There is a powerful moment in the 1993 biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, where Lee, the only Asian in a theatre of white Americans, has gone on a date to see Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
We see him have to watch white actor Mickey Rooney in prosthetics-enhanced yellowface play a loathsomely racist caricature of a Japanese man named I.Y. Yunioshi. As the audience around him erupts in howls of laughter at this buck-toothed, squint-eyed, and cartoonishly accented thing, Lee’s response is not to storm out or rage or (as a less restrained film might have had him do) shame the audience with a lecture.
Rather, it’s to simply sit there, detached and unamused, waiting for it to be over.
It’s a moment that’s been intruding into my thoughts ever since I decided to write something about the cancellation of Kim’s Convenience, the Canadian sitcom that became an unexpected international hit. Featuring an immigrant Korean family making a life in Toronto with their children, the show came to an abrupt end when the production company opted not to continue, saying it couldn’t find people to replace the departing showrunners.
And I couldn’t figure out how that almost 30-year-old scene related to any of this until I realized something.
With the loss of an Asian-centric show like Kim’s Convenience, there are few places where we can be sure Asian characters will exist as actual humans. We’re left, in other words, with the possibility of being stuck watching Mr. Yunioshi’s modern-day grandchildren.
If, like me, you’re a Canadian (or American) of East or Southeast Asian descent and consumed way too much media through the 1980s to 2010s, you might know what I’m talking about.
I have two kinds of memories about the obnoxious and toxic ways Asians have been depicted in North American and English-language media.
The first is made up of precise examples, like scars I still recall the stories behind. The “Me so horny” and “Me love you long time” lines from the Vietnamese sex worker in Full Metal Jacket that for a generation to come was used to simultaneously sexualize and dehumanize Asian women. A bunch of Family Guy bits that felt more like lazy swipes than jokes. Gwen Stefani using Asian women (her “Harajuku Girls”) as silent fashion accessories. Gob on Arrested Development saying of Japanese people “God knows they’re squinters” (which always presented as a joke at the expense of Asians rather than Gob). Cam and Mitch on a show as recent as Modern Family noting how there was always a chance their adopted Vietnamese daughter would be a bad driver.
The second kind of memories are hazier, a smeared palimpsest. They are a jumble of indifferentiable jokes about Asian people mixing up their r’s and l’s, or all looking alike, or sounding funny when they argue in broken English, or being racially predisposed to love studying, drive badly, or eat revolting food.
After a couple decades of this, it’s hard to summon much shock or outrage whenever I see these sorts of things. Instead, like Bruce Lee in that theatre, I feel detached and unamused, exhausted to realize once again that whatever audiences these spectacles were intended for, they excluded people like me.
Making things worse was how little there was to counterbalance all of this. Outside of the martial arts genre, it was hard to find interesting characters played by Asians that got to meaningfully be part of the story. Ke Huy Quan’s Data in Goonies or Short Round in Temple of Doom. Dante Basco’s Rufio in Hook. Brandon Lee’s Eric Draven in The Crow. Eventually Daniel Day Kim and Yunjin Kim in Lost and Steven Yuen on The Walking Dead. (Keanu Reeves’s characters, until recently, presented as white.) With the exception of the 1993 film The Joy Luck Club, I have a hard time thinking of Asian women getting interesting roles until Lucy Liu broke into the mainstream.
Asian-centric stories like Kim’s Convenience — and Fresh Off the Boat, Crazy Rich Asians (the latter not set in North America, but intended for consumption here), or Always be my Maybe — are the exception. They are rare oases where we can be reasonably sure Asians in North American media will be depicted in more fully human dimensions.
In Kim’s, we found a diversity of interesting characters that broke out of the ways Asians have tended to be portrayed. The setting also afforded opportunities to explore how a working-class immigrant family becomes part of the community by running the neighbourhood convenience store. (The only other memory I have of depictions of Asian immigrants running neighbourhood stores features them existing to get gruesomely shot up.) Its loss is a large blow.
Missing faces in front of the camera...
Media representation matters, especially where that representation determines the degree to which members of a community get seen as fully human.
