In Bruce Lee's Shadow: Asians Struggle to Create New Hollywood Images

In the end, the characters played by Lee, Li and Chan always save the day. But they never get the girl.

"After Bruce Lee, you had the image of the hyper-focused martial artist, focused on his craft, aesthetics," said Kim. "But as I was watching 'Romeo Must Die,' I was waiting to see if Jet Li was going to kiss Aaliyah. But they never kissed. … Asian actors almost never get to kiss the girl."

Romantic leading Asian actors were an anomaly as Hollywood studios typically assigned the roles of Asian characters to white actors in the early 20th century. They were more common in U.S. cinema before the Bruce Lee era, but they were not allowed to kiss any non-Asian on screen.

Various laws barring interracial marriage were still in effect in the United States and interracial mingling in films in the early 20th century was considered taboo. In silent films such as "The Wrath of the Gods," "Alien Souls" and "The Dragon Painter," Japanese immigrant actor Sessue Hayakawa played a romantic lead opposite his wife, actress Tsuru Aoki. Philip Ahn, Anna May Wong's on- and off-screen love interest, played her romantic lead in "Daughter of Shanghai" in 1937 and "King of Chinatown" in 1939.

Still, long after the death of antimiscegenation laws, romantic leading Asian actors have remained a U.S. film rarity.

"James Shigeta wins the love of Victoria Shaw and marries Carroll Baker respectively in 'The Crimson Kimono' and 'Bridge to the Sun,'" said Chung. "Of course, these are exceptions to more prevalent stereotypes of emasculated Asian male images. Most recently, we saw John Cho as a romantic lead in 'Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.' But the romance between Harold and Maria -- a Latina neighbor -- was a minor component in this comic buddy film, and we will have to wait for a sequel to see how that develops."

Plight of the Asian Actress

Asian actresses arguably may have more choices than men but they are still stereotyped.

Anna May Wong was the first Asian-American actress to become a Hollywood star in the 1920s and 1930s, but she was frustrated by the lack of diversity in her roles. Generally, Asian women have been portrayed in Hollywood as exotic, sensual Madame Butterfly-type characters who have either forbidden love affairs or are victimized by American suitors; seductive, scheming dragon ladies or assassins originally made popular by Anna May Wong's performance in "Daughter of the Dragon" -- and like their males, docile servants and model students.

Asian actresses today also face another kind of stereotype: being cast for roles where they are the sidekick, best friend or quirky friend of a main character. And they also must contend with competing with other Asian women, in addition to non-Asian actresses, for the few available roles.

"The main struggle for me is that when it comes down to it, I'm a struggling Asian-American actress, like others, who's relatively anonymous who's going up against actresses who have been in the business 20 years more than me -- like Sandra Oh, like Lucy Liu, who's been around a while now, like Ming-Na Wen -- actresses who have been around in the business much longer than me," said New York-based actress Ann Hu.

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