“Minority Reports” Series: The Portrayal of Asian Men in Cinema

GOATMILK proudly introduces its new series, “Minority Reports: Representing the Unrepresented.” We will be featuring original, honest and exclusive pieces by authors exposing minority experiences across racial, religious, political and gender lines that are often marginalized or portrayed in a cartoonish and stereotyped manner. Submissions can be sent to goatmilkblog@gmail.com and must be kept under 1200 words.

The Portrayal of Asian Men in Cinema

VU BANG NGUYEN- August 19, 2009


It’s the little things that people don’t notice that get me. To the average American TV or film viewer, the fact that the lead actor in the movie 21 wasn’t Asian didn’t cause a blip on America’s radar, but it did with Asian America. The fact that Hiro Nakamura in Heroes never kissed his White girlfriend and had to practically share his Asian girlfriend with a white dude in Shinobi garb was easily overlooked by the average American Heroes fan, but its something Asian America has mentioned in conversations among ourselves. It’s been going on for years in America, from Jet Li not locking lips with his on-screen female lead, Aaliyah, in Romeo Must Die to Jackie Chan having an implied relationship with Jennifer Love Hewitt in The Tuxedo, America isn’t ready for Asian American males to flaunt their sexuality on screen the way their female counterparts do, with a certain degree of fetishizing of course (see every Tia Carrere film ever made).

To many, this tirade is preaching to the choir. But this is not meant for you, this is meant for the countless number of other people out there that think its completely normal for Asian men to shoot with two guns, karate chop a guy, speak in a broken English accent, and show up to a crime scene as an insurance claims adjuster but think its weird to see him kiss a female on the big screen.

To prove my point, I compiled a list of the Top Ten Worst Asian American Actors/Specific Roles from Film and TV (just rolls off the tongue, huh?):

In no particular order:

  1. Charlie Chan– To Asian Americans what Uncle Tom is to African Americans. The character is effeminate and subservient to Whites and typically played by White actors in Yellow-Face, since there was little blockbuster success when an Asian actor was cast.
  2. Gedde Watanabe as Long Duk Dong, in 16 Candles. The greatest modern day example of the role an Asian American actor should never portray. Gedde’s career was ruined by the role and it is unlikely he would be allowed to any Asian American film festival in America to this day. Check out the comic artist, Adrian Tomine’s one page comic strip on the impact of Long Duk Dong to children of the 80’s.
  3. Everyone from Karate Kid Part II- Yuji Okumoto as Chozen plays the hot headed, one-sided, karate-chopping antagonist doesn’t get the girl, doesn’t win in the end, and doesn’t deserve it cause Ralph Macchio plays Daniel-son, the epitome of “Anything the Asian man can do a White man can do better”. Pat Morita as Mr. Miyagi, the Yoda of Karate, created the Karate Master role that would be emulated for generations of films to follow including the atrocious Balls of Fury. Anytime you want to teach a White guy something exotic (ping pong, karate, feng shui), just find an actor to be your Mr. Miyagi. Tamlyn Tomita as Kumiko is one of the first in many Asian American female roles that involve an Asian female lead falling for the white protagonist. It begs the question, is life imitating art, or vice-versa?
  4. Every Asian Male in Joy Luck Club- A breakdown of all the male characters that hook up with the daughters in the movie (Let’s not even get into Russell Wong and the way he eats watermelons):

· Harold Livotny: Cheap as hell tightwad that insists on separate bank accounts.

· Marvin Chen: Divorced!

· Ted Jordan: Loses a medical malpractic lawsuit which ruins his marriage. He eventually divorces Rose Hsu.

· Rich Shield: The infamous “more soy sauce” white guy. The only male in the film that gets any love.

5. Jackie Chan- Do I even need to go over this one? His American movies are all karate chopping, plotless messes that start with Jackie as a Hong Kong detective and end with his American partner getting all the ass, doesn’t matter if its Owen Wilson or Chris Tucker. Jackie Chan can never get past 1st base in America.

