One Cranky Asian during Oscar Season

February 1, 2007

Mr. Harris went on to decry what he considered to be insincere apologies from Washington and other famous celebrities like Mel Gibson and Michael Richards, who both said some pretty f*cked up things that were offensive to the Jewish and African American communities. But I noticed that he didn’t include Rosie O’Donnell, who recently thought it would be funny to impersonate Chinese language by repeatedly chiming “CHING CHONG!” on The View. Whether she meant to mock Mandarin or Cantonese is unknown. But she, too, offered a non-apology. Why didn’t this make the editorial?

Maybe she took a cue from Will Ferrell – in Talladega Nights, he also mocks Chinese, but in more of a “WA DAO PING WU” way, in a fake plum candy commercial. Did that make national news? Nope, but Talladega Nights went on to become the 11th ranked Hollywood film at the box office in 2006, grossing $148.2 million in the U.S. ($162.9 million worldwide). Ching chong? More like CHA-CHING!

Well, as the red carpets of white Western acceptance begin to roll out and people begin to talk Oscars, I indulged in my secret guilty pleasure and read up on web reviews, magazines, articles, whatever I could get my hands on. Starting with Premiere magazine’s Jan/Feb 2006 issue, I checked out their Finest Performances of 2006 issue. Hmmm – not a single Asian/Arab/Pacific Islander/American made the list. Well, that’s just Premiere, right?

Then the nominees were announced – Deepa Mehta’s Water and Rinko Kikuchi’s performance in Babel received nods. But I found it strange that though Letters From Iwo Jima is nominated for Best Picture and Clint Eastwood is nominated for Best Director, none of the Asian cast from that film received nods for any of the acting categories.

Strange. You may argue they didn’t receive nods because the performance was mostly in Japanese, and it was an ensemble cast – so no single actor stood out for a nomination. Then consider Rinko Kikuchi’s nomination: she also spoke all in Japanese, and the cast of Babel is definitely considered an ensemble. It’s like they flipped a coin between the two favored Western representations of Asians on the big screen: Asian men tragically dying, and tragic naked sexualized Asian woman.

And why hasn’t anyone pointed out the fact that none of the cast of Letters received nods? You might say that the Oscars routinely rob people of the honor. But in other cases, at least people notice – on the day of the announcements, Moviefone posted an article decrying the fact that Brad Pitt didn’t receive a nod for Best Actor though Babel received a nod for Best Picture. This is especially strange given the actors in Letters were receiving plenty of acclaim and praise, all of which went silent when the Oscar nominees were announced.

This isn’t the first time in the Academy’s history that Asian actors got screwed. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon received a good amount of nominations – but none in the acting categories. The Last Emperor set a record for its time in 1987, nominated for 9 Oscars and winning every single one of them – yet there was not a single acting nod for that film either, the Oscars all went to the white people involved in the film, the exception being the Asians who shared the Oscars (with another white man) for Best Original Score. Last year, two white men took home statues for Memoirs of a Geisha, thanking their Asian partners during their acceptance speeches as the cameras cut to them in the audience, as if to say that because these men had Asian partners, they were legitimately down with the Asian people. Geishariffic!

Which reminds me, the first Oscar that went to an Asian was in 1957 to Miyoshi Umeki (Best Supporting Actress), who played the Geisha-ish wife to Red Buttons in the horrendously racist Marlon Brando vehicle, Sayonara. Check out what Entertainment Weekly says about her win:

"Umeki is the most obvious example of what might be called Oscar Exotica: first time film actors who get nominated – and occasionally win – for having the good luck to be so believably foreign...and the late Haing S. Ngor, who won Best Supporting Actor for 1984’s The Killing Fields after essentially reliving his Cambodian genocide experiences." (Feb 2, 2007)

What Entertainment Weekly fails to mention is that neither of those actors received another good role after their win – proving that, even if you are recognized by the Academy, Hollywood remains a place with few quality roles for Asians. An exception is Sir Ben Kingsley (birth name Krishna Bhanji), of mixed race heritage, who after winning Best Actor for the titular role in Gandhi in 1982 went on to star in movies good and crappy – though interestingly, he has mostly played non-Asians in his career.

And why cast Asians when you can swap them for white people? Mark Wahlberg, who got into trouble in his earlier years for a hate crime against two Vietnamese men, in which one of the Vietnamese men lost an eye from the assault (read about it here) gets his first Oscar nod for the Scorsese remake of the excellent Hong Kong film, Infernal Affairs. Not only was his hate crime a non-issue, his first role in Boogie Nights granted him a giant prosthetic penis, AND he dated China Chow, AND he co-starred in a movie with Chow Yun-Fat! Violence against Asians is fun AND rewarding!

