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Film and Asian Americans

Film and Asian Americans







Cinema representations of Asians and Asian Americans are rooted in the history of Euro-American colonial occupation and military struggles with China, the Philippines, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Euro-American, or “white,”racial identity was used as a form of ideological control that helped to sustain the political subordination of colonial subjects. Asian Americans are the heirs of these images, which take on additional colorations when extended to the U.S. setting, because of the supposed competitive threat Asian Americans pose to white power and native-born nonwhites, African Americans in particular. Further, Asians and Asian Americans often function as totems that help forge and maintain white racial identity. Michael Rogin (1998) has observed that the immigrant Jews (and Greeks) who commercialized the movie industry staked their claim to white racial membership by producing films that reinforced the social subordination of native peoples, Latinos, Blacks, and Asian Americans.


The stock characterizations of Asians and Asian Americans (predominantly Chinese) found in early cinema are a legacy of a vital and robust vaudeville tradition, through which ideas on race-power, ethnic politics, and white racial nationalism were articulated on stage. Through music, song, and dance, vaudeville served as a key institution in the formation of white racial identity among midto late nineteenth-century European immigrant groups such as the Irish, who won white racial privilege by lampooning Negroes and Orientals, especially the Chinese (Roediger 1999). By the 1880s, leading into the age of cinema, Chinese and Chinese Americans had been racialized in vaudeville performance in a manner that clearly marked them as socially subordinate to white people of all social classes (Moon 2005).

The exterminationist military campaigns against Native Americans, known as the “Indian Wars”; the holocaust of African slavery; the annexation of what was once northern Mexico in 1848; and the exploitation and subsequent ban in 1882 on Chinese “coolie”labor all occurred before the commercial motion picture began to take form during the last decade of the nineteenth century. It is no coincidence that Edison kinetoscopes dating from the mid- to late-1890s featured Indian performers in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, the black male dancers of Lucy Daly’s Pickaninnies, knife-dueling and lasso-throwing Mexicans, and genre scenes of Chinese laun-dries (Musser 1991). Whether immigrant, native-born working class, or bourgeois, the diverse white audience could share equally in celebrating the consolidation of the U.S. racial republic via the moving image.


In the same way that the nascent art of early motion pictures assisted in the ideological strengthening of white privilege and power, the industry was put to the service of the state by glorifying the bloody military campaigns of early

imperial America. Victorious in the Spanish-American War (1898), the United States ceded the Philippines by the tottering empire that had once controlled much of the New World. When Filipino nationalists during the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) resisted the colonial ambitions of the United States, the Kinetograph Department of the Edison Manufacturing Company helped feed American jingoist fervor by staging re-enactments of military clashes between the contending armies, offering such titles as Advance of Kansas Volunteers at Caloocan (1899) and Filipinos Retreat from Trenches (1899). Thus began one hundred years of documentary and narrative race-war movies pitting the United States against the Asian enemy of the moment. Anti-Asian American racism within the U.S. homeland, simmering since the mid-nineteenth century, could rapidly be brought to a boil against foreign enemies during times of war. It was through the Philippine-American War that the term gook entered the American lexicon, courtesy of U.S. military personnel who used the epithet to disparage the natives. The “mere gook rule,”whereby the life of an Asian was worth substantially less than that of a white American, was subsequently applied to a succession of militarist movies, including countless World War II patriotic epics, Korean War action films such as Fixed Bayonets (1951) and Pork Chop Hill (1957), and post–Vietnam War victory fantasies such as Missing in Action (1984) and Rambo: First Blood, Part II (1985) (Hamamoto 1994).

At the midpoint of the Vietnam War, films such as 55 Days at Peking (1963) and The Sand Pebbles (1966)—both set in China as it was being carved up by the Western imperial powers—gave dramatic legitimacy to the history of U.S. military intervention in Asia. Only during the latter stages of the Vietnam War did select movies begin to diverge from the propagandistic function of earlier features such as John Wayne’s celebratory The Green Berets (1968). Although set in the Korean War, M*A*S*H (1970) stood as a perversely comedic gloss on the U.S. military presence in Vietnam. Despite the liberal humanism conveyed in antiwar narrative films, they persisted in placing white Americans in the foreground while relegating Asians to roles that functioned primarily as local color. Although overtly antimilitarist in its burlesque of the Vietnam War, even Full Metal Jacket (1987) failed to rise above predictable scenes such as that featuring an exchange between a Vietnamese streetwalker (“Me so horny. Me love you long time.”) and two white servicemen. As an American colonel expresses it in this classic Stanley Kubrick film, “We are here to help the Vietnamese, because inside every gook, there is an American trying to get out.”

In the cinema of empire, Asian racial identity serves only a totemic function for the white American protagonist struggling to think through existential dilemmas. The bedrock reality of white-dominant race-power, however, goes unquestioned even in seemingly “progressive”antiwar movies such as The Killing Fields (1984), based on the real-life experiences of the American journalist Sydney Shanberg and the Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran.


