Where’s The Asian Guy?

7 comments May 25th, 2007at 11:43am Posted by Eli

News flash: Asian-American guys don’t get great roles on TV or in movies. Film at 10:30.

As an Asian American man — Filipino, to be exact — there’s a game I like to play called WTAG: Where’s the Asian guy?

The number of Asian American men on MTV, Bravo, CBS, et al.? Not many, though there’s Daniel Dae Kim, co-star of ABC’s “Lost.” Never mind that he speaks only Korean on the show. The number of Asian American guys in recent films? Think. Hard. And no, Jackie Chan and what’s-his-face — the name is Chow Yun-Fat (no, it’s not a Hunan dish) — don’t count. They’re from Hong Kong.

This relative invisibility — and the stereotypical characters that Asian American men often portray in films and television — is the subject of “The Slanted Screen,” a sometimes meandering but highly researched and essential documentary, the Asian American counterpart to the gay-themed “Celluloid Closet.” It airs on PBS tonight, the last show of the Friday prime-time lineup, near the end of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Ouch.

Narrated by Kim, the one-hour doc uses film and TV clips, in addition to insightful, emotional interviews with old and young actors, to trace the history of Asian American men on the big and small screens….


[W]ith the history come ugly, overlooked truths. Mako recalls a studio executive’s reaction when asked about featuring a non-Asian in the lead of “Kung Fu,” the classic 1970s TV show: “I remember one of the vice presidents — in charge of production, I suppose — who said, ‘If we put a yellow man up on the tube, the audience will turn the switch off in less than five minutes.’ ” James Shigeta, the star of “Flower Drum Song,” remembers a movie musical producer telling him, “If you were white, you’d be a hell of a big star.”

…The original ending [of “Romeo Must Die”] had Aaliyah kissing [Jet] Li, a scenario that didn’t test well with an “urban audience.” So the studio changed it. The new ending had Aaliyah giving Li a tight hug. Says [Filipino-American director Gene] Cajayon, “Mainstream America, for the most part, gets uncomfortable with seeing an Asian man portrayed in a sexual light.”


Stereotypes abound in [the] documentary: The Asian man as kung fu master. Think Bruce Lee in the classic film “Enter the Dragon” and the TV show “The Green Hornet.” The Asian man played by a non-Asian, among them Mickey Rooney as the bucktoothed Japanese neighbor in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The Asian man as supergeek. No amount of soap can wash off the stench of the Long Duk Dong character in the 1984 cult classic “Sixteen Candles.” The Asian man as the mysterious enemy, or the stiff-faced store owner, or the barely English-speaking waiter . . . you get the point.


In the past few years, a new generation of actors and directors, in ways more liberated, more in control, than their predecessors, are making some headway. The 2002 film “Better Luck Tomorrow,” a critical darling, was co-written and directed by Justin Lin, who tells the story of Asian American overachievers in a wealthy Orange Countywealthy Orange County, Calif., suburb who, beside being straight-A students and athletes, have thriving sidelines selling cheat sheets and drugs. Yes, they’re good students, as Asians are believed to be. But they have complicated lives like others, too. Comedian Bobby Lee, on the regular cast of the Fox show “Mad TV,” took his own life experiences and created a regular sketch called “Average Asian.” A jingle at the beginning of one sketch goes: “He’s an Average Asian / Eastern medicine is not his occupation / Can’t fix your back if it goes wrong / . . . He’s an Average Asian.”

“I wanted to confront the stereotype,” Lee says. “I didn’t want to be the stereotype.”

In the WTAG game, that’s a victory in itself.

Check your PBS listings for tonight for an exact airtime (might be 10:30).

I’ll be curious to see just what it covers. Does it really limit itself to Asian-American men, or Asians in general? Why only men? Does “Asian” include Indian or Pakistani? Does it cover, say, The Karate Kid (martial arts master!) or The Last Samurai (more martial arts!) or Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle (one mostly nerd stereotype, one the exact opposite), or even The Simpsons (Apu, the fecund Hindu convenience store owner).

