Story and Graphics by Jess Kung, Editor-in-Chief
“Asian-American” is a weird term. It’s not that old, it started being used in 1968 when Berkeley grad students Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka started the Asian-American Political Alliance, the first “inter-ethnic pan-Asian-American political group.”
It took some time for the idea to catch on. Most people just identified with their own ethnic group or country of origin and had their own beefs with other groups. Take the countries affected by Japan’s empire during World War II. Or India and Pakistan. Or Nepal and China. Also general colorism, nationalism and Islamophobia.
But in the United States, we’re all “orientals.” We can see this reflected in the movie version of Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Flower Drum Song,” based on the novel by Chinese-American C.Y. Lee. It’s release in 1961 marked the first Hollywood-produced, major motion picture with an all-Asian cast.
(At the risk of playing into capitalist markers of success, I’m trying to focus only on major studio films. They reflect what gets investment from the powerful and what gets marketed to a “general” audience. There are also only three, and man is this piece long enough.)
Watching it in 2019, I found it both surprisingly prescient and wildly dated. The plot follows two heterosexual couples’ worth of young people in San Francisco’s Chinatown. While the original novel focused on a father with American sons, the musical and film focused instead on the romantic plot. The main players: a delicate “picture bride,” a sultry nightclub dancer, the nightclub’s sleazy owner and a handsome college boy.
The plot deals with themes of assimilation and tradition. It opens with Mei Li (literally “beautiful”) and her father on their way to find the man who she has been betrothed to, based on her picture. Picture brides were an expedited system of arranged marriage for men working abroad, basically mail order brides. Anyways, musical romcom shenanigans ensue. It shares a lot of DNA with “Guys and Dolls.” The tension between new arrivals and assimilated immigrants is acknowledged early on in a few musical numbers, but it quickly becomes background dressing to the romances.
To my eyes, the film was less offensive than I imagined. It wasn’t without problems, though, especially in the racialized treatment of women. The picture bride’s father sells her like a prized steer. It’s played for laughs, but it’s more mocking to the primitive practice and never really explored. The docile delicate flower is placed in opposition to the openly sexual dragon lady, and they never even interact.
"The novelty of seeing Asian faces speaking unaccented English in a cheesy musical hasn’t quite worn off, even 60 years later"
The score introduces gongs and “Oriental riffs.” According to Richard Rodgers in his autobiography, for one song, Hammerstein drew from a Malaysian poetic form “to achieve an appropriately naïve, singsong flavor.” All of the dancing, however, is in distinctly Western styles - jazz, ballet, at one point there’s a whole history of dance group numbers. While people descended from Asia are not confined to inherited forms of expression, it feels like dance is used to demonstrate how “American” and “normal” these characters are.
Regardless, the novelty of seeing Asian faces speaking unaccented English in a cheesy musical hasn’t quite worn off, even 60 years later. James Shigeta, the romantic lead with three (!) love interests, was so handsome that he was basically the second Asian man allowed to kiss a white woman in Hollywood (after silent film star Sessue Hayakawa) during a time when most anti-miscegenation laws were still in effect.
There are huge crowd scenes representing Chinatown residents as people in contemporary clothes going about their daily lives, which is a distressingly low bar for satisfaction. Special shoutout to the Patrick Adiarte, playing the kid brother as a trickster with exuberant dances.
(Apparently, they whisked every available Asian actor off to Hollywood — to the point that when the Western “Wagon Train” needed to cast a Chinese chef, they put a white man in rubber eyelids. “He calls it ‘an actor’s dream’; he runs the gamut from pathos to comedy,” reads a TV guide from the time.)
Most of the cast is Japanese-American playing Chinese-American, which is kinda wild when you remember that Japanese internment camps happened less than 20 years before. Chinese and other East Asian people wore pins and used other big symbols to make sure they were not mistaken for Japanese. People get really riled up about this perceived miscasting, but I think it’s more complex than that (put a pin in that).
They really did try to cast as many Chinese faces as they could, and barring that went for as many East Asian faces. It was a who’s who of famous orientals. Aside from previously mentioned babe James Shigeta, there was Japan-born Miyoshi Umeki as the picture bride. She was the first Asian woman to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, in 1958 and the only one to win. They were going to cast pioneering actress Anna May Wong as the aunt, but she died before production. Instead they cast African-American actress Juanita Smalls, who they had previously casted as Tonkinese in “South Pacific.”
Rodgers wrote that, “The ethnically mixed cast certainly didn’t lessen the total effect; What was important was that the actors gave the illusion of being Chinese. This demonstrates one of the most wonderful things about theatre audiences. People want to believe what they see on a stage, and they will gladly go along with whatever is done to achieve the desired effect.”
"To the people with power in this colonized nation, we’re all the same slant-eyed orientals."
This reflects one of the key elements of the eventual coalition: To the people with power in this colonized nation, we’re all the same slant-eyed orientals. In fact, it can be argued that the catalyst for our current understanding of Asian-American identity was the murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American who was brutally beaten to death in Detroit in 1982. His attackers, white auto workers losing work to Japanese manufacturers, targeted him because they thought he was Japanese.
In 1990, playwright David Henry Hwang and actor B. D. Wong stirred controversy when they filed a complaint with the Actors Equity Union regarding the casting of a white man as the “Eurasian” lead of a British production of “Miss Saigon.” They were the team behind the distantly related “M. Butterfly.” It seemed like a mild fiasco, since the Union banned the white actor and then took it back when the producers got mad. That white actor would go on to win a Tony for that role.
(Both productions were roughly based on “Madama Butterfly,” a classic opera that is a hallmark of wild ass orientalist nonsense.)