6. Rob Schneider- The man is half Filipino and the only time he plays the race card is when he jokes about his mom being a maid or a whore. And don’t forget his Yellow Face roll in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

7.  Masi Oka as Hiro Nakamura from NBC’s Heroes– The moment this guy has a love interest on this show, she gets killed or he teleports away. Give the man a break NBC! Let him hook up with the cheerleader or Veronica Mars, they’re both shorter than him if you’re concerned about height.

8. Margaret Cho (For All American Girl)- Its like every episode was about how she’d never date an Asian guy cause he was an accountant or a doctor or her parents liked him. And then she ends up with Quentin Tarantino, every woman’s dream. I understand you have to make concessions if you’re an Asian American female lead on a TV show, but if you end up with a plot based on every conceivable caricature in an Asian family, maybe you should reconsider and be in an ensemble cast with mixed races, just like in real life!

9. Bobby Lee- All his MadTV skits involve him running around half naked, playing Asian caricatures, or umm, playing more Asian caricatures. His roles are emasculating and even the skit that addresses racist Asian caricatures is offensive.

And if all this commentary seems trivial and dated for you, I’ll bring it up to date with the next Asian American comedic pariah ready to bump Margaret Cho from the pedestal, Number 10 on the list: Ken Jeong.

In The Hangover: the man plays an effeminate, possibly gay Asian mobster with a fobby, pan-Asian accent and screams and shouts about his small penis in the two or three scenes that he’s in. He followed that up with his role as a film within a film star, playing a verbally abusive Japanese husband/father in the star-studded, Judd Apatow directed, Adam Sandler starring movie, Funny People. Completing the Trifecta is his turn as a used car salesman in The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard where he get’s his ass beat for being Asian cause hate crimes are funny.

And to think, this Top Ten list doesn’t even include the White actors that play Yellow Face, like every single David Carradine role, the guy White guy from The Last Airbender, the White guy from Dragonball Evolution, and of course, the most famous Yellow Face role of all: Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Probably the most blatantly racist depiction of an Asian caricature in the history of cinema. The fact that it was a cursory role in an American classic means Mr. Yunioshi will live on for eternity in film school classes, AFI all-time lists, and home DVD collections.

Well I didn’t want to end on a sour note, so I’m going to finish up with my Top 5 Best Asian American Male Actors/Roles List:

1. John Cho in anything other than the No Reservation sitcom (where he was a Chinese Seafood chef).

2. Dustin Nguyen (SeaQuest, 21 Jump Street). The man has had to recently switch to doing action films with karate action, presumably because Hollywood cannot accept an Asian American actor unless he’s got neck chopping capabilities. But 21 Jump Street was some consistent role modeling when I was a kid growing up.

3. B.D. Wong (Oz, Law and Order, Jurassic Park, Father of the Bride): I like him cause he’s always been around and consistently decent.

4. Aaron Yoo: I’ll give him props for his roles in 21, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and Disturbia cause those weren’t typical “Asian” roles. But I’ll also give him kudos for Rocket Science, even though he played a bowl haircut Asian character, just because it’s a damn good small-time film.

5. Bruce Lee: Nuff said.

6. George Takei: Shirt off, wielding a samurai sword in Star Trek. Badass.

So sad that my “Worst of” list is much longer than my “Best of” list! I’d like to hear all your thoughts, comments, and critiques. But most of all, list off some names of actors/actresses you think I missed.

Check out AzNHeartThrob and Cbruhs on their own blog, www.bicoastalbitchin.com for an Asian American slanted view (pun intended) on politics, pop culture and MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew.




19 thoughts on ““Minority Reports” Series: The Portrayal of Asian Men in Cinema

    • Not to rain on the parade, as I share your viewpoint, but since when has Hollywood not been stuck in racial binary-land? Its black or white or bust. And if it’s bust, then a caricature must be relied upon.

