Last spring, I visited the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. for the first time. As I wandered through endless halls decorated with white faces, I stumbled into a smaller wing when one of the portraits caught my eye.
It was a black and white photograph of a handsome Asian man dressed in a suit, slightly peering away from the camera. His eyebrows were thick, his black hair was neatly slicked back, and his smile perfectly accentuated his jaw line. The label beneath the portrait read, “This photograph of Sessue Hayakawa captures the good looks and glamor of Hollywood’s first male sex symbol.” I was surprised. Hollywood’s first male sex symbol? What about Paul Newman or James Dean?
Upon further research, I learned that Hayakawa, a Japanese actor, was not just one of the first Asian Hollywood stars, but one of the first Asian leading men during the 1910s and 1920s silent film era. He often portrayed the sexy love interest opposite white actresses, and there were some who even protested his films because they couldn’t stand the fact that an Asian man was the romantic lead. As I stared at Hayakawa’s face in the middle of the museum, it felt like staring into a glass mirror that had just been polished. Rarely had I seen Asian men described as sexy, and the fact that a century after Hayakawa’s success Asian men were being portrayed in a completely opposite manner bewildered me.
One of my first sexual awakenings was seeing Paolo Montalbán, who is Filpino American, play Prince Charming opposite Brandy in Cinderella (1997). As a little gay Asian boy, I recall seeing Montalbán’s perfectly chiseled abs on the screen and feeling some type of way. Maybe it was his abs or the fact that he was Asian, but either way, I didn’t realize at the time that seeing an Asian man portrayed as a sexy romantic lead would be a rare sight.
I recently had the privilege of attending a prescreening of Crazy Rich Asians (2018), directed by Jon M. Chu, starring Henry Golding and Constance Wu. Based on the book of the same name by Kevin Kwan, it follows the story of Rachel Chu, a Chinese American professor from New York City, as she visits her boyfriend’s family in Singapore and learns how rich they actually are. The upcoming film, which comes out August 15, is revolutionary for many reasons, but mainly because it’s the first Hollywood studio film with an Asian American cast as the leads in twenty-five years since The Joy Luck Club (1993). I went into the theater with high hopes that the film would live up to its hype, which it exceeded, but I left with something else on my mind: How do we elevate Asian male desirability without reinforcing hegemonic masculinity?
From Henry Golding, Chris Pang, to Pierre Png, Crazy Rich Asians’ leading men were depicted in a way that I hadn’t seen since Montalbán in Cinderella. After decades of Long Duk Dong, Mr. Chow, and Fu Manchu, it was a breath of fresh air to finally see Asian men on the big screen portraying love interests detached from structural racist stereotypes. Has the absence of Asian masculinity in Hollywood finally been restored with this film, or does it suggest that we must find new ways to redefine what Asian masculinity is? Perhaps the best way to discuss the emasculation of Asian men isn’t to elevate masculinity, but to talk about desirability.
Masculinity reinforces a gender binary and perpetuates the notion that the feminine qualities historically associated with Asian men are a negative thing. These feminine traits aren’t the issue. The first part of the issue is that the racial castration of Asian men is inherently racist and misogynistic in order to uphold white supremacy. The second part of the issue is that Asian men are so rarely perceived as masculine that hyper-masculinization seems like the only solution in combatting racial castration. We must detach our biases from hegemonic masculinity in order to seek out other ways of legitimating the sexuality and desirability of Asian men instead of trying to fit ourselves into the current racial and gender binaries.
While talking about the portrayal of Asian masculinity and desirability in Crazy Rich Asians, it is important to note that the focus leans toward East Asians. Colorism among different Asian groups is another bias that needs to be interrogated in discussions within our Asian communities, but for the sake of the film I will be primarily focusing on East Asian men. When discussing Asian masculinity, we should recognize how the repercussions of sexual racism and racial castration bleed into the ways in which Asian men perpetuate sexism and toxic masculinity — just because we have an experience of being othered does not mean we’re exempt from our own problematic behaviors within and outside our groups.
Racial castration is the act of emasculating and desexualizing a group of men based on their race in order to oppress them. It is racist because it aims to push a racial group into the realms of otherness so that they are powerless in society. Additionally, it is misogynistic because it implies that a man must possess masculine traits in order to be viewed as human, as well as the idea that femininity is undesirable (unless you’re an Asian woman, then you get fetishized for your femininity). The racial castration of Asian men can be traced back to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States.
Before its repeal in 1943, most of the Chinese immigrants were men who originally came to work on the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. They occupied cities on the West Coast like San Francisco in bachelor enclaves due to the lack of other Chinese women. Westerners viewed them as sexually deficient deviants with racist illustrations in newspapers and media propaganda. The cultivation theory suggests that the more someone is exposed to stereotypes in media, the more likely they are to believe it as social reality. This eventually led to the emasculation and desexualization of Asian men, which is still very pervasive today.
