The ‘Bamboo Ceiling’: Hollywood Shuns Asians, While New Media Embraces Them

a_lam_hollywood500x279In a recent New Yorker cartoon, a dog is shown lounging by a pool and saying to a pup: “Youtube’s one thing, but cats will never make it on the big screen.” A funny commentary, surely, but in America that statement could just as easily be applied to ethnic minorities, especially Asian Americans.

Cats and Asian Americans reign supreme on Youtube, but in Hollywood it’s another story: discrimination, stereotypes and exclusion are the norm for Asians, both on television and the silver screen. The most recent evidence of this came during the Golden Globe awards ceremony, where viewers were hard pressed to find an Asian face in the audience, let alone an Asian name among the nominees. The TV camera showed flashes of the marvelous Lucy Liu and comedian Ansari Aziz, as if trying to make sure that these two “cats” would somehow make up for the lack of Asian diversity. This year’s Oscar nominations offer another example. Not one name, with the exception of Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, nominated in the Best Animated Feature Film category, is an Asian name.

As for racist stereotypes, just take for example the recent episode of “How I Met Your Mother,” a CBS sitcom, in which white actors put on yellow face like Fu Man Chu and spoke in exaggerated Chinese accents. The producers called it a tribute to kung fu, but Asian Americans took to their twitter feeds and called it out for what it is: pure racism.

Here are a few of the comments that were posted under the hashtag, #HowIMetYourRacism:

‪#HowIMetYourRacism‬‬‬‬‬‬ is latest in long line of film & TV that somehow still finds it okay—no, finds it hilarious—to overtly caricature Asians.

@CBS With so few Asian Americans on TV and movies, has anything really changed since the 1920’s? #HowIMetYourRacism

#HowIMetYourRacism. “Yellowface? Orientalism? Fu Manchu? What Not okay @cbs.”

Wow, ‪@HIMYM_CBS‬‬ ‪@CBS‬‬, your racist mockery of Asian people and culture is…wait for it…LEGENDARY! ‪#HowIMetYourRacism‬‬

In this day and age it would be unthinkable for white actors to wear black face and make fun of, say, ebonics. The repercussions would be swift, and heads would surely roll. But putting on a yellow face is another matter – racist parodies of Asians somehow remain okay and acceptable in the imaginations of producers and writers.

Asians, furthermore, remain foreign enough within U.S. pop culture that such depictions go largely un-castigated — unless there is a public reaction strong enough to force the offenders, as was the case with the “How I Met Your Mother” debacle, to apologize.

That the show’s producers apologized at all is thanks largely to social media, which amplifies otherwise unheard-from populations and creates an equal playing field for ethnic minorities. In this realm, indeed, Asian Americans (and cats) dominate.

The reigning king of Youtube, for example, is the biggest cat of all – Korean pop sensation, Psy, has garnered nearly 2 billion views of his music video for the worldwide smash, “Gangnam Style,” and his follow-up single, “Gentleman,” has been seen by 625 million viewers. Psy is Korean and not Korean American, but his rise to success is giving hope to an army of would be Asian American entertainers.

Sam Tsui, for instance, who is half Chinese, is a bonafide Internet star, with an incredible vocal range. His rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is nearing the 34 million mark on Youtube, and his version of “Just A Dream” with Christina Grimmie, another Youtube sensation, has a whopping 74 million hits. His large following online would make most professional artists turn green with envy.

Another Asian Youtube star of note, David Choi, began singing in his bedroom, often with cow-licked hair, but ended up being a guest on various TV shows, writing songs for Warner/Chappell Music, releasing three albums to date, and going on tour around the US and Asia. Then there’s Ryan Higa, who started out making silly skits with his friends in Hawaii only to eventually become a Youtube superstar. His videos average over 30 million hits each. He even produced and starred in two short films that sold out theaters in Hawaii and California.