During the post-Vietnam War period, the historically rooted battle against Asians moved from jungle warfare to open competition in the economic arena. East Asian nations such as Japan and South Korea benefited from the erosion of U.S. economic dominance, which was partly due to the enormous fiscal resources expended in maintaining its global military presence. As crises began to mount among an American public being squeezed by mass job loss attended by fundamental economic restructuring, Asians and Asian Americans once more were put into service as racial scapegoats by the corporate movie-making industry. In Rising Sun (1993)—adapted from the best-seller by Michael Crichton—police detective Capt. John Connor (Sean Connery) teamed with Lt. Web Smith (Wesley Snipes) to unravel a murder mystery involving a Japanese corporation. The film is noteworthy for its enlisting of African Americans by the white power structure to fight a common Asian enemy.

The social drama Falling Down (1993) captured the mounting anxieties of the violently reactionary “angry white male”in the character of William “D-Fens”Foster (Michael Douglas). An early scene has D-Fens brutalizing a Korean American shopkeeper whom he berates for speaking nonstandard English in “his”country. He angrily asks, “You have any idea how much money my country has given your country?”before trashing the store with a sawed-off baseball bat.


Through the 1990s and into the early years of the 2000s, the further contraction of the U.S. economy, the massive export of jobs overseas, record levels of immigration, and the economic challenge represented by East Asian nations led to an intensification of racial conflict. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989), anticipating the Los Angeles Riot of 1991, dramatized the tensions that had developed among blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans during the post–civil rights era, as each group contended for diminishing economic resources. Predating the Spike Lee film by several years, the futuristic Blade Runner (1982) offered the spectacle of Latinos, Asians, and Blacks slithering among each other in a dark, dystopian vision of the future.

Through the 1990s, African Americans were deployed more directly against Asians and Asian Americans. In Lethal Weapon 4 (1998), blacks, white ethnics, and a white feminist are aligned with white power (as personified by Mel Gibson) against the yellow enemy, personified by the character Wah Sing Ku (played by respected Wushu master and international film star Jet Li). In The Art of War (2000), Neil Shaw (Wesley Snipes) is an operative with a covert diplomacy program sponsored unofficially by the United Nations. Here, a black man, wielding appropriated martial arts skills, vanquishes a slew of Asian villains and ends up with the prized yellow woman (Julia Fang, played by Marie Matiko) thus recapitulating the history of African Americans being recruited by white power to fight the Asian enemy.

Rush Hour (1998) featured Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in a yellow-black buddy film, while Romeo Must Die (2000) paired Jet Li with the pop singer Aaliyah. The conflicts driving these movies were rooted in tense interracial relations caused by jobs lost to low-wage Asian nations and the perceived threat posed by the rapid rise in Asian immigration to the United States. The comedy Next Friday (2000) offered a parable of post–Los Angeles Riot race relations, bringing together a troublesome Latino household, a Korean-American woman, and an African-American family, all of whom have fled the central city for the relative security of the suburban cul-de-sac they share.


The recruitment by Hollywood of successful Asian directors such as John Woo might appear to present opportunities for bringing about more equitable representations of Asian Americans in cinema. Such hopes are misplaced, however, because the net effect of U.S.-based companies in hiring foreign-born directors has been to stave-off competition from overseas film production, while also raising the quality of domestic product through the innovations of artists such as Woo (Miller et al. 2005). In any case, Woo himself seems content to put his stylistic imprint on conventional U.S. action movies featuring white actors (Fang 2004). The Taiwan-born director Ang Lee fared well in documenting the rich lives of trans-national Asian Americans in his earlier films, such as Pushing Hands (1992) and The Wedding Banquet (1993). But once having established his credentials, Lee was enlisted to direct a succession of films with the white world as their focus. Even the glorious wuxia pastiche Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) was primarily intended for a non-Asian mainstream audience. Lee’s winning of the Academy Award for Best Director in 2006 for Brokeback Mountain (2005) caps his passage into the white cinema establishment.

Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), directed by Justin Lin, features an all–Asian American cast and explores dark themes that go far beyond those of most of the other narrative films coming out of the vital Asian-American independent media movement that began during the late 1960s (Hamamoto and Liu 2000). Despite the critical acclaim enjoyed by this distinctively Asian-American film, Lin was lured by Hollywood to direct Annapolis (2006) and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), and will be remaking a Korean drama, with white people occupying the central roles. As talented Asian and Asian-American filmmakers are brought into the corporate moviemaking fold, there is little expectation that Asian Americans themselves will benefit substantively from having a co-ethnic in the director’s chair. Rather, the primary challenge to white dominance in commercial filmmaking will continue to spring from the Asian-American independent media arts movement.


Fang, Karen. 2004. John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press.

Hamamoto, Darrell. 1994. Monitored Peril: Asian Americans and the Politics of TV Representation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

———, and Sandra Liu, eds. 2000. Countervisions: Asian American Independent Film Criticism. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

Library of Congress. “The Spanish-American War in Motion Pictures.”Available from

Miller, Toby, et al. 2005. Global Hollywood 2. London: British Film Institute.

Moon, Krystyn R. 2005. Yellowface: Creating the Chinese in American Popular Music and Performance, 1850s–1920s. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Musser, Charles. 1991. Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Roediger, David R. 1991. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, rev. ed. New York: Verso.

Rogin, Michael. 1996. Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Darrell Y. Hamamoto

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