In my early practice, I used to have a patient- a handsome, urbane Chinese man in his thirties- who had appeared in a number of car commercials. He seemed successful, and yet at every doctor’s visit, even before mentioning his health, he would complain about the lack of acting roles for Asian actors. It was more important to him, he said, than his blood pressure! This turned out to be a widespread frustration which has resulted in activism, educational endeavors, signed petitions and quasi-political gatherings across the country. George Takei (Mr. Sulu) has been particularly outspoken on the topic.
In the 1930s, the Chinese stereotype depicted in movies ranged from the super-smart, respectful and submissive Charlie Chan to the super-smart, evil and insidious Dr. Fu Manchu. These were two Chinese extremes, and yet, as Asian activists love to point out, Charlie Chan was played by a Swedish actor, Warner Oland, and Fu Manchu by another Caucasian actor (I forget his name) in yellowface.
Another stereotype is the martial artist, and here at least, we see Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan and other Chinese actors in kung fu movies. And who can forget Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? All fighting with hands, feet, sticks and swords. But where is the Asian Meryl Streep, Harrison Ford, Tommy Lee Jones, or even Woody Allen? Maybe there won’t ever be one. Does the necessary depth of character and experience lie beyond what Hollywood expects from such actors, based on Asian stereotypes? Now Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park are departing from the cast of Hawaii Five-O, allegedly because of unequal treatment and pay. The show is based in an Asian-dominant environment, and yet the Asian actors are considered secondary.
When I wrote the sci-fi novel Fourth World, I chose a Chinese youth- Benn Marr- as the protagonist, the hero/anti-hero. True, I was motivated by concern over the exploitation of post-colonial Third World countries; the European nations’ intolerance of their colonial subjects, now transplanted minorities in the homeland; and- part of the autobiographical element in Fourth World- the difficulty finding acceptance when coming in from the outside. I wanted Benn to wrestle with not-belonging, and to crystallize these types of issues. But it’s also true that, in thinking about my long-ago former patient, I wanted to create a leading role for a Chinese actor (John Cho?), in case Fourth World ever becomes a movie! I know, dream on…