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Ethnic Diversity:
Hollywood and the Asian Exclusion
Part 1 of 3

Film Review by Forrest Wood

ON THE SAME DAY that many Americans watched the fall 1999 season premier of Chicago Hope, 5-year old Benjamin Kadish went home from the hospital. Benjamin is the child who almost died from loss of blood after being shot in the leg and stomach at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, California. Saving his life was a team of three doctors: a Chinese-American emergency medicine specialist, an African-American trauma surgeon, and a Middle-Eastern vascular surgeon. In charge of Benjamin's recovery was a Chinese-American pediatric intensive care specialist.

IN 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first of several laws prohibiting Chinese immigration and denying citizenship to those already in the United States. In 1913 the California State Legislature passed the Alien Land Bill, a measure specifically designed to keep Japanese immigrants from buying land. Finally, the Immigration Act of 1924 ranked foreigners according to desirability, placing northern and western Europeans at the top, southern and eastern Europeans at the bottom, and banning Asians altogether. The restriction even extended to the bedroom: an American who married an immigrant not eligible for citizenship lost his citizenship. All of these measures have since been repealed or declared unconstitutional, but Hollywood seems not to have noticed.

Information On

Forrest G. Wood is a retired history professor who is pursuing an acting career. One of his books, The Arrogance of Faith: Christianity and Race in America from the Colonial Era to the Twentieth Century (Knopf), won the Cleveland Foundation's Anisfield-Wolf Award.

IN THE FALL OF 1999, the Screen Actors' Guild commissioned a study to analyze prime-time television programming that "principally" looked "at the depiction of African Americans." What the union also needs to look at is the exclusion of Asian Americans. Asians have attracted little attention because, unlike African Americans and Latinos, they tend to eschew vociferous protest groups. As a comparatively small minority, they are ignored by national advertisers. Accordingly, networks have little incentive to include Asian Americans in their marketing demographics. All of this in the face of the fact that Americans of Asian ancestry are ubiquitous in certain vital areas of life, areas that are highly visible on television. Never seeing them on the screen in roles where they are omnipresent in reality is one of the most egregious injustices in casting.

THE OLD EXCLUSION AND IMMIGRATION LAWS are long gone, but many white Americans still perceive Asian Americans as foreigners, a perception reflected in the distrust of Asian scientists by federal authorities and how that attitude contributed to the suspicion that physicist Wen Ho Lee had stolen nuclear secrets from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Although Wen is a naturalized citizen who was born in Taiwan, the FBI's relentless investigation was based, in part, on the belief that his Chinese ethnicity produced a "kindred" loyalty to China--the exact same reasoning that led to the World War II internment of over 100,000 loyal Americans of Japanese ancestry, many of them native-born citizens.

THE WHITE AMERICAN'S INDIFFERENCE to the treatment of Wen Ho Lee is merely one sympton of a longstanding public ignorance. For six months in 1995-96 I was a member of Lynn Redgrave's Shakespeare Master Class. In one session an actor of Chinese ancestry gave an impressive reading from Hamlet. During the critique, someone asked him how Shakespeare played in China. "How would I know?" he replied. "I'm from Texas." In June, 1999, during a discussion on ABC's Nightline of alleged Chinese spying, a Japanese-American guest called attention to the perception of Asian Americans as "outsiders" when she pointed out that one out of six medical doctors in the United States is of Asian ancestry, but not a single actor with a recurring role in any of the popular television medical dramas was Asian.

HER POINT: Asian Americans are easily demonized because most whites are ignorant of the Asian presence in everyday life, an ignorance that television perpetuates because producers refuse to cast prime-time medical dramas in any way that reflects reality. The return of Ming-Na Wen to ER later that fall was only the exception that proved the rule: joining the Chicago Hope medical staff were Barbara Hershey, Lauren Holly, and Carla Gugino. The number of Asian names listed under "Physicians & Surgeons" in the yellow pages is mind-boggling, but producers see only "Marcus Welby."

STEVEN BOCHCO'S CITY OF ANGELS portrayed the work of a largely minority hospital staff, yet had no characters representing the largest minority in medicine. When I sent Bochco a copy of a letter I had e-mailed to TIME magazine about the absence of Asian doctors on his show, he replied promptly, accusing me of misrepresenting his work and pointing out that the first two episodes featured actor Tzi Ma. I wrote back: "[I]f you believe that casting one Asian actor in two episodes of City of Angels is tantamount to dealing with the chronic underrepresentation of Asians in medicine, then you are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Walk in to any big city hospital today, Mr. Bochco, and you can't swing a dead cat without hitting an Asian physician. But I have yet to see a photograph of the cast members of City of Angels that includes an Asian face; and the show's website lists the names of the six actors with recurring roles, but Tzi Ma is not one of them." Similarly, the first episode of Gideon's Crossing, the medical show that premiered in 2000 on ABC with an African American in the title role, included insulting references to Japanese Americans. Would the producers have included racially disparaging comments if the casting had reflected the one out of six ratio?

* Part 2 * Part 3 *

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