And it’s not just on Youtube and social media that Asian Americans are making inroads. From the get-go, New Media forms have provided an opening for people of color, in terms of their representation in the media. This is especially true of “reality TV” programs — American Idol, Survivor and Top Chef among them. And Asian Americans don’t just get on reality TV shows — many of them actually win:

Jun Song won on Big Brother, Yul Kwon won Survivor, Kat Chang won The Amazing Race, Poreontics, an all-Asian troupe, won America’s Best Dance Crew, and Aarti Sequeria won The Next Food Network Star, just to name a few.

Of particular note are Vietnamese Americans, a group barely visible in American pop culture, who have nevertheless taken many top honors. Chloe Dao sewed her way to the top in Project Runway; Hung Huynh won on Top Chef, using fish sauce as the base ingredient. Last Comic Standing got Dat Phan, a Vietnamese American who made fun of, what else, his mother’s accent. Christine Ha, a blind Vietnamese home cook, whose soup made tough-as-nails Gordon Ramsey tear up, won the Master Chef competition, while Hung Huynh took Top Chef gold in Season 3.

Despite the success of Asians on Youtube and Reality TV, Asian American actors find scant roles in Hollywood scripts, and when they do they are often mindless, simplistic stereotypes. In a recent article in titled, “Why Asians are Fleeing Hollywood,” Dana Ter noted: “Whereas Asian-Americans are often times consigned to stereotypical roles in Hollywood, their biculturalism is an asset in Asia. As such, Asia has become the new Land of Opportunity for Asian-Americans trying to make it in the entertainment industry.”

One Asian American actor who gave up Hollywood and went to Hong Kong, where her parents were from, once told me that, “Hollywood loves to adopt Asian babies. They just don’t put them in their movies.” Angelina Jolie, Julie Andrews and Mia Farrow are just a few of the famous actors who adopted Asian children. Woody Allen, she said, “found it easier to marry his Korean stepdaughter than to put her in a movie.”

The bamboo ceiling exists, and it’s a bitter reality.

One is reminded of it constantly, such as when Mirai Nagasu, who took third place at the U.S. National Figure Skating Championships, was overlooked by the U.S. Figure Skating (USFS) committee, which selected Ashley Wagner, who came in fourth place, to compete in the Winter Olympics.

“USFS has never in history ignored the results of the Nationals in picking its Olympic athletes when injury was not a factor,” noted Jeff Yang on the Wall Street Journal. “But if Wagner’s ‘all-American’ looks played any role in her selection — and of course, we’ll probably never really know — the real irony is this: blue-eyed, blonde Wagner was born in Heidelberg, Germany. Nagasu, meanwhile, was born in Montebello, Calif.”

Or take the case of the “Jimmy Kimmel Live” show in which Kimmel engaged in a roundtable with children regarding the United States’ $1.3-trillion debt to China. When one of the kids suggested that the U.S. should “kill everyone in China,” Kimmel responded by saying, “That’s an interesting idea.” He later apologized after massive protests by Chinese Americans. (If the child had said, “kill all black people,” the segment most likely would never have been aired, but never mind.)

And yet, for all that bitterness, there’s the opportunity for exposure provided by New Media. For those who like to watch cats on Youtube, there’s always a steady stream of new talent. And while they may not be signing big Hollywood deals, they are creating a kind of horizontal, post-modern conversation that is challenging the Hollywood notion of what talent looks and sounds like. These social media and reality personalities are beyond anything imagined by the big money producers, and they are giving old Hollywood a run for its money.

Some “dog and cat” videos on Youtube are counterintuitive in that the animals convey a close relationship, getting along splendidly — cuddling, playing and sleeping together. Those videos offer a reminder that the tension between dogs and cats exists primarily in the mind, and in stereotypes. In that respect, Hollywood could certainly learn a lesson from watching Youtube.

Written by: Andrew Lam


President Obama, Nominate the First Asian-American Supreme Court Justice

CourtEqualJustice-1024x751(This editorial appeared in the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA). Christopher Kang is the NCAPA National Director. He is a former Deputy Assistant and Deputy Counsel to President Barack Obama in the Office of the White House Counsel, where he was in charge of the selection, vetting, and confirmation of the president’s judicial nominees.)

