With the depressing dearth of Asian American characters in movies and television, Asian American actors carry a heavy weight because every role they accept contributes to the stereotyping, or not, of Asian Americans. There are only a handful of prominent Asian American roles in Hollywood, so each role appears to have greater significance in shaping the image of Asians in American pop culture.
Too often, it feels as if Asian American actors are stuck at a crossroads, having to choose between poverty and obscurity, or playing the stereotypical, degrading Asian American caricature. And, unfortunately, there are Asian American actors who seem willing and eager to play those roles.
But then, you stumble upon the Asian American actor who is surprisingly race conscious. That’s what happened to me when I read this Canadian interview with Daniel Wu, a Chinese American actor who has been dubbed the “young Andy Lau” for his film success in Asian cinema. Here’s a wonderful excerpt from the article, highlighting Wu’s awareness of identity politics:
Having achieved success in Hong Kong, Wu now hopes he can break into Hollywood as a positive example for a new generation of Asians.
“I would like there to be some kind of Asian-American role model for the kids out there today,” Wu told The Associated Press on Sunday as he promoted his new action thriller, “Triple Tap.”
As a youngster in Orinda, California, Wu said there were few Asian faces on the big screen he could look up to. Instead, there was Long Duk Dong — the awkward foreign exchange student parodied in the 1984 high-school comedy “Sixteen Candles.” So Wu found inspiration in a Chinatown video rental shop, devouring the movies of Chan, Bruce Lee and Jet Li, aspiring to “be in a Jackie Chan movie and be kicked down a flight of stairs.”
His fascination with Hong Kong cinema led to a trip to the former British colony in 1997 to witness its handover to China. Out of funds, he tried modeling and was spotted by a Hong Kong director in a fashion ad.
Thirteen years later, he has 50 movies under his belt and is one of the Chinese-language industry’s biggest stars. Childhood idol Chan has become a frequent screen partner, most recently in the Tokyo-set drama “Shinjuku Incident.” With a summer blockbuster due out on Thursday and clothing, watch and skin care endorsements, it’s hard to miss Wu’s picture in this wealthy shopping-crazed city of 7 million people.
Now Wu is hoping to leverage his reputation in the land of his ancestors to correct the cinematic prejudices of his home country. He recently signed with the Hollywood talent broker Creative Artists Agency.
“It’s amazing that 30 years later, there still aren’t (positive Asian-American role models). And I would like to help change that,” he said.
In the interview, Wu talks about turning down roles that he feels only perpetuate Asian and Asian American stereotypes in the minds of non-Asian audiences. I suppose that the struggling Asian American actor in Hollywood might argue that Wu, having made his name in Asia, has the kind of fame and personal wealth to be able to be choosy about roles — and it’s a fair point. That being said, I do think that Wu should be commended for having the kind of integrity to not play the Asian American buffoon.
Meanwhile, Margaret Cho — no stranger to the world of identity politics activism — also spent some time talking about Asian American diversity on television. In Drop Dead Diva, she plays Teri who struggles in a recent episode with the news that her cousin will be deported.
In a recent interview, Cho talked about using her show to address racialized political issues in today’s America, both in front of, and behind, the camera:
Cho, who plays Teri, told Zap2It that she approved of a recent storyline in which her character’s cousin faced deportation.
“When I was just a kid, when I was just born, my father was deported,” she explained. “So it was something that I experienced with my family. It was interesting they did that story.”
Cho continued: “It seems to me to be very true to the immigrant experience and it is timely. We’re kind of coming up around the issues of what is American. Does American actually always mean white? I think it’s a great conversation to have. So I’m proud of the episode. I’m really glad that we got to do it.”
She added that working with other Asian-American actors was a “rare opportunity”.
“In shows, it’s usually just one of us,” she explained. “It’s very rare to have more than one Asian-American actor on anything ever. So it was this special, really rare, cool thing for us to hang out.”
Love her or hate her, you can always count on Margaret Cho to at least stimulate discussions of race and identity in Hollywood. And I, for one, am glad she’s willing to do it.