The 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' Boycott and Other Roles We Loathe

July 8, 2011


A petition to boycott a free public screening of 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s at the Brooklyn Bridge Park Conversancy -- sponsored by cable channel SyFy and partially supported by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs -- is underway, with boycott organizers citing the film’s racist Japanese caricature “Mr. Yunioshi," as portrayed in yellowface by white actor Mickey Rooney, as anything but a beloved American classic.

As the petition description so aptly states: “It's not funny; It's not classic; It's not beloved to us. By screening this film, the organizers are sanctioning the racism it contains, and subjecting new audiences (including children and Asian Americans) to a minstrel show of racist ideology. It's 2011. It's New York. Do we still have to fight the hostile, hurtful world of 1961 Hollywood?”

In August 2008, a free screening of the film in Sacramento, CA was met with similar protests which resulted in a cancellation, though it came not long after the film and others of its ilk such as John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles had already been screened at public events in both San Jose and San Francisco despite outrage from Asian American communities.

We at Hyphen aren’t sure what’s going through the minds of these public officials and event planning committees, but it got our staff thinking about movies -- based on blatantly racist and problematic depictions of Asians and Asian Americans -- that we just can’t stand. Maybe others will take notes on what makes a racially offensive portrayal.

From Ken Choy, blogger

Film: Furry Vengeance
Character: Neal Lyman
Actor: Ken Jeong

“I don't know what the ‘f’ Jeong is doing here spitting and hissing -- supposedly in Thai. How KoreAm and CAPE [Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment] are doling out awards for this [caliber] of disparaging depictions is beyond me.”

Film: Tai-Pan
Character: May-May
Actor: Joan Chen

"Clearly Clavell's fault, the scene in which she begs to be whipped inspired me to write a mini opera using the dialogue which is used pretty verbatim in the movie."

Film: Sixteen Candles
Character: Long Duk Dong
Actor: Gedde Watanabe

"Grates 99.9% of API males."

Film: Rambo
Character: Can't remember which one as they all blend together

"I believe its Julia Nickson, who I know, but her dying in the swamp muttering "Rambo" just upsets me so."

Film: The Punisher
Character: Kim Miyori/Lady Tanaka

"Only had to see a clip of this Dolph Lundgren version to say, "What the fuck!"

Film: China Girl, Shogun, Miss Saigon, blah blah blah
Character: Perpetual Madame Butterfly/Asian woman dies character

From Nicole Wong, contributing editor

Film: Full Metal Jacket
Character: Da Nang hooker
Actor: Papillon Soo Soo

“Mostly because of the way her very memorable lines ("Me love you long time" et cetera, et cetera) have grown beyond her tiny role in the film, and continue to be used and re-used in pop culture in everything from rap music (2 Live Crew's "Me So Horny") to references in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. I cringe every time I hear a reference to it; it's turned into a joke about sexual objectification and exotification. Not cool. Damn you, Kubrick!”

 From Ian Wang, film editor

Film: Any with Ken Jeong
Actor: The unfortunate Ken Jeong

“Somehow he's always the one getting out of a trunk naked (The Hangover). If I'm gonna see a movie with an Asian dude naked he better be built like Arnold."

Films: War and The Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift
Characters: Asian Gangsters and their girls who dress like they are import car models

“Another action film, another set of Asian gangsters who treat women as sex objects only and with violence (The club scene in the beginning of the film War, for example). Also, Asian actresses who in order to get screen time, have to dress like they just stepped off a car detailing magazine.”


As for me? I cringe every time I see the Korean couple in Paul Haggis’s Crash. Those accents. Those crazy eyes. All that human smuggling.

Before I break out into a full-on shudder, why don’t you regale Hyphen with your least favorite Asian/American cinematic portrayals?


Sylvie Kim

contributing editor & blogger

Sylvie Kim is a contributing editor at Hyphen. She previously served as Hyphen's blog coeditor with erin Khue Ninh, film editor, and blog columnist.

She writes about gender, race, class and privilege in pop culture and media (fun fun fun!) at and at SF Weekly's The Exhibitionist blog. Her work has also appeared on Racialicious and Salon.



I reviewed all of you comments and I noticed that not one of you referred to a movie that portrayed Central Asians or Western Asians nor Americans of those ethnic extractions.

I think we responded in the span of a couple hours. Give us time, and we can think of many of examples for the "terrorist' archetype in media.

" I cringe every time I hear a reference to it; it's turned into a joke about sexual objectification and exotification." . I can understand your feelings. . None the less, this woman's 2 minutes of screen time is better known that any performance ever done by Gong Li or Zhang Ziyi. . I did see FMJ during it's theatrical release and recall thinking the Da Nang hooker's lines will live on. . I have never read anything Kubrick had to say about her but knowing Kubrick's attention to detail, he didn't intend her to be just a little comic relief, she had to add something serious to the movie. . After you posted this, I went to You Tube to see the infamous 2 minutes so to refresh my memory. Kubrick indicated she was important by having her step into the frame and then have you follow her with the extended walk to her possible new clients. Kubrick wanted you to pay close attention to her. Her animated motions, how she negotiated confidently and then assured her potential johns they would get far more than what they would pay for ("Me Love You Too Much") showed a woman who wasn't just trying to get a little new shoes money, she had goals. . I think Kubrick either by intent or by accident was saying in another time and place (or if there was no war) the Da Nang hooker could have been a successful businesswoman in a field other than what she was then doing. . Papillon Soo Soo packed a lot in those few brief moments she was on the screen.
Every television show procedural episode set in friggin CHINATOWN.
Even though there's a lot that I like about Lost in Translation (the mood, mainly) the portrayal of Japanese bothers me. It's not maliciously racist but still problematic for me. In the film, Japanese are invariably depicted as exotic, unknowable, incomprehensible -- more alien than human. It's also frustrating how the main, white characters resign themselves to a cozy little bubble of fellow tourists rather than making an attempt to get out and get to know the country and people.
Don't forget the "classics." Warner Oland, who was Swedish, as detective Charlie Chan. Not to mention Paul Muni and Luise Ranier as Wang Lung and spouse in the 0scar-winning "The Good Earth."
See this post for my list of annoying portrayals of Asian women in films: