In 1972, Bruce Lee burst onto the western mainstream cinema landscape with The Way of The Dragon. For the first time, Asian and Western audiences alike witnessed something that had never been seen before on a global scale; here was a Chinese man, ferocious and deadly, going toe to toe with Chuck Norris and defeating him in the Roman Colosseum. Lee emerged, with his kung-fu expertise and trademark war cries, as a cultural rarity in American cinema. It was the first time that Americans were exposed to an East Asian character who was not a caricature and it was also the first time that the Asian-American audience saw someone who looked like them presenting a new cultural identity to the Western world. After the iconic breakthrough of Bruce Lee in the 70s, visual representations providing new types of East Asian identity have continued to emerge in mainstream American cinema and television. However, these representations and different forms of identities are not without their own problematic modes.
Photo Credit: Bruce Lee Action Museum
Post-Bruce Lee actors and directors have continued to grapple with creating East Asian characters who go beyond stereotypes. From Lee in Enter the Dragon (1973) to roles played by stars such as Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu, there have always been a constant struggle to go against the grain of character-trope representation and even a struggle for Asians to be seen at all on the screen. Although there are some East Asian roles which have been non-stereotypical since Lee’s significant breakthrough, East Asians are still mainly seen in mainstream American cinema and television as character tropes and are only allowed to explore the complexities of their humanity in an exotic setting. This essay will attempt to analyze these different East Asian identities represented in the American mainstream from the advent of Bruce Lee’s iconic films to the present. It will also explore the ways in which these characters can be the product of what came before and the possibility of them being turned into “controlled images”(1) that can reflect or inform the social climate. From ideas of East Asian masculinity and femininity to questions regarding cultural purity, the analysis of these characters can offer a glimpse into the positions and identities which East Asians hold in the continually changing America.
The stigma which has been created around East Asians since they first immigrated to the United States has historically been closely linked to the East Asian persona in the mass media. Both have always informed each other and the West’s initial stance of orientalism still lingers till today, both in a social context and in a cinematic landscape. Orientalism has been defined as “a distinctive means of representing race, nationality and Otherness”(2) and one of the most common portrayals of Asians by Hollywood is the portrayal of Asians as the exotic other. By constructing an ‘other’ “whose characteristics were understood as being in opposition to the West”, these Asian characters are used to help “the West define itself” [Rajgopal, 145.].
Anny May Wong – Photo Credit: Getty Images
Since the nineteenth century, East Asians are perceived as a threat to the pure American way of life. In 1904, the novelist Jack London was the first person who introduced the stigma of the “yellow peril”(3). He labels the East Asian population as a “menace” to the Western way of life and terms the Chinese the “yellow men” and the Japanese “the little brown men” [Wu, 2001.]. From then on, the immigrated population is pitted against the whites in what is seen as something akin to survival of the fittest. Staci Ford writes of how the Asian immigration experience has been sidelined or virtually ignored on screen altogether (4) . Despite the initial immigration of Asians in the eighteenth and nineteenth century or the new influx of immigrants after the Sino-British Joint declaration in 1984 and after the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 [Ford, 57.], the Asian American experience has rarely been discussed or explored in the cinematic landscape. Instead, the stigma of the yellow peril and the exotic other stuck around.
In classic Hollywood, there are many instances where white actors paint their face yellow or tape their eyes back to portray East Asian characters. There was an emergence of Asians being portrayed as evil villains or one-dimensional comedic relief. Significantly, East Asian women are exoticized and fetishized in roles such as Madame Butterfly, the tragic lover. Asian American actress Anna May Wong’s career is a prime example of an Asian woman being constantly stereotyped as the dragon lady or as the demure China doll. Since 1970, Asian Americans constitutes to 4.5 percent of the American population and numbers over 12.5 million people. However, people of Asian descent are cast in less than three percent of film and television parts while only 1.7 percent makes it to the lead roles in mainstream screens (5). If an Asian character makes their way onto the American screen, most of the time they are caricatures in the background. There are usually the gangsters, the academic ‘nerds’, the exotic other, or the over-sexualized woman “rather than as a focal point of narrative”(6). It is difficult to find a mainstream film or a television show where Asians are allowed to be a romantic lead, a prominent cast member, or a fully fledged character with a realistic story-arc.
The deconstructing of stereotypes is therefore not only needed, but something which almost all Asian performers strive to overcome again and again. A perfect example is the iconic figure of Bruce Lee himself, being the first prominent Asian actor who deconstructs the old yellow peril stigma and introducing his own brand of male Asian identity into Hollywood. Before Bruce Lee came along, Asian men on screen are largely lumped into two categories: the “faithful eunuchs attending to the needs of their white masters” or the “barbaric heathens lusting after Anglo-American women”(7). While Lee’s on screen masculinity is a direct contrast to this image, his brand of Asian masculinity proves as both an advantage and a disadvantage to the post-Bruce Lee era in East Asian representation.
1. Hermant Shah, ‘“Asian Culture” and Asian American Identities in the Television and Film Industries of the United States’, Studies in Media and Information Literacy Education, 3.3 (2003), p. 1.
2. Matthew Bernstein, Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film [New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1997], p.2.
3. Frank H. Wu, ‘Asian Americans and the perpetual foreigner syndrome’, A Guide to Asian American Empowerment, 2001 <http://web.archive.org/web/20070928140811/http://www.modelminority.com/article676.html> [accessed 24 December 2013].
4. Staci Ford, ‘Hong Kong Film goes to America’, Hong Kong FIlm, Hollywood and New Global Cinema [New York: Routledge Publication, 2007], p.54.
5. Margaret Hillenbrand, ‘Of Myths and Men: “Better Luck Tomorrow” and Mainstreaming of Asian America Cinema’, Cinema Journal, 47.4 (2008), p. 50.
6. Joann Lee, ‘Asian American Actors in Film, Television and Theater, An Ethnographic Case Study’, Race, Gender & Class, 8,4 (2001), p. 179.
7. Gina Marchetti, From Tian’anmen to Times Square [Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006], p. 208.