I have mixed feelings when I see an East Asian character on the screen. I watch the character grin at me, with a similar hair colour, perhaps similar cultural knowledge to me, and I feel that familiar spot for East Asian characters carve itself out in my heart. There’s this sense of camaraderie, understanding, relief, and pride.
Then a barrage of other feelings come in, led by skepticism. Is that best friend Korean because she happens to be, or so the show can hit the acceptable minority quota? Are the main characters East Asian just so directors can use certain tropes? Am I falling straight into the trap of tokenism and arbitrary representation by thinking kindly of this character?
Is my culture being peddled to me? Or am I being paranoid, and this is truly just a good story with characters that happen to be East Asian?
No, I dismiss that. Hollywood wouldn’t allow for that.
And then, another thought emerges: will it ever? Will we ever have stories on the big screen with characters that just happen to be East Asian? Will we ever have characters who are people first, not defined by stereotypes about their race? Will East Asian creators ever be treated just as storytellers, not tour guides of their culture?
I respond to that by thinking: yes, we will. I will write those stories. And I know there will be other stories and other creators, because this recent wave of East Asian representation I’ve seen is only the beginning. It must be.
Hollywood — which I use as a broad term for Western entertainment — is a business. The association that almost holds a monopoly of the entertainment industry peddles what sells. And at this moment in time, Hollywood and audiences have decided to love East Asian stories; Everything Everywhere All At Once, Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Turning Red are films that have been received very well by audiences and critics alike, and they are lovely.
But we as creators and consumers sit in this transitional period, which will determine if East Asian stories are merely here for their novelty and the palatable common aspects of East Asian cultures that can be wrapped up and sold in a two-hour film, or if they have escaped the bounds of being pigeonholed into what Hollywood deems the ‘appropriate’ East Asian experience.
Cast as the ‘other’
Before the wave of kung fu and martial arts movies in the ’70s and ’80s, East Asians had no place in Hollywood, as creatives in the industry, as characters, or in imported media.
When East Asian characters were slowly allowed into the industry, it was as the punchline, a seductive or delicate stereotype, or a fantasy. Sometimes, they weren’t even allowed that. The racist act of white actors donning yellowface — a term for when an actor who is not Asian manipulates their appearance and usually takes on stereotypical mannerisms to appear Asian — speaks for itself. The Chinese husband and wife of The Good Earth (1938) were both played by white actors, and the film won four Oscars and three other nominations, including Best Lead Actress. One of the most notorious examples of yellowface is Mickey Rooney’s fake-tan, taped-back eyes, and thick accented role as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). Wall Street columnist Jeff Yang called this blatantly racist role “the godfather of the ‘Ching-Chong’ stereotype.”
In lieu and in tandem with yellowface, whitewashing in the film industry preyed on originally East Asian superheroes and still occurs today. Scarlett Johansson plays Motoki Kusamari in the 2017 Paramount film Ghost in the Shell, a live-action adaptation of the manga of the same name. In my opinion, the true evil with this casting lies in the fact that Johansson is introduced as Major — full name: Major Mira Killian — instead of Kusamari. This erasure of what was once a distinctly Japanese name made the character’s ethnicity ambiguous and whitewashed.
Steve Englehart, the creator of Marvel’s Shang-Chi character, had experienced firsthand the struggle of getting an East Asian-centred story greenlit. Englehart said in an interview with The Varsity that when he pitched Shang-Chi around 1973, he was met with backlash — not because Marvel was overtly racist, but because they didn’t think it would sell if Shang-Chi wasn’t at least half white. This was not an isolated incident. Englehart stumbled upon the Kung Fu (1972) series and really liked their direction. After some more research, he discovered Bruce Lee had been supposed to play the protagonist, but the American Television Network (ATN) didn’t feel that an Asian character with no white heritage would generate profit.
Like the ATN, Marvel was interested in the business side of things, and this isn’t isolated to just East Asian characters. Some southern comic stores in the US didn’t carry comics about Luke Cage, a black superhero, and Marvel only took on Shang-Chi on the condition he was related to Fu Manchu — an already established and racist supervillain caricature. However, the pushback against Shang-Chi was reversed quite quickly; Englehart said the kung fu craze followed shortly after Shang-Chi’s release, and the demand for martial arts entertainment skyrocketed.
On the uphill
However much I grumble about the bleak-looking state of Hollywood, I must also acknowledge how it is getting much better. Production teams are beginning to listen to creators who have lived the East Asian experience and therefore are working to avoid East Asian stereotypes.
