"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.
"That's just an example that there's less work available, and when there is work available, the actresses who have been in the biz longer and who have had more time to make the connections in the business, have more clout, more notoriety, actually get the gig instead of the actress who's more age-right for the part," she said.
Hu, who is in her 20s, recalls that when she first began auditioning for some roles, the directors wanted her to speak in a Chinese accent. However, as the daughter of English-speaking immigrants -- and an Asian-American who grew up in the United States speaking English -- Hu didn't have an accent. She would go to a nearby Chinese restaurant and tape-record employees reading her script.
Hu ultimately imitated the accent, but she was still turned down for parts.
"This was basically an instance where who I am kind of got the better of me," she said. "They basically thought my mannerisms were too American, that I seemed too American for the part. Maybe it was that they were aware that I was acting out the accent and they wanted someone who had the accent."
Hu has had guest roles on NBC's "Law & Order" and "Law & Order: Trial By Jury" and just finished a run as one of the lead roles in the play "An Infinite Ache" in Greensboro, N.C. Despite her work in television and theater, Hu says she has had a hard time finding work in film. And she says she has had difficulty getting auditions for leading roles.
"Usually I don't get to audition for a lead role," she said. "I usually get an audition for a supporting role, sidekick, the best friend. I don't know why that is because I feel Asian men and Asian women are such strong characters, especially in this country. And unless I know kung fu, or some kind of knife fighting or sword fighting, or something of that stereotypical nature, it would be hard for me to be seen as having a leading role."
But actresses like Hu may have reason to be optimistic, particularly in the roles recently played by Sandra Oh, who co-starred on HBO's "Arli$$" before gaining some fame for performances in 2004's "Sideways" and ABC's hit hospital drama "Grey's Anatomy."
"Will the Madame Butterfly stereotype disappear from Western culture in this new millennium? I doubt it," said Chung. "However, some improvements are being made. Sandra Oh plays substantial, racially nonspecific roles in 'Sideways' and ABC's 'Grey's Anatomy.' Bilingual Korean-American actress Yun-jin Kim --who appeared in the Korean blockbuster 'Shiri' -- plays a fully developed, three-dimensional character which does not conform to pre-existing stereotypes such as Madame Butterfly or dragon lady in ABC's 'Lost.' I certainly hope to see more of these changes in the future."