Thursday, June 30, 2011


An important topic often discussed at the SDAFF and tackled by our various bloggers is the promulgation of Asian American stereotypes in American TV and film. In honor of the continuation of media accountability to this inescapable truth and the July 4 weekend, I’m posting an original article I wrote on this topic around July 4, 2005. It was written on assignment for Reuters. The day before the article was to be posted, Reuters pulled the article. So what happened? See if you can guess before you get to the end of the article.

Los Angeles, July 7, (Reuters) - In today's politically correct society, there's no way a Caucasian actor would be considered to portray Martin Luther King, Jr., so why was Caucasian actor Channing Tatum initially cast to play Genghis Khan in director Sergei Bodrov's US $12 million epic Mongol?

"I met many Asian-American actors," Bodrov told Reuters, "but honestly, I don't care to be politically correct, I care very much to make a good movie."

According to casting director Richard Pagano, Tatum is part Native American and that qualifies him as being associated with Mongolians saying, "There are rumors Khan had blue eyes."

Citing a similar example, the casting of Jonathan Pryce as a Vietnamese in the stage production of Miss Saigon (1989), George Takei of Star Trek fame told Reuters that the production later announced that Pryce was Eurasian to justify the casting.

"Putting down on the program he was Eurasian just doesn't do it," Takei says, "they'll come up with all sorts of nonsense and rationale for that kind of casting, but in this day and age it should no longer be acceptable."

Hollywood has often cast Caucasian actors for Asian characters: Sidney Toler as Charlie Chan; Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon (1956); Luis Rainer in The Good Earth (1937) and Tony Randall in 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964).

In fact, considered one of Hollywood greatest Hall of Shame films was John Wayne as Genghis Kahn in The Conqueror (1955) where while shooting in Utah, Wayne contracted cancer from fallout produced by nuclear tests at Yucca Flats in Nevada.

Veteran Asian-American actor/activist and former President of Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) Aki Aleong has personally ran into this problem.

"When I was up for the Sammy Lee story, a five-foot-three Korean-American and first diver to win two Olympic golds, the director told me I wasn't right for the role," he told Reuters, "they wanted a Robert Young type."

Star of TV's Marcus Welby, MD, Young was white, blue-eyed and over six feet tall.

Respected film critic Roger Ebert told Reuters, "These things occurred because the studios felt they needed established stars to drive the box office."

Takei explains that in the old days this is what was said but the reality is there were good Asian-American actors around to do these roles, but they were never given the chance.

"But now there are major Asian stars so this reason is no longer valid," Ebert says, "and audiences expect to see actors who match the ethnic identities of their roles."

"Furthermore, there was no reaction from the Asian American communities back then," Takei adds, "now this climate is changing."

Aleong points out that Caucasians playing Asians act with the perception of what they think Asians are and that this perpetuates the stereotype.

"I'm sick of the racism and stereotyping of Asian-Americans in entertainment," Aleong says, "I mean they'd never air episodes of Amos 'N' Andy."

He continues noting that skin-color and English unite African-Americans, Hispanics are Latino and have a common language, but Asian Americans are splintered into 15 major different cultures lumped in one group.

Furthermore, Asian Americans make up almost five percent of the nation's population and according to the Selig Center for Economic Growth, their purchase power exceeds $296.4 billion annually, and that is expected to increase to $454.9 billion by 2007.

"Yet with all this financial power, the problem is that Asian-Americans are quite, peaceful, we don't riot or rock the boat," Aleong says, "we need radicalism, and leaders to unite us. This is why MANAA has been in existence for 11 years."

MANAA is a watchdog group that monitors stereotypical depiction of Asian Americans in entertainment and advocates the sensitive and positive portrayal of Asian Americans.

Pressure from the tireless efforts of activists like Aleong and MANAA, Mongol recently recast Khan with Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano.

Tatum's agent Louis Ward at Innovative Artists told Reuters, "Although Tatum was the director's first choice the financiers were keen to have an Asian play Khan."

"I give you my word, on my dying bed," Aleong blurts, "had Mongol come out with a Khan being Caucasian, we would have been on it like you have never seen before."

Back to today: Well Aleong didn’t have to organize any radical demonstrations, which undoubtedly would have been a very interesting event. As it turns out, I tracked down Bodrov in May 2005 location scouting in Kazakhstan. My polite barrage of questions touched a nerve. By the time I had finished my other interviews six weeks later and written the above supposed final draft, bar the last three paragraphs and the bold letter word in the opening line, Channing had been dropped and Tadanobu Asano was cast as Khan (yes that fast).

The article was axed because the angle was supposed to be about the furor of the Asian American cinema community up in arms about Channing being cast as Khan. However, because my interviews had influenced the cast change, regardless of some of my last minute changes trying to imply that MANAA had something to do with the change (of which they didn’t), Reuters did not want to come across like I had influenced the re-casting of Khan, which insiders knew that I had. As Paul Harvey used to say, “And now you know the rest of the story...good day.”


  1. Nothing was more evident of this type of prejudice than the recent movie, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Being a big admirer of the animated series on Nickelodeon, I was one of many enraged fans when the casting was announced for the live-action movie. The cast was largely caucasian even though the animated series was based on asian cultures. The only asian country that was represented in the movie was the same as the director, M. Night Shyamalan.

    It's disappointing to see, that even when an Asian director has the power to choose his cast in his next blockbuster movie, he fails to properly represent asian culture in today's hollywood cinema and cops out to the prejudices that are still currently prevalent in the film industry.

  2. Wow, I did not know that he was being considered. That makes no real sense to me. I think when it comes to really iconic characters, best to stay with what ethnicity they really are (comic book characters are a minor exception...I have been ok with some comic supporting characters being portrayed by other people...Daredevil's Kingpin anyone?)

  3. Chingiz Khan was of Steppe origin, he was over six feet tall, had sandy-blonde hair and green eyes. Of all his descendents only Kublai looked East-Asian enough to assume the Khaganate over the Qin and rest of China.

    The Steppe-nomads included such groups as the Mongols (who have, to a large extent, interbred with the East-Asian populations) but primarily consist of people closer to Turkic and Cossack stock.

    The King of Kings was a CENTRAL ASIAN and NOT an East-Asian. He had more in common with Iranians and Turks, culturally and ethnically, than he did with Japanese or Manchu people. Which, of course, is why the Khaganates outside of China ALL spoke Turkic or Iranian languages. While Chingiz did come from a fairly Eastern part of the Steppe (near what is now called 'Mongolia') he was descended from stock that originated further westward.

    Stop confusing ethnic pride bullshit with real history. The Lord of the Earth wasn't exactly European but he certainly wasn't Chinese.

    "...Burtechino, the wolf-ancestor of the "Mongol" imperial stock,we are told, was a descendant of Kian, and belonged to the tribe Kurulas (Abulghazi, 33). The Kurulas, as we said, were a branch of the Kunkurads . Rashid ud din several times tells us that Alun Goa, who was ther real ancestress of the "Mongol" Khans, belonged to the same tribe of the Kurulas (Id. 64, note 3, by Des Maisons), whence it follows that the "Mongol" Khans were descended from the Turkish tribe of Kunkurads." - "History of the Mongols - From the 9th to the 19th Century" by Henry Howorth