Portrayals of Asians in Film and Television

Stereotypes, Tropes, and Miscastings

Stereotypes of Asian characters in films are as old as Hollywood itself and still appear. This guide will focus on East Asians: Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, other Southeast Asians, and Americans with those ethnic backgrounds.

Often overt, sometimes covert, the tropes have taken several forms, but all are filled with a certain amount of exoticism and foreign- or otherness. Even people who don't know what the word means know that Asians are "inscrutable." Some clichés contradict others. The inability to speak English without an accent or using pidgin doesn't get in the way of being highly intelligent in the form of mystically wise or criminally clever or just nerdy and geeky. Women can be dragon ladies or China dolls. Men are too often either seen as emasculated or lecherous or both. Once most East Asians were seen in meek servant roles, but martial artists predominate among both men and women. The stereotypes can be even further enhanced when white actors are selected for Asian roles, and that practice has not ended.

 

Before World War II

  • Broken blossoms
    The subtitle of this 1919 silent film tells you a lot: The Yellow Man and the Girl. A caucasian actor portrays a Chinese man who befriends an abused English girl.
  • The Cheat
    Packaged with another silent film, The Cheat, from 1915, has a wealthy Japanese villain actually portrayed by a Japanese American. So interchangeable were Asians, however, that when the film was re-released in 1918, the character became Burmese.
  • Good earth
    Against author Pearl Buck's wishes, this 1937 adaptation of her novel starred American movie stars in "yellowface" as Chinese farmers.
  • Lost horizon
    In this 1937 fantasy about Shangri-La in the Himilayas, there's nary an Asian actor in the cast.

World War II and into the Fifties

  • Anna and the King of Siam
    1946 film featuring Rex Harrison as Mongkut, King of Siam
  • Bridge on the River Kwai
    The 1957 prisoner-of-war story contrasts western culture with that of the Japanese. One is civilized; the other barbarian. Also explores weakness and bravery.
  • Bridges at Toko-Ri
    A 1955 film in which with the advent of a new war, the sinister images of Asians have moved from Japanese to Koreans.
  • Charlie Chan chanthology
    Six films made from 1944 to 1946, The Chinese cat, Charlie Chan in the Secret Service, The jade mask, Meeting at midnight, The Shanghai cobra, The scarlet clue (1945), all starring a Scandinavian actor as the Chinese detective, but an Asian-American actor as Number One Son.
  • Dragon seed
    Katharine Hepburn plays a very mannered Chinese woman, and she's not the only yellowfaced actor. The film's war-themed message was that Chinese peasants are noble and the Japanese are evil villains. (In the Katharine Hepburn 100th Anniversary Collection.)
  • Go for broke
    A film made in 1951 about the Japanese-American 442nd regiment of World War II. It shows the prejudice they experienced and presents them triumphantly as full of grit and guts and heroism.
  • King and I
    Yul Brynner stars as King Mongkut of Siam and Rita Moreno as Tuptim in this 1956 musical. This film was banned in Thailand as disrespectful in its portrayal of the royal family.
  • Love is a many-splendored thing
    The character Jennifer Jones plays is Eurasian, which still meant she played in yellow face, but by 1955, in Hollywood, she was allowed to have a love affair with a white man.
  • Why we fight
    A series of six propaganda films made for the US Army by director Frank Capra. The first, in part, and fifth, fully, focus on the war against Japan. A product of its time, it includes misinformation and racist portrayals of heroic Chinese and the Japanese enemies.
  • World War II films: Volume 2
    Includes examples of WWII cartoon propaganda and racial caricatures. The table of contents can give you an idea: Challenge to democracy; Japanese relocation; Our enemy: the Japanese; Negro soldier; Tokio Jokio; Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs; Bugs Bunny Nips The Nips; You’re A Sap, Mr. Jap.