  1. Vu:

    What’s up? It’s Neil M., from Bell. Great article! I actually hear that Watanabe is actually a really great guy in real life and it’s hard to be mad at him. Harold & Kumar was actually a pretty good portrayal. What about the guy from “Lost”? Isn’t he a sex symbol? And what about Jon from “Jon & Kate Plus 8”?

    You left out the most horrific portrayal of an Asian American male in an amazing movie: “Fargo”!!!

    Remember the guy from the high school?

    • Hey Neil, I didn’t forget those actors. I heard Watanabe is a great guy too (and one of my friends is related to him), but that doesn’t condone his role in the movie and its lasting impression. And I thought about Daniel Dae Kim, but I didn’t include him because he’s just another Asian American actor that’s famous for playing another Asian dude that doesn’t speak English. He’s a great actor, but I’m not totally excited about his work. If he showed up at a Sizzler’s in Middle America, White people would spend hours figuring out why his English is so good…

      And if you read our blog on http://www.bicoastalbitchin.com, you’ll see what our official stance on Jon minus Kate Plus 8 is (Here’s a hint, we don’t like Ed Hardy-wearing douches!).

  2. Wow, I never noticed until now the phenomena you mentioned about Asian male actors never quite getting it on with white actresses. That asexual “implied relationship” stuff always bugged me.

    One good thing about “Heroes” however, is that it introduced Mohinder Suresh, who is probably the first sexy and smouldering lead character in a TV series of South Asian descent. Plus he got it on with a white girl. (You could include Naveen Andrews in “Lost” as well, except he’s playing an Iraqi so it doesn’t really count.)

    In a similar vein, you can check my post about stereotypes of Asian men’s genitalia in pop culture:


  3. I am surprised you did not mention Rex Lee who played Lloyd in the hit Tv show Entourage. He is always depicted as subservient to Arry – a typical Beta-male trait commonly associated with Asian American males.

  4. That’s a very good point about Rex Lee, and it did cross my mind. I wasn’t quite sure if I should even touch on that subject however, because Rex is gay in real life, and there’s a whole other set of issues with him and that role that I don’t feel qualified to rail on…

  5. Today I was looking up the city I live in currently (Warren,OH) and it listed notable natives, here is what I learned – Casey Anthony (Mother, charged with the murder of Caylee Anthony) must have been born here. And Rex Lee was born here. I came across this page when I couldn’t remember one of the Asian actors I liked that now lives off the land in a home he built himself maybe in Hawaii? Once I hear his name it will all come back too me.

  6. You’re somewhat disregarding asian culture, though. I definitely agree with you on most aspects but even in ASIAN dramas, most male protagonists kiss the girl just once and it’s at the climax of the drama/movie. Asians are just more conservative. This point is mostly in reaction to Jackie Chan not getting the girl.

    • WV, interesting point worth considering … but while that is certainly correct about Asian films, this article focuses on Western cinema. In some of these movies, had the male actor been white or black, the physical aspect of the relationship would almost certainly be displayed, rather than implied.

      • That’s actually only partly true. Hollywood execs don’t like showing physical aspects to movie relationships when the male half is black either.

        “Prominent black actors such as Cuba Gooding, Jr., Will Smith, and Denzel Washington have commented on Hollywood’s tendency to avoid the issue of interracial intimacy and the hesitancy of white executives to place a black male lead opposite a white female lead for a romantic story line. When Denzel Washington was asked how people would react to a black man and white woman in bed on-screen, he replied “I don’t know. . . . I wouldn’t do it just for the reaction. If it’s a good story, I’d do it. . . . I haven’t turned down any scenes like that because I haven’t been offered any. So again that’s a question for some guys [waves his arm toward the Hollywood Hills] behind those big gates.” While black male actors are often blamed or rumored to avoid love scenes with a white woman, Denzel Washington, as well as Will Smith and Cuba Gooding, have all acknowledged that it is the filmmakers who make these choices.

