How has Chinese representation in popular culture changed over the years?

In 1894, the world’s first commercial motion-picture exhibition took place in New York City. Since then, movies have been a crucial part of the fabric of the culture of the United States and have played key roles in various historical moments. Today, Hollywood is a multi-billion dollar industry that impacts people across the globe. 


The first Chinese-American film star in Hollywood was named Anna May Wong. Born in Los Angeles to first-generation Chinese-American parents, Wong began her career in silent films, including The Toll of the Sea, one of the first films to ever be made in color. During this time, she also came to be recognized for her taste in fashion, and was voted the “world’s best dressed woman” in 1934 by the Mayfair Mannequin Society of New York. However, Wong began to become deeply frustrated by the stereotypical supporting roles she was cast in. She then left for Europe to do stage work, and though she appeared in films of the early sound era such as Daughter of the Dragon in 1931 and Daughter of Shanghai in 1937, she decided to star in B movies in the late 1930s, prioritizing being in films that portrayed Chinese Americans in a positive light over being in more widely-seen films. During World War II, she focused on raising money to help the Chinese cause against World War II, and after the war was over, she made history with her show The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, the first U.S. television show starring an Asian American actress. Though she tragically passed away at the age of 56, her legacy is still remembered today, as she frequently resisted the stereotypical way in which Hollywood portrays Asian American women.  


Anna May Wong was a rare case during the early Hollywood era, as most Asian roles during this time went to white actors in yellowface, such as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. However, the post-WWII era would see more roles for Asian American actresses in Hollywood. For example, The World of Suzie Wong starring Nancy Kwan — a Chinese-American actress — follows the story of a prostitute named Suzie Wong and her life in Hong Kong. Even though The World of Suzie Wong is an example of a Chinese-American woman being cast instead of an actress in yellowface, it is important to acknowledge the harmful way that Hollywood stereotyped Asian women as prostitutes. This stereotype — born out of Orientalism and perpetuated by Hollywood — continues to harm the Asian American community today, as Asian American women are sexualized due to this harmful idea. 


In 1961, the first Hollywood movie with Asian Americans as leads, Flower Drum Song, was produced. Based on the musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, the movie takes place in Chinatown and has solicited mixed feelings from the Asian American community. While it did actually cast Asian Americans in the leading roles, the stereotypes of the docile picture bride and the gold-digging showgirl continue to harm the Asian American community today. 


In 1973, Bruce Lee starred in Enter the Dragon, a popular Warner Bros. film that would increase the visibility of Chinese Americans and disrupt stereotypes about the group being a docile model minority. Though Lee sadly died six days before the film was released, his work would pave the way for future martial arts stars including Jackie Chan and Jet Li. 


The late 60s and early 70s would also see a large rise in Asian Americans producing creative output about themselves and their communities due to the rise of the Asian American Movement. For example, the Kearny Street Workshop — the oldest multidisciplinary arts nonprofit addressing AAPI issues — was founded in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Theater companies such as the East West Players in Los Angeles, the Asian American theater Workshop in San Francisco, and the Pan Asian Repertory Theatre in New York were established during this era. These smaller-scale community-based arts organizations were important in the fight for Asian Americans to represent themselves and tell their own stories.  


The 90s were a time of major strides for the Chinese American community. In 1993, Amy Tan’s book The Joy Luck Club was adapted into a film and became a commercial and critical success. The Joy Luck Club follows the lives of four Chinese mothers and their daughters in San Francisco. Additionally, in 1998 Mulan became the first Disney animated film with the leads predominantly voiced by Asian Americans, with a Chinese American writer being hired for the film.


Though Asian American representation has increased greatly over the last few decades, there is still a long way to go. Even though movies like Crazy Rich Asians, Everything Everywhere All At Once, Tigertail, and The Farewell have increased the visibility of Chinese Americans on the big screen, diversity in the movie industry — both in front of and behind the camera — is woefully lacking. According to the Entertainment Diversity Progress released by Luminate in 2022, less than 2% of all movies released last year centered on Asian stories. A study conducted by the University of South California found that Asian Americans represent only 1 percent of all leading roles in Hollywood today. Thus, there’s still a long way to go, and if we can learn anything from this history, it’s that representation improves when creatives write their own narratives and are given the opportunity to tell their stories. 


Interested in learning more? Check out these resources:


— Time Magazine: Crazy Rich Asians Kicked Down the Door. Now Asian Americans Are Fighting To Stay in the Room.

— The New York Times: Why Do Asian Americans Remain Largely Unseen in Film and Television? 

— Augustman: Uncovering the Complex History of Asian Representation in Hollywood