Representation Of Asian Americans In Hollywood

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Western movies are among the top of the movie industry, best known for their works which depict many cultural references. With the nonstop expansion in the movie market, to attract viewers from many countries throughout the world, many movie industries had started to recruit more and more actors/actresses from different races, working on more and more movies with diverse ethnics background and origins. Without a doubt, Asian culture also has an important role in the history of the motion picture. In this essay, I will talk about the history and the portrayal of Asians in the “Hollywood” – America’s paradise of movies and films.

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Blended in the Western movie culture, Asians are often overt, sometimes covert, the tropes have taken several forms, but all are filled with exoticism and otherness. The inability to speak English without an accent or using pidgin doesn't get in the way of being highly intelligent in the form of mystically wise, criminally clever, or geeky. Women can be dragon ladies, China dolls, or tiger moms (the term for a woman who is strong, deceitful, and mysterious). Men are too often either seen as emasculated, lack the quality of being macho or lecherous, or both. Once most East Asians were seen in meek servant roles, but in modern films, martial artists predominate roles for both men and women. The stereotypes of Asian roles are usually further enhanced when white actors are selected, and the practice called yellowface - a form of theatrical makeup used by European-American performers to represent an East Asian person (similar to the practice of blackface used to represent African-American counterparts).

Dated far back to the past, in the early years of the 20th century before WWII, silent movies and films (black and white motion pictures with no synchronized recorded sound, in particular, no audible dialogue) were the first generations of movie history and at that time were prevailing on a worldwide scale, making the beginning of 20th century the prime era of silent movies and films production. Even though it was at the dawn of the age of cinema, during that time, Asians had already made their first tributes into the Western movie market. Sessue Hayakawa, originally a Japanese, is one of the biggest stars, alongside Charlie Chaplin, William S. Hart, Rudolph Valentino,… in the silent film era, and also the first Asian descent that reached stardom in the movie industry in the United States and Europe. He robbed the heart of thousands of American women by his handsome, good looks and his usual typecasting as a sexually dominant villain during the time of racial discrimination, which ultimately made him become one of the first male sex symbols of Hollywood. The film “The Cheat” starring Sessue Hayakawa is the 1915 silent film directed by Cecil B. DeMille, a distinguished filmmaker who is acknowledged as a founding father of American cinema. In this movie, he was portrayed as a wealthy, villainous Burmese ivory merchant. The movie, however, has its racist element, suggesting that the ivory trader's civilized veneer -- his spiffy suits and suave lady-killer manners -- hides sadistic depravity: In the most eye-popping, sensationalist scene he burns a brand onto the white heroine's back. This had quite show off Hayakawa’s skill as an actor and his capability of doing intensive acting. Thanks to that, in May 1916, only after five months after “The Cheat” debut, Hayakawa was ranked number one in the Chicago Tribune popular star contests. As I had mentioned before, alongside Charlie Chaplin and William S. Hart, Sessue Hayakawa was juxtaposed in the advertisement of “ A Mammoth Triple Feature Program” at the Madison Theater at Broadway and Grand Circus Park in Detroit for his tribute in “The Call of the East” (1917), which made Sessue Hayakawa achieved the same star status as Charlie Chaplin and William S. Hart by 1917. The same about “The Dragon Painter” in 1919, a remarkable movie produced by Hayakawa's own company and directed by William Worthington. The film was about an artist, an “untamed genius” (which is Hayakawa's role) who fell in love with the spirit of the dragon princess. The film itself has such tinting and neatly composed interiors and silhouettes, it was very much seen as a kind of sophisticated fairy tale. With the beautiful story, visual and Hayakawa’s wonderful performance, although “The Dragon Painter” was set in Japan with Japanese characters and was written by an American, it was regarded as a relic of Hollywood. Hayakawa status even rose higher when his tribute in “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), one of the first movies with sound, had earned him the Oscar nomination, which is almost the highest academy reward in the movie industry, for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Another example of a successful Asian model during the Silent era is Anna May Wong. She was best known for her stereotypical role of dragon lady and tiger moms. She was also and fashion icon and reach her stardom by 19 in 1924 thanks to her “Dragon Lady” role in the 1924 Douglas Fairbanks picture The Thief of Bagdad. However, instances of covert racism, stereotype, and prejudice negatively affected Wong’s acting career. For instance, she was turned down by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio for taking the role of a Chinese character O-Lan in the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth”, which instead assigned the role to Louis Reiner, a German actress. Despite all the ups and downs in their career, she is still regarded as the first Chinese American Hollywood movie star as well as the first Chinese American actress to gain international recognition. Big examples like Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong had made influences Hollywood with Asian icons. However, there were maybe movies which stories involved Asians, many Asian roles that were given to European-American actors/actresses than an actual Asian one due to heavy racism during that time. Not until the development in movies (especially with the appearance of audio – the practice was called the sound era) that the Asian portrayal started to get more and more impactful.

Sound in a motion picture was first introduced to the public in Paris in 1900 but was actually become popular in the mid to late 1920s. At that time, the World is under the influence of World War II so the majority of movies produced at this time, up through the 1950s, depict the stories and characters during the war. “Air force” was released in 1943, at the height of the war. The stories revolve around the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an actual event that happened on December 7, 1941. However, there is a depiction of sabotage by Japanese-Americans in Hawaii before the attack on Pearl Harbor that absolutely never actually happened. As mentioned before, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” which Sessue Hayakawa portrayed as colonel Saito, a movie about prisoner-of-war story contrasts western culture with that of the Japanese: One is civilized; the other barbarian. The film later was widely praised and was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. It was included on the American Film Institute's list of best American films ever made. Later in 1999, the British Film Institute voted The Bridge on the River Kwai the 11th greatest British film of the 20th century. Another famous movie which topic is about conflict of war is “Bridge at Toko-Ri”. Being a 1954 American war film about the Korean War, “Bride at Toko-Ri” emphasizes the life of the pilots and the crew during the Korean War. This moves the sinister-Asian icon which previously belongs to Japanese now to Korean. Most films during World War II Talks about the fight of an American soldier to repel to force of the enemy, which included the Asians. Though the appeal didn’t seem too impressive from an Asian perspective, it is proof that Asia is also a big puzzle to build up the history of Americans through motion pictures.

Throughout the 20s to 50s, Asians were mostly seen as the minor, the support character but from the early 60s and onward, the table had turned for the Asians as many films were made with an Asian actor/actress as the lead. In 1961, “Flower Drum Song” was the first Hollywood musical movie under the directing of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, two famous musical theatre composers and directors, that has the majority of the cast being Asian descendants and the romantic leads were played by Asian-Americans. The stereotype of Asian male role which is lack of masculinity was also broken by the famous movie star, Bruce Lee. As the main character in many martial art movies .e.g. Fist of Fury, Enter the Dragon, he shows off his muscular physique and movement skills as a martial artist in action scenes. This somehow has re-signify the symbol of manhood and the alpha male of the Asian male. Same for Jet Li with his role in Fist of Legend (1994), Lethal Weapon 4 (1998),… Not with just martial art movie, comedy movie was also a popular genre at the time and Jackie Chan was also famous for his comedy action movie “Rush Hour” released in 1998 featuring him and Chris Tucker. Tribute of Asian culture also appears in animated movies for example “Mulan” produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation. The movie was based on the legend of Hua Mulan and the character Mulan was one of few well-known “Disney princesses” that is different from a normal stereotyped trait of “princess” in many Disney animated movies. Throughout the 20th century, Asian portrayal had made a big step so far in Hollywood. Stepping into the 21st century with higher demand in the movie industry, Asian role is becoming more and more popular. 

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