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A Historic Look At East-Asian Portrayal Throughout American Media

Elizabeth Cay ‘24

August 2023


In media representation, Asian Americans have been understated — their stories mocked and ostracized for white audiences. The prejudice dates back to as far as 1899, when European sociologists created the term “Yellow Peril.” While in its modern meaning, Yellow Peril has recounted Asian strength, it was originally used to convince Western troops that Asia’s growing influence was heinous and that under this power, they could be invaded by the continent. It was mainly spread via propaganda war posters, most notoriously from the image shown below.



Caricture of Asian People

It depicts a caricature of what is thought to be an Asian person, standing atop a fallen white woman. The caption says “THE YELLOW TERROR IN ALL HIS GLORY.”

The concept of Yellow Peril instilled negative beliefs onto the continent of Asia and its military forces, but ultimately shaped racist perspectives towards all Asian people. As a result of these deeply ingrained stereotypes, Anti-Asian racism would continue to appear in portrayals throughout American media. Thus resulting in a long-standing pattern of offensive stories, characters and visuals, all created for a means to entertain, even at the expense of falsity.


While it’s difficult to argue the “political correctness” of historical content, we must recognize past accounts of racism in order to emphasize the importance of accuracy and authentic representations. Throughout this blog, we’ll explore a centuries worth of East-Asian portrayal from Western media — beginning from the oldest and adjacently worst to the newest, and rightfully applauded by the community it’s inspired from.

1915 — MADAME BUTTERFLY (FILM)

Madame Butterfly is one of the first accounts of yellow faces in early Hollywood, where Mary Pickford who is a fully white actress, is styled in traditional clothing and steals the role of a Japanese character named “Cho-Cho-San.” She is a 15-year old girl who marries an American Lieutenant and then is abandoned by him. She takes her own life in the ending sequence when she cannot be reconnected with her husband.


Madame Butterfly
Image via IMDb

*Remake with Sylvia Sidney

The film promotes the harmful ideology that Asian women, in stark cultural differences, are submissive figures and that their sexuality, underaged or not, is rooted from their cultural identities. By drowning traits of docility and devotion onto an inaccurate Japanese character, they exaggerate what appears foreign and fetishize their own manipulations. Consequently, convincing audiences who would’ve had a great lack of exposure to Asian cultures, that it’s authentic and fair to assume this false generalization onto actual East-Asian women. It’s the farthest from a virtuous start, and not much of an improvement from Yellow Peril propaganda.



Madame Butterfly
Image via PBS Learning Media

In present day, Madame Butterfly has been adapted into Opera and continues to be performed in yellowface. Within the photo above, 6 out of the 7 performers are white.


1984 — SIXTEEN CANDLES (FILM)

While the teen rom-com, focuses on its white and female protagonist, there is one character worth mentioning. Amidst what is essentially an all white cast, there is a sole asian character used for the purposes of comedic relief. “Long Duk Dong” — yes, another heinous interpretation of a name — is an exchange student staying with the protagonist’s family. When in frame, he’s accompanied by the sound effect of a gong. Long Duk Dong is given raunchy lines and delivers them in broken English. Though he attempts to assimilate by using American catchphrases, he disturbs the other characters because of his optimism for acceptance.


16 or sixteen candles racist character, Long Duk Dong
Image via IMBd, Sixteen Candles (1984)

In no way do I directly blame the actor for Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), but I will say that any description of Long Duk Dong’s character will never compare to the intense behaviors he portrays in his scenes. While Asian characters can be witty, they can be curious, and they can be hopeless romantics, Long Duk Dong is reduced and laughed at because of his external, uncontrollable factors: his Asianness. Long Duk Dong is not written to be a character, he is a racist caricature hidden underneath silly stunts.


I had watched Sixteen Candles because of my love for old teeny rom-coms, but could not stomach the hysterical laughing-at laughter, overlooking, and utter judgment from each and every character when they saw someone that looked like me. While Long Duk Dong is better than literal yellow face, the character displays the normalcy of macro aggressions during a time that was just upwards of 40 years ago.


1998 — RUSH HOUR 1-3 (FILM TRILOGY)

Rush Hour is a movie beloved by both Asian and Black American communities, and is often recognized as Jackie Chan’s and Chris Tucker’s breakthrough in Hollywood. The films marked a first, where both leading characters were People of Color. It portrayed a working friendship that explored the cultural difference between an accomplished Hong Kongese cop “Lee” and Detective from LAPD “James Carter.” The film is action packed and comedically entertaining but their resource material mostly stemmed from race-based jokes.


Rush Hour Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker
Image via IMBd, Rush Hour (1998)

In Rush Hour, Chinese diplomats are portrayed without much racial exaggeration and are fully recognized as individuals who are capable of being steadfast leaders. Though, while in LA there are many scenes within Chinatown neighborhoods where James Carter (right), often mocks languages, accents or entirely gives up and yells English questions — both parties are equally confused until Lee (left) explains what’s needed. Yet, Lee is not exempt from racist behaviors and says racial slur towards a group of Black people. Though he’s unaware that it’s a derogatory term and so the basis of it’s comedic appeal is not only does Lee not understand what the English word means, but he’s capable of being racist himself. The reality of POC on POC racism, really amused the late 90s audiences as the film went on to make 2 more, with essentially the same formulas of racist humor.