        In Hollywood today, a black man kissing a white woman is still largely a taboo as far as studio executives are concerned, as evidenced in the large number of movies that pair a black man opposite a white woman that do not include a romantic relationship. Films based on books that contained an interracial relationship, such as The Pelican Brief and Kiss the Girls, altered the story lines from the books they were based on to eliminate any sexual tension or relationship between the white and black lead actors.

        In The Bone Collector, Washington played opposite Angelina Jolie, where they did exchange sexual innuendos, yet there was no danger of the two actually having sex since Washington’s character was a quadriplegic who couldn’t leave the house. The Oscar-nominated and popular box-office black actor Will Smith has also been paired against white women in movies such as Men in Black and I, Robot, yet the closest it came to a romantic or sexual encounter in either film was suggestive comments. This phenomenon occurs in a string of films such as Murder at 1600 (1997) with Wesley Snipes and Diane Lane and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) with Samuel Jackson and Geena Davis.

        As some have argued, Middle-class American family norms include a guarantee against miscegenation and interracial sex is most problematic if it involves a white woman, given the gendered way that white women paired with men of color are often rendered outside the realm of possibility while white men paired with any woman is a possibility.

        For example, in the popular 2005 romantic comedy Hitch, Will Smith plays a “love doctor” who helps other men get women to fall in love with them, focusing on his work with an awkward white guy in love with a beautiful blonde. While able to help other men by teaching them his moves, Will Smith clumsily pursues a character played by Cuban American actress Eva Mendes. As Hitch director Andy Tennant argues, “Unfortunately, if you paired Will with a white woman, that would overpower the romantic comedy. It would suddenly become an interracial love story, and that wasn’t the movie we were making.” Will Smith also commented on the racial politics of casting in an interview with a British paper, the Birmingham Post while promoting Hitch overseas:

        “There’s sort of an accepted myth that if you have two black actors, a male and a female, in the lead of a romantic comedy, that people around the world don’t want to see it. . . . We spend $50-something million making this movie and the studio would think that was tough on their investment. So the idea of a black actor and a white actress comes up—that’ll work around the world, but it’s a problem in the U.S.”

        Therefore, racial policing of on-screen relationships can be tricky business, especially when a black male actor is featured, and the fear of the white producers is that pairing him with a white woman will “overtake” the movie or more likely alienate some, yet pairing him with a black woman would change the film into a “black film.” Rather than acknowledge racism, white directors like Tennant problematize interracial unions and excuse the avoidance of these unions as good storytelling.

        Relationships between men of color and white women are rarely depicted as long-term or successful and are often submerged in deviance. Furthermore, interracial sex is used to symbolize a major transformation or turn in the lives of young white women on-screen. This is reminiscent of the way white womanhood was viewed as a potential source of crisis after the Civil War. A number of contemporary movies such as Bad Company, Cruel Intentions, Freeway, Pulp Fiction, and Ricochet include an interracial sexual encounter or relationship, yet it is submersed in a deviant world of crime, prostitution, and inner-city motels.

        Too often, interracial relationships symbolize chaos, unevenness, the unknown, fitting right into a postmodern or postpostmodern disarray of lives. Beyond what representations we see, it is more about what we don’t see. Interracial weddings are rarely seen or celebrated on-screen, even though they are particularly popular tools used in Hollywood films to end a movie or serve as a backdrop of the narrative. Since weddings legitimize and solidify relationships, the avoidance of legitimizing interracial unions through marriage can be read as a symbolic ban, like the legal ban on interracial marriage overturned in 1967 by the Supreme Court. There are virtually no films that include a happily partnered white woman and black man within the context of a stable, middle-class world. If a white woman is paired interracially, most often it occurs in a deviant setting, it causes problems, and/or is met with opposition, usually from communities of color who are used to symbolically represent the potential problems.

