wongs