In Search of a More Authentic Metaphor for the Asian American Struggle

A political cartoon depicting Chinese laborers toiling in a plantation in late 19th century America.

Guest Contributor: Dr. Keith Chan

This article appears as a response to a recent guest writing by Mark Tseng Putterman that appeared on Reappropriate last week, “Against Antiblackness as Metaphor.”

Recently, Mark Tseng Putterman wrote “Against Antiblackness as Metaphor” as a discussion of actor and comedian Margaret Cho’s use of the phrase “House Asian” in an email exchange with fellow actor Tilda Swinton. Cho and Swinton had been emailing in relation to months of controversy over Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One in Marvel’s Dr. Strange, wherein a traditionally male, Tibetan comic book character was rewritten as a Celtic woman to enable Swinton’s portrayal; many Asian Americans had criticized Swinton’s casting as the latest example of Hollywood white-washing of Asian American roles. Earlier this month, Cho weighed in on the controversy in a podcast by revealing a private email exchange between herself and Swinton, wherein Cho described feeling as if she had been put by Swinton into the politically dubious role of a “House Asian”. While many have since focused on Swinton’s methods and motives in approaching Cho in this exchange, Putterman offered a slightly different take: he wrote to criticize Cho’s choice to use the phrase “House Asian” in her emails with Swinton. Specifically, Putterman suggested that Cho, like many Asian Americans, should reconsider our use of metaphors of Blackness to legitimize racial justice issues associated with the Asian American community, and that our continued use of such tactics undermine solidarity efforts between the Black and Asian American community.

I believe Putterman’s article raised many insightful points, and offered a fair caution against the appropriation of race identity, especially in the case of Asian Americans seeking visibility and acknowledgment of the discrimination we face. Cho’s use of the term “House Asian” during her email exchange with fellow actor Tilda Swinton is indeed controversial.

Based on his writing, I believe it was Malcolm X who coined the phrases “House Negro” vs. “Field Negro” to highlight the relative instability of the plight of all subjugated Black people. Along those lines, Ture and Hamilton’s work, Black Power, also assigned a commonality of experience of subjugation for populations of color across the globe, and coined the term “Third World.” This latter term has fallen out of favor since the 1990’s. Cho’s use of “House Asian” misses many of these nuances, and runs the danger of advancing an agenda where all experiences of discrimination, based on race or otherwise, can be viewed as equal.

Clearly, they are not.

Continue reading “In Search of a More Authentic Metaphor for the Asian American Struggle”

Matt Damon is Not the Hero China Needs, But He’s The One Hollywood Will Give Us

Matt Damon, in a screen capture from the newly released trailer for "The Great Wall".
Matt Damon, in a screen capture from the newly released trailer for “The Great Wall”.

I can’t even right now.

The basic concept of the upcoming The Great Wall seems like a Hollywood studio wet dream: the Great Wall of China is reimagined as the frontlines for a fantasy thriller that pits mankind against an army of invading mythical monsters. If one were going down a checklist for making a big-budget fantasy movie guaranteed to make money, this would be it. Fast-paced action scenes? Check. Breath-taking CGI? Check. An opportunity to film in 3D? Check. A stupid movie plot? Check. People armed with a bows and arrows? Check. Check. Check.

In an alternate universe, The Great Wall might have been kind of cool. I’ve long waited for Hollywood to start earnestly exploring movie concepts outside of the Western cultural, historical, and sociopolitical framework. Non-Western and non-White history is flush with great stories just waiting to be told. The Great Wall could have been such an opportunity. In so doing, it could have recentered the camera’s gaze on non-White people, offered a tale of non-White humanity, and told a silly fantasy story about a pretty interesting era of ancient Chinese history.

