Op-ed: Asians in Hollywood

About 18 months ago, I was nostril-deep in my Masters degree and feeling particularly stale on the freelancing front. At the time, I was juggling four jobs as a retail assistant, data production editor at Thomson-Reuters, interning at Grazia, and attempting to blank my mum’s 1573 pleas to drop journalism and go study finance so I could get a real job. Do not ask me how I managed not to crawl into a hole and die from sheer exhaustion. Exhaustion = direct symptom of ambition that potentially borders on insanity.

Anyhoo – I wasn’t looking forward to much for my 21st birthday. Epic party with garage band and jumping castle hijinks had been delayed til July (this is what happens when you’re the only one in the batch who does an exam-free degree) and Asian-Australian/American/media research seeped from my very pores. It got to a point where I figured hey, let’s put all these textbooks to use. Two birds with one stone – lifelong ambition of being published in Sydney’s premier broadsheet newspaper, plus thesis material cheerfully juiced for the masses and my brain’s sanity.

What I originally penned under ‘Chortle chortle WISHFUL THINKING MUCH? Chortle chortle,’ became quite the giddy reality in a mere number of days. Needless to say, the Sydney Morning Herald gave me the best birthday present I could ever wish for.

Original article can be viewed online here.


Hollywood fails ethnic realism test
By Margaret Tran

As an Australian-born Asian I am well-versed on the Asian stereotypes that plague the Western film industry. The nerdy Asian guy, the exotic dragon lady, the perpetual foreigner type – the list goes on. Racial caricatures often have little if any basis in truth, but their impact continues to permeate society.

When I heard that Ben Mezrich’s book Bringing Down The House was being made into a film I was stoked. Here was a story with the potential to be a positive step against typecasting Asians in film. The book tells the true story of how six MIT students, mainly Asian-Americans, perfected a card-counting tactic and reaped millions of dollars from several Las Vegas casinos. The film adaptation, 21, was picked up by Sony Pictures and the Australian director Robert Luketic.

The ethnicity of the main players of the team was crucial to the story. In his book, Mezrich explicitly states that a Caucasian guy walking into a casino with huge sums of money would be more conspicuous than a non-Caucasian doing the same thing – “A geeky Asian kid with $100,000 in his wallet didn’t raise any eyebrows.”

In the film the lead roles were given to white actors. The role of Jill Taylor, based on Jane Willis (who told The Boston Globe the team was mostly Asian and male), was elevated to a leading role, despite being a minor member of the original team. The up-and-coming British actor Jim Sturgess was cast as the team leader, Ben Campbell, who was named Kevin Lewis in the book. Sturgess required coaching to perfect an American accent. In reality Lewis was Jeff Ma, an Asian-American Massachusetts Institute of Technology student who, with his Asian-American friends Mike Aponte and John Chang, took on the casinos.

In response to the casting, Mezrich said that even as Asian actors were entering more mainstream films, such as Better Luck Tomorrow and Memoirs of a Geisha, stereotypes of Asians still existed. Numerous internet forums erupted over what many deemed a “whitewashing” of an Asian-American story.

Amid the controversy the Asian-American actors Aaron Yoo and Lisa Lapira were cast as secondary characters. This happened well into the production schedule, possibly to throw token Asians into the mix. Their characters were nothing more than kleptomaniacs.

Film is a powerfully persuasive medium. By saying something is “based on a true story”, factual evidence is immediately implied. Unfortunately, Hollywood films are based on how marketable – and ultimately how much money can be made – from the story and the actors. To this end the industry dictates when and how ethnic actors can make it in the mostly white middle-class bubble that is the film industry. In the event that they do, ethnic actors are reduced to stereotypes.

More and more non-Caucasian actors – in this case Asians – are being cast in roles that leave little room to diversify.

Arguments pointing to the casting of apparently minority actors such as Will Smith in I Am Legend or John Cho and Kal Penn in Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle are unconvincing. These films did not depend on the role of ethnicity to drive the story. They were successful because their stories appealed to a general audience even though their leads happened to be non-white.

The core of Bringing Down The House was based on the group’s ability to use society’s perception of them to their advantage. By changing the part-Asian characters – Kevin Lewis and Mickey Rosa – into white Americans, the point of the story is contradicted.

Such a decision has significant implications for the portrayals of Asians in the film and media industry. An opportunity to show assertive, intelligent and real Asian-American characters to a mainstream audience was lost.

The studio’s decision to change the characters’ ethnicities is a glaring insight into the Hollywood of the 21st century. Despite the casting of Aaron Yoo in the film, some argue that producers were merely looking for the best actor for the role, or that there were no Asian-American actors good or profitable enough to carry the film.

It is a disturbing assessment of society, as similar financial reasoning is often applied to justify everyday gender and racial discrimination in the workforce.

The cultural myopia of Hollywood continues to ignore the multicultural melting pot that makes up many Western nations. It appears an Asian lead is just not Western enough for a Hollywood film.

love: my mum is made of awesomesauce

A straw painting (blow air on paint through a straw) I did when I was three.
…and the corner of a poster of, um, fangirly joy *twiddles thumbs*

Of all the things to come home to, this almost takes the cake. These lovingly written notes appeared within a few days of each other and have been sitting above my workspace at home for the past month or so as constant reminder that “Hight Blood presser is NO Good.”

HELLS YEAH my mum is cooler than your mum. She totes a mean umbrella on blindingly sunny days, laminates each article her daughter’s every published and proceeds to Blu-tack them around the house. I think she will eventually lose her voice over the amount of times she comes into my room to lecture me and avalanche her love and concern in a jagged melody of Vietnamese proverbs followed by the old “Do you understand what I’m saying?” from which she’ll then proceed to translate in Vietlish.