EARLY 2000s — BE COOL (FILM), 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS (FILM)

Be Cool

Be Cool follows John Travolta on his journey throughout Los Angeles as he finds impeccable potential in Linda Moon, a wonderful singer stuck in a phony contract with a club owner.

Thankfully enough, under John Travolta’s management Linda Moon quickly rises to fame and we’re shown a scene of her debut music video. It stands out with fiery red Chinese-influenced aesthetics and altered traditional clothing. It's a short scene that isn't discussed, but when we, the audience, consider if it’s okay to add cultural aspects into creative mediums like music videos, it's important to note that it has absolutely nothing to do with Chinese influence.


Be cool movie
Image via Be Cool (2005)

What I mean is that, the singer, song, really nothing in the music video has any direct relationship with what it’s referencing. So the action of putting on someone else’s culture for aesthetics without remembering that there are histories, rituals and procedures that are instilled for the garments and now decorative pieces — is an insult in itself that transforms culture to costume.

2 FAST 2 FURIOUS

In the intensely long Fast and Furious franchise, a character named Suki (played by Devon Aoki) accompanies Paul Walker’s crew. Honestly, I think Suki’s the oldest and most memorable Asian character from the 2000s that was not defined by her Asianness. While she doesn’t have very many lines, Suki makes her presence known as the only female racer and she’s not afraid to take up space or competition. Not to mention her iconic, hot pink and custom racing car that’s adorned with anime inspired illustrations. The character was uniquely herself and continues to show up in pinterest boards because of her top notch Y2K aesthetic.


Devon Aoki as Suki in Fast and Furious
Image via Pinterest, 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)


MID-LATE 2010s — FRESH OFF THE BOAT (SERIES), KIM'S CONVENIENCE (SERIES)

FRESH OFF THE BOAT

By this time, here’s where I’d argue that the portrayal of East-Asians in America slowly fades into the birth of the Asian-American story. Fresh Off The Boat focused on new-gen Asian stereotypes that seemed to be made okay, as it was being told and displayed by actual Asian people. They were aware of their stereotypical traits and in a way, accepted them along with their Americanized lives.

.

Kim Convenience Picture
Via IMBd, Fresh Off The Boat (2015)

But now the children weren’t “Asian” enough, they spoke broken Mandarin and were often assumed to be under-achieving. That’s not to say they weren’t stereotypically Asian at all because the show often depicted the Mother in controlling behaviors when worrying about her children’s success, a classic tiger mom. The odd mix between old and new stereotypes is what I believe to have drawn away most Asian audiences, it was both progressive and internally racist. Though the existence of Asian-Americans on a major television network led into a new sub-genre of portrayals.

KIM’S CONVENIENCE

What Fresh Off The Boat did wrong, Kim’s Convenience did right. It similarly follows a Korean-Canadian family running a convenience store. But what made it different were the characters of the children, Jung and Janet (played by Simu Liu and Andrea Bang). They were flawed because of their life decisions that didn’t conform to stereotypically Asian dominated careers. Jung got into trouble as a young adult, getting into a juvenile detention center that continued to affect his job at a car-rental office. Janet was a burgeoning photographer constantly defending her chosen profession to non-artist parents.


Kim's Convenience Store
Image via The Queen’s Journal, Kim’s Convenience (2016)

It was different, and allowed audiences to relate to the hardships of being lesser than your parents expectations. But where it differed was the strong prioritization of family and how the Kim’s used their values to change, later becoming supportive and more open-minded for the sake of their children. The series was wholesome, raw, and authentic.


2022 — EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE (FILM)

Distributed by the upcoming A24, “Everything Everywhere All At Once” is the pinnacle of an amazing Asian-American story. The plot follows a matriarch led family, where Evelyn Wong (Michelle Yeoh) cannot catch a break. She’s under the stress of losing her laundromat business, coupled with an uncomfortability towards her daughter’s girlfriend and her nagging elderly father.

Everything Everywhere All at Once
Image via Los Angeles Times, Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)

In truly cinematic scenes, the film presents unpredictable sci-fi with the melancholic reality of Evelyn’s relationships with each of her family members. Everything Everywhere All At Once, allowed an Asian story to be told by Asian people, while not limiting itself to one conflict or pressing issue. The plot is relatable, in that it’s an immigrant story but still presents something uncovered in Asian-American cinema — the heart-wrenching recognition that speaks to all dismissed queer Asian children. Delivering the unapologetic confrontation that many Asian families often don’t address and relaying a story so multifaceted that it’s multi-dimensional (drum symbol noise).


The film was academy recognized with over 10 oscar winnings and most notably, Michelle Yeoh’s Best Actress, and Ke Huy Quan’s Best Supporting Actor. Marking the first time, an Asian woman has been awarded the category in all of Oscars history. Along with Ke Huy Quan being the second Asian man to ever win Best Supporting Actor, the first being in 1985.


Everything Everywhere All At Once Cast at the Oscards
Image via PBS, Oscars

On a more positive note, as we’ve analyzed American cinema from past to present, it is clear that the future of authentic Asian-American media has only started and will continue to evolve. That is, when Asian people and all other minorities are given the creative space to reclaim their representations according to their own standards.


It is imperative that we continue to support Asian narratives that are told from a first-hand account and realize that accurate representations provide positive role-models and in a sense, on-screen mentorship for all young people to relate with. As the past representations have prevented a lifetime of individuals from believing they are anything more than racist stereotypes — we must force this conversation and reflect on offensive characters in order to make way for Asian people in American media, but more largely, Western society.



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