Tuesday, September 6, 2011


Back in 1973, once I saw Bruce Lee and the tsunami of kung fu films that quickly flooded our American shores, I thought, “Man, it seems everyone in China must know kung fu.” Asian kids at school were suddenly given the wide berth because, “You just never knew.”

Then when the martial arts film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon hit the U.S. in 2000, Asian film and Asian stars were hot commodities in the U.S. entertainment world. Taiwan-born director Ang Lee was named America's best director of 2001 by Time magazine, Hong Kong star Jackie Chan commanded $15 million per Hollywood picture and Crouching Tiger sent a charge through the Academy Awards.

Yet did the success of Bruce Lee, all those kung fu films of the 1970s, the dubbed movies on video and TV in the 1980s, Crouching Tiger and Chinese actors like Jackie Chan and Jet Li in Hollywood perpetuate the stereotype that all Asians practice kung fu?

According to SAG (Screen Actor's Guild), Caucasian actors accounted for 72.5% of all roles on film and TV in 2009, 13.3% for African Americans, 6.4% for Latinos and Asian Pacific Islander actors accounted for <4 percent (3.8% in 2008). For both years there were more martial arts related roles than non martial arts related roles. But as with any Asian stereotype seen on TV and film, it's not always about characters as it is about caricatures. Hollywood executives have trouble seeing Asian American actors in roles beyond martial arts experts and a few other stereotypes. There is the evil Asian man, usually a gang boss from a crime syndicate such as a Chinese triad or Japanese yakuza gang (so a lot of jobs for Asian American stuntmen). Or men can be the undesirable male partners who are wrapped up in their work and leave their personality in a briefcase and are negligent toward the family.

For the women, there is the China doll, Suzie Wong type, a fragile and enchanting beauty with a soft voice and long, dark hair. On the evil side is the dragon lady, the strong, seductive, completely unreliable and utterly corruptible woman. For both men and women, there is the fish out of water Asian who hopelessly tries to find their way in the United States, while snapping loads of pictures, fiddling with computers and speaking English with a hokey accent.

For years Asian American actors have made their case stating that they all don't practice martial arts and say things like "flied lice" or "Rucy Roo."

"To say one ethnic group is represented by certain characters is dehumanizing. American society is pluralistic, but TV is still unable to reflect the truth and reality of American society," Japanese-American actor George Takei of Star Trek fame once told me.

Japanese-American Takei, whose role of Sulu in the original series did not fit into a stereotype of Asian-Americans, said studio and TV executives are mostly upper crust Caucasians who do not know how to cast minorities on the screen.

Thus as my previous blog shared, the 150+ Asian and Asian American actors and filmmakers I’ve interviewed over the past 20 years and asked if they think martial arts movies are perpetuating an Asian (or Asian American) stereotype, two were on the fence the others blurted, “No.’

Why? Chinese American Robin Shou well known for his Mortal Kombat movies sums it up perfectly, “Martial arts is such an integral and important part of Asian culture and they define who we are. So it’s not a stereotype. It is a major part of who I am and martial arts film has always been an important part of the Chinese (Hong Kong/Taiwan) film industries.”

Korean-born, American actor John Cho shared with me several years ago that roles for Asian Americans were tough to find and he does not mind being cast as a martial arts expert. "I'd rather be portrayed as the evil martial arts type than the weak, sexually inadequate male or nerdy, impotent fool," he grinned.

Vietnamese American and stalwart SDAFF supporter Dustin Nguyen adds, “I compare that with most blacks are great football or basketball players. I have no problem with Asian Americans being identified with martial arts because it is a very strong part of our culture, like baseball to America. The problem is you start think that is all there is, there is where the problems lie, as you know there are lots of Asian that don’t know how to throw a punch. I don’t hear blacks complaining they are stereotyped as ball players."

So what do you think?

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