Asian Representation in Hollywood

While many have named Jon Chu’s adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s book Crazy Rich Asians the pioneer full-cast Asian-American movie marking a historical change in ethnic representation, Hollywood’s first full-cast Asian-American movie was actually made more than two decades ago. The Joy Luck Club, directed by Amy Tan in 1993, held the position of first Asian-American movie for 25 years. Following the movie’s release, viewers had high hopes for Asian representation in Hollywood. The Joy Luck Club was held as an exception to Hollywood’s typical cast and remained alone in its category until the last two years.

Last year, there was more Asian-American representation in films than ever before, starting in June with Pixar’s 8-minute feature film Bao, which played in theaters before Incredibles 2 and portrayed cultural differences between a Chinese immigrant mother and her first-generation son. In Aug., three movies with Asian-American leads were released: the novel adaptation Crazy Rich Asians starring a full-Asian cast, Netflix original To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before starring Lana Candor, and Searching starring John Cho. As a result, the hashtag “#AsianAugust” began to gain popularity on the internet. This May, Netflix released the original Always Be My Maybe starring Randall Park and Ali Wong, and A24 limited-released The Farewell starring Awkwafina.

Several factors influenced the 25-year gap between the release of The Joy Luck Club and Crazy Rich Asians. Following the release of The Joy Luck Club, director Wayne Wang faced difficulties pitching Asian-American film ideas to studios and casting Asian actors in other movies. Though Wang’s efforts for The Joy Luck Club led to lead actor Ming-Na Wen later landing the lead role in Disney’s animated film Mulan, it was still difficult for Asian-American actors to land roles that were not specifically written as an Asian role.
“I work in an industry that really has no regard for my voice and the voice of people like me and so, what do I do? Keep knocking on that door or build your own house?” Constance Wu tweeted, quoting Ava DuVernay two weeks prior to the release of Crazy Rich Asians, which she starred in.

During the casting of Crazy Rich Asians, director Jon Chu faced challenges in the proper portrayal of identity: whether or not a Malaysian can play a Singaporean, an Asian an Asian-American, or if a parent has to be of the same ethnic background as the child. In addition, with a limited number of Asian-American actors to pull from, Chu’s casting soon turned international, and he had to be careful of casting actors with different English accents.

While Asian-Americans slowly turned the tide in Hollywood, they were also beginning to become more represented in media last year. In the 2018 Winter Olympics, Chloe Kim became the youngest woman to win the Olympic snowboarding metal, Mirai Nagasu became the first woman to land triple axels in figure skating, and the Shibutani siblings became the first sibling ice dancers to earn a medal in the Olympics.

Starting in Sept. of last year, the popular Facebook group “Subtle Asian Traits”, founded by a group of high-school seniors from the Melbourne area in Australia, went viral. The group references cultural pressures that many immigrant children face, and started with a group of students sharing jokes about their bitter obligation to attend Mandarin classes every weekend while their friends got to sleep in. “Subtle Asian Traits” now holds 1.4 million members and has countless sub-groups such as “Subtle Asian Dating” and “Subtle Curry Traits.”

While it is uncertain that the plethora of Asian-American led films will continue or be added to the slow but ever-growing collection, Wu believes this is just the beginning. “My dear Asian-American friends, we are building our own damn houses. We got the tools, the ability and we definitely got the style. Just because others don’t see it, doesn’t mean we don’t have it. We do. I’ve seen it,” tweeted Wu in 2018.