I will also be interested in how the documentary explains the scarcity of Asian characters as compared to black or (I think) latino and gay characters. Apparently it’s more acceptable for scriptwriters and directors to ignore or stereotype Asians than other minorities, but why? I can think of a few possible reasons, but I’m not really comfortable with any of them – they’re either half-baked or just plain icky. The latter are probably closest to the truth, unfortunately…

UPDATE: D’oh! It’s already come and gone on my local affiliate. Rats.

Entry Filed under: Media,Movies,Racism,TV


  • 1. Bill Bradley  |  May 25th, 2007 at 12:18 pm

    Probably the same reason that UC schools used to quota against Asians. You only count as a minority if you’re not successful. If you are successful, you’re the oppressor.

  • 2. Eli  |  May 25th, 2007 at 12:37 pm

    Yeah, that was one of the icky explanations that occurred to me. I think it’s definitely *a* reason, but not *the* reason.

    And I just realized, why no mention of Heroes? One of the pivotal characters is Asian, along with his loyal friend/sidekick. Make that two characters, if you count Dr. Shuresh (again, not sure if Indians/Pakistanis are within the scope of the documentary – based on the review I’d guess not).

  • 3. Bill Bradley  |  May 25th, 2007 at 5:01 pm

    But Apu is voiced by Hank Azaria making him a cartoon version the Mickey Rooney character, and on that note Breakfast at Tiffany’s seems a rather dated reference, compared to, oh, say Joel Grey playing a Korean martial arts master.
    The odd thing is that I’m also drawing a blank on Asian males in British shows as well (since I watch those far more often than US programming)
    I’ve also observed that cultural ignorance of Asians in general is amazing. For example a certain local morning radio program that has a Japanese stereotype mocking a Chinese philosopher, that is of course when they aren’t mocking certain Korean dictators.

  • 4. Eli  |  May 25th, 2007 at 9:49 pm

    Wow, a morning show that’s ignorant and racist? I’m shocked.

  • 5. Interrobang  |  May 26th, 2007 at 12:13 am

    I can’t do it with any Canadian shows, either, not that I watch much tv. Any of the actors I can think of by features who look even vaguely Asian are actually Native Canadian. Odd that I can think of more Native actors than Asians…

    In the US, there’s George Takei, I guess…

  • 6. David de la Fuente  |  May 27th, 2007 at 2:44 pm

    It’s getting a bit better with “Heroes” and reality TV (Yul Kwon won the last “Survivor”), as well as with Asian athletes in MLB and the NBA. But this is a relatively recent trend. It wasn’t like this even through the 1990s, for the most part.

    Here’s a test. Think of ANY movie role with an Asian male that DOESN’T fit one of the five Gs:

    Geek (“Sixteen Candles”)
    Gook (every Vietnam movie ever)
    Gangster (“Year of the Dragon”)
    Guru (“Karate Kid”)
    Gung Fu (every martial arts movie ever)

    There are virtually no *major* roles for Asian men that don’t fit those groups. There’s not a lot any of us can do about it. But it was hard growing up in a country — my own country, for goodness sake — where the only Asian guy I saw on TV, someone who LOOKED LIKE ME, was in the Calgon commercial (“ancient Chinese secret, huh?”)

  • 7. Eli  |  May 27th, 2007 at 6:38 pm

    The only recurring Asian TV characters I can think of prior to Lost are Margaret Cho on her short-lived sitcom, and Sgt. Yamana on Barney Miller (who was completely non-stereotypical, as I recall).

    In movies, other than the various Tibet movies (which could fit into the “guru” category), the only ones I can think of are war movies where the Japanese are portrayed a bit more sympathetically, i.e., Letters From Iwo Jima and Tora! Tora! Tora! Other than that and the ones already mentioned, I really can’t think of anything. Which doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but they’re pretty damn scarce.

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