CHINESE EXCLUSION ACT OF 1882
During the start of the Gold Rush in 1848, many Chinese people traveled to America to join the California Gold Rush in search of a better life for themselves and their families (Zhang). Chinese immigrants were considered hard-working, unobtrusive, peaceful and frugal due to their willingness to take low-wage jobs that many Americans perceived as dirty and incompatible (“Chinese Immigrants”). Chinese presence in the United States brought excitement, and many Americans were thankful as Chinese immigration settled the state’s labor shortage (Kanazawa). According to Historian Gunther Barth, Jon McDougal, the second governor of California wrote in 1852 that the Chinese “were one of the most worthy classes of our newly adopted citizens, to whom the climate and the character of California were peculiarly suited” (McDougal qtd. in Barth). However, the acceptance of Chinese people was short-lived. As the gold mines began to deplete within a few years of its discovery, many miners recognized the dirty, low earning jobs reserved for Chinese workers, were now desirable (“Immigration to the United States”). Immediately, the attitude towards Chinese people changed, as they were seen as competition and were accused of stealing jobs from Americans (Kanazawa). Anti-Chinese sentiment grew in the United States, and eventually culminated into the Chinese-Exclusion Act of 1882, which sought to end immigration of Chinese people by refusing citizenship to all Chinese immigrants in hopes of obtaining more job opportunities for the Americans (“Chinese Exclusion”).
HOW DID ANTI-ASIAN HATE CULMINATE IN FILMS?
Eventually, the growing hatred for Chinese immigrants began to appear through films, including Hollywood’s 1932 production, “The Mask of Fu Manchu.” The storyline casts a White actor, Boris Karloff, playing the role of an “Asian” villain whose goal was to destroy the West, reflecting white America’s sentiment towards Chinese immigrants during the Gold Rush (Accomando). This film horribly represented Asians in many ways, as the depiction of Fu Manchu as a white actor playing an Asian character blatantly shows the misrepresentation and exclusion of Asians through the cinematic industry. Not only were Asian characters subjected to stereotypical roles, Hollywood films would also physically retouch the appearance of White actors playing Asians characters. This practice was called, “yellowface,” a common utilization that would imitate the appearance of an Asian person on a White actor by using yellow colored makeup to resemble more of an Asian look (“Yellowface”). Due to rising Anti-Chinese sentiment throughout the Gold Rush, negative stereotypes formed around the Chinese race, which led to the misrepresentation of Chinese characters through Hollywood’s films, as they were predominantly portrayed as villains bent on exterminating the White race.
THE CURRENT ISSUE OF DISCRIMINATION AGAINST ASIANS IN FILM
For decades, Asians have been subjected to stereotypical “Asian” formatted roles, or often replaced by a Caucasian actor. Hollywood’s history of casting American actors in Asian roles throughout 20th century films has not yet come to an end, and has recently been utilized in Hollywood’s 2017 remake of the Japanese anime classic, “Ghost in the Shell.” The movie features American actress, Scarlett Johansson, as Major Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese cyber-enhanced character devoted to stopping the world’s most dangerous criminals (Rosenburg). Once again, this movie adds to the ongoing discrimination that Asians encounter, as “casting Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi, a role that could have been a chance for an Asian-American actress to establish herself as the backbone of an action franchise,” was instead stripped away (Rosenburg). These stereotypes are not only presented on screens, but outside the realm of television as well. For example, films such as Hollywood’s 2015 TV series, “Fresh off the Boat,” not only takes a humorous look at the lives of Chinese immigrants living in America, but is also accompanied by exaggerated accents and stereotypical jokes of Chinese culture. Although Hollywood’s effort to produce an all-Asian TV series was exciting, the incorporation of stereotypical humor and heavy accents thoroughly contradicted its importance. Thus, it heavily influenced the ways society views people of Asian descent, as the TV series feeds the belief that all Asians are still foreigners in America.
SHINING AUTHENTIC LIGHT
However, while many Hollywood films portray Asians in stereotypical roles, the most recent premiere of “Crazy Rich Asians,” directed by Jonathan Murray Chu, portrays the Asian-American community in a more authentic light than ever before. Chu wanted to shift the ways society perceives Asians. Ss he once said, “we’re not some foreign entity here to take over your land in some way. We’re part of America. Asian American history is American history. And now it’s time to learn that history” (Jon Chu qtd. in Sze). “Crazy Rich Asians” stars Asian-American actors Constance Wu and Henry Golding as Rachel Chu and Nick Young, a longtime couple traveling to Singapore where Rachel quickly finds out the struggles that come with meeting Nick’s incredibly wealthy family. The release of “Crazy Rich Asians” is the first all-Asian film since the premiere of “The Joy Luck Club” 25 years ago, which was an exciting change and well received by the Asian audience. Unlike other Hollywood productions, “Crazy Rich Asians” breaks down numerous stereotypes, adjusting the ways society perceives Asians, as this movie depicts them as a more superior and wealthier figure rather than the inferior, nerdy, and clueless character that Asian actors are normally cast in.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP
To prevent and combat the stereotypes against Asians, the need for an authentic representation of Asian culture through film has to be prioritized. Therefore, it is imperative that more AAPI directors and producers create films, as they can identify with and genuinely promote Asian culture and the meaning of what it is to be Asian-American without negative stereotypes. Not only will the use of AAPI directors mitigate the stereotypical portrayals of Asian minorities, but resources such as social media can raise awareness and educate others about the ongoing issue and eventually, reduce society’s discriminatory perceptions of Asians that consistently play out in films.
Please feel free to leave comments down below! I would love to hear any feedback or suggestions to how we can incorporate more AAPI directors and actors into filmmaking and how we as a community can work together to end discrimination against AAPI (Asian Pacific Islander) characters and actors in film once and for all!!