Asian actors are invisible in Hollywood

Vivien Zhu argues that change from studios and in racial attitudes is necessary to make progress on the under representation of Asian actors

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Everyone knows the Oscars are the crème de la crème of acting accolades – yet it was even more special this year as the 2017 Oscar nominations were dubbed “the most diverse yet”. Six black actors were up for the main acting awards and records were smashed when the first black woman was nominated in the editing category, and the first African-American was nominated for cinematography.

This is all well and good, but for the “most diverse” Oscars yet there was a surprising lack of Asians on the list of nominees. The only Asian nominated in the acting categories was Dev Patel, a British-Indian actor. Where was the representation for other Asians? The answer is: it doesn’t exist, because Asian actors are invisible in Hollywood. As Gemma Chan, a British-Chinese actress, points out: “You’re more likely to see an alien in a Hollywood film than an Asian woman”.

The few Asians that are recognisable are usually typecast into certain roles: Ken Jeong is always “the kooky Chinese guy”, Jackie Chan is “the karate dude” and Lucy Liu is “the sexy Asian chick”. Even the characters that you would presume to be Asian are cast with white actors.

The most recent casting controversy was Scarlett Johansson as the lead in Ghost in the Shell, a film adaptation of a popular Japanese anime. The situation was worsened by reports that the film was testing digital effects on Johansson to make her look “more Asian”. People were understandably angry at this revelation: Constance Wu, an American-Chinese actress, vented on Twitter that this reduced the Asian race to “mere physical appearance” and that it completely ignored other aspects of Asian culture, identity, and history. Admittedly, whitewashing isn’t anything new—Mickey Rooney’s inane caricature of a Japanese man in Breakfast at Tiff any’s was one of the most memorable performances in the film. However, that was 56 years ago—shouldn’t we have moved on by now?

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Though recent reports have suggested that there has been some progress, this is primarily on the small screen. Shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Dr Ken have had a satisfactory reception from Western audiences but an occasional Asian presence on TV just isn’t enough, especially when the characters adhere strictly to Asian stereotypes. Ken Jeong plays a doctor (a typical Asian job) in Dr Ken, and Randall Park’s character in Fresh Off the Boat is a Chinese immigrant desperately trying to achieve the American Dream. These attempts to integrate Asians into Hollywood may be admirable but the method is patronising. The most recognisable Asian-centric shows are all comedies, as if Asians are nothing but a joke. Judging from the reception of shows that do try to move away from Asian tropes, it certainly seems that way: Selfie, an American romantic comedy show about a white girl (played by Dr Who’s Karen Gillan) falling in love with her Asian boss (played by Star Trek’s John Cho) was cancelled after only one season, citing low ratings. Though there could’ve been many factors leading to the show’s cancellation, it’s likely that people just couldn’t comprehend an Asian man as a romantic lead.

The most commonly cited reason for the lack of Asian castings is that Asian actors are not bankable. But what about the massive source of potential income from the Asian film industry? As the continent with the highest population, it follows that it also has the highest number of filmgoers—the gross box office sales in China alone for 2016 were worth $6.6 billion.

So why hasn’t Hollywood tried to appeal to this potential goldmine by casting more Asians? Even the collaborations they have done with the Chinese film industry has only resulted in a token Chinese segment in the film—an entire act of Transformers 5 was moved to Hong Kong for no discernible reason.

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Asian stars are not “bankable” because there aren’t enough job opportunities for them to build up a “bankable” reputation. The studios are not willing to take the risk of casting an Asian as a lead because the success rate is so low—if it isn’t even received well on the small screen, how could they risk it on the big screen, where the losses would be significantly higher? But with the potential income from the Asian film industry, Hollywood can afford to—and needs to—take more risks.

The film industry is all about risk; actors embark on their career knowing this. But Asian actors have to take a bigger leap of faith and so far, they are getting little out of their gamble. What Hollywood doesn’t recognise is that Asians have their own unique stories to tell and this is sorely needed to inject life back into Hollywood—the monotonous production of film sequels and book adaptations have led to murmurs that the industry is becoming stagnant. To save both the film and TV industry and achieve true diversity, we need to push for change.