One group of Asian immigrants who were able to escape these stereotypes were Filipino men who worked as laborers in the fields of California during the 1920s and 1930s. Using their hard earned cash, the manongs, as they were referred to, dressed up in suits and ended their long work days at taxi dance halls. Resisting racist laws, the manongs swooned white women with their suave dance moves and good looks. Although these taxi dance halls had their own problems with sexism and were often viewed as brothels, they were a space for Filipino men to subvert racist and stereotypical tropes ascribed to Asian men living in the United States. White men grew resentful that white women were coupling up with Filipino men at the dance halls and would often raid them, dragging and beating Filipino men in the streets.
What’s interesting is that both groups of Chinese and Filipino male laborers occupied the West Coast during the same time, yet their masculinity and sexuality were perceived in different ways. On one end, Chinese men were asexual beings often portrayed as queer and feminine caricatures. On the other end, Filipino men were sexual threats to white men. Perhaps one reason as to why there was such a stark contrast between both Asian groups is that Filipino men were mimicking white men as a dissident strategy by dressing up in suits and westernizing their looks. Hegemonic masculinity, coined by R.W. Connell, suggests that white men occupy the highest and most ideal tier of masculinity. Because white men are at the top of this totem pole, they get to dictate what conventional beauty and masculinity looks like. By dressing similarly to white men, Filipino men were able to assert themselves into hegemonic masculinity and avoid the racial castration that Chinese men experienced.
Much of the buzz around Crazy Rich Asians, aside from Constance Wu being a literal goddess, has to do with Henry Golding. A newcomer to Hollywood, Golding has gained a lot of attention so far for his attractive looks. I’m not going to lie, every time there was a close-up shot of him looking toward the camera I had to physically lift my jaw back up. Golding, who is half Malaysian and half British, stirred some controversy when it was announced that he had been cast as the Singaporean lead in the film.
Actress Jamie Chung spoke out against his casting by calling it “bullshit” and hinting that Golding was not “Asian enough” to play the role. The erasure of multiracial identities and gatekeeping of who is considered Asian enough are important issues that need to be discussed more, but when it comes to the casting of Golding’s character they are regressive. The more important question to ask is how Golding’s half British descent may contribute to his conventional attractiveness as an Asian man. Is the reason why Golding is causing a lot of buzz due to the fact that it’s so rare for Americans to see Asian men as romantic leads? Maybe we are so conditioned to never view Asian men as attractive that when someone like Golding is thrust into the public eye, it’s as if Columbus thought he had just discovered the beauty of the Americas when it’s actually been there all along and ignored. Whatever conclusion one may come to, Golding’s whiteness does not make him any less Asian, but it does affect how his desirability is perceived by the general public.
In the upcoming film, Golding plays the romantic lead, Nick Young. Nick’s family is unimaginably rich from investment properties, and therefore he is in line to inherit his family’s wealth. When Nick brings Rachel to Singapore to meet his family, she quickly learns that Nick is Singapore’s version of a royal prince. Everywhere they go, women hurl themselves at his direction. They are jealous and confused as to how someone of Nick’s class could fall for a commoner and foreigner like Rachel. Sure, the camera shots of Singapore’s conspicuous skyline and the extravagant fashions in the film were all very pleasing to the eye, but it was clear Chu was very intentional in his direction to include enough gratuitous shots of Asian men to make up for the lack of it in Hollywood. To portray Asian men as desirable like the way Crazy Rich Asians does is almost unheard of in Hollywood.
Asian males often take on the sidekick or comic relief tropes. There is no crowd of people fighting for their attention and love. Instead, people are almost always laughing at jokes about their racial identity or small penises. Seeing a character like Nick walk through the streets of Singapore with hordes of women vying for his attention paints a picture of an Asian masculinity that is rarely seen in mainstream media. However, if Golding did not possess these masculine and heterosexual traits often associated with hegemonic masculinity, would he still be considered desirable? My guess would be no.
Being the butt of small penis jokes is a norm for Asian men, and this racial castration has led to hegemonic bargaining. In a 2008 study on gender strategies conducted by Kumiko Nemoto, a sociology professor at Kyoto University, she found that Chinese American men felt the need to elevate other parts of their masculinity in order to make up for racial castration. Excelling in athletics, being assertive, and taking on “frat-boy-like behaviors” were ways to negotiate masculinity. These attributes are part of hegemonic masculinity, and therefore Asian American men participate in the performance of gender, as Judith Butler would put it, in order to make up for the parts in which they lack.
The men in Crazy Rich Asians perform what would be considered hegemonic masculinity, but they do not come across as trying to assert their Asian-ness into a white hegemonic structure for a few reasons. First, it’s an all Asian cast, and the only white people you see are faded into the background. Second, the film takes place in Singapore, which consists of mostly Chinese, Malays, and Indians. The closest relation the Asian characters in the film have with whiteness is with Rachel’s Chinese American identity, but even that focuses more on her experience of being culturally American and less on whiteness. Without whiteness, the Asian men in the film aren’t put in a position where they must compete against white standards of conventional beauty and masculinity. As viewers, we also don’t have white men to place the Asian men in relation to.