(Disclaimer: for those of you apologists who insist that he did such things in his foolish younger days and choose to forgive him for assaulting Asian men and taking out one of their eyes while hurling racial slurs at them, not to mention forgive him for his terrible rap album, forgive him because he is a handsome white man with a muscular body, that’s on you. Let’s hope that you will forgive all people equally, for any horrible transgressions we may or may not have committed.)

Though The Departed recast the popular Infernal Affairs in Boston (ironically the same city where Wahlberg assaulted those Asian men), Hollywood has a history of literally substituting white actors for Asians. From Robert Ito’s essay “A Certain Slant: A Brief History of Yellowface”, here’s an incomplete list of white Hollywood actors who have been cast as Asian: Katharine Hepburn; Fred Astaire; Myrna Loy; Ingrid Bergman; John Wayne; Marlon Brando; Mickey Rooney; Peter Sellers; Helen Hayes; Peter Lorre; Lon Chaney; Anthony Quinn; David Carradine.

At this point, you may say, screw the big budget Hollywood films, bring on the small independent films! Well, just because a film is an indie doesn’t mean it’s gonna do our people right – Lost in Translation, anyone? How about Asian American films? Unfortunately, Hollywood seems more intent on exploiting Asians rather than giving Asian American films a chance: even limited release Asian films like Oldboy and Curse of the Golden Flower have a better chance of making it to Minneapolis than Asian American films like Michael Kang’s The Motel and Ham Tran’s Journey From The Fall, films I was dying to see. As in the case of good independent Asian American films with limited releases like Alice Wu’s Saving Face, we here in the Twin Cities have to wait until it comes out on DVD.

What about the good things? 2003 marked the first time that an Asian or Pacific Islander was nominated in all four of the Best Acting categories – Sir Ben Kingsley and Shohreh Aghdashloo (Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, for their outstanding performances in the problematic film House of Sand and Fog), Ken Watanabe (Best Supporting Actor, for the far worse Japanese-men-dying film The Last Samurai), and Keisha Castle-Hughes (Best Actress, for the great but seldom seen Whale Rider). Unfortunately, none of them won that year.

Ang Lee made history in 2006 as the first non-white person to win Best Director for Brokeback Mountain (why isn’t anyone talking about this?!), though that revelatory film lost Best Picture to the far inferior Crash, a film about race relations in LA made by white people that taught Asians that, if your father has a convenience store, make sure to fill his gun with blanks in case he decides to assassinate his locksmith – and the answer to human trafficking is Ludacris.

Can we look forward to 2007? Well, right off the bat, that Edward Norton/Naomi Watts vehicle The Painted Veil kicked us right in the ass. Eddie Murphy puts on make up and acts as a Chinese man, Mr. Wong, in his next film Norbit. And the U.S. production of The Rape of Nanking s currently being screened at Sundance – starring noted Asianphile Woody Harrelson. If there’s good news to be had for 2007 at the movies, somebody please send it my way.

*(Thanks to Juliana Hu Pegues and Giles Li for the conversations and advice which led to the formation of this essay).

Thien-bao Thuc Phi is an award winning poet and spoken word artist who watches too many movies in his spare time.


Momo Chang

Senior Contributing Editor

Momo Chang is the Content Manager at the Center for Asian American Media, and freelances for magazines, online publications, and weeklies. Her writings focus on Asian American communities, communities of color, and youth culture. She is a former staff writer at the Oakland Tribune. Her stories range from uncovering working conditions in nail salons, to stories about “invisible minorities” like Tongan youth and Iu Mien farmers. She has freelances The New York Times, WIRED, and East Bay Express, among other publications.