One of President Obama’s biggest accomplishments with respect to the Asian Pacific American community is his appointment of a record number of APA federal judges. Now, as he considers Supreme Court candidates, the president has an opportunity to truly cement this legacy.

In January 2009, there were only eight Asian Pacific Americans in lifetime, federal judgeships throughout the country — out of 870 potential positions. What’s more, there had not been an APA judge on a U.S. Court of Appeals — the level just below the Supreme Court — in almost five years.

Today, there are 25 Asian Pacific American federal judges, including four at the Court of Appeals level. In fact, President Obama has appointed more APA federal judges than all presidents in history combined, and the nine APA women he has appointed is even more remarkable considering there were only two prior to 2009.

How did he do it?

As the lawyer in charge of the day-to-day selection, vetting, and confirmation of President Obama’s judicial nominees for more than four years, I can tell you that it actually was quite simple: the president made a commitment to a judiciary that resembles the nation it serves.

Of course, each of the president’s appointed judges has the necessary experience, intellect, and integrity. But through his efforts, federal judges are now beginning to reflect the diversity of our nation — racial, gender, and sexual orientation — and today, at the Court of Appeals level, a majority of judges are women and minorities. The president also has sought a judiciary that encompasses the range of experience in the legal profession, including more judges who had represented the poor in their criminal defense and legal services.

While judges will not necessarily consider a case differently because of their background — they are sworn to uphold the law and precedent — when the men and women who deliver justice look more like the communities they serve, there is greater confidence in our justice system overall.

Also, as judges break barriers throughout the country, they serve as role models for generations to come.

I’ve seen this first hand. In 2009, I had the honor of working on Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation, as she became the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice. A year later, I assisted on Justice Elena Kagan’s confirmation. For the first time, three women (along with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) sit on the Supreme Court at the same time. Throughout those processes and beyond, these remarkable women have had an indelible impact on our nation — not just in their rulings and their commitment to equal justice under the law, but also in inspiring countless Americans that the doors to opportunity are opening to all.

While Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, Ginsburg, and retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor certainly are role models for my four year-old daughter, I also want her to have a role model who is Asian Pacific American.

Growing up, I was bullied for my “slanted eyes,” my parents’ accent, and the food we ate. I was constantly asked if I knew karate and complimented for “speaking English good.” Even now, I have resigned myself to a lifetime of being asked, “Where are you really from?”

I know that an Asian Pacific American Supreme Court Justice won’t prevent my daughter from experiencing all of this, but it would go immeasurably far in chipping away at the stereotype that she is a “perpetual foreigner” — that we are something other than simply American. And it would give her another example of success at the highest level to emulate in whatever she decides to do.

In 2010, it was past time for the Supreme Court to have more than two female Justices. Today, especially as nearly half our nation’s children are from communities of color, it is time for the Supreme Court to have more than two Justices of color. And, more specifically, it is time for the first Asian Pacific American Justice.

Asian Pacific Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the nation. There were almost twice as many Asian American voters in 2012 as there were in 2000, and by 2040, the number of Asian American registered voters will double yet again. We deserve — and demand — a government that is reflective of our nation’s changing demographics.

The good news is that President Obama understands the importance of a judiciary that resembles the nation it serves, and his commitment has tripled the number of APA federal judges in just seven years. However, 25 APA federal judges out of 870 is only the beginning of real change. To leave a truly historic legacy on behalf of Asian Pacific Americans, we must urge the president to take the next step by nominating an Asian Pacific American to the Supreme Court.

Written by: Christopher Kang

March 8, 2016

Asian-American’s in the Entertainment Industry

FRESH OFF THE BOAT – ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” stars Randall Park as Louis Huang, Forrest Wheeler as Emery Huang, Constance Wu as Jessica Huang, Hudson Yang as Eddie Huang and Ian Chen as Evan Huang. (ABC/Bob D’Amico)

Asians do not bode as well as people think in the entertainment scene. If you were to as someone to name an Asian movie star most would answer with a long delay and answer Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee because those two were one of the few lucky ones who managed to break into Hollywood. Asian actors have been the recipient of subtle discrimination from actors of other ethnicity as well as directors and casters themselves. The extent to this is that an Asian actor could be turned away just because they are not the ‘right’ Asian. When it comes to Asian’s, the roles in movies are very limited. When do you see an Asian college student going to parties? The answer is hardly ever, if anything they get casted as the moral anchor for the character that goes to the party. Some say this is positive stereotyping however, there are a plethora of Asian actors who could not find jobs because they are the ‘wrong’ kind of Asian. In addition, Hollywood has an under representation of people with color but not to the same extent as the exclusion of Asians.