        Protecting white women even in the movies remains a prerogative of the predominantly white male producers who control the film images we see. While the earliest films showed the dangers of interracial sex, with a white woman jumping off a cliff rather than be defiled by a black man, today’s white women who engage in sexual relations with a black man on-screen are also damaged, yet now it is symbolized through drugs, prostitution, and disengagement with school or family.

        The representations of interracial unions between black men and white women do little to challenge racial boundaries, and often it is safer to pair a black man with a Latina woman, who is almost, yet not quite, white. Black men can be sexual predators, but they cannot be charismatic sexual partners, especially to white women, as we see in how few romantic movies a prominent star like Denzel Washington has been in. In Hitch, the problem of who to cast opposite Will Smith and the solution of pairing him opposite Eva Mendes shows what filmmakers think will alienate viewers and allows the familiar story to be told of a black man who is sexually savvy and slick teaching a white man how to get a girl without the threat of Will Smith wanting a white woman too (thereby also not posing a threat to the white man who he instead is helping). What emerges is that not only is interracial sexuality involving whites, particularly white women, problematized, it also points to how interracial couplings involving white women and black men, whether fictional or not, are still viewed with distaste in contemporary American society.”

        Source: http://ivoryroad.wordpress.com/2010/01/27/black-men-white-women-and-the-hollywood-shuffle/

      • Fair point, AB… it is possible my point applies to white male actors only…
        One thing regarding white, black and Latino actors though, is that they are quite readily shown in a sexual context, as objects of lust and desire, and in sex scenes. This does not happen with Asian actors.

  7. I definitely feel like the asian male is typecast as being androgynous. In Ninja assassin (I knew the movie was gonna be retarded) but as I sat there watching it I was a little intrigued that Rain was somewhat having this flirtatious banter with this beautiful black woman. But in the end, none of it meant anything, they didn’t even kiss! When I first saw the live action Dragonball movie trailer I was pretty shocked and pissed off to see a white dude playing Goku. And last but not least I have been a fan of Avatar the last airbender cartoon since it first aired on Nickelodeon and now the release of the movie had me thrilled with excitement until I saw their cast choices. ALL 3 main characters are white. I mean what the hell?! Did they think we just wouldn’t notice?! I know M. Night Shamalyan isn’t a casting director, but DAMN! He’s the one callin’ the shots and You’d THINK a FELLOW asian might actually put his fucking foot down! I can’t even express my disappointment. I hope we can someday be rid of all this racial stereotyping, because it’s THIS kind of thing that perpetuates the reality. It’s messed up!

  8. Some more films where asian actir doesn’t get any love or if white guy portrayed as superior.

    Snakes on a plane, asian guy saves white girl, doesn’t even get a kiss.

    Ninja, white guy masters martial arts. Asian guy portryed as jealous, scheming murderer.

    The ring 2, if a white actor playd edison chens role, no doubt he would have scored with the main white actress amber tamblyn. Its again an implied intimate relationship between asian and white characters.

    Ninja assasin. Rain doesn’t actually kiss and have any intimate actions with the actress he saves

    The green hornet. They went close with this one. Cameron diaz and jay chou flirt with each other but then suddenly diaz changes her mind. Wtf

    These are just off the top of my head

  9. I was watching Pacific Rim, and even though they build up the sexual tension between the two leads, they never kiss. Her being Asian and he being American, it reminded me of Romeo must die, so I googled “why don’t Asian actors kiss American actors” and I learned that apparently it is NOT because Asians won’t kiss on screen, but because Hollywood has some weird hang up about it. If this is the case, I just want to go on record as saying: Hollywood- get over it. I’m a woman, and to me, finally seeing the romantic leads kiss in a movie is the equivalent of the money shot in porn. I don’t understand the complex. If you hired an Asian lead, then let them do what the leads are supposed to do, regardless of whether or not their co star is black, white or brown. I hope this can become a popular opinion.

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