Asians - in my opinion, will NEVER collaborate when it comes to money and the well beings of grandeur. Now this is not to say that my views are superficial, but judgment rules. The only way you see Asians stick together is at some Asian community (ie: Chinatown) because it is a necessity for them and not an option. First off - starting with the women (any age, MOST but not all), they have no loyalty whatsoever for supporting the men of their kind. They are pathetic when it comes to climbing the ladder to western society. They will interbreed and disavow their roots and will plod the hands that once fed them. Inside every married Asian woman is ready to come out as the one described above.Now for the men – I worked with a lot of them and many are smart and willing to take any step to succeed, but the problem lies deep, they are too reserved in the non-Asian community, but at the same time will kill within their society to be recognized as the “model minority” - hence Asian community. As far as the whole Asian group effort, assembly, or whatever you might want to call it, I don’t see an alliance in the immediate future, within their own or outside their population - if ever.
I've been stating, for the longest time, that I believe America's media machine is causing massive amounts of psychological influence and needs to be considered a priority when it comes to fighting for racial equality.My boss always confided in me that as soon as someone has a certain type of image attached to him/her, it is extremely hard to shake no matter how hard they try. I've been a hard worker for the same company for 3 years. I could slack off and no one will ever notice because I have the aura of work ethnic around me. However, if someone is lazy but changes into a hard worker, people will still perceive him as lazy.Image, once negative, is extremely hard to shake and that's why I find it extremely perplexing why Asians, Asian men specifically, don't make fighting harmful stereotypes in media a top priority.Companies spend billons of dollars a year to make sure they have a great image and departments dedicated to public relations. Is our image of Asian men worth any less?There is proof of how the public consumes this type of image politics. A magazine, on car ratings, released a report on vehicle reliability. What was interesting was the effect of brand labels and how they are perceived with the consuming public.They found the South Korean brand, Hyundai, to rank very low in quality during it's first few years (rank 17) but has since climbed to rank 4. Additionally, Mercedes Benz, which is trademarked with quality, has dropped down to near the bottom of the list near Dodge.What's interesting to note is that Mercedes Benz sales have done very well while Hyundai is still lagging behind. Why? It's because society has been turned to recognize certain qualities with certain individuals.Mercedes' cars could be roving deathtraps but they'd still fly off the shelves but Hyundai will still trail behind because their image has been tarnished by a bad start.Time will change things but it takes years, even decades.If we had a complete 180 right *now*, it would take decades for people to view Asian men as normal people. That's a fact.Not only that, the Asian community still has other problems that stupid Asians don't care to acknowledge such as the interracial dating ratio, intra-Asian strife, selfishness, etc.I'm surprised the Asian community has died off in this country yet to be frank.
The last line should read:I'm surprised the Asian community HASN'T died off in this country yet, to be frank.
My main point being this:Asians and Asian Americans need to shut their goddamn pie holes and step up to the plate and show other Americans that they're allowed into the game on their own merits.Stop demanding that the people already in the game to go out of their way for your "right" to be there. Fight for what you want rather than begging like an upstart 9 year old.Yes, I'm an Asian guy and I find the community to be as pathetic as anything I've ever witnessed on God's green Earth. I was once a proud Asian American but once I witnessed how the community acts, I've decided I want nothing to do with it.I'm still proud of who I am but no longer will I get sucked into the trap of "staying true to who I am" and "telling people how it is."Asian Americans have "Homer Simpsoned" their way to equal rights. That metophor was used when Homer Simpson gained something by sheer accident when something negative was inevitable.IE: Saving a basketball from going out of bounds which leads to the discovery of a 20 dollar bill in the stands.In our case, the only reason why there are more Asians in media is because media and companies are being proactive in including Asians because they think it will help them sell products, not because Asians spoke with their financial clout.
Rob, go with yo bad self
thanks for posting this. mr. phi can break it down like no other. and there's funny elements... ludacris should become the answer for everything. Eeeyyeeeeeeeeaaaaah!
I can think of her name, but the Japanese actress is up for an oscar for the movie "BABEL"
Yes, I think Mr. Phi wrote:"Then the nominees were announced – Deepa Mehta’s Water and Rinko Kikuchi’s performance in Babel received nods."I believe the Japanese actress in Babel is Rinko Kikuchi.
Did Bao Phi see "Babel?" Rinko Kikuchi spoke in sign language.
We will see, looks like Dreamgirls taking all the awards this years, Im going to see Babel and see whats all the Hoopla about.
Amen! god the movie industry is pathetic. its hard to see any progress. Just pathetic.
Dreamgirls was a good movie though
Just have to mention, another movie overlooked with great performances wasTHE JOY LUCK CLUB!
A lesser known fact - maybe cause it's a short film:Steven Okazaki won an Oscar for Days of Waiting in 1991.I haven't seen it, but recently watched one of his earlier films, Unfinished Business, a really good documentary about Japanese American internment resisters Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui. Definitely worth seeing.His film, White Light/Black Rain, was nominated for the Grand Jury at Sundance this past month! I want to see that.
Asians should be like the jews and stick together and start their own shit but this is not gonna happen because there are so many of us that were too busyclimbing over each other to suck up to whitey.tragicI say more interacial relationships to send a message to the other racesthat need to represent
