No More Second Banana

For decades, Hollywood has relegated East Asian men to playing frosty martial artists, cunning villains, and asexual geeks. Meet the tigers who are busting those stereotypes.

Driving down to Sunset Beach, Chinese-Canadian actor Byron Lawson raves about Amos Lee, the Asian chef with an older Caucasian wife that he played on the locally shot CBC TV drama These Arms of Mine. "I loved that role, man!" he says. Vancouver-born Lawson (whose family's surname was Anglicized) explains that the show's multicultural characters were based on actual people its writers knew in Toronto. "The reality of it is you see that stuff every day, you see it in the real world. It was great of them to actually show that."

The 35-year-old points out a spot where he appeared bare-chested in a beach-volleyball scene. "They had me shirtless a lot!" he says, laughing. His stint as the show's resident sex symbol was short-lived; CBC cancelled These Arms of Mine in 2001, after two seasons.

Still, Lawson's escape from ethnic stereotyping is a rare feat among East Asian men working in North American film and TV. If black, Latino, and South Asian guys are portrayed as oversexed and promiscuous, East Asians have been neutered on-screen. Although several of them--Jackie Chan, Jet Li, the dazzlingly charismatic Chow Yun-Fat--are big Hollywood stars, so far none has scored a steamy or romantic role like those doled out to Brad Pitt and George Clooney.

Even more telling: directors Ang Lee, Wayne Wang, and John Woo may outpace their female equivalents behind the camera, but in front of the lens, East Asian-American women--Hawaiian-American Kelly Hu (Nash Bridges, X2), Korean-American Margaret Cho (The Notorious C.H.O.), Korean-Canadian Sandra Oh (Double Happiness, Bean: The Movie, Under the Tuscan Sun), and ubiquitous Chinese-American Lucy Liu (Ally McBeal, Charlie's Angels, Chicago, Kill Bill)--are grabbing diverse mainstream roles that their male counterparts can't match. Does this gender imbalance reflect what audiences want? Or what the studios think they want?

Like Lawson, Japan-born local actor Hiro Kanagawa has a résumé that goes against type. Forty-year-old Kanagawa--a veteran of many local TV productions (Smallville, Da Vinci's Inquest, The X-Files, Cold Squad)--has landed several romantic movie roles, such as female lead Nancy Sivak's boyfriend in the locally made Protection (2000), and a Japanese businessman who has a one-night stand with Québécoise actor Pascale Bussiíƒ ¨res's character in last year's Chaos & Desire. As Canadian independent films, however, these projects have little impact on the all-pervasive American mainstream. Kanagawa's range remains an exception.

In contrast, he points out that the Asian female is an exotic desirable. "Asian women have always been depicted as sexually available to white men," he says in an interview. "Lucy Liu doesn't upset the status quo one bit--a depiction of Asian women as sexual doesn't threaten the status quo; the depiction of Asian men as sexual does because historically, Asian men have been asexualized as servants, comedic morons, robotic businessmen, religious ascetics, and so on."

In her 1996 thesis "Vanishing Son: The Appearance, Disappearance, and Assimilation of the Asian-American Man in American Mainstream Media", Amy Kashiwabara, then a political-science student at the University of California, Berkeley, noted that the asexual stereotype dates back to the first images of East Asian men in film as coolies, laundrymen, and servants. These parts were mostly played by white actors in "yellowface", such as Swedish actor Nils Asther in 1933's The Bitter Tea of General Yen and Alec Guinness in 1961's A Majority of One.

More recently, The Last Emperor (1987) and 1999's Anna and the King proved that Hollywood films with an Asian male lead can be box-office hits. But from Shogun's Richard Chamberlain and martial artists David Carradine (TV's Kung Fu), Chuck Norris, and Jean-Claude Van Damme to Ethan Hawke in 1999's Snow Falling on Cedars and Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, white heroes in Asian worlds--with female Asian love interests--are still de rigueur at the North American multiplex. TV hasn't fared any better. In the '90s, Martial Law and Vanishing Son, two series starring Asian male leads, were both cancelled.

Andrew Ooi, head of Vancouver's Echelon Talent Management--which specializes in Asian-Canadian actors--acknowledges some behind-the-scenes challenges. "Casting directors, especially in Vancouver, fight an uphill battle to get minority actors cast in TV shows," he says, interviewed while on a business trip in Singapore. "There's still the 'whitewashing' of American and Canadian television. There isn't a noteworthy TV series or sitcom today with Asians as central characters. This isn't from a lack of trying. Broadcasters think the public isn't ready for it."

That said, there are some changes afoot. Although Asian-American members of the U.S. Screen Actors Guild took only 2.5 percent of SAG film and TV roles during 2002 (four percent of the U.S. population is of Asian descent), all ethnic minorities combined garnered a record 24.2 percent of last year's SAG roles. Ooi, too, notes some improvements. "Slow as it may seem, producers, casting directors, and directors are now more willing to audition and cast Asian actors in non-Asian-specific roles. It now happens almost on a daily basis for our clients."

