Often lauded for her performance as an actress and as the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood, Anna May Wong, born in 1903 in Chinatown, Los Angeles to second-generation Chinese American parents. At a young age, she always wanted to be an actress and at the age of 17, she landed the lead role in the first film in technicolor: The Toll of the Sea¹. Despite all of the luster and praise for her performance, she was still ridiculed for her looks and struggled to find roles that weren't harmful or stereotypical². She wasn't always successful--she had taken on roles that portrayed Asian women in a negative light: often portrayed as "passive young women" or "Dragon Ladies--murderous villainess"² . Unfortunately, these damaging caricatures and stereotypes proliferated well into my own childhood: the Fu Manchu villain with the curly long mustache wearing a queue hairstyle; a dragon lady, an Asian woman who is dangerous, alluring, and conniving; and of course the one that props up over and over again: that we all know martial arts.
I was inspired to write this blog and chose today’s topic about Asian representation in the media after Chloe Zhao made headlines for being the first Asian woman ever to win the Golden Globe Award for Best Director for her film, Nomadland. This is a big win for Asian Americans and I am sure that Anna May Wong would be ecstatic to see how far we have come as a society--to see people like her be able to win such a prestigious award is a sign that times are changing for the better. But, I believe that there is still a lot of work to do. While I am overjoyed about her win, I have a few lingering questions: Why did it take this long for an Asian woman director to win this award despite there being 77 other Golden Globe Awards prior to this? Not only that, why is Minari, a film about a Korean family in America, considered a foreign language film? Yes, according to the rules, a film with at least 51% foreign language is placed in this category³. But Minari is an American story: in essence, it represents the immigrant family experience and the truth that many kids who moved to this country didn't grow up speaking English, they spoke their parent's native tongue. This doesn't make them any less American and in precluding them from the Best Motion Picture - Drama category, it raises a sentiment that I and many others have known all too well: that we aren't Americans, we will always be associated with Otherness. Creating such a rigid arbitrary rule where substance comes second speaks volumes on how unfair this system is.
And while there won't be any Fu Manchu, Dragon Lady-type characters any time soon (hopefully), I feel like we are replacing old outdated stereotypes with a more polished, newer, "positive" stereotype: that all Asians are wealthy and live a life of luxury and excess. With shows and movies like Crazy Rich Asians, House of Ho, and Netflix's new reality tv show Bling Empire, it indulges people in the successes Asians have had while continuing to gloss over a truth that many people don't know about or have swept under: that Asian Americans continue to have the largest income disparities between the lowest paid earners and the highest paid earners than any other group⁴. While this is definitely a turning point in Hollywood media, I think there needs to be more grounded characters that highlight the nuances on what it means to be Asian in America.