The Meaning of Cultural Heritage in the Context of Asian Pacific American History Month from the POV of Constance Wu

SASEPrints
May 29, 2018 · 5 min read

By Jonathan Ho Wu and Simon Escapa Otani

Photo credit from CAPE’s #IAm Constance Wu Story

When we think of well-established actors, we think of people like George Clooney, Will Smith, Sofia Vergara, Leonardo DiCaprio, Denzel Washington, Benicio del Toro… As culturally diverse this line-up might seem like, we are still missing a very large ethnic group : about 5.6% of the United State’s population, Asian-American. [1] When we think of Asian-American actors, can one easily name someone other than Bruce Lee or George Takei? Difficult… isn’t it?

While the population of Asian-Americans is steadily growing, the bias towards Asian-American actors doesn’t seem to stop. [2] Asian-American representation has been lacking in an industry filled with whitewashing accusation. Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, or Emma Stone in Aloha. Although all of them are brilliant actors, those were lost opportunities to cast an Asian-American actor for a lead role, and as of today the bias continues. Many actors are fighting through their impeccable screenplay, showing that Asian-American actors can also have a lead role in a movie blockbuster. One of them is Constance Wu, who is leading the charge for changes and has been a vocal critic of whitewashing in the Hollywood industry.

Constance Wu is a Taiwanese-American actress, who grew up in Richmond, Virginia. She has played a plethora of supporting roles in numerous movies and films. She is best known for playing the role of a tiger mother, Jessica Huang, on Fresh Off the Boat and for starring in the upcoming movie Crazy Rich Asians.

What was the media like when Constance Wu first started her acting career?

In the past, media casting was more concerned about hiring diversity just to be “politically correct” and not so much because there was a real interest in portraying what made them unique. A lot of Asian media representation has been about neutralizing the definition of what an Asian/Asian-American entails. Wu’s acting trajectory has broken ethnic barriers faced by Asian Americans in Hollywood by portraying the Asian American experience in addition to helping to diversify Hollywood’s casting.

For a very long-time, white characters were constantly portrayed as the saviors/victors, while Asian characters were always seen seeking the help from their Western counterparts. This prompted many Asian-Americans to ignore the importance and relevance of their cultural heritage. In acting, this caused the actors to disconnect with the audience who share a similar background. Constance Wu believed that being an Asian-American was an advantage that she could employ during her acting career that could reconnect Hollywood with an Asian-American and Asian audience.

“The fact that Asian-Americans never get the center of the the narratives means that their parts will never get to be as whole and flushed out and might be a little bit one-dimensional, which is where the danger with stereotypes comes in […]When you center on Asian-American’s perspective, you get to see all facets of life: the parts that are influenced by an Asian and the parts that are just human, and normal that everybody thinks about.” [3]

Additionally, the actress believes that most Americans fail to understand the difference between the Asian experience and the Asian-American experience. Saying that Asian descent equates Asian-American descent is comparable to saying that someone from Catalan descent would share the same values as someone from Spain. You cannot make that link simply because they are from the same country/region. At the same time, Asian-Americans and Asians do not necessarily share the same cultural values.

“I think often they lump the two together and that when I talk about Asian-American narrative that they can cite ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ or ‘Mulan’ as proof of concept, when it’s a different experience. We are told we should be placated by those stories, even though they aren’t our stories.” [4]

Despite knowing very well the difficulty of becoming an Asian-American actress, she still continued pursuing her dream of becoming a well-known actress. She has fought hard against biases of the industry, and through hard work, dedication, and sacrifice, she has able to become an important voice for Asian-Americans.

“There was a spotlight on issues of Asian representation that I definitely knew were important but I didn’t have the luxury to sort of think about them because my acting career had been about surviving and paying bills. It’s sometimes overlooked. The more dialogue we can have about, the more progress can happen.” [5]

The progress has been slow, “It’s taken a long time to have Asian representation in media, and especially on network TV (20 years).” But things are changing and progress is happening; and people like Constance Wu are helping pave the way for Asian-Americans actors in the entertainment industry. Wu believes that the audiences nowadays are finding diversity and inclusion to be increasingly important, and the entertainment industry is finally catching up to what constitutes real diversity — not just casting a person of color just to fulfill a social quota. That’s why Fresh Off the Boat is so special to her:

“It is a different perspective because it’s celebrating our differences […]. We’re cool in our own way.” [6]

References

[1] “Asia Matters for America by the East-West Center.” ASEAN’s Infrastructure Investment Needs | Asia Matters for America by the East-West Center. Accessed May 21, 2018. http://www.asiamattersforamerica.org/asia/data/population/states.

[2] James, Meg, and David Ng. “In Hollywood, Asian American Actors See Few Lead Roles, and Pay Discrepancies When They Land One.” Los Angeles Times. July 08, 2017. Accessed May 21, 2018. https://www.latimes.com/business/hollywood/la-fi-ct-hawaii-five-0-asian-actors-20170708-story.html.

[3] #IAm Constance Wu Story. Directed by CAPE. Performed by Constance Wu. YouTube. May 7, 2015. Accessed May 21, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G4eNDPImQmw.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

SASEprints

The official blog of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers

SASEPrints

Written by

The official blog of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers. Visit us at saseconnect.org or the blog at medium.com/saseprints.

SASEprints

The official blog of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade