Being Asian in Hollywood: Actors, directors, and creators talk representation

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To paraphrase Lee, Hollywood once had the likes of James Shigeta, one of the few Asian American leading men in Hollywood. “Unfortunately,” he wrote, “no one has recently attained the level of stardom as James Shigeta since.”

Even still, while it might seem like there’s not any movement being made in Hollywood in regards to Asian American exposure and representation, there’s a lot of movement under the surface.

“I think film and television are two different beasts. I see lots of positive movement being made in television with the production of shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken,” wrote Jackson. “On the flip-side however, whitewashing is still very prevalent in films like Doctor Strange, Ghost in the Shell, and Death Note. I’m seeing more biracial and interracial relationship representation but again, they’re mostly black/white.”


“I see positive movement in the direction that we are now seeing ourselves on the big screen,” wrote Sethi. “I still feel we are far from representing our true identities but we are getting there.”

Keodara wrote that the progress is being hampered by what he called “bullshit excuses” from Hollywood execs. “There’s been a modicum of a burgeoning positive representation of Asian representation on TV in Hollywood. Well, at least when it comes to Fresh Off The Boat.  Dr. Ken still relies on stereotypes for laughs.  Ken Jeong built a career on that,” he wrote. “On the movie front, for as long as Hollywood has been in business, there has yet to be an Asian superhero.  We still get bullshit excuses from Kevin Feig, Scott Derrickson and his minions about why they cast a white woman as a Tibetan man in Doctor Strange.  It seems every week there is news coming out that another movie whitewashes Asian characters and it looks like things will get worst because now we have the Chinese trying to compete with Hollywood by casting white movie stars in Chinese productions, case in point The Great Wall.”

 Wable, Tashima, and Long, however, are more optimistic.

“Absolutely,” wrote Wable in response to whether progress is being made in Hollywood. “I have already named some of the creative forces that are changing the way Asians are represented and I think there are more and more folks emerging who are self-aware of the kinds of stories they want to put out about Asians in this country. The positive movement for biracial movement is also there …albeit markedly less pronounced[.]”

Tashima wrote that “just more awareness” is what’s needed to get the ball rolling. “More reaction to missteps, more protests,” he wrote. “And we have actors gaining success, which will make the difference. What has been lacking is opportunity (not talent). Opportunities are beginning to come more frequently, and at higher levels, and I think the success will follow, and that will build on itself.”

“Television is leaps and bounds ahead of the movie industry,” wrote Long. “It started with Sandra Oh in Grey’s Anatomy and continues with Steve Yuen in The Walking Dead. It’s getting better but it still has a ways to go.”

Steven Yeun as Glenn from The Walking Dead.
Steven Yeun as Glenn from The Walking Dead. (Gene Page/AMC)

Li said that she “actually feel[s] quite positive” about the progress being made in the industry. But like others have stated, Li mentioned the importance of Asian creators making their own films while progress continues in Hollywood.

“I think [progress] is getting there. There’s more stories about Asians being told. Those are all [positive] steps …I think we just need to keep making those films,” she said, adding that by 2017, China will be one of the biggest film markets.

Li said that during the time of our interview, she was in the middle of making her own film in her home, the UK. She urged more creators to start making the films they want to see. “You can spend two years talking about it, or you can spend two years making a film, putting it into the cinema, and show it,” she said.

In terms of Hollywood’s casting practices, Li said that Asian characters in properties should remain Asian characters once they get to screen.

“Eventually, I would want everything to be colorblind casting. That’s the best. But at least represent [the characters correctly],” she said. “You see it’s an Asian character, stick with an Asian character. At least represent the geography. If there’s 30 percent of Asians, then there should be 30 percent of Asians shown on TV. …That’s art imitating life.”

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