Non–East Asians neglected in Hollywood film portrayals

“Crazy Rich Asians,” the first Hollywood movie with an all-Asian cast in 25 years, was released this year. Around the same time, Netflix released an original film “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before,” featuring a Asian lead. Just this September, designer Claudia Li casted only Asian models for her New York Fashion Week show. For many Asian-Americans, these developments represent positive, albeit belated, achievements. Yet for others, this version of representation leaves much to be desired. A common theme among all of these displays of diversity is that they only showcase a small minority of those who identify as Asian: people from East Asia. The East Asian culture sphere refers to countries and regions within Asia that were historically influenced by Chinese culture, encompassing China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea and Vietnam—and these are the people that tend to be represented in American media as being “Asian.” These are the groups that are portrayed in American media and supposedly encompass over 40 ethnicities in Asia, but unfortunately, such representations completely miss out on West, South, Southeast and Central Asia.

“Crazy Rich Asians” is based on a 2013 novel by Kevin Kwan that explores the lives of Singapore’s megarich. As of Sept. 30, the film had made a worldwide gross profit of $218.9 million with a production budget of $30 million (Box Office Mojo, “Crazy Rich Asians,” 09.30.2018). Critics have praised the film not only for its diversity— particularly in Hollywood, where films have cast white people to play Asian roles (think Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell”)—but also for its entertaining glimpse into the lives of the one percent of the one percent.

However, some of the film’s audience disagrees with the high praise that it is receiving. For instance, journalist Cat Wang argued, “[W] hile critics and starstruck fans have hailed Crazy Rich Asians as a decisive victory for Asians everywhere, in reality, such an assessment is simplistic at its very best and destructive at its very worst” (The Guardian, “Where are the brown people?” 08.21.2018). This sentiment is particularly relevant in the context of Singapore, where Malaysians, Indians and other ethnic minorities make up a quarter of the population.

Furthermore, Singapore has a history of race riots and strict, race-based policies that enforced multiculturalism and the inclusion of the large range of ethnic groups in the country. However, many members of such minority groups still believe that casual racism in Singapore remains an issue. The overall concern surrounding Singapore’s 53-year independent identity, or lack thereof, which is characterized by mixed identities and cultures, only serves to demonstrate the many issues that come with a lack of representation (BBC, “Crazy Rich Asians: The film burdened with ‘crazy’ Asian expectations,” 08.18.2018).

Ultimately, Hollywood marketed the film as the ultimate example of Asian representation in modern cinema, it still leaves many ethnicities out of the spotlight, with all of its main characters of East Asian descent. Southeast Asians did feature in the film but only as maids, drivers and security guards, demonstrating that the film may not be the outstanding win for diversity that many Asian-Americans were hoping it would be. Despite the fact that the male lead for “Crazy Rich Asians was portrayed by Henry Golding, whose mother is from Malaysia’s Iban indigenous group, Golding was also playing an East Asian Chinese-Singaporean (The New York Times, “For Some Viewers, ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Is Not Asian Enough,” 08.16.2018). It is unfortunate that a film that could have portrayed Asian-Americans to be more than the stereotypes of what Hollywood has reduced them to would demonstrate such a narrow scope of what it means to be Asian.

Some may question whether a film should be subject to such high expectations for diversity, but it does seem that, if a film is to market itself as a “win” for Asian and Asian-American representation, then it should attempt to include more ethnicities in lead roles. However, other critics agree that “Crazy Rich Asians” has succeeded in representing Asian-Americans, claiming that such criticisms for a lack of diversity are a double standard. Asian-American writer Jiayang Fan questioned, “What does it mean that “Crazy Rich Asians” must accommodate simultaneous, conflicting demands…when other movies, starring white leads, are asked only to tell a single story convincingly?” (The New Yorker, “How to Watch “Crazy Rich Asians” Like an Asian-American,” 08.13.2018).

“Crazy Rich Asians” is definitely a step in the right direction for Asian and Asian-American representation in Hollywood, but it is clear that there is still a long way to go before there is true diversity in mainstream media. The fact that East Asians are seen as representative of the entirety of the 40+ Asian-American ethnicities is more than just a Hollywood problem. This disparity between different Asian-American ethnicities can be traced back to the Yellow Power Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, a movement essential to Asian-Americans’ fight for civil rights. Such a campaign was necessary to correct the belief of the time that Asian immigrants posed a threat to Western civilization, and historical events such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment camps and the Vietnam War only served to add to the series of abuses many Asian-Americans were subjected to in U.S. society (Michael Liu, Kim Geron and Tracy Lai, “The Snake Dance of Asian-American Activism,” 2008).

But not all Asian-Americans felt represented by such a movement, hence the divide between East Asians and the rest of Asia. The “Brown Asian Movement” was initiated in response to the fact that other Asian ethnicities remain forgotten, marginalized and underrepresented in the popular understanding of what it means to be Asian-American (NPR, “Can East Asians Call Themselves ‘Brown’?” 11.16.2017).

E.J.R. David, a Filipino-American professor at the University of Alaska who studies the effects of colonialism on mental health, as well as authoring “Brown Skin, White Minds,” a book discussing the psychological experiences of Filipino-Americans, says that when people talk about Asians, they are almost exclusively referring to people of Chinese, Japanese or Korean descent. But currently, only half of Asian-Americans comprise those groups. Furthermore, East Asians and people of other Asian ethnicities tend to have distinct income levels, access to health and education resources, immigration histories and refugee status. As such, whilst there may be some similarities between and even similar discrimination faced by East Asians and people of other Asian ethnicities, David claims that the term “brown Asians” (Asians who are not East Asian) is supposed to represent those who have felt invisible, even within a group that is supposed to represent them (NPR).

Perhaps it is overly cynical to criticise a fluffy romantic comedy for not representing a more diverse view of Asia when it is taking steps to increase diversity of racial representation in mainstream film. Many would suggest to just enjoy the movie for what it is—an entertaining love story. Yet, it is important to recognize that Hollywood, and the rest of the world, has a long way to go before Asians can be fully represented in mainstream media.

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