The grass is not greener in the music industry, it’s essentially the same stale patch. Unlike in the film industry, there isn’t a household Asian musician name. There are however some Asians who do have talent and are able to go head to head with singers of other races however the stigma that ties them down are still very much alive. Christine Joy, an Asian singer who won a local idol contest, tried out for American Idol but did not make it past the auditions. One of the compliments she received was that she sand like an African American Woman. Although this may seem flattering, it also poses an issue. People should just accept that she has a voice but should only be compared to other specific artist and not an ethnic group because it would imply that she is merely a copy cat and not actually good enough to have her own voice.

In the next collection of Articles you will see how the entertainment industry is exclusive to White, and some Hispanic and Black, actors. Asian actors are having to put more work in just so that they could break this barrier however, you will find that the barrier is stronger than many believe. Sociologically this is interesting because entertainment offers emotional and physical relief to many and it seems as though they do not trust this task on people of color, especially Asians.

Trying to Crack the Hot 100



AS a child of Detroit, Harlemm Lee says soulful music runs through his veins. Mr. Lee has sung R & B in talent shows, in musicals at Disney World and even on an album he recorded in the 1980s as he pursued a music career after high school.

Then in 2003 he won the NBC reality show “Fame,” gaining national attention and another record contract. Mr. Lee thought it was his big break, but he is about to turn 40 this year and is still working as a secretary, still waiting to make it as a singer.

Of all the factors that have shaped his career in a fickle industry, Mr. Lee said he is sure about the one that has hurt him most: looking Chinese.

“In terms of finding an advocate in the industry, the Asian thing has been the critical factor,” said Mr. Lee, who is of Chinese and Filipino descent. “You don’t fit.”

There are Asian-American stars in sports, movies, television and classical music. But the “Asian thing” is what Mr. Lee and many other aspiring Asian-American singers say largely accounts for the lack of Asian-American pop stars. People in the music industry, including some executives, have no ready explanation, but Asian-American artists and scholars argue that the racial stereotypes that hobble them as a group — the image of the studious geek, the perception that someone who looks Asian must be a foreigner — clash with the coolness and born-in-the-U.S.A. authenticity required for American pop stardom.

Asian-Americans may be expected to play the violin or know kung fu, some artists and scholars say, but not necessarily to sound like Kanye West or Madonna, or sell like them. The issue came to the fore most recently on “American Idol,” where a Korean-American contestant, Paul Kim, 24, said he was giving music one last shot after many disappointments.

Mr. Kim, who sang ballads for the show, was praised by the judges for his “range” and “tonal quality,” but he was among the first four contestants to be voted off by viewers after the first round. While he was still on the show, Mr. Kim wrote on his page that “I was told over and over again by countless label execs that if it weren’t for me being Asian, I would’ve been signed yesterday.”

Some in the music industry note that there is no dearth of Asian-Americans or Asians of mixed race in the ranks of successful record producers (Chad Hugo of the Neptunes), rock bands (Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park) and pop and hip-hop groups (Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls and Allan Pineda Lindo, whose professional name is, of the Black Eyed Peas), and musicians in general.

But where is the Asian-American Justin Timberlake, Prince or Christina Aguilera?

Asked to name the most recognizable Asian-American pop solo singer today, older generations might say the Hawaiian singer Don Ho, but younger Asian-American artists agreed on one person: William Hung, the “American Idol” castoff who became an overnight sensation in 2004 for his off-key rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs.”

“By and large the music industry hasn’t done a great job cultivating Asian-American talent,” said Jon Caramanica, music editor at Vibe magazine. “Because there’s no significant tradition in the mainstream, it becomes that much harder to become that breakthrough artist.”