Joy Luck Club wasnt overlooked, at the time it came it it received rave reviews and was regaurded as one o the best movies, if not the best movies of that year
what makes woody harrelson a noted asianphile? I don't know of anyone who has every mentioned him before regarding his media representation or any hypocrisy with asians.nice article otherwise
That is my point with Joy Luck Club, it got rave reviews but was ignored by Oscars.
I thought Joy Luck Club received some type of award. To be honost, it doesnt need an Oscar as long as it recieved in the Asian community thats all that matters.
disagree. mainstream recognition, that's what we need!
It was an international hit, but a movie like Joy Luck club will never go mainstream because its to Asian. If you want a movie to go mainstream you have to sell out
Joy Luck Club should be recognized?! Why?! That movie was about Asian Women finding comfort in white men and escaping from EVIL Asian Men! It should be recognized as propaganda BS, that's that what it needs to be recognized for.
Its been a while since ive seen the movie, but I really missed that part. If my memory serves me correct, there was no interracial relationships. Like I said its been a while, so correct me if im wrong
Excellent article, Asians will have their moment to shine. The problem is everybody has to stop looking to whites for validation because they will never accurately reflect asian culture or movies or storylines. They will always cast Asians in what i call the five S's.Silly,submissive,subservient, stupid sidekik.
Who gives a shit about the Oscar? It just a bunch of white people congratulating each other before the orgy. We shouldn't care if there is no Asian in at the Oscar. What else is new? Frankly, Korean and Chinese movie is the next generation. I don't support Hollywood and I try to spread that message to as many Asian people as possible. It just so funny how people say it's a milestone for Black people to receive an award from a bunch of whites. It is like everytime white folks throw Black people a bone, they call it an achievement. It's like me and my dog. Here you go boy, you've been good.
The reason nobody in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was nominated for acting awards was because the acting itself was awful. I cringe even thinking about Zhang Ziyi and her two expressions.
look its the WAHHHHmbulancewahhhh wahhhh asians don't get enough screentime wahhhh wahhhget over it
I thought "The Joy Luck Club" did sell out with all the negative depictions of Asian males (esp. when they changed the character of the cold, skin-flint husband from a WM to AM)?I had the same thought about Wahlberg - does anyone think that he would even have an acting career if he had committed a hate crime against blacks or Jews?Btw, I enjoyed the reference to "Infernal Affairs" during the Oscars broadcast as the "Japanese film."Bob - you're a frickin' moron.
Great article. I thought the same about"The Departed" getting the award when it was nothing more than a remake from a Hong Kong film. I didn't mind Scorcese getting the nod, since he has been snubbed so many times, but it did not deserve Best Picture. The original producers of "Infernal Affairs" should have been up on stage. The problem is, as always, "What are we going to do about this?" Articles like this only preach to the choir.
Hey Bob,Get over it?Here's what I'm gonna do get over it: I'm gonna bootleg every single one of those diversity-negligent films such as The Departed and Talladega Nights. Then I'm gonna sell thousands of those bootleg films in Chinatown. There's nothing I love more than to screw ignorant media producers out of the money they don't deserve.And you know what I'm gonna do with the proceeds of my piracy? I'm gonna take that money and give it to young talented budding Asian artists, actors and producers. I'm gonna give it to the SoulSnax Diversity in Media Challenge:'re gonna raise a new generation of diverse young children who aren't slaves to the diversity-negligent whitewashed media we see today. Not only will they demand positive portrayals of diversity, they're gonna create it. They're gonna redefine what it means to be beautiful and Oscar-worthy.$crew you and your perverse fetishism and exploitation of oriental "geishariffic" exoticism and your aversion to Eastern self-determination and self-definition.
I agree with Dean. Do you think Mark Wahlberg would have a successful career had he committed a hate crime against an African American and then starred in a movie with one?Also, I don't know if you know this, but a group of African American A-listers have been having their own "Oscars" for several years. They get together and give out awards to each other (this was before the Academy recognized them). I do agree with one reader that we shouldn't be waiting for approval from white people to validate our talent. Throwing us a bone and us getting all frenzied about that token bone is degrading. If the white people acknowledge our talents, that's fine, just don't make that our number one goal--as if a thumbs up by a white person is more precious than from one of our own.However, in a white dominated industry, without their approval, it is hard to get mainstream exposure. It's a double edged sword. We don't need them to validate our talents, yet at the same time, they are in the position of power that will bring our work to the masses.It's a hard argument...
Every year, I see the same stupid articles on how Asian Americans get the shaft in American media but no one does anything about it.Who's to blame? Whites that control Hollywood or Asians that are apathetic? If you can't show Hollywood the benefits of change, you have to show them the consequences of not changing.Why do we insist on blaming someone else when we don't do anything about it either? Yes, Hollywood is trying to project a white male centered industry but what have we done to combat it?Nothing.
Hey Rob,Great minds think alike.So what am I doing about it? I'm putting my money where my mouth is. See my comment above, and consider making a contribution. That goes for all of you. Quit complaining about the lack of positive portrayals of Asians and put your money where your mouths are.
The Oscars were great.
I agree! Put your money where you mouth is! Asians need to give money to filmmakers, artists, and media. The sad thing is that most Asians who are giving big chunks of money give to the same old organizations that white folks do, like they trying to fit in or show how successful they are. They aren't giving back to the community.How about supporting filmmakers at the Center for AA Media?