One such client is 28-year-old Japanese-Canadian Kevan Ohtsji (pronounced "otsuji"), a regular on the TV series Stargate SG-1 and Jeremiah. Ohtsji dreams of playing a dramatic supporting role in a big film someday. He's grateful for every part he's won, but an excess of immigrant, technician, and gangster roles has made him consider quitting the business. "I realized that this wasn't the reason why I chose to be an actor," he says at a West End coffee shop.

In 2000, Ohtsji welcomed a colour-blind role as a roommate on the CTV series Mysterious Ways. "It was really refreshing to play a nice, normal character," he recalls. Ironically, Ohtsji did find himself missing the excitement of being a bad guy, but he admits that variety is important. "Playing an Asian gangster once in a while can be fun. But if that's all we're allowed to play, there'd be no 'juice', so to speak."

Villainous Asian-male characters, Amy Kashiwabara explains, are a Hollywood tradition dating back to the 1930s, when white actors Warner Oland and Charles Middleton starred as Dr. Fu Manchu and Flash Gordon's Ming the Merciless. The Second World War cranked up the bigotry with films like Prisoner of Japan (1942) and Destination Tokyo (1943). Cartoons got into the act, too, with "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips", "Tokio Jokio", and Popeye's "You're a Sap, Mr. Jap". The wily Asian villain lives on in modern-day economic Yellow Peril films such as Black Rain (1989) and Rising Sun (1993), and in the James Bond franchise, most recently through the North Korean communists in Die Another Day.

The 1930s also marked the appearance of the East Asian detective as hero. Charlie Chan, Mr. Wong, and Mr. Moto--again, all played by whites--cracked the toughest cases, even though they couldn't solve the mystery of getting the girl. Unfortunately, the ghosts of Chan, Wong, and Moto-san survive in Tinseltown as Asian action heroes who save the day but act eunuchlike around women. Jet Li manages a hug with Aaliyah in Romeo Must Die, and Chow Yun-Fat's mutual attraction with Mira Sorvino's and Jodie Foster's characters in The Replacement Killers and Anna and the King remains unconsummated. In 1991's Showdown in Little Tokyo, Dolph Lundgren shares a nude hot tub with Tia Carrere while his sidekick, the late Brandon Lee, sleeps alone. Such representations don't reflect reality: according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, 87 percent of Asian-American men aged 18 to 65 were sexually active in 2000.

In front of a wall of TVs at the Cactus Club Café on West Broadway, affable Chinese-American actor Byron Mann talks about North America's lack of positive Asian role models like the ones he had as a child in Hong Kong. What really worries 36-year-old Mann (Dark Angel, the upcoming Catwoman) is how Asian youths end up perceiving themselves. "Most Asian males are depicted as sexless, neutral, one-dimensional," he says. "It has far-reaching consequences on identity. And if North American Asian girls grow up seeing Asian women with white guys all the time, of course they're going to choose white guys over Asian guys in their lives because that's all they've seen."

Despite Asian women being matched with non-Asian men in western entertainment since Giacomo Puccini's 1904 opera Madame Butterfly, straight Asian men romancing non-Asian women are still anomalies. French author Marguerite Duras penned 1959's art-house film Hiroshima Mon Amour, in which a fling between a Japanese architect and a French actor serves as political allegory, but Jean-Jacques Annaud's 1991 film adaptation of Duras's novel The Lover portrays the controversial affair between a Chinese man (Tony Leung) and a teenage French girl (Jane March) as illicit and doomed.

Such a pairing wasn't revisited until the Australian independent production Japanese Story, which screened at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival. In Sue Brooks's movie, Toni Collette (The Sixth Sense) plays a geologist who falls into an affair with a Japanese client (Gotaro Tsunashima). Her lover, however, is rendered as sexist and naive, and his cultural habits are a source of amusement. Moreover, as in The Lover, the relationship is a dead end.


INDIE RELEASES AND action flicks aside, it's also revealing to look at East Asian guys portrayed in films popular with North American audiences. They're often depicted as outright unattractive, from Mickey Rooney as an annoying Japanese neighbour in 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's to Gedde Watanabe as nerdy Long Duck Dong in 1984's Sixteen Candles. And when there is a sexual East Asian male, he's often gay. In Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet (1993), Winston Chao gets the girl and the guy; 1993's M Butterfly and Farewell My Concubine feature cross-dressing Chinese gay men; and Ryuichi Sakamoto's Japanese military commander harbours a crush on his Second World War prisoner (David Bowie) in 1983's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence.