Scores of young Asian-American singers are trying to become that artist. Like aspiring musicians of all stripes, they have created their own parallel universe, and many are writing songs and putting out music on the Internet, playing shows in small clubs and Asian festivals and sometimes starting their own labels. Some get play for their songs and videos on niche cable television channels and a few are even performing abroad and recording in Asian languages. In fact, some South Korean entertainment companies regularly hold auditions in cities like Los Angeles to scout for Asian-American talent.

“There are very talented Asian-Americans out there,” said Michael Hong, founder and chief executive of ImaginAsian Entertainment, a multimedia company that features Asian-American artists. “The only problem is nobody is signing them.”

Some are being signed, but the roster tilts heavily toward mixed-race Asians whose looks are racially ambiguous, like Cassie, an R & B singer of Filipino and African-American descent whose song “Me & U” was one of last year’s hottest summer hits, some Asian-Americans artists noted.

In this parallel universe, there is even an Asian-American Idol contest in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has a large Asian population. The contest has been held by Element, an event production company, for as many seasons as the national show has run on Fox.

Christine Joy Villano, whose professional name is Christine Joy and who won this local Idol contest four years ago, said she tried out for “American Idol” in 2004 with her version of Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman,” but didn’t make it past the auditions. Last fall, she moved to Atlanta to pursue her music career more seriously.

A compliment she often hears, she said, is that “You sing like an African-American woman.” But she does not want to hear that. “You want people to say: ‘She can sing!’ ” Ms. Joy said. “ ‘Who cares what she is? She needs to be a star!’ ”

Phil Chen, 23, the lead singer of an all Chinese-American alternative punk rock band, 8PAST, in the San Francisco Bay area, said: “I’ve had a lot of people come up to me after we play and they say, ‘I didn’t know what to expect with an Asian band.’ But they’re impressed. We’re not just kids who do math very well.”

Some artists say so much is percolating in the underground that more Asian-American talent is bound to start bubbling up soon.

Written by: Mireya Navarro

March 4, 2007


“East of Hollywood”: It’s Not Easy Being an Asian American Actor When You’re Not the Asian Non-Asians Think You Are

Film_East_of_Hollywood-1024x576We’ve finally entered December of 2015, and I have one end-of-the-year prediction to make: expect a deluge of year-in-review think pieces calling 2015 a Renaissance Year for the Asian American actor. Hell, a lot of these articles have already been written. There’s this one. And, this one. Oh, and this one. Hell, I’ll probably even write one before this year is out.

It’s safe to say that if you’re an Asian American who cares about seeing Asian American actors get work, 2015 was the year for you. Fresh Off The Boat is midway through their critically acclaimed second season and celebrating news of a full season order. In contrast to the multi-cam format of FOTB, Ken Jeong debuted a refreshingly conventional family sitcom in Dr. Ken, bringing ABC’s Asian American-led primetime sitcom offerings to two. On Sundays, ABC also airs Quantico, which stars the impeccably-coifed Priyanka Chopra as an FBI recruit- turned-agent- turned-fugitive (check out recurring guest contributor Lakshmi Gandhi’s weekly recaps of Quantico every Monday morning right here on Reappropriate). And, over at Netflix, Aziz Ansari stars in Master of None, a show he co-created with producer Alan Yang.

But what if you’re an Asian American actor whose name isn’t Ken Jeong or Aziz Ansari? For these folks, Hollywood is still a tough place to find work, where few decision makers can imagine an Asian face being worn by anyone who isn’t the nerd, the ninja, the prostitute, the gangster, or the foreigner.

Now, a really fantastic independent short film — East of Hollywood — uses comedy to explore what it’s really like being a struggling Asian American actor in Hollywood.

Styled as a mockumentary, East of Hollywood stars actor and producer Michael Tow(R.I.P.D.Unfinished Business) as Ken, a fourth-generation Chinese American actor who finds himself trapped in an endless cycle of callbacks to play walk-on roles as Asian archetypes. Even though he’s tired of the schlock, Ken is also a newly-single dad with a young daughter. So, when he learns of an audition for a part as a series regular on a new sitcom (“Kung-Fu Mom”) playing a stereotypical kung-fu master-slash-love interest, Ken decides to give it all one more shot even though he’s only been learning Mandarin for two weeks and doesn’t know how to throw a punch.