It may not be arrow-straight, but there is a line from Asians’ absence in the media to the anti-Asian racism and violence occurring in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a kind of vitriol that relies on being able to dehumanize and reduce a diverse community of people to little more than disease vectors responsible for the “Wuhan virus” or “Kung flu,” as race-baiters have called it, with predictable results.
A study in the U.S. this past spring found that TV, movies, and music were the top means through which non-Asians developed their perceptions of Asians. But when asked to name a prominent Asian American, 42 per cent of respondents answered “Don’t know,” the top result, followed by “Jackie Chan,” who isn’t American, and “Bruce Lee,” who died almost half a century ago. Respondents also had a difficult time thinking of the roles Asians tend to play in television and film; “Don’t know” was the top answer for female characters and “Martial Artists” for males.
These results are, unfortunately, unsurprising given how prevalent Asian erasure in media continues to be.
Consider a study from last May on representations in film of Asian and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) — a category far broader than just East and Southeast Asians. It found that of the 1,300 top-grossing films between 2007 and 2019, 40 per cent were completely devoid of speaking or named Asian characters, and 60 per cent featured no Asian or Pacific Islander women or girls. When allowed to exist on screen, depictions were often tokenistic; Asian men, for instance, rarely got to be involved in romantic storylines, a primary means of humanizing characters.
In 2017, a similar study looked at the presence of AAPIs in the television landscape. In the 2015–2016 television season, most shows (155 out of 242) had no AAPI regular characters, including shows set in cities with large AAPI populations like New York and L.A. Where they did appear, they tended to be depicted as mysterious strangers, dangerous villains, odd nerds, and emasculated men or exoticized women.
… and missing voices behind
None of this is to say there haven’t been improvements. Things do feel a lot better compared to the wasteland of the 1980s–2000s.
Comedies like The Good Place and Superstore each featured multiple, interesting, and varied Asian characters. Constance Wu co-led Hustlers as a morally complex protagonist navigating power relations in the sex industry. Steven Yuen voices the main character in the animated breakout hit Invincible. Marvel Studios will feature Kim’s Convenience star Simu Liu alongside Awkwafina in Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Gemma Chan and Don Lee in The Eternals. Henry Golding’s leading-man status, all too rare for Asian actors, allowed him to feature as a romantic partner opposite white actresses in A Simple Favor and Last Christmas.
But then there’s the two-steps-back stuff behind the cameras. For example, a few years ago Grace Park and Daniel Dae Kim, the two main Asian members of the ensemble cast of Hawaii Five-O, departed when the studio refused to pay them as much as their white co-actors. Kim’s production company is behind the series The Good Doctor, which was originally intended to feature an Asian lead until the showrunner somehow couldn’t make that happen. “I’m not going to say he was the one that wanted a white lead,” said Kim. “But I will say that it became less clear to him how an Asian lead would work.”
And this brings us back to Kim’s Convenience.
What we’ve learned over the past weeks as the former cast shared some of the behind-the-scenes drama is that, as long as there is a lack of diversity behind the camera, even Asian-centric stories can slip back towards the orbit of Breakfast at Tiffany’s Mr. Yunioshi.
Dear sir, as an Asian Canadian woman, a Korean-Canadian woman w more experience and knowledge of the world of my characters, the lack of Asian female, especially Korean writers in the writers room of Kims made my life VERY DIFFICULT & the experience of working on the show painful— Jean Yoon (윤 진 희 or 尹真姬) (@jean_yoon) June 6, 2021
East Asians were largely absent from the production and writing staff of Kim’s Convenience. As a result, storylines became increasingly inauthentic to Asian experiences and started making troubling statements on race. Cast members’ concerns about the implications of their characters’ problematic depictions and lack of growth were often dismissed. Simu Liu notes that there was little interest in giving those cast members, many trained in screenwriting, a role in helming the show so it might have gone forward with richer, more authentic storylines for the characters.
Losing Kim’s Convenience, particularly in times like these, sucks. Looking ahead, it’s going to be necessary to not just continue pressuring media to stop erasing Asians and to depict Asian characters as full humans in front of the camera, but to make sure that there are strong creative Asian voices behind the scenes. (Should another show like this appear through a public broadcaster like the CBC, that might make this pressure more effective.)
Without that, we’re not far enough away from the wasteland too many of us grew up having to watch.