So Asian-American organizing came to fruition as a pan-ethnic front united under the shared experiences of all kinds of diaspora Asians. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act eliminated national-origin quotas designed to limit immigration from everywhere but Northern and Western Europe and created the subsequent mass influx of immigrants who weren’t white. The Asian population, measured as broadly it is, is the fastest growing population in the U.S.
The umbrella term was a double-edged sword, though, that ended up making the wider perception of “Asian” light skinned, Chinese or Japanese, intelligent and upwardly mobile. The population trends and averages, when measuring all groups considered Asian or Pacific Islander, mask deeply entrenched inequality. Hmong and Bhutanese people, among other groups, have higher rates of poverty and lower rates of completion of a bachelor’s degree — not to mention lower name recognition.
The model minority myth has been used in various forms, always as a tool of oppression. One marginalized group is lifted up so that another may be demonized. As we know it in America, the myth primarily serves to use Asians as a weapon against Black and Latinx people. Because why can’t they just be quiet and well behaved like the Asians?
Wayne Wang’s first feature was “Chan is Missing” in 1982, one of the earliest Asian-American films to gain acclaim outside Chinese-American communities. It was an edgy mystery comedy that showed a raw and stylish side of SF Chinatown, and as Siskel and Ebert put it, “it was made from inside.” It was a revelation to see Chinatown outside of exotisized New Years.
He went on to direct “The Joy Luck Club,” released in 1993, the second stop on this tour. Based on the novel by Amy Tan, the film explores the lives of four mothers who play Mahjong together, and their four adult daughters. It looks at each family’s lives in three sections: the mothers’ lives in China, how the mothers raised their daughters and how their daughters deal with their lives and mothers as adults.
Wang outlined a casting philosophy that reflected a more Asian-American understanding of race, one that turned Rodger’s “see what they want to see” idea around. He told the New York Times in 1993 that, "During the 'Miss Saigon' controversy, there were a lot of people who said, 'Talent is talent, and anybody can play any character with makeup.' But it never happens that an Asian actress can go out for a major Caucasian role and get it. Until that day comes, there is no equity, so it was important to me that these roles all go to Asians.” For this reason, he also wanted to consider actresses from various Asian backgrounds.
Patricia P. Chu wrote in her book, “Assimilating Asians: Gendered Strategies of Authorship in Asian America,” that Tan’s book consciously weaves around orientalist stereotypes. Many of the stories resolve relationships by having the daughters realize their mother’s humanity, that the tiger mom image was based on an inability to reconcile the foreignness within their family. However, the mother characters still often act out a mythic version of China — when I asked my mother about it, she mostly remembered the moments where she almost cringed out of her seat.
The men are all terrible, which is something (male) critics were quick to point out. And of the three men that are good people, two are white. Asian men being portrayed as abusers and assholes reverberates around this notion that they aren’t viable partners, an issue for the ages. Asian men have been continuously emasculated on screen, while Asian women are coveted and fetishized. This is another issue that stems from western racism and unites the entire umbrella of Asian diaspora.
I was surprised, though, at how emotionally affected I was by the film. It’s dramatic, earnest and flew very close to being cheesy, but the warm crackles of film grain kept me glued to every dewy eyed close up. The scenes framing the stories, a party in a middle class San Francisco house, had the comforting mix of English and Mandarin chatter I grew up around.
“The Joy Luck Club” was generally well received, and it started to crack open the mold of what Asian-American stories were allowed to be and gave many actresses their big break. Ming-Na Wen went on to voice Mulan in 1998 (opposite B.D. Wong) and along with many of the other daughters, went on to have a solid TV career. More mold breaking happened in the indie scene of the early 2000s. There was “Better Luck Tomorrow,” where overachieving high school students do crimes, and “Saving Face,” the only Chinese-American lesbian romantic comedy. But they were still cult films, mostly relegated to festivals and Asian-American blogs.
“Crazy Rich Asians” is a 2018 romantic comedy based on the novel by Kevin Kwan. Once again, it arrived 30 years after its predecessor. It follows NYU professor Rachel Chu as she’s thrown into the throes of her boyfriend’s absurdly wealthy family. It’s been thinkpieced to death, so I’m just gonna look at it relative to the two others.
The wealth is a big deal. When “Flower Drum Song” came out in 1961, almost all of Asia was considered “third world.” The ensuing years brought economic and political advancement, and we now generally think of East Asia as a wealthy region. By placing a second generation Chinese-American character in Singapore, the American audience experiences the eternal outsiderness that most immigrants experience, but from a new angle. When Rachel is surrounded by people who look like her, her American-ness pops out in relief.
This film understands its own context pretty well. While it’s not quite a feminist text, it works in response to what it’s seen as regressive. No Madonna/whore complex. Examples of non-tiger immigrant moms. Sexy dudes. Women with agency. But also the same issues of cross-ethnic casting and a near-bizzare treatment of darker skinned minorities.
These movies all center light-skinned Chinese-Americans from the San Francisco Bay Area (In the movie Rachel’s mom lives in Queens, but in the CRA book she’s from Cupertino). Almost everyone is educated, heterosexual and not poor. This experience clearly has deep veins to mine, but the banner of “Asian-American” has been used to blanket the countless other stories waiting to be told.
There’s this sociological term: whitening. It refers to the process that made Italians and Irish people white when they weren’t before, and it’s been suggested that people of Asian and Latin American descent are next. This process strengthens the dominant group by absorbing others. Think of how many white people are vaguely Irish, and slightly Scottish, and maybe Nordic. All of this is a process of anti-blackness, same as the model minority myth.
Capitalist success is not the path to equality. There are more important issues than representation. But visibility is really powerful, and the more we see, the more our cultures and histories can be reconstructed. I learned so much through these three major motion pictures. Imagine what could be learned from hundreds?