Indeed, I’m a fan of Chinese blockbuster films, perhaps because films that emerge out of Asian movie houses are refreshingly unbound by American cinema’s racial stereotypes. As a consequence, Chinese cinema accomplishes naturally that which American Hollywood still struggles to do: in Chinese cinema, (East) Asian characters occupy the full range of the human condition. In American cinema, we are always the oddball, the outcast, or the supporting character. In Asian cinema, we are treated by the camera as if we are fully, messily, complicatedly human.

Continue reading “Matt Damon is Not the Hero China Needs, But He’s The One Hollywood Will Give Us”

Forget Leo — One of these actors should play Rumi!

A painting of Rumi (left) and Leonardo DiCaprio (right).
A painting of Rumi (left) and Leonardo DiCaprio (right).

By Guest Contributor: Lakshmi Gandhi (@LakshmiGandhi)

I was slightly jet lagged on my commute home Monday night. So, at first, I thought the stream of tweets invading my timeline buzzing about Leonardo DiCaprio possibly playing the beloved Sufi poet Rumi were part of some sort of elaborate joke. After all, Hollywood must be paying at least a little bit of attention to the 2016 Oscars controversy and online campaigns like #whitewashedOUT and #AAIronFist, right? RIGHT?

Actually, no.

The Guardian reports that screenwriter David Franzoni (who also worked on the Oscar-winning film Gladiator) has signed on to work on a new biopic based on the life of the 13th century Persian poet. Franzoni says he hopes the film will challenge anti-Muslim stereotypes… by casting non-Muslims to play the film’s primary roles.

“Franzoni and Brown said they would like Leonardo DiCaprio to play Rumi, and Robert Downey, Jr. to star as Shams of Tabriz,” the Guardian reports.

Let’s pause for a second here, and give everyone a moment to get their heads up off their desks, which is where I’m sure they are after reading that last sentence.

Continue reading “Forget Leo — One of these actors should play Rumi!”

Playwright Takes Stand Against White-washing of His Play

Clarion University student actors Sam Atwell and Kiah Harrington-Wymer in a rehearsal photo from the school's planned production of “Jesus in India” published to social media. (Photo Credit: Clarion University)
Clarion University student actors Sam Atwell and Kiah Harrington-Wymer in a rehearsal photo from the school’s planned production of “Jesus in India” published to social media. (Photo Credit: Clarion University)

The theatre world is embroiled in controversy right now over the attempted White-washing by Clarion University of Lloyd Suh’s cutting-edge play, “Jesus In India”.

Suh’s play — an irreverent exploration of popular conceptions and misconceptions of historical religious figures — includes several characters of Indian descent. However, when Professor of Theatre at Clarion University Marilouise Michel decided she wanted to put on a student production of the play this year, she seized upon a quip by Suh in one of the play’s liner notes (wherein he describes the play’s appeal as “universal”) and interpreted it as license to cast non-South Asian actors as characters named “Gopal”, “Mahari”, and “Sushil”. Michel also decided to make dramatic rewrites to the play (which originally contained only two or three songs). She commissioned a full songbook, transforming the play into a musical.

Continue reading “Playwright Takes Stand Against White-washing of His Play”

Hollywood’s “Strange” Erasure of Asian Characters | #AStrangeWhitewashing

Marvel's Ancient One
Marvel’s Ancient One

A mere week after I wrote a post swearing off of sharing fan news, the fandom insidiously pulled me back in.

This week, rumours began circulating that Tilda Swinton was in casting negotiations for Marvel’s upcoming Dr. Strange film starring Benedict Cumberbatch in the titular role. Swinton is being considered for the role of the Ancient One, a nearly-immortal Tibetan sorcerer who becomes the young Dr. Strange’s mystic tutor and personal mentor.

That’s right. Tilda Swinton — a British actor whose Wikipedia article notes that she can trace her Anglo-Scot heritage back to the Middle Ages and who is about as far from “Tibetan” as one might get — may be cast to play a racebent and genderbent version of one of the few Asian characters of prominence in the Mystic Marvel world.

Continue reading “Hollywood’s “Strange” Erasure of Asian Characters | #AStrangeWhitewashing”