1960-1980

  • Apocalypse now 
    Colonel Kurtz, we learn toward the end of this blockbuster 1979 film, has a personal army of natives who are both subserviently child-like and primitively savage. 
  • Blade runner
    In a film set in Los Angeles, the only Asian characters are extras and many of them are wearing conical peasant hats. 1982.
  • Breakfast at Tiffany's
    Mickey Rooney has a cameo appearance as Mr. Yunioshi, Holly Golightly's neighbor. 1961.
  • Deer Hunter
    Released in 1978, the film was criticized for an inaccurate and stereotypical depiction of the Vietcong.
  • Flower drum song 
    A Rodgers and Hammerstein musical made in 1961 was full of stereotypes, but it was one of the first Hollywood films with Asian-American actors playing romantic lead characters.
  • The green berets
    The stereotypes range from South Vietnamese subservient or corrupt officials to Viet Cong as vicious but inept soldiers (so therefore should and can be defeated).
  • The Manchurian candidate
    North Koreans are brainwashers, but the only one with a speaking role is played by Italian-American Henry Silva. 1962
  • Murder by death
    A parody of Hollywood's yellowface practice, Peter Sellers portrays an elaborately dressed and pidgin English speaking Charlie Chan inspired detective (complete with a number one son played by a Japanese actor).
  • Seven faces of Dr Lao
    By 1963 an anglo-American actor still gets the lead role, and the makeup crew won an Oscar for their efforts in transformation.
  • Tora! Tora! Tora!
    Far less biased toward the Japanese than most war films before or since, this 1970 film was controversial when it opened for its attempt at being well balanced in representing both sides. 1970.
  • You only live twice
    The first Asian Bond girl shows up in 1967, and there are two. In a James Bond collection with four other movies.

1980s

  • Blade runner 
    In a film set in Los Angeles, the only Asian characters are extras and many of them are wearing conical peasant hats. 1982.
  • Eat a bowl of tea
    New York's Chinatown of the late 1940s, this is a romantic story of Chinese-American immigrants written and directed by Chinese-American immigrants. 1989.
  • Full Metal Jacket
    A film about Vietnam in which the only Vietnamese given a voice are a sex worker and the sniper, and the sex worker isn't even portrayed by an Vietnamese actor. 1989
  • Good morning, Vietnam
    Praised for showing the Vietnamese as humans, but none have major roles. 1987
  • Great wall 
    ​Made in 1988, this film provides a comical insight into the cultural clases between traditional Chinese families and Chinese-American families.
  • Gung Ho
    The clash of work attitudes between Japanese management and American auto workers sets up this 1986 comedy.
  • Karate kid
    The heart-warming 1984 film about cross-cultural, cross-generational bonding that also perpetuates of the Hollywood stereotype of the mystical wise Asian sage.
  • Karate kid II
    Parodies some of the old stereotypes, but fails to rid itself of many others.
  • Karate kid III
    Recycled yet again, the Asian sage seems even more of a stereotype.
  • Killing fields
  • Haing S. Ngor became the first Asian to win Best Supporting Actor for his role in this flim. Some have noted that in a film set in Cambodia about Cambodian atrocities, a Cambodian only merits a supporting role. 1984.
  • Platoon
    About the only Vietnamese you see in this 1986 film set in Viet Nam are desparately fleeing. Those you can't see are the savage Viet Cong.
  • Sixteen candles
    Long Duk Dong, or Donger, an Asian exchange student, is played for comic relief. Called cringeworthy and the worst depiction of an Asian character, it has now bedeviled Asian Americans for a couple generations. 1984.
  • Year of living dangerously
    Linda Hunt, a white American woman won an Oscar for her role as a male Chinese-Australian photographer. 1982

