Asian Americans in Films: Why Are They Important?

Pamela Pan
Sep 5, 2018 · 6 min read
(Scene from Crazy Rich Asians. Image Credit:

My daughter, a UC Berkeley college student, has been following Crazy Rich Asians ever since she heard the news that Keven Kwan’s bestselling book would be made into a movie. She had read the book a few years ago and enjoyed it a lot.

She has also been watching and re-watching episodes from Fresh off the Boat. She relished funny lines from Jessica (Constance Wu), the main female character, especially the scene where Jessica explained why the family would never use the dishwasher, “Chinese people respect their dishes. That’s why they are called china.”

“I just hope they don’t cast a white woman as the female lead” was my first thought.

In the book, Rachel Chu is a Chinese American economics professor, who finds out her boyfriend Nick Young( Henry Goulding) is the scion of super rich family in Singapore.

My fears are grounded in reality. Hollywood possesses a long history of casting white actors in minority roles.

The Washington Post recently reported that “white guy Joseph Fiennes has been cast as African American icon Michael Jackson in a TV movie” and told readers not to be surprised. “Despite decades of protests over racially inappropriate casting and the recent protests over the lack of diversity among Oscar nominees, filmmakers continue to cast white actors as minority characters on a depressingly regular basis.”

Whitewashing of Asian characters is part of that routine. Luise Ranier won an academy award for being the Chinese farmer’s wife O-Lan in The Good Earth. Katheryn Hepburn played a Chinese woman, with her eyelids taped, in Dragon Seed.

Yul Brynner won accolades for being Thai King Mongkut in King and I. Scarlet Johansson played the Japanese woman Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell. Matt Damon starred in The Great Wall. Emma Stone played the half-Asian Hawaiian woman Alison Ng in Aloha.

(Hollywoods’ whitewashing of Asian Characters. Image Credit:

Asians or Asian Americans have not been allowed to tell our own stories.

Kevin Kwan said in an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross that prior to his work with the current producer, another film producer had approached him about making the film, with the condition that the female lead had to be white, despite the fact Rachels’ being Chinese is an important part of the plot. He and director Jon Chu rejected the suggestion and chose Constance Wu instead.

My daughter went to see the movie the first day it opened, August 15, 2018. From that day on, she also followed the interviews regarding the film by various TV programs, read all the movie reviews, tweets about it, and urged all her friends to go and see it.

She told me about the cast, writers, celebrities, or Asian Americans who bought out entire theatres for people to go and watch the film. She got impatient with critics who say this movie does not represent all Asians. “You don’t expect Antman to represent all white males, why would you expect Rachel to represent all Asian Women or Nick all Asian men?”

My daughter’s enthusiasm is an indication of the hunger of Asian Americans in this country.

The following tweets from Chinese American Kimberly Yam, a second generation Chinese American, explains the void this film helps to fill:

You’re 8 years old. Your 3rd grade class orders chinese food & your father delivers it. You are so excited to see your pops in school. He’s your hero. But apparently other kids don’t think he’s so cool. They laugh at him and mimic his accent. You don’t want to be Chinese anymore.

You’re 9 years old. You attend ballet camp. Someone tells you that another girl *hates* you. She thinks your eyes are an “ugly shape.” You don’t have the vocabulary to describe why that’s hurtful. But now, you hate your distinctly Asian face. You don’t want to be Chinese anymore.

You’re 17 years old. You’re off to college & you meet other Asians. They have pride that you never had. You meet a boy & he wonders why you don’t speak your family’s tongue. Why your favorite food is grilled cheese, not xiao long bao. You say your family doesn’t live that way . . .

You’re 25 years old. You see a movie with an all-asian cast at a screening and for some reason you’re crying and you can’t stop. You’ve never seen a cast like this in Hollywood. Everyone is beautiful. You’re so happy you’re Chinese.”

Reading Yam’s tweets and hearing my daughter talk about the film, I feel excited and sad at the same time.

Excited because of the film. Sad because throughout her life, long after the Chinese Exclusion Act, long after racism was prohibited by law, young Asian Americans like my children have hardly seen any positive Asian faces on the big screen or small screen, except the recent Fresh off the Boat.

It took tremendous uproar across the country in social media even for Disney to not cast a white man as a lead who would supposedly rescue the Chinese warrior Mulan in the film Mulan.

Come to think of it, I do not think there were any white men in China during 412–502 when Mulan was alive, let alone one who could rescue her, or that she needed rescuing.

Jon Chu said that when he was growing up in the Bay Area, he could not find any role models on the screen. All the superheroes were white. He hopes that when his infant daughter grows up, this is no longer the case.

Source: USC Annenberg School of Communication)

I hope so too, for my children, and their children.

I hope in the years to come, Asians will no longer be invisible.

I hope Asian heritage actors like Constance Wu will no longer need to go through years of struggle to find roles that are not there, that films portray Asians in various walks of life could be seen regularly, not once every twenty-five years — the last time a film with an Asian cast was shown in 1993, The Joy Luck Club.

In film, as in multicultural literature, a field I conducted much research in, some people scoff at the idea of representation. How can a character represent others? People’s lives are different.

For Crazy Rich Asians, there are plenty of grounds to reject the idea of representation. Not many Asians can reach that level of opulence and wealth. Not every bride has an evil mother-in-law. Not every Asian is from Singapore or has servants.

These are valid statements. But they miss the fact that one film can never represent all Asian or Asian American’s lives.

White audiences do not need to worry about representation because of white privilege, as Peggy McIntosh, a professor of women’s studies, described in her article “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack:”

· I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

· I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

· I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

· I can remain oblivious of the language and custom of persons of color who constitutes the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such oblivion.

Asian Americans do not enjoy such privileges.

We have to wait decades for a film that tells our stories, with authenticity in language and cultural details, that features people who look like us.

Does representation matter? It does, even when the characters do not represent our lives, at least they represent the culture, the language, and the heritage.

It will cease to matter when Asian leads are regular appearances, when stories about us are as diverse as in reality, when Asian characters can represent just themselves, like white characters.

The situation has to change. How? More minorities need to be in the decision-making chairs. More Asian Americans need to write their own stories.

More directors need to come from this group. Imagine a non-Asian director making Crazy Rich Asians. Many of the linguistic and cultural nuances and complexities will be either lost or wrong.

I look forward to a time when Asian Americans do not need to talk about representation in film, and we can routinely see our stories and faces on the screens.

Before that happens, we need to write more of our stories and make more of them into films or other media.

Instead of waiting for changes to come, we will make changes happen with our own voices and faces.

Pamela Pan

Written by

Pamela Pan, Ph.D.,Professor of Composition. In progress: A historical fiction based on grandparents’ WWII experience and an essay collection.


Make tomorrow better today.

Pamela Pan

Written by

Pamela Pan, Ph.D.,Professor of Composition. In progress: A historical fiction based on grandparents’ WWII experience and an essay collection.


Make tomorrow better today.

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