In frustration, his agent (played by East of Hollywood writer and director, Chris Caccioppoli) suggests that Ken go to a workshop run by Beatrix, portrayed by a hysterical and scene-stealing Celeste Olivia (Mystic RiverThe Company Men)). Having failed to break into Hollywood because she is too ethnically ambiguous, Beatrix now helps other 2+-generation Asian American actors adopt some emergency “Orientification” to help them land a coveted audition callback for the few roles that Asian actors are ever considered for. There, Ken and other hopeful actors learn how to assume the role of “the Asian that non-Asians think Asians are” (my favourite line of the film), complete with lessons on how to mimic a stereotypically thick Asian accents and proper form for the Asian squat. In the midst of all this, Kens finds himself falling for his Mandarin instructor, fellow actor and former dancer, Ryan (Danni Wang (BlacklistMadame Secretary)).

East of Hollywood is an enjoyable, laugh-out-loud, awkward-funny short film with a clear, thought-provoking point of view. It offers an incisive criticism of mainstream Hollywood’s implicitly racist structures of power, where the decision to create or deconstruct racial stereotypes lies in the hands of an entrenched Old (White) Boy’s Network of writers, producers, directors, and casting companies, many of whom lack the imagination, motivation or courage to rise above the residue of Old Hollywood racial stereotypes that continue to permeate contemporary mainstream filmmaking. This is the culture of racial insensitivity that Asian American actors and other actors of colour navigate on a daily basis: where ethnic pigeonholing is par for the course, and where there’s no right way to respond when the casting director asks for a second take in a “more authentic accent”.

Indeed, East of Hollywood found its genesis after just such a real-life casting meeting. Writer/director Chris Caccioppoli was inspired to create East of Hollywood after challenged by East of Hollywood star Michael Tow during a casting meeting for an earlier film. Caccioppoli writes in his Director’s Statement:

While casting my feature film, The Cocks of the Walk, I found myself on the wrong side of the equation. I had based the script on my own experience playing Badminton, and as a result, I needed to cast many Asian American actors, all of whom came prepared to audition in an accent and portray a stereotype. Not because they wanted to, but because it’s what they assumed I wanted to see. And they were right.  But why did I need these stereotypes in my movie? What did it add to the final product? And more so, why did that seem more acceptable than asking any other race to become a caricature on film?

I couldn’t answer any of these question. Perhaps I was just subconsciously influenced by what I was exposed to in the media. After all, it seems that aside from misrepresentation there is very little representation at all for Asian Americans in Hollywood. And as I got to know the actors in my feature on a more personal level, I discovered they all had the same story. They all had to pretend to be more Asian to get a role, despite most of them being born and raised in America and not knowing a word of (insert language of choice here). The most vocal about the topic, and the person with whom I went on to make this film, Michael Tow, shared the desire to shed light on this often overlooked problem. And so, East of Hollywood was born.

I got the chance to work with some amazingly talent actors who simultaneously exposed and shattered stereotypes with their performances. Each actor not only created hysterical characters but brought them to life with improvisations that could have only come from their own experiences. I hope this film can do its part to keep the momentum going and creating more opportunities for equal and fair representation in Hollywood. And I hope it makes a few people laugh while doing so.

East of Hollywood premiered earlier this fall at the Boston Asian American Film Festival (BAAFF), where it won Best Narrative Short, and was an official selection at thePhiladelphia Asian American Film Festival and other festivals throughout the country. It has won Best Comedy, Best Actor, and Best Editing at the Asians on Film Festival, as well as Best Screenplay and Best Actor at the Tulsa American Film Festival, and Best Mid-Length Film at the New England Indiefest (formerly SNOB).

Stay tuned to the film’s website and Facebook for more information on how you can catch a screening near you!

