The other day I saw an article about to a on Facebook. The person who shared the link was enraged to say the least about Chung’s reaction. Chung later clarified her comments about the casting of a half-Asian star in the film when they refused to cast anyone not ethnically Chinese, but her reaction points to an interesting issue about Asian media representation.
Of course, being half Asian doesn’t make someone less Asian. In fact, if anything, it’s better to have the multiple examples of Asian identity in media. Having read the book version of Crazy Rich Asians and looked into the history of mixed race Chinese people in China and the surrounding areas in Asia, I will say that historically, mixed race Chinese aren’t seen as “Chinese” by non-mixed race Chinese. So on that front, considering the book is a satire on Chinese stereotypes, Chung may have a point. Chinese people, especially the older generation, tend to be racist. It’s not pretty, and I hate to say it, but it’s true. Just about every country has some form of racism in its past that still lingers to this day.
Also another point for Chung is that a lot of roles of Asian characters go to half white, half Asian actors (think Maggie Q, Daniel Henney, and even Bruce Lee), which is kind of Hollywood’s way of only halfway meeting expectations of diversity. Even more stars go under the radar about their Asian heritage because they pass for white. Although they shouldn’t be seen as any less Asian, some stars down play it in order to get roles.
Another point the angry Facebook user made was that Chung had no room to speak about Hollywood’s poor casting when she, a Korean-America, played Mulan on ABC’s Once Upon a Time. Chung is hardly the first to do so. Randall Park, a Korean-American actor, plays the head of a Taiwanese family in ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat. What sort of message does that convey when actors and actresses play a character who’s cultural/ethnic heritage differs than their own? Does it perpetuate that all Asians are the same? Is some sort of Asian representation better than none?
That’s some tricky territory, and I don’t think there’s a blanket response to that. In my opinion it depends on the actor who’s accepted the role. In Randall Park’s case, he’s acknowledged his reservations toward the role not just because he plays someone ethnically different than his own but also with an accent. At least he’s aware of some of the criticism. It’s just as much their responsibility to be critical of these nuances as it is the etoro casting directors’ and studios’. Some actors blissfully accept roles they have no business accepting just so they can get paid. (Side note, I fail to believe that Scarlett Johansson needed the pay day badly enough to accept a role of a Japanese anime character. She may not have been trying to play a person of a different race, but she certainly seamed okay with the decision to change the race of a character so she could play her and despite the backlash from fans of the original anime.)
The struggles of actors of color are real in Hollywood. Producers and studios don’t believe in the box office attraction of stars of color, but , the 8th film in a franchise with a significantly diverse cast just broke records in the box office, so I don’t buy that excuse at all. Instead of whitewashing everything, give the rest of America the opportunity to see a story from the perspective of a person of color because it really does add a different layer.
So where does that leave Asian American actors? Hollywood believes in them only to a certain extent. Oversees studios want stars like Matt Damon in their films although that film spectacularly failed. Are they left playing martial arts proficient side kicks and nerdy best friends? Certainly not with successful pioneers like Constance Wu and Priyanka Chopra in our corner. Hopefully one day soon, Hollywood will recognize the power of diversity and how it translates to the box office.