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

Film Review by Forrest Wood

THE EXCLUSION goes beyond medical dramas. Over the years many programs--e.g., The Streets of San Francisco, Suddenly Susan, Dharma and Greg, Party of Five, and Nash Bridges have been set in San Francisco, a city with a population that is 35 percent Asian and has seven Chinese-language newspapers and three Chinese-language television stations. The new owner and publisher of the Examiner, founded by "yellow peril" demagogue William Randolph Hearst, is 37-year old Ted Fang. But not only have no Chinese-Americans ever been cast in these shows, they have rarely been seen in the background. In the last year of Suddenly Susan, Chinese calligraphy could be seen on an office wall decoration. Was this supposed to be a substitute for Chinese actors? Similarly, while promoting the roles of women in today's world, Lifetime Television has managed to make Asian Americans disappear from both the practice of medicine and the city of San Francisco. Don't look for any in Whoopi Goldberg's hospital drama, Strong Medicine, or the San Francisco police show, The Division. And it's not going to get better any time soon. In August, 2000, Kurt McCortney of SAG's Board of Directors told me that every effort by the union's Asian Pacific Caucus and Asian Pacific American Task Force to persuade producers to cast more Asian Americans has hit a stone wall.

Daring Films with an
Asian Male &
White Female

There has been relatively few daring attempts in dealing with interracial romantic relationships with Asian/Asian Pacific American males in films throughout history. Listed below are some prominent and rare examples.

In the early 1900's, isolated films such as Cecil B. DeMille's The Cheat brought to the screen the feelings of forbidden love between a White woman and an Asian man.

In the 1950's, Hiroshima Mon Amour and Crimson Kimono (in which, James Shigeta won the gorgeous White female - Victoria Shaw - from his White male co-star) featured an Asian Male and a White Female in starring romantic roles in major films!

In South Pacific, the song "You Have to be Carefully Taught" highlighted in the film one of the main reason why people fear interracial romantic situations.

In Bridge to the Sun, James Shigeta was married to the pretty Carroll Baker in a daring story during WWII!

In the 1990's, Disney's Johny Tsunami was one of the last example of romantic featured roles featuring an Asian/Asian American male and a White female.

Is the Asian/Asian Pacific American male and a non-Asian (White, Black & Hispanic) female romantic relationships taboo in American films?

WHILE MOST OF THE CRITICISM has focused on television, the treatment of Asian Americans in motion pictures is no better. Fortunately, we rarely see the absurdity of Caucasian actors playing Asian characters, a practice that goes back to the silent screen with Lon Chaney in Mr. Wu (1927) and continued with talkies when Boris Karloff had the title role in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). White actors who played Charlie Chan included Warner Oland (who was Swedish), Sidney Toler, and Roland Winters. As recently as 1981, Peter Ustinov played the wiley detective in Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, a film in which Chan's grandson was also played by a white actor. Some examples of Caucasians playing Asians can only be described as laughable. It may have been possible to justify casting Jack Palance as Attila in The Sign of the Pagan (1954) with the argument that the Huns were Eurasians who lived on the steppes of Central Asia; but there probably has never been a more ridiculous spectacle than 6' 4" John Wayne--with his big nose and western twang--playing Genghis Khan, a Mongol, in The Conqueror (1956). Producers will defend the casting of a major star like Wayne because of his enormous box office appeal. But in 2001 Gerard Butler played the title role in the USA channel's Attila. Gerard Butler?

CASTING WHITES AS ASIANS has even been deliberate racism. Internationally acclaimed Anna May Wong was considered a natural for the part of O'Lan in the film version of Pearl S. Buck's novel, The Good Earth. But the role was given to Austrian-born Luise Rainer because a white actor, Paul Muni, had already been chosen for the role of O'Lan's husband, Wang Lung, and the producers feared public criticism over casting an interracial couple as husband and wife, although both characters were Chinese and it was Muni who was miscast. Ranier, who received an Academy Award in 1936 for her performance in The Great Ziegfield, won a second straight Oscar; while Wong, a Los Angeles native, lost her only chance, dying in obscurity at age 54. Hollywood has come a long way since then, but, obviously, still has a long way to go.

ON MAY 15, 2000, Frank and Ray, two of the characters in the TV sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, used the expression "50,000 screaming Chinamen." In certified letters to CBS president Leslie Moonves, executive producer Philip Rosenthal, and producer Ray Romano, I pointed out that "Chinaman" is a racial slur and, like "chink," is just as offensive to many people of Chinese ancestry as is "nigger" to African Americans. Indeed, if Frank and Ray had said "50,000 screaming niggers," the phone lines to CBS would have been tied up for hours, the incident would have been on the 11 p.m. news of every station in the country, and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume would have called for Rosenthal's head. I received no response to my letters and on July 17 CBS re-ran the show with the racial slurs.

INEXPLICABLILY DISAPPOINTING has been the silence of the Chinese community. According to Los Angeles Times television columnist Brian Lowry, my letter was the only complaint Rosenthal received. Similarly, when Guy Aoki of the Asian-Pacific Media Action Network (MANAA) criticized the stereotypical characterization of "Miss Swan" by white comedienne Alex Borstein on MAD TV, the producers refused to change anything because, they argued, Miss Swan is from a fictitious country. Conveniently ignoring the fact that it is the perception of viewers that matters, they were asking us to believe that Swan's imaginary country is not Asian; and that her Chinese-sounding name, slant-eyed make-up, clipped accent, and operation of a nail salon (an occupation that has been dominated by Vietnamese women in recent years) are all purely coincidental. If Asian Americans remain passive after they have been insulted, can producers of programs like Everybody Loves Raymond and MAD TV be blamed for believing they did nothing wrong?

* Part 1 * Part 2 *

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