Hollywood's Racial Catch-22


Sep. 27, 2006 -- -- 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."

Young Japanese-American actor Gedde Watanabe played the undersexed, nerdy foreign-exchange student whose ethnicity was the butt of jokes throughout the film.

In "Slanted Screen," comedian Bobby Lee of MAD TV says, "My nickname was 'Long Duk Dong' in high school because of that character, and I think every Asian guy that ever went to an American school's nickname was Long Duk Dong because of that character. That means that you're not going to get any girls."

Daniel Dae Kim of ABC's "Lost" told "20/20's" Stossel that images like the Long Duk Dong character and that of the subservient cook Hop Sing on "Bonanza" had been "hard for me to shake as a high school student. … Because a lot of those characters were the very ones that people would make fun of me about when I was going to school. They made an indelible mark on my childhood psyche."

B.D. Wong, who plays a psychiatrist on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" knew as a child he wanted to be a performer, but "every portrayal of an Asian that I was watching as a kid was something that embarrassed me."

With the exception, he says, of actor George Takei, who played Lt. Sulu on the space series "Star Trek."

"George Takei on 'Star Trek' was the dignified role model that a lot of Asian-American actors found comfort in. 'Wow, there's a guy who doesn't speak with an accent, who is part of an American landscape.' It's space. So they got away with it."

The Invisible Asian-Americans

A study released last month done by UCLA researchers for the Asian American Justice Center confirmed that there had not been a tremendous amount of progress for Asian-American actors looking for leading roles on network TV.

While Asian-Americans make up 5 percent of the U.S. population, the report found only 2.6 percent were primetime TV regulars.

And shows set in cities with large Asian populations, like New York and Los Angeles, had few Asian roles.

One out of five people in the New York City borough of Queens is Asian, but CBS's "The King of Queens" has no Asian characters.

Actress Ming-Na, who plays an FBI agent on the new Fox show "Vanished," noticed that about Orange County, Calif., where the show "The O.C." is based.

She told "20/20": "I don't know what Orange County that show is representing. But there is not one single Asian in that show. And I am sorry, that is just wrong. It would be like having a show take place in China and not having one Asian represented."

The danger, "Law & Order's" Wong says, is that Asian-Americans can become invisible in their own country.

"I felt a great need to prove to people that there was such a thing as an Asian-American person. I don't think that people in this country generally, widely understand that there are people with my face that were actually born here."

The lack of what Wong calls "an American landscape that's really diverse" on TV is "tremendously damaging for kids."

Wong says as a kid, this said to him, "You're not welcome. You're not welcome in this industry. And frankly, I'm not so sure you're so welcome in the country in general."

"People really trust and believe in what they see on the television," Wong told Stossel. "I certainly trusted and believed it when I was a kid. … And it did a number on me."

Tisa Chang agrees. "A young person growing up, seeing himself lampooned and caricatured with broken English or buck teeth or slanty eyes. … It's really quite an emotional and psychic trauma for a young person."

"We are a melting pot," Ming-Na said. "We need to address it, and we need to represent it in television and in films."

"It would be a really wonderful place in Hollywood," Ming-Na said, "when we are just seen as actors. Where we are not plagued with being an 'Asian-American actor' or an 'African-American actor,' because then we might as well call Tom Cruise 'the Caucasian actor.' … When that time comes, that's when I think we are forging ahead."