1990s

  • Anna and the king
    The 1999 version features a Hong Kong-born actor, Chow Yun-fat, portraying the king of Siam. Thai authorities did not permit the movie to be filmed or distributed in Thailand because of what they called disrespectful and historically inaccurate depictions.
  • Dead or alive = Hanzaisha and its sequel Dead or alive 2: Tōbōsha = Dead or alive 2 : Birds
    Japanese films about a gangland turf war between Japanese yakuza and immigrant Chinese gangsters. Japanese traditional values are questioned, and new identities are explored. 1999 and 2002.
  • Double Happiness
    A Chinese-Canadian must decide between being the perfect Chinese daughter and pursuing her dreams. 1994.
  • Dragon: the Bruce Lee story
    A biopic of the martial arts star, criticized for its dramatic contrivance and clichéd fictionalizations.
  • Eat drink man woman = Yin shi nan nü
    An early Ang Lee film set in Taipei. A chef's three unmarried daughters challenge the narrow definition of traditional Chinese culture. In Mandarin Chinese with English.
  • Falling down
    This story of a troubled man on violent crime spree across Los Angeles gets started wth a confrontation with a Korean grocer. The Korean Grocers Association protested the film for its treatment of minorities. 1992.
  • Fargo
    Includes a small role for a deceitful effeminate Asian man who speaks poor English. 1996
  • Joy luck club 
    The story of four lifelong friends, Chinese immigrants living in San Francisco. The 1993 film has been praised for presenting images of Asian-Americans outside the norm for Hollywood.
  • Kip Fulbeck Collection
    Short films made between 1994 and 2003. "Some questions for 28 kisses" explores interracial dating, ethnic fetishes, and race identity images of Asian female/non-Asian male pairings in mass media. "Game of Death" uses footage from a Bruce Lee film to examine his role in creating Asian American male icons and stereotypes. Banana Split Negotiating the personal and cultural dynamics of being Hapa, Fulbeck's bitterly funny tales expose sources of racism, sexism, and symbolic domination in suburban America.
  • The lover
    Some stereotypes are reversed in this 1992 erotic tale set in 1929 Vietnam of a young French girl and a wealthy Chinese entrepreneur.
  • M Butterfly
    The amazing story of a French civil service officer's obsessive pursuit of a enigmatic Chinese opera diva who isn't all he thinks she is. 1993.
  • Madame Butterfly
    Opera in Italian by Giacomo Puccini, performed by Chœurs de Radio France, Orchestre de Paris,1995
  • Menace II Society
    A young street hustler attempts to escape the rigors and temptations of the ghetto in a quest for a better life. And there's yet another stereotypical Korean storekeeper in this story from the hood. 1993.
  • Mississippi masala
    Interracial romance between an Asian Indian woman and a black man in a small Southern town is not typical Hollywood fare. 1991.
  • Payback
    Amid the revenge and violence, we get Lucy Liu as a masochistic prostitute. 1999
  • Picture bride
    A mail-order bride tale. In 1900 a Japanese woman leaves behind her unhappy past to go to Hawaii to discover pictures can be deceiving. 1995.
  • Red violin
    The Shanghai chapter of the story involves clashes during the Cultural Revolution over "decadent" Western ideas including classical music. 1998.
  • Rising sun
    In which a Japanese business executive is vilified. 1999.
  • Shanghai Noon
    In this martial arts comedy hit, East meets West in the Old West, and stereotypes are unbound. 1999.
  • Snow falling on cedars
    An interracial love story that spans the years before and after World War II set in the Pacific Northwest. The film has been criticized for replicating some of the Japanese-American stereotypes that it criticizes. 1999.
  • Tomorrow never dies
    By 1997, a Chinese colonel (and spy) becomes the most fully developed (as a character) Bond girl. She is 007's kick-ass peer, rather than a damsel in need of rescuing.

     

