Asian Americans in Films: Why Are They Important?

Pamela Pan
Published in
6 min readSep 5, 2018

(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.

Pamela Pan

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