Meng’er Zhang’s character in Marvel’s 2021 film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings, Xialing, originally had red extensions in her hair. About a month into filming, Zhang read about and realized that many East Asian women characters in Hollywood have coloured hair to show their toughness and their ability to rebel — as well as to visually cue to audiences that they are the ‘exotic’ other— and asked for them to be removed in an attempt to avoid playing into the stereotype. The team listened and supported her decision, and in the film’s final cut, no red hair can be seen.
This year’s Academy Awards was historic for the East Asian community. Everything Everywhere All At Once, a science fiction film that combined a multiverse plot with intergenerational tensions in a family that immigrated from Hong Kong, swept the Oscars. The film won Best Picture. Michelle Yeoh won Best Actress in a Leading Role and Ke Huy Quan won Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The film also won Best Film Editing and Directing, and the soundtrack composed by the experimental band Son Lux won Original Score.
Looking at the numbers and the awards, it’s easy to tell this movie is loved. But beyond the statistics and accolades, anyone who’s watched it can say it’s bursting with creativity and emotion: a conversation between two rocks caused me to tear up. The film has a mostly East Asian cast, a script dotted with Mandarin and Cantonese, and sentiments that are expressed in a deliberately roundabout manner emblematic of the ways East Asian households communicate and show love. It references shared East Asian experiences in Evelyn and Waymond’s lives in ways that crop up throughout their action-packed, universe-jumping adventure, communicating universal themes while telling a distinctly East Asian story.
Everything Everywhere All At Once is adored by both the people and the press. Currently, the film sits at number 27 on LetterboxD’s Official List of Narrative Feature Films, watched by 1.7 million users and with an average rating of 4.4 out of five stars. It made $189 million — $140 million USD — at the box office, and was the entertainment company A24’s highest-grossing movie.
Ian Chang from Son Lux, the band who crafted the score for Everything Everywhere All At Once, spoke to The Varsity on their creation process and how it reflected the nature of the film: “One of the biggest challenges with scoring this movie was being able to sonically differentiate all of the universes while still making everything flow and relate.” Scores include sounds from different genres, from Claire de Lune to Chinese drums.
Chang also spoke on the significance he felt in regard to the film’s East Asian representation: “As an immigrant from Hong Kong to the US, I felt a great sense of pride that stemmed from me relating deeply to the characters and the story, and feeling lucky to have some part and responsibility in bringing this prismatic immigrant story to life.”
Behind the scenes, this film was just as diverse as it appears on screen. Elaine Jen, an art department assistant on the crew said: “It was nice to work on a project that was actually ran and directed by someone Asian. The Daniels, [who directed the movie,] created a really nice environment to work on, there was a lot of diversity in both the cast and crew.” Who gets represented in Hollywood is not just about whose face is on the promotional poster, it’s also about all the cogs of the machine.
Similarly, millions of stories are starting to be told, and millions are still out there — tied into the constant of humanity and our universes but told by different perspectives. These stories are not so much about what Hollywood has made into the idea of East Asians, but stories about real people.
There are also some newer titles whose achievements run parallel to Everything Everywhere All At Once’s success. Fresh Off the Boat (2015–2020), a TV show based on Eddie Huang’s novel of the same name, which was produced for the American Broadcasting Company, features a Taiwanese family coming to America in the 1990s. It takes the typically derogatory phrase and reclaims it with sitcom humour and a clash of cultures.
Minari (2020), directed by Lee Issac Chung, is about a Korean family chasing the American dream and exploring the power of family. It received six Oscar nominations and one win: Yeun Sang-Yeop (Steven Yeun) for Best Actor. He is the first Korean to win an Oscar for a leading role.
There’s also Shang-Chi. In Englehart’s words, “[Shang-Chi] went from being a character Marvel didn’t even have interest in, to being able to establish himself.” With the confirmation of a second film about the superhero, and the ending of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings incorporating Doctor Strange and Wong, it seems likely Shang-Chi will be involved with Marvel’s next wave.
On a more local note, Domee Shi’s Turning Red (2022) features a Chinese-Canadian girl against the backdrop of the CN Tower, bright red TTC seats, and Kensington Market. Mike Wu, a story artist on Turning Red’s team, spoke to The Varsity about the rise in East Asian stories. He worked on Disney’s Hercules, Mulan, Pixar’s Incredibles, Coco, etc., and now makes picture books with his wife, Korey Watari.
“There is an openness, an accessibility. Twenty, thirty years ago, [there was] less of an appetite [for East Asian stories],” Wu told me. He said the whole Breakfast at Tiffany’s stunt would never fly now.
