Hollywood has always been in the business of entertainment, but racial stereotypes and lack of diversity continue to plague the industry.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, revered A-Listers like Marlon Brando (The Teahouse of the August Moon) and Mickey Rooney (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) played Asian caricatures. Actors would modify their appearance with slanted eyes, buck teeth and broken English. The problematic stereotype was often used for comedic effect or to reinforce how culturally foreign Asian people were to Western society.
“When you grow up in a society where you don’t see yourselves reflected on the screens, you don’t really think much of it because you go, ‘Well, yeah, figures,’” says Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, who played Appa for five seasons on Kim’s Convenience.
“What you’re taught subliminally is that your stories don’t matter.”
Decades later, more Asian actors would get a chance at sharing the screen but would still struggle to break free from the problematic tropes in society.
Long Duk Dong from the 1984 film Sixteen Candles is a prime example. The character was a foreign exchange student with an exaggerated Asian accent, who would regularly enter a scene with a gong sound.
More modern-day examples of Asian stereotypes can be found in films like Austin Powers and cartoons like Family Guy. They appear to be harmless from the outside, but the hidden hate can cause serious harm.
“Media is so powerful in a sense that it really does shape a society. For a generation, you had people who were raised to believe that Asians were the other, that it’s OK to make fun of them, or that they’re often odd or funny,” Lee says.
“It made it socially acceptable to laugh at an entire race or an entire whole group of people.”
Lee began acting in the 1990s and he admits that roles would often be scarce. Non-white actors were often pigeon-holed into side roles or supporting characters.
Steps toward progress and meaningful Asian representation like The Joy Luck Club in 1993 were short-lived. In spite of its critical and commercial success, it would take 25 years until Hollywood released another film with a predominantly Asian-American cast. That film was Crazy Rich Asians in 2018 and it made US$238 Million worldwide.
On the small screen, shows like Kim’s Convenience and Fresh Off The Boat were being embraced for being unapologetically Asian.
“In my lifetime, to be honest, I never thought I’d ever play the lead on any television series. I resigned myself to just playing sort of character roles or supporting roles,” says Lee, who played the role of ‘Appa’ in the original stage play before reviving the role on-screen in 2016.
“Kim’s Convenience was … a dream come true. If you can portray a family in a normal way — in a positive way — that has power, that has impact.”
For the Asian community, it felt like a cultural reset. We were being seen, heard, and recognized as three-dimensional human beings.
The pandemic put a pause on that celebration.
Harmful and fearful rhetoric about the origins of COVID-19 have been directed towards the Asian community, leading to physical acts of anti-Asian hate.
“It’s heartbreaking, shocking,” Lee says. “It’s devastating. It makes you wonder why? You shouldn’t have to say, ‘Don’t perpetuate acts of violence … against Asian people.’ I’m afraid for my parents. I’m afraid for my kids. What’s going to happen to them? Basically, what’s being shown is that it’s open season.”
Rising Canadian star Ludi Lin took to the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery in late March as part of a rally speaking up against anti-Asian hate. He spoke about the contributions the Asian community has made to society as immigrants, but that they were being silenced.
“We need to keep talking, non-stop. We need talk tirelessly and act on it,” says the Mortal Kombat star.
Both Lin and Lee are continuing to use their voice and their platform as actors to break down stereotypes that feed into the hidden hate. And mainstream pop culture continues to course correct and distance itself from old Hollywood tropes.
Films like Minari starring The Walking Dead star Steven Yeun is getting Oscar recognition with Yeun becoming the first Asian American to be up for Best Actor. Marvel is also releasing its first superhero film lead by an Asian character, Shang-Chi, played by Canada’s Simu Liu.
“It feels very great to see such a gamut of different things succeeding, being seen, being represented,” Lin says. “I think it is an antidote to stereotypes.”
It’s a feeling echoed by Lee.
“I think what we’re all looking for is actual, measurable successes … so that we can set our community up to succeed. Grow as an industry, grow as a society, grow as a culture — so that all stories are told and that everybody has a place at the table.”