Asians In Popular Culture: The Unconscious Bias Blinding Hollywood For Decades

Asians in Popular Culture - Awards Ceremony 2

The last few days, we’ve seen a variety of articles popping up online about Crazy Rich Asians being a “flop” at the Chinese box office on its opening weekend. The film was released in China last Friday, several months after the rest of the world couldn’t stop talking about it. Whilst it grossed $27 million dollars on its opening weekend in the US, Crazy Rich Asians will make less than $1 million from its first few days in China.

Some critics are saying that the delay in its Chinese release has meant a lot of viewers will have already seen the film, by watching illegally online on pirate streaming sites. Others point to the fact that a Chinese audience is less likely to rally behind a film full of Asian stereotypes, despite it being hailed as the best on-screen Asian representation of our time. One Chinese user wrote on the review platform Douban on Sunday: “So Chinese people in the eyes of Europeans and Americans are just about clans, extravagant snobbery, a blind sense of superiority, and stubbornly clinging to outdated rules and ideas?”.

Gemma Chan, star of Channel 4 drama Humans, made a statement more pertinent than perhaps she intended when being interviewed by Jonathan Ross. Of her latest film Crazy Rich Asians she said: “I just can’t believe that this film has been made with an all-Asian cast, and there’s barely any Kung-Fu! No one is fleeing a village!” She caused an awkward ripple of laughter, maybe because actually, it’s not something we’ve really been talking about, and the more you look around, it’s clear she has a point.

Opportunities for Asians in Hollywood have always been scarce and limited. Even today, debate is rife around the perceived inherent racism in some of our most popular film franchises. The casting of South Korean actress Claudia Kim as Nagini (the woman-come-snake who Voldemort keeps as a pet and murder weapon) in the latest Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them films has caused the conversation about representation of Asian people in Hollywood to once again rear its head, with accusations of tokenism thrown at the film.

JK Rowling, who wrote the film’s screenplay, defended the casting by referring to the original creature Nagini was based on, hailing from Indonesian mythology. She explained Kim’s casting by noting that “Indonesia comprises a few hundred ethnic groups, including Japanese, Chinese and Betawi.” There are still some however, who aren’t so sure.

Poor Asian representation in popular culture has long been bemoaned. Consider in 1989, when Miss Saigon premiered in London, with Jonathan Pryce in the integral role of the Engineer. Despite his talent, no amount of eye prosthetics or bronzer took away from the fact that the show had A) tried to pass off a white man as Vietnamese and B) made a grave mistake that would cause public outcry, and lead to Jonathan Pryce being banned from the role for the Broadway run. Almost 30 years on and though progress has been made, have perceptions really changed as much as we’d like to think?

So whilst the majority of critics lauded Crazy Rich Asians this year, some contest how representative the actors actually are of the multi-cultural Singapore, or even how ‘Asian’ they are. What remains to be seen is if the film really does go some way to transforming the industry for Asian actors; let’s hope we won’t be having the same conversation in another 30 years…