To be fair, there is one recent English-language film in which a straight Asian man finds true romance. The 2000 Australian release The Goddess of 1967, cowritten and directed by Macau-born Clara Law, stars Rikiya Kurokawa as a young Japanese salaryman who falls in love with a white woman (Rose Byrne) on an Aussie road trip. The catch? She's blind.

The Burbank, California-based Media Action Network for Asian Americans monitors all representations of Asians in media and responds to positive and negative depictions. The organization has protested jokes using the word chink, consulted on Disney's Pearl Harbor, and pushed for diversity on TV by joining a coalition with African, Latino, and Native American activists who met with representatives of CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox in 1999.

On the phone from Glendale, California, founding president Guy Aoki gets to the heart of the problem. In his opinion, the imbalance on-screen reflects an imbalance off-screen. For starters, the overwhelming majority of Hollywood screenwriters are white men. "Writers will write about their own experiences, and so it's not surprising that it's all skewed towards the white experience," Aoki says. According to him, the most sensitive and positive portrayals of Asians come from women, while white male writers view Asian women as fantasy figures and Asian guys as competition.

Hiro Kanagawa underlines this point by claiming that the castration of East Asian men on-screen offsets the benefits they enjoy as a "model minority". "Because of the power that Asian men have economically, we would be too threatening to the white alpha male if we were also a sexual rival," he says. "I think this is why black and Latino men are allowed to be sexual: they do not pose a socioeconomic threat."

Several independent Asian-American films released over the past year--Sung H. Kim's Book of Rules, Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow, Eric Byler's Charlotte Sometimes--are about Asian Americans, by Asian Americans, but intended for all audiences. Vancouver Asian Film Festival cofounder Barbara Lee screened Book of Rules at this year's festival, the seventh annual, in November as a counterpoint to what's out there. "It showed three very different Asian males who were getting some action," she says in a phone interview. "It was an important film to show, if not just for that but for the expanse of characters that they were representing. A lot of male audience members really liked it." In 1996, the VAFF showcased Justin Lin as a speaker at a screening of his debut feature, Shopping for Fangs. Lin's breakthrough hit Better Luck Tomorrow has won numerous accolades, and it may boost the profile of male Asian-American actors in the same way that The Joy Luck Club did for their female equivalents. The film follows a group of honour-roll students who get sucked into a downward spiral of selling essays, computers, drugs, and guns. Predictably, Lin took flak for what some critics considered negative portrayals of Asian-American males.

Eric Byler defends his fellow director. "There's a danger in worrying too much about stereotypes and letting that dominate your storytelling, because as an artist you're then basing your artistic choices on someone else's," Byler, who is of Chinese and European ancestry, says on the line from Los Angeles. "The worst stereotype I faced with making Charlotte was that all ethnic characters are about fighting stereotypes, as if there is nothing else about the Asian-American experience. What's great about Better Luck Tomorrow and Charlotte is that they offer something more than ethnicity training. Ultimately, stories about humanity are more interesting than stories about ethnicity."

Similarly, Barbara Lee argues that the concern over stereotypes should not be about whether they're present but how prominent they are. "Yes, these stereotypes do exist, but the problem is when the overriding images are only of that."

Byler, in fact, never let concerns about racial representation enter his creative process for Charlotte Sometimes, which focuses on the love lives of two straight men, played by Japanese-American Michael Idemoto and Anglo/Indonesian-American Matt Westmore. Critics complained that the Asian-looking Idemoto plays an abstinent character, leaving the bulk of the action to the more visibly Caucasian Westmore. Then again, Westmore's Justin is an opportunist who uses women solely for sex, while Idemoto's character craves deep emotional connection, a trait that female viewers praised.

Charlotte Sometimes parallels a real-life comparison the Asian-American community has watched closely. In the early 1990s, two biracial Asian-American actors--Keanu Reeves and Russell Wong--were approaching the big time simultaneously. Because of his appearance and surname, most filmgoers are unaware of Reeves's Chinese ancestry. Meanwhile, they're unaware of the more Asian-looking Wong altogether. Despite being named one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People in 1995 and having acting chops that arguably surpass those of the Matrix star, Wong remains eclipsed by Reeves.

Still, such comparisons and divisions overlook how biracial stars like Reeves and Dean Cain (Lois & Clark) may help change mainstream perceptions of the East Asian male. Given that both Hollywood and its B.C. back lot are located in West Coast cities with prominent Asian populations (a quarter of Vancouverites are of Asian descent), this social reality will inevitably show up on-screen. In fact, it already has, through the increasingly varied work of actors such as Hiro Kanagawa, Kevan Ohtsji, Terry Chen (Stark Raving Mad, 3000 Miles to Graceland, Almost Famous, the upcoming I, Robot), and the Byrons, Lawson and Mann.

All that North American audiences have to do is step up and buy a ticket.