Hollywood's Racial Catch-22

Hollywood likes to paint different groups with broad strokes.

Southerners are backward. Priests are pedophiles. Mexicans are lazy. Italians have links to the Mob.

Few groups with as long a history in this country as Asian-Americans have been portrayed in such a limited variety of roles: The kung fu fighter. The studious nerd. The mercenary businessman. The "Dragon Lady." The prostitute.

In his new documentary, "The Slanted Screen," writer/producer/director Jeff Adachi says these narrow screen portrayals are dangerous because they affect the way Asian-Americans are perceived in the real world, shaping and defining their identities.

As part of a John Stossel "20/20" story on Hollywood stereotypes, three of the leading Asian-American actors on TV today -- Daniel Dae Kim, B.D. Wong, and Ming-Na -- agreed to take part so they could set the record straight.

They described how the negative images they saw growing up had affected their lives and careers.

Old School Asian-American Actors

It was meeting the Asian actors of the previous generations, like James Shigeta, one of the first Asian-American male stars in Hollywood, that led Adachi to produce his film.

Adachi told ABC that he made "The Slanted Screen" to tell the story of actors caught "in a perpetual Catch-22."

In the past, Asian actors were only offered demeaning roles, which they had to play if they wanted to pay the rent.

"When they did play those roles, they were ostracized by their own communities."

Asian-Americans have been in films since the industry's birth.

Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa became a star playing a romantic leading man in the silent era.

"He not only starred in silent films, but he had written and directed and produced his own films," Adachi said.

But his success was short-lived.

Hayakawa started his own studio because he was tired of the stereotypical roles he was continually offered, and he eventually left Hollywood to make films overseas.

Hayakawa returned to the United States in the 1940s and played character parts such as the Oscar-nominated role of a Japanese military officer in "Bridge on the River Kwai."

The 'Inscrutable Oriental'

Through the 1940s, racist portrayals of Asians became the norm, and actors, when they could get work, were often relegated to playing the "inscrutable Oriental" stereotype: shifty, diabolical and mysterious, like Dr. Fu Manchu or his female counterpart, the "Dragon Lady."

Even more insulting was the fact that many Asian characters, like Charlie Chan, were played by white actors in what is called "yellowface" -- wearing devices like eyepieces and rubber bands to "slant" the eyes, dark makeup, and false buck teeth to try and "pass" as Asian.

Many Asians reveled in the success of martial arts expert Bruce Lee, who became a star in America with the 1973 film "Enter the Dragon."

But this too became a stereotype, says Tisa Chang, director of New York's Pan Asian Repertory Theatre, as Asian-American actors emulated Lee and began studying kung fu.

"So now the flip side of stereotyping is that every Asian-American actor is expected to know some form of martial arts. Any casting person will say, 'Well, do you do some martial arts?'"

Long Duk Dong

One of the most notorious Asian stereotypes was the character Long Duk Dong in the popular 1984 "brat pack" film "Sixteen Candles."

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