In response to the wave of East Asian representation in Hollywood, Wu went on to say: “This is the moment. This is the AAPI moment. I hope this isn’t the end. I don’t think it is. The world is ready for stories that are not so stereotypical.”
I cannot stress how much it means to me, to know kids can see protagonists that look like themselves, see people fall in love and be loved by characters who look like them, to watch films and TV shows that tell them, “Hey, you can be a protagonist too.” East Asians characters are no longer just a gag, a sidekick, or nonexistent. They are there, in the flesh — as much as fictional characters can be — and they, I hope, are here to stay.
Ryan Cho, a production assistant from Everything Everywhere All At Once, discussed the impacts of representation with The Varsity. As a mental health advocate, he noted that a lot of these stories that centre East Asians revolve around the topic of intergenerational trauma: “These stories made it approachable and created a conversation.”
Seeing stories that portray similar struggles to my own makes me feel less alone, and watching them be accepted by the general public and by Hollywood is also both affirming and surreal. “The narratives make me feel like I can connect. That I can create like that,” states Cho.
The eventual ask
The reason why this discussion is prevalent right now more than ever, though, is because creators and consumers are in this liminal space. Entertainment deeply rooted in being Asian is currently popular. Hollywood knows the masses will accept and adore the cut-fruit scenes, the resigned undertone of familial issues, the immigrant storylines, the nods to neon Seoul alleyways and meals in Chinatown.
Now, I ask that we allow East Asian entertainment to shift from a novelty to being commonplace. I’d like to see films about two girls who fall in love that happen to be Korean; a dystopian show that has just as many East Asian art producers as every other ethnicity on the crew; travelling documentaries and reality tv that primarily tell a story which happens to bring in culture, not a story that is pushed simply to be ‘Asian.’
Jen spoke on the topic, “[Studios] are trying to tokenize the Asian American experience… [They’re] like, ‘There is hardship and strife.’ Which isn’t untrue, but at the same time it’s kind of nice… celebrating [Asian characters] like ‘These people just exist as if they’re a whole person.’ ”
Moreover, true inclusivity of East Asian stories and creators means exploring the smaller pockets of communities, each country and all they have to offer. Wu spoke on this topic, saying if we look at media with Asian characters, we notice unequal representation of different cultures. He hasn’t seen as much Japanese media being produced by Hollywood compared to Korean and Chinese media, for example. Not every culture is in the same stage of acceptance in the West.
It’s staggeringly different. Writing and editing this article, I realize many of the films I mention are rooted in Chinese culture. As someone who’s Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese, and has been raised with an amalgamation of cultures, I feel an instant camaraderie with any East Asian characters since I can relate to them — but then I’m also equally suspicious they have been placed here just to diversity the cast. I hope, one day, all the little nuances of each culture can be shown to the world. Wu said as the West listens to more East Asian voices, the spectrum of representation gets broader, not only taller — and that is also important.
On top of that, going through challenges shouldn’t be the only legitimate way for us to have a place in entertainment. Media consumers are at a test — are East Asians still just here to fulfil stereotypes? Only now, instead of the ‘Ching-Chong’ stereotype, the stereotypes we see are the expectation of the family business, the immigrant trauma, and tokenism rebranded and sold to us as ‘inclusivity.’ They represent an erasure of us as people with dimension, and inclusion of us only as East Asians.
Valerie Yao, an incoming third-year U of T student, echoed similar sentiments in an interview with The Varsity. After acknowledging the progress Hollywood has made, she said: “Due to… stereotypes, Asian characters in those Hollywood films become identical. They all have to struggle around familial issues, they go over and face similar — if not the same — conflicts and tensions, which makes those movies not so appealing.”
Those stories, while important, are not the only ones we have to tell. Boxing us into telling those same stories yanks us out of one expected, stereotypical role and shoves us into another. “For the hundredth time,” Yao continued. “Family issues are not the only thing that Asian people have in their lives.”
Stories that were once deemed ‘exotic’ are being told until they can become normalized, and I hope eventually they will be commonplace enough to exist alongside every other kind of story. Not simply because they are East Asian, but because the stories themselves are good — narratively and emotionally. At the core of stories is humanity, and that doesn’t change across the globe. We all mourn, love, and grow up, and sometimes we forgive.
The world is not so small anymore. Let’s give East Asian creators the stage they’ve been denied, or that they’ve only been able to access by being baited and treated like caricatures for so long. We are not here to be mined for trauma porn or tokenism. We are not stereotypes. We are not a trend.
Let us explore and fool around and tell stories about hardship and strife — but also fun lighthearted dramas, and cooking shows, and everything in between. Let’s just treat East Asian creators like storytellers.