Shattering Asian American Stereotypes

Shattering Asian American Stereotypes

We have all seen the Asian stereotypes in film and television: the nerdy student, the submissive lotus blossom, the sinister Fu-Manchu or Dragon Lady type. On May 10, 2011, in honor of Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Screen Actors Guild Affirmative Action & Diversity invited a group of distinguished Asian American entertainment industry professionals to the SAG national headquarters in Los Angeles to discuss how to overcome the stereotypical portrayal of — and lack of portrayals of— Asians in television and film.

The program, The New Asia America: Transforming Perceptions, was presented by SAG National Ethnic Employment Opportunities Committee and included Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy), James Hong (Big Trouble in Little China, Kung Fu Panda), Chris Tashima (Visas and Virtue, Day of Independence), producer Ken Mok (America’s Next Top Model), casting director Julia Kim (My Bollywood Bride, But I’m a Cheerleader) and Ellen Ho (Ktown Cowboys), and was moderated by Jodi Long (Sex in the City, All-American Girl).

“Asians and Asian Americans have for too long been a missing presence in popular film and television, or relegated to one-dimensional characters in minor roles,” said National EEO Committee Co-Chair Bertila Damas. “We hope this event helps to revive this discussion and inspire Asian actors and those of every ethnicity to make their voices heard.”

According to Screen Actors Guild casting data reports, only 3.8% of all television and theatrical roles were portrayed by Asian Pacific Islander actors in 2008, compared to 6.4% portrayed by Latino actors, 13.3% portrayed by African Americans and 72.5% portrayed by Caucasian actors.

“About one in 20 people in the United States identify themselves as Asian or Pacific Islander. Increasing Asian representation in entertainment — both in front of and behind the camera — is vital to a true reflection of the American Scene,” said National EEO Committee Co-Chair Vivicca Whitsett.

The panel discussion covered many topics, including whether Asian actors should turn down stereotypical roles, the role of the artist in helping to affect change and how to get more Asian storiestold.

 Chris Tashima, Ellen Ho, James Hong, Sandra Oh, Jodi Long, Ken Mok and Julia Kim.
Photo Caption from Left to Right: Chris Tashima, Ellen Ho, James Hong, Sandra Oh, Jodi Long, Ken Mok and Julia Kim.Photo courtesy Screen Actors Guild, all rights reserved.

The panel praised portrayals of roles for Asian actors that are complex and multi-dimensional , such as Oh’s portrayal of Dr. Christina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy and the multiple strong Asian characters of Lost, which included series regular Daniel Dae Kim, who played Jin Kwon on the series and now stars as Chin-Ho Kelly in Hawaii Five-0.

“[Lost was] one of the first series where the Asian males were not emasculated,” Mok said, adding that Kwon and Miles Straume, played by Ken Leung, were fully realized characters.

Tashima warned that it is not always easy to judge a role from the script.  Oh said actors can help make change through their performances that go beyond the written word.

“It does not matter what part it is — I will transcend it. It doesn’t matter if I don’t have any dialogue, I will transcend it. It doesn’t matter what wardrobe I’m wearing, I will transcend it,” Oh said.

Mok, who became a producer after working as an executive for NBC and ABC, said it is ultimately up to Asians to tell their own stories, and that is the way that these stereotypes will finally fade away. With a global audience easily accessible via the Internet, there have neverbeen more opportunities for people to create their own projects and tell their own stories. 

“The only person who is going to help you in this industry is yourself. You’ve got to take things into you own hands.” Mok said.

Hong, a former SAG Board member, agreed.

“Here you have to be a capitalist. You have to pursue what you want as a businessperson. You split yourself down the middle and half of you is the businessperson and half of you is the creative person — the actor,” Hong said.