My mum will fork out the hundreds of dollars for the professional graduation photos, put each of my degrees into wooden plaques as well as trot down to Cabramatta to get them done up in hardwood frames to display around the house. A humble smile will fill the corners of her mouth when old friends exclaim, “Wahhh con chị học ký giả? Giỏ quá!” (“Wahhh your child studied journalism? So clever!”) even though her immediate response at her daughter’s wish to pursue this profession was, “Không có người tóc đen học ký giả mà!” (“But there’s no Asians in journalism!”). And that’s barring the sheer amount of cooking and force-feeding she does to make sure my sister and I get all the nutrients we need even if it kills her – “Canh make con ấm” (semi-Vietlish translation: soup makes Child warm). I love coming home to the scents of Canh chua lá giang cá kèo and thịt kho (caramelised meat stew). Sometimes she might be making gỏi cuốn (Vietnamese rice paper rolls), bún gà nướng (baked chicken with vermicellli) or fry up a T-bone steak marinated in hoisin sauce and sesame seeds served with gỏi (Vietnamese salad) and fish sauce dressing – okay maybe that’s just me.

Bún gà nướng. Yes, I appreciate food porn.
No, we don’t make phở at home cuz it takes 13 hours to make the damn soup alone.
And I never though I’d mention the word ‘porn’ in the same blog as my mum. Aiyshhh..
Photo: Merydith @ Flickr

My mum speaks five languages while yours truly conducts her speech in odd English syntax and Vietnamese at the level of a 10-year-old. Her English is better than my Vietnamese, her Teo-Chew slaughters my own and as I struggle at times to differentiate between phonetic Cantonese and Mandarin, she’ll rattle off in both with sheer fluency at the Chinese grocer over the price of mangosteens .

It freaks me out sometimes being reminded that she was just 20 when she escaped Vietnam during the war. She’d sewn the jewellery her mother gave her into the hems of her clothes and blackened her face and hands with coal and boat oil to deter the pirates raiding her rickety boat. With just over a shotglass of water and a piece of moldy food to get her through the day, she’d be the one trying to quiet her nieces and nephews while grasping onto any sliver of hope that they would find land. She stared at open sea, seeing the sky meet the sea for almost five days straight and I think this is why a quiet fear seems to envelop her face whenever I tell her I’m going to the beach with friends.

So many people were lost at sea, so many drowned or were killed, or died at refugee camps. My mum was extremely lucky that her whole family made it to Australia – her brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews and her beloved parents. She has so much love to give and she doesn’t know what to do with it, so it comes at me in furious spurts that I have a tendency to interpret in all the wrong ways. In some ways, it’s a generational guilt I feel each time I do something wrong in her eyes or anything that doesn’t aim to make her proud. It can feel like a lifelong battle to make her content.

A lot of people would take the easy argument of “oh it feels like I’m not living my life, as if I’m doing everything for THEM” with the last word rolling off their tongue with resentment and thinly veiled anger. As if they lack the capacity to think on their own, using their own brain to make their own decisions and drive their own lives. As if their parents sacrifices have cemented their entire existence until the next generation is born, a role that can be emotionally agonising to fulfil.

I was at a multicultural food festival one weekend in Bankstown when a mother and daughter walked passed. The daughter looked about 17 or so and her hands were weighed down with Asian groceries, her little brother toting a similar weight while their small-framed mother walked behind them carrying food containers.

The moment they walked by, the daughter shrieked “YOU’RE ALWAYS FIGHTING WITH ME!!” in such a tone of anger that it rose above the dull roar of the huge bustling crowd and people turned to look at what the commotion was about. Her mother responded, “I’m not trying to fight with you,” in such a voice of calm that my heart ached for both her and her daughter.

Balancing parental expectations is nothing new, but I think it’s a whole new ballgame when it comes to migrant children. To say that it’s agonising figuring out the balance between familial aspirations with your own is putting it lightly. I’ll never know a single right way to live with my mum, or how to respond each time she makes an outrageous demand or purports that “showering after 9pm will make your bones shrivel up and die when you get old” – but I do know that she is only trying to raise me in the best way she knows how. I can’t expect her to drop everything that she’s ever been raised with and adapt completely to a new way of raising her daughters. I always remind myself that she is the way she is for a reason and that understanding each other is just going to take time.

For a woman who went through 13 hours of labour and a stint on the operating table to have me – a fact my dad and extended family have never let me forget – my mother is the strongest and most graceful woman I know. With a limp she’s had since she was three, she’ll walk with her head held high, “tsk tsk” disapproval at my constant habit of not standing with my back straight and work twice as hard as anyone around her. She wittily balance lectures on the importance of an education (“Don’t you know your cousins all got 99.35, 94.05 and 90.85 UAIs? Your cousin Tony had afternoon detention for five years in high school and he got 95.00!”) with personal hygiene (“If you don’t take a bath, your vagina will bleed worms!!” – yes I appreciate that everything directly translated will come out wrong). She potters around in a bid to make her home and her family the very best that it can be, in some ways to make up for the imperfections in the mirror that her eyes seem to see.

It’s funny realising how badly we clash sometimes. I guess it’s a startling yet comfortable reminder of how alike we are. My mum can care too much at times but whenever I’m helping her out with dinner, working from home in front of my computer or sitting with her in the living room watching a Korean drama dubbed in Vietnamese, I know she’ll be watching me. She’ll pat my head, pull me to her and say, “Child, do you know I’m very proud to have you as my daughter.”

Now I’m off to have a ‘short sleep for long periou of time’ and maybe lower my ‘blool precor’ while I’m at it.

I love my mum ❤