We absorb poisonous images from the fiction we consume.

Hollywood’s brand of fiction is especially toxic, and one of the most perennially problematic images in Hollywood is that of the Asian male. At a basic level, the problem is a simple lack of representation: there are very few roles for Asian American actors, and lead roles are almost nonexistent. When an Asian male actor is actually cast in a speaking role, his character is often either an emasculated, inarticulate, socially inept chump like Long Duck Dong (Gedde Watanabe) from John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles or else an asexual, stoic, martial arts warrior like Bruce Lee (in any Bruce Lee movie).

This issue is often dismissed as affecting only the small number of Asian American actors trying to make a living in Hollywood, for whom the highest levels of the profession may remain unattainable. However, a lack of diversity in fiction has been linked to children’s lowered self-esteem and increased racial biases. Our consumption of the characters and dramas of our own creation feeds the way in which we view ourselves. A lack of realistic portrayals of Asian American men onscreen can therefore affect the way young boys see themselves, and how we as a society see them.

The history of film is punctuated with exceptions to the rule about once every fifty years. American cinema began on a high note with the career of Sessue Hayakawa, described in a biography by Daisuke Miyao as the first male sex symbol of the industry, years ahead of Rudolph Valentino. Hayakawa’s most famous early work was Cecil DeMille’s 1915 silent film The Cheat, a disturbingly violent rape fantasy, in which Hayakawa portrays villain Haka Arakau, an ivory dealer with sinister designs towards white female acquaintance Edith Hardy (Fannie Ward), to whom he offers a loan of $10,000 with her sexuality as interest. During a violent confrontation, there is an implied onscreen (forced) kiss scene, during which the audience is privy only to the back of Arakau’s head, and Arakau physically brands Hardy as his property with a hot seal. Despite often being typecast in what today strikes us as obviously problematic roles, Hayakawa was nevertheless quite popular with female audiences of the time.

One of the first films to attempt a heroic portrayal of an Asian American male was Samuel Fuller’s The Crimson Kimono (1959), a B-movie starring the late great James Shigeta as Joe Kojaku, who like his Caucasian roommate and partner in the police force Charlie Bancroft (Glenn Corbett) is American-born and speaks with normal American speech patterns. The two detectives have the same career, similar interests, and love the same woman (Victoria Shaw), who is the key witness in the murder case they are investigating. Unlike the dark villain roles to which Hayakawa was mostly restricted, Kojaku’s story is that of an upstanding member of the Japanese American community who ends his story with a classic Hollywood kiss. The film remains problematic in its catharsis, which dismisses racism as a fantasy of a lovelorn mind. But the film still looks progressive compared to current representations of Asian American males.

“There are no Asian movie stars” – Aaron Sorkin We absorb poisonous images from the fiction we consume. Hollywood’s brand of fiction is especially toxic, and one of the most perennially problematic images in Hollywood is that of the Asian male. At a basic level, the problem is a […]