Written by:

December 5, 2015

Where Are All the Asian Americans in Hollywood?

yom2yelx9iqtx7ndeqxsIn the 2003 sci-fi film The Matrix Revolutions, Keanu Reeves’ character Neo reassures his love interest Trinity that the two will reach Machine City to finally end the war between the machines and humans. “If you tell me we’ll make it, I’ll believe you,” Trinity says, as a small army of machines pursue their ship. Neo hesitates for a moment and replies, “We’ll make it. We have to.”

In some ways, the brief exchange between the two applies to a harsh reality that many Asian-American actors face. Audiences are all-too-familiar with Reeves, who has Chinese and Hawaiian ancestry. But as more Asian Americans aspire for the bright lights, many of them have struggled to land blockbuster roles. A recent study by children’s book publisher Lee & Low Books reveals that just eight of the top 100 best-selling sci-fi and fantasy films from Hollywood had a protagonist of color. Worse, only two minority actors landed lead roles: Will Smith, who alone played six of those characters, and Reeves. Both actors have starred in major films since the 1990s.

“We wanted to highlight the lack of diversity in that particular industry, but we also wanted to show that [it] is not an isolated incident,” said Hannah Ehrlich, Lee & Low’s director of marketing. “It repeats itself over and over in a huge number of places.”

It’s hard to argue her claim. Asians made up just 4.4 percent of speaking characters across last year’s top 100 grossing movies, according to a University of Southern California study. The figure is slightly lower than the total percentage of Asians in the country, which is just over five percent. The difference may not be much, but the numbers belie the difficulty of becoming an Asian-American Hollywood star. Although Asian Americans are now the nation’s fastest-growing demographic, their presence in films has gotten visibly smaller since 2008.

To some critics, this sort of underrepresentation is an all-too-familiar story. “American history is pretty racist and sexist, and Hollywood is a reflection of our culture,” RaceBending’s Marissa Lee wrote in an email. “Hollywood doesn’t put minorities in lead roles because our society rarely lets minorities take the lead.”

In fact, the number of lead roles offered to Asian Americans has dwindled over the years. In 1959, the late Japanese-American actor James Shigeta landed a groundbreaking role as a detective in the crime drama The Crimson Kimono. With his slicked-back hair and clean suit, he challenged the notion of Asian men as scrawny and alien. Seven years later, his better-known Chinese-American counterpart Bruce Lee almost single-handedly redefined that image as Kato in the 1966 TV series The Green Hornet. Boasting nearly impeccable abs, the high-flying martial artist-turned-actor eventually starred in his own films and appeared to pave the way for other Asian Americans. But the subsequent decades following Shigeta’s and Lee’s success saw few, if any, play lead or supporting roles.

In some cases, directors and producers ignored them and completely whitewashed films based on Asian-American lives or Asian culture. In 2008, for instance, Columbia Pictures released 21, a drama inspired by a group of mostly Asian-American students who formed a team to beat casinos at blackjack. The main cast featured just two Asian-American actors, both of whom played supporting roles. Two years later, M. Night Shyamalan fended off a hail of criticism for failing to cast more Asian Americans in The Last Airbender, a fantasy film based on a Nickelodeon cartoon series influenced by East and South Asian cultures.

Not much has changed since, according to actress Christine Toy Johnson.

“I think that [people’s] perception of who we are, what we can do, or where we come from is what’s at issue,” Johnson says. “If someone perceives us as being foreign or being ‘other,’ they are not going to see us as part of Broadway or [Hollywood].”

The noticeable absence of Asian Americans in film has irked some observers, who say that TV networks have done more to recruit actors of color. ABC, for example, recently announced that it had picked up two shows with Asian-American leads: Fresh Off the Boat, a series based on Taiwanese-American restaurateur Eddie Huang’s memoir, and Selfie, a comedy starring Harold & Kumar’s John Cho. “In a way, it’s not so much diversity as it is authenticity,” explained the network’s president Paul Lee, during a press tour last month.