Crazy Rich Asians has shown that Asian male desirability is able to exist when there isn’t whiteness to compare it to. I would like to suggest that it’s not just whiteness that we must decolonize from our minds, but the gender binary as well. The only Asian men in the film who are sexualized are all straight, but not all straight men are sexualized.
Ken Jeong plays the hilarious Wye Mun, who is the father of Rachel’s best friend Peik Lin, played by Awkwafina. Jeong’s sense of humor and care-free mannerisms permeate throughout all of his scenes, yet his character feels like a familiar Asian comic relief trope that we’re all too used to seeing. Nico Santos plays Oliver, Nick’s sassy and fashionable gay cousin. Yet again, Santos’ character is perceived as the black sheep of the family because of his feminine traits.
One of the running jokes in the film is that Peik Lin’s family is trying to hook her younger brother Peik Tin up with Rachel. He is shy, awkward, and looks like he hasn’t left his bedroom in days because he’s too busy playing Fortnite. Rachel kindly rejects this William Hung carbon copy, but to me, the rejection evoked a familiar feeling of being told by other Asian people that they were “not into Asians.”
It is important to stress that the feminine and awkward characteristics in some of these male characters are not the issue. Crazy Rich Asians’ ensemble of men create an unspoken gender binary that places comic relief characters like Wye Mun and Oliver on one end, and Nick on the other. The latter end is the one that gets celebrated for their desirability and hegemonic masculine traits. It is possible for Asian men to be queer, feminine, funny, have an accent, and be considered desirable. Do I have a concrete answer on how representation can work toward embracing these complexities in identity? No, but writing more dynamic and non-stereotypical Asian characters may be a good first step into the right direction.
As mainstream American media catches on to the idea that Asian male desirability needs to be celebrated more, media sites such as BuzzFeed are publishing listicles of hot Asian men that everyone should pay attention to. While well-intentioned, these pieces reinforce the notion that Asian men are only attractive if they have abs, facial hair, and hegemonic masculine traits. By solely celebrating conventionally attractive masculine Asian men, we are ultimately recycling the very same systems of oppression that marginalize us. Furthermore, we must be careful with how we talk about the stereotypes associated with Asian men without shaming femininity. We can criticize how being perceived as docile and asexual hurt us socially without giving these traits a negative connotation. Doing so leads to the erasure of femme, queer, non-binary, and gender non-conforming Asian identities.
Asian male characters are the least likely to be in romantic relationships in Hollywood films compared to other racial groups. While watching Crazy Rich Asians, I had such a weird visceral feeling when I saw a shirtless Pierre Png toweling himself dry in the shower, or Golding and Wu making out in bed together.
Had these characters been white, I wouldn’t have thought much of it, but the fact that Asian people were given sex lives on the big screen was something I had never seen before. Fetishizing Asian characters, specifically women, is different than portraying them as normal human beings with sex lives, and Crazy Rich Asians succeeds in the doing the latter. To fetishize is to discount for the complexities in one’s identity by hyper-sexualizing them. Dragon Lady and Madame Butterfly tropes exist to serve the white male gaze. Portraying Asian characters as people with sex lives doesn’t place sexuality at the forefront of their existence. Even though the men in the film were sexualized the most, it isn’t considered fetishization of Asian men because it isn’t catering to a white gaze.
Crazy Rich Asians isn’t a perfect portrayal that encompasses all types of Asian men. The characters of Wye Mun, Oliver, and Peik Ting still recycle tropes that we’ve seen Asian men portray for many years to serve as comic relief, but that does not discredit the film’s efforts of painting Asian men in a light that Hollywood has rarely seen before. Although not perfect, the film has done more for Asian male desirability than any other studio film in Hollywood has ever attempted to do. Much like how the film itself isn’t perfect representation for all types of Asians, it is still a revolutionary stepping stone. If we expect art from underrepresented groups to be flawless right off the bat, then we are holding it to the same standards as white art without acknowledging the advantages and privileges white creators have had for many years.
As an Asian American man, wanting to be viewed as desirable is not based in superficiality, but an urge to abolish structural racism that disguises itself in desirability and sexuality politics. In order to create more media portrayals of authentic Asian male characters who aren’t racially castrated, we must eradicate the gender and racial binaries that seek to place Asian men in comparison to hegemonic masculinity. If anything, my hope is that Crazy Rich Asians will be at the forefront of creating more Sessue Hayakawas for the generations to come by normalizing all types of Asian male beauty. Hopefully one day a little Asian boy will stumble upon the portrait of Hayakawa in the National Portrait Gallery and not feel shocked to see the word “sexy” describing someone who looks like him.