Is there hope for Asian representation in Hollywood? Maybe. Based on the hit best-selling book by Singaporean author Kevin Kwan, the ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ movie is getting all of the latest buzz in the Asian community. This upcoming film boasts an all-Asian cast with big names such as Constance Wu (Fresh off the Boat), Michelle Yeoh (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), and Ken Jeong (The Hangover movies, Community & Dr. Ken). Some might even recognize Glee-graduate Harry Shum Jr. and Queens-based rapper/actress, Awkwafina (Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising).
If you haven’t heard of this book, the title says it all. This realistic fiction novel tells the tale of the rich, aristocratic elite in Asia. It’s hilarious, fun, outrageous but also shows its sensitive side when diving deep into these characters’ story lines. From overbearing, tiger moms who shop ’til they drop to young, beautiful socialites causing a scene, Kwan explores the lifestyles of the rich and famous while also paying homage to Asian culture.
What makes me so super excited about this particular movie and its casting is that author Kevin Kwan and his movie-making team has been majorly adamant about sticking to the script and hiring an all-Asian cast. First, I’ll delve into the bad news and the reason why this all-Asian cast is so crucial right now. Strap on your seat belt, here we go.
A LONG TRADITION OF WHITEWASHING AND TYPECASTING ASIAN ROLES
In just the past five years alone, the Asian-American community has been up in arms about multiple cases where Hollywood decided to cast white actors for obvious Asian roles. There has been an embarrassing number of offenders in the practice of sabotaging Asian representation.
Let’s list them in chronological order, shall we?
- In 2014, Tom Cruise starred in Edge of Tomorrow, based on the 2004 Japanese novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, and the Japanese protagonist was named Keiji Kiriya.
- For Cameron Crowe’s 2015 film, Aloha, Emma Stone was cast as Alice Ng, a character who was one-quarter Hawaiian, with a half-Asian father.
- Doctor Strange (2016), starring British Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch, cast Scottish actress Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One, the mystical character said to be of Tibetan descent.
- Matt Damon was the almighty European savior in The Great Wall, obviously set in China. (Wow! I didn’t realize that the Chinese empire needed any saving.)
- Earlier this year, Scarlett Johansson starred in Ghost in the Shell, as Motoku Kusanagi in the Japanese manga of the same name. Ghost in the Shell was also condemned by The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) for its casting of Michael Pitt as Kuze, also meant to be Japanese.
- Not only does Hollywood cast white actors for East Asian roles, but it is also an equal opportunity offender to Middle Eastern roles. News flash everyone, guess what? Brown Asians exist! In Tina Fey’s Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, two Afghan characters were cast and neither actor was of Asian descent. Let’s flash back to 2010 when Jake Gyllenhaal sported an unusually dark spray tan to play the Prince of Persia? Excuse me casting squad, the last time I checked, Persia is in Asia.
The list, unfortunately, goes on and on. The whitewashing and typecasting of Asian roles go back as far as the 1910s. Not only are white actors being considered primarily for these roles, but they have also portrayed negative, at times racist, stereotypes. In the infamous Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Mickey Rooney plays Mr. I.Y. Yunioshi. Bucktoothed with a heavy Japanese accent and a white headband featuring Asian characters tied around his head, Mr. Yunioshi is a prime example of what some call an inexcusable case of “yellowface.” Even the legendary old Hollywood actress Katharine Hepburn wasn’t exempt from this age-old practice. Hepburn starred as Chinese Jade in Dragon Seed, depicting a small village being invaded by the Japanese in World War II. With her eyes pulled back to seem more almond shaped, it’s disheartening to uncover that the whitewashing of Asian roles has its roots in the golden age of Hollywood. So there’s the bad news.
CRAZY RICH ASIANS GIVES HOPE FOR ASIAN REPRESENTATION
The good news is, with films like Crazy Rich Asians catching speed, there is a hope for Asian representation. The Crazy Rich Asians movie is not the only glimmer of hope for meaningful and truthful representation in the media. Shows like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None (Netflix), Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project (Hulu), Fresh off the Boat (ABC) and Ken Jeong’s Dr. Ken (ABC) are prime examples of Asian-Am representation done right and offer a more fine-tuned glimpse into the actual Asian-Am experience. Even Canadian network CBC Television’s Kim’s Convenience is gaining notoriety after being awarded Canadian Screen Award for Best Achievement in Casting by the Casting Directors Society of Canada this year. While we’ve come a long way since the days of “yellowface,” there is much to look forward to as more and more Asian-American millennials pump out content the community can relate to, thus elevating us as a whole, and leveling the playing field.