I have a hard time thinking of Asian actors. Honestly, off the top of my head, I can list Jackie Chan, Bruce Li, Aziz Ansari and George Takei. The latter two I had to really think about. As a special education teacher, during some work icebreaker last year, my boss asked us what actor we’re most similar to — when it came time for me to share, I just had to say “I don’t know — George Takei? There aren’t many Asian actors I can name off the top of my head.” We got into a heavy discussion on Asian-American representation in the media, and another Asian female teacher also said the same thing.
I covered a class of seniors last year for a math SAT prep class. I was a middle school teacher at the time, and one of the seniors said “hey! Jackie Chan!” Another called me Bruce Li. At the time I laughed it off and thought it was funny — other people might think differently but it really wasn’t too big of a deal to me. Throughout the year, kids would say “be careful around Mr. Fan, because he can karate kick you,” despite the fact that I don’t know any karate or any martial art. Now, I have more wisdom and experience as a teacher and while I process comments like that with humor, not everyone will, especially during a time of escalating anti-Asian hate, so it’s better to shut down comments like that than just letting them happen.
First of all, I love Jackie Chan. The Rush Hour series is still the funniest and personal childhood movie. I’ve seen it several times and will particularly stand by Rush Hour 2 as a personal favorite because of its setting and the particularly strong chemistry between Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. I’m also a sucker for comedy. Conversations around race between Asian and Black lead actors, in the movie, are navigated in a humorous light, whereas in this day and age they’re always very serious (and I’m not saying they shouldn’t be). Some might think the movie hasn’t aged well because some of the jokes play on cheap racial stereotypes.
However, in 2006, Ji Hoon Park, Nadine Gabbadon, and Ariel Chernin discussed how the movie actually produced positive reactions in the Journal of Communication. The authors found the movie did not produce “oppositional discourse” among Black and Asian respondents, and also found Black and Asian respondents found the movie “a positive source of pleasure.” Comedy, therefore, is an engine for naturalizing racial differences.
I am fascinated by the intricacies of Asian-Black relations, especially as an Asian teacher in schools that are almost 100% Black. Recently, according to Leila Fadel at NPR, a University of Southern California professor was under fire for using a Chinese word that sounds like the n-word, and wrote a letter of apology for doing so. He was removed from his communications course. In the Chinese language, this phrase, 那个 (na-ge), does sound a lot like the n-word, and I’ve been called out by my Black childhood friends when I spoke to my parents and used the word. To me, this is one of the most commonly used words in the Chinese language. It is equivalent to whenever we use “um” or “like” as filler words in English.
I did not know the solution for this situation — was this a case of antiracism gone too far? Or should Chinese people simply use a new word and excise it from the language? I read extensively about the situation, but I found much solace in comedy more than anything else — The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. The skit is absolutely hilarious — Trevor Noah invites his friend Ronnie Chieng to the show and asks if the word pops up frequently in Chinese.
“Well, I don’t know, because I don’t speak Chinese,” Chieng says. “No, why would you say that? What about me makes you think I speak Chinese?”
Trevor Noah’s face has a look that screams “oh shit, what have I done?” However, Ronnie Chieng was just messing with him — of course he speaks Chinese. I might pull that ruse on some of my friends in the near future as well. But I would recommend everyone watch the skit because, like Rush Hour, the segment is a master class in talking about race in a humorous way.
Regardless, I love Jackie Chan not only because he’s funny and a good actor, but he was the only Chinese actor I could name for a long time growing up. He was certainly the most high-profile one. Perhaps this is just a sign I need to watch more movies, but ask the average person how many Asian actors they know in popular culture. I am not representative of most Asians because I could only name a couple — but according to Naomi Gingold in The World, a lot of people have trouble naming Asian Hollywood stars.
Yes, I did love Crazy Rich Asians, but if I’m honest I still don’t know the names of any of the actors in the movie. They accomplished a phenomenal feat and made a great movie, but the thing with Jackie Chan is his universal recognizability in our culture. I think we are moving in the right direction for more Asian-American representation in film and media. I’m all for more representation of Asians in media that doesn’t perpetuate many mainstream American stereotypes.
However, where I might differ in my opinions is that I think restraint may hinder progress. We are much better having Rush Hour than not having it, and for all the criticism that Jackie Chan’s character enforces stereotypes, how I interpreted the movie growing up was actually a rejection of a stereotype of Asian males as people who just studied and were super serious all the time. Jackie Chan’s character showed me the value of humor and comedy, especially for someone who takes a lot of things too seriously.
According to Griffin Wiles at The State News (Michigan State University’s student newspaper), there is fear among some academics that Asian actors might fulfill roles of stereotypes like in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But that book was written in 1956 and the movie was in 1961.
I recently listened to an NPR podcast on the “Culture Wars And The Untold Story of Lyndie B. Hawkins,” hosted by Hidden Brain and Shankar Vedantam. It is a fascinating podcast, but it’s also very long. The TL;DR version of the podcast is the author of young adult novel, The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins, Gail Shepherd, originally wrote a Vietnamese-American protagonist with a white father and Vietnamese mother. The inspiration for the novel was her half Filipino and half white friend, and one character in the original draft was Native American. But then she started a lot of soul-searching in a time the publishing world was reckoning with its whiteness. In the words of Vedantam:
“Had she, a white woman, stepped over a line by making her central character an Asian American girl?”
She changed the race of the characters after receiving much soul-searching and receiving feedback, she changed the main character to a white Southern girl (like herself). The Native American character also became white. Avoiding the controversy and possible Twitter blowback of being a white author writing an Asian character.
To me, it’s a bit of a catch-22. While Shepherd could have done anything she wanted with her book, this, to me, was a lost opportunity for more Asian-American representation in literature, and what if The True History of Lyndie B. Hawkins was made into a movie? Wouldn’t it receive criticism for an all-white cast anyway? The implication here is that only an Asian-American author can authentically write about the experience of an Asian-American character, but there is no one universal Asian-American experience, not to mention the exclusion of another opportunity for Native American representation.
I don’t mean to disrespect Gail Shepherd’s memory — she died last year of a brain tumor. I keep the book right next to my bed and am looking forward to reading it. I like how the podcast doesn’t tell you how to think. “Is restraint the only solution?” is a very central question — are we only supposed to write what we know to “truly achieve authenticity and to reduce harmful stereotypes and inaccuracies”? Many people might disagree with me, but if we have any non-Asian writer or director scared to perpetuate stereotypes and scared to write an Asian character, then progress towards more representation will be more and more agonizingly slow. I would much rather have a white writer take the risk and get it wrong than not take the risk at all.
I’m not mad when people call me Jackie Chan. In these nuance-free times, I seek out Jackie Chan in Rush Hour, as well as the Trevor Noah and Ronnie Chieng skit, and see appropriate humor as a reprieve from hot button culture war topics. But I go back to Jackie Chan as one of the only recognizable Asian actors I could see as a child. The world is changing, and soon (or even now), Jackie Chan and Bruce Li will be joined on the list of universally recognizable Asian actors.
Originally published on Medium on May 30, 2021.