It’s also a savvy business move. As the national audience becomes more racially diverse, the TV industry has placed its bets on shows that people can culturally appreciate. Today, most of these consumers are blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans, whose buying power “has increased markedly over the past 20 years, out-pacing the total U.S. growth rate,” according to a UCLA study. But Hollywood has yet to adapt to this trend.

“I just don’t think there’s enough exposure for us,” says independent film producer Erik Lu. “In order for us to pop up on the Hollywood scene, we need to make sure that people who are writing Asian-American parts are coming through.”

Some artists have taken that matter into their own hands. In 2003, college buddies Philip Wang, Wesley Chan, and Ted Fu started Wong Fu Productions, an independent film production company whose videos have since garnered over 200 million YouTube views and more than two million subscribers. The trio casts mostly Asian Americans but often tells stories that are not unique to their identity, in an effort to prove that Asian Americans are marketable and share universal experiences. Many skits playfully and seriously deal with relationships.“The Last,” for example, focuses on a man who reflects on his exes, while “The Best Third Wheel in the World” humorously describes the perks of tagging along on a date.

“It’s important to show that we’re going to build up our star power on our own so that Hollywood can’t ignore that we have millions of followers,” Wang says.

The company’s dedication has paid off. Wong Fu has worked with several prominent Asian-American actors, including Veep’s Randall Park and Glee’s Harry Shum Jr., and it continues to raise the profile of countless others. They’re working on their first feature film, a romantic dramedy backed by more than $350,000 it raised by way of crowdfunding site Indiegogo. The movie is just one of its many works that will shed light on Asian-American talent.

“We’re committed to portraying Asian Americans in a positive light,” Chan says. “It’s important to represent the community as best as we can.”

Now, it’s Hollywood’s turn.

Written by: Justin Chan

August 20, 2014

Asian Americans in Sports History

Mirai_Nagasu_Spin_2008_Junior_Worlds-798434When sports are mentioned in the United States, few people initially think of Asian American athletes. In fact, most people can’t even name more than a small handful of Asian American athletes. In the United States, athletes are primarily either white or African American. Throughout the years, however, there has been an increase in the number of Asian American athletes, though the number of Asian Americans still cannot be compared to that of white athletes and African American athletes. Sammy Lee and Victoria Manalo-Draves were amongst the first Asian American athletes that broke through the sports barrier. They were the first Asian American athletes to ever win a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in 1948 London Games. Sammy  Lee first earned a medical degree due to his father’s wishes. However, he did not give up diving and won a gold medal in platform diving and a bronze on the springboard. He then continued in Helsinki in 1952, to win another gold in platform. Not only was he the first Asian American to do so, Sammy Lee was the first male athlete to win two gold medals in that event.

Following Sammy Lee and Victoria Manalo-Draves, there have been many other Asian American athletes who have been successful in the Olympics. Ford Konno, a Japanese American, won a gold medal in swimming in 1952. Amy Chow led her team to the United States’ first ever team gold medal in gymnastics in 1996. Other notable Asian American athletes that have broke through the sports barrier and opened doors for future generations are Michael Chang (tennis), Jim Paek (hockey), Dat Nguyen (football), Michelle Wie (golf), and Kristy Yamaguichi (ice skating).

In recent years, there has been a great rise in the number of Asian American ice skaters. Other than Kristy Yamaguichi, Michelle Kwan has been very successful as well. In the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Mirai Nagasu was a representative of the US team. Many of the alternates for the US team were Asian American as well. While the number of Asian American athletes in individual sports is growing at a nice rate, there are still few Asian American athletes on team sports, such as football, basketball, baseball, and hockey.

In recent years though, a few Asian American athletes have played large roles on their teams. Don Wakamatsu has recently made history by becoming the first Asian American coach of a Major League Baseball team, specifically, the Seattle Mariners. Jeremy Lin is a prominent figure on his basketball team at Harvard. Jessica Wong has made a bang her first year on the University of Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey team.

Asian Americans are starting to break through the discrimination and stereotypes holding them back from participating in sports. With that and the success of Asian American athletes from previous generations, the interest in sports of Asian Americans is slowly growing.

Written by: Francis Kelly, Christine Lee, Jordan Lee, Connie Li