2000-2009

  • Babel
    One of the multiple stories told in the film is that of a rebellious, traumatized, and deaf Japanese teenage girl, not a typical Asian character you see in a Hollywood film. 2007
  • Baby 
    The story of an Asian-American youth's gang life in East Los Angeles, spanning nearly a decade starting in the mid 1980s. 2005
  • Better Luck Tomorrow
    Addresses the stereotypical image of Asian Americans in a story of "perfect" high-school students who lead double lives as petty criminals. 2002
  • Balzac and the little Chinese seamstress
    In the time of the Cultural Revolution, urban and rural Chinese values are contrasted. 2002
  • Charlotte sometimes
    A complicated love story from 2003 in which the four principal actors are Asian Americans.
  • Crouching tiger, hidden dragon = Wo hu cang long
    Director Ang Lee returned to China to make this movie. Defined by its martial arts, the female protagonist is both assertive and feminine. In Mandarin, with English sub-titles. 2001
  • Debut
    It took until 2002 for the first Filipino-American feature film to be released theatrically nationwide
  • Do the right thing
    From 2001, Spike Lee delves into issues of racism and intolerance, as blacks, whites, Latinas, and Koreans interact.
  • Gran Torino
    The Korean War vet befriends a Hmong family, so they become more human. but in the end it is the white guy who serves as their savior. 2008
  • Heaven & earth
    Tommy Lee Jones gets top billing, but its the story of a Vietnamese village girl's hard life during and after the Vietnam war. 2004
  • Hospitalité 
    A Japanese filmmaker's attempt to alter some stereotypes in this black comedy. In Japanese with English subtitles. 2012
  • Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2
    Subverts some traditional racial roles, but places the character played by Lucy Liu in the full martial arts niche of Asian portrayals. 2003-2004
  • Last samurai
    It takes a white savior to preserve the Samurai way of life. 2003
  • Mean girls
    The "Cool Asians" have confused ethnicity and perpetuate the stereotype of Asian unable to properly speak English. 2004
  • Monsoon Wedding
    In which the stories of diverse members of a family gathering for Hindu wedding makes the tradition more universal than exotic. 2002.
  • Not another teen movie
    Parodies the stereotypes used in other teen movies. 2001
  • Ocean's Eleven (also Twelve and Thirteen)
    The Amazing Yen is inscrutible, doesn't speak English, is a freak, and is not fully a part of the team. 2001-2007
  • Pearl Harbor
    Most of the film is a love triangle, but when the film gets around to the attack, it stereotypes all Japanese as vile enemies. 2001
  • School of rock
    Several Asian stereotypes are played for laughs in the character of Lawrence, the keyboardist, who says "I can't be in the band! I'm not cool enough!" 2003 
  • Shanghai knights
    In this martial arts comedy sequel, East and the Old West meet Victorian England. 2003.
  • Star Wars Trilogy: Episodes 1, 2, 3.
    In the first chapter of the Star Wars saga, critics charged that the Trade Federation characters spoke with Japanese accents. Many also commented on the similarities between Jar Jar Binks and the stereotype of the simple-minded, clownish black servant. 1999-2005
  • Starship troopers
    Although based on a novel by Robert Heinlein, who has been accused of fascism, this film has been criticized for idealizing racial types. 2008.

2010-

  • Children of invention 
    The tale of two inventive children living with their immigrant single mother in the Boston suburbs who mostly cope for themselves. 2009
  • The Hangover (also Part II and Part III)
    Not only is the Asian man a villainous gangster, he is effeminate, speaks in pidgin, and the butt of jokes. 2009-2013
  • The Maze Runner and Maze runner: Scorch trials
    Minho has a leadership role, speaks proper English, and doesn't use martial arts when he fights. 2014, 2015
  • Parental guidance
    The owner of a pan-Asian restaurant speaks in pidgin and is comically bizarre. 2012
  • A serious man
    In this film full of Jewish id, two minor characters, a Korean father and son, fit the non-American foreigner stereotype, speaking poor English and exhibiting socially inept behaviors. 2010.
  • Shanghai calling
    A reversal of roles and stereotypes as an Asian American becomes an immigrant to China and the romance involves an Asian man and a white woman. Shanghai, itself, is not the traditional and backwards American audiences expect, but modern and quite westernized.
  • Snow flower and the secret fan
    Parellel stories of two girls who grow to women in 19th and 21st century China show how both are bound by and try to overcome patriarchal culture.
  • The social network
    The Asian women have been described as little more than sexy props. 2011
  • Up
    An Asian character finally gets a starring role in a Disney film, but he's fat and nerdy. 2009

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Television

In chronological order. For series that have lasted several years, only the first season is linked.
  • Anything goes 
    For the Colgate Comedy Hour in 1954, this Cole Porter musical was presented. Korean-American actor Philip Ahn almost didn't get the part because his English was too good – but he quickly faked broken English and was cast. He was a servant and didn't get film credit.
  • Star trek
    Famously barrier-breaking for including an integrated cast, but Sulu's character was underdeveloped and sparcely utilized. 1966-69
  • All-American girl 
    A series about a delightfully screwy Korean-American family only lasted one season. 1994-95
  • The Wire
    Korean-African American detective Shakima Greggs atypically has a full and complicated life at home and at work. 2002-2008
  • Battlestar Galactica
    The show's diversely ethnic cast led the show to be called post-racial. The character Boomer in the original was played by an African-American man, but in the later series by a Korean-Canadian woman, and was no longer a side-kick. 2004-2009
  • Lost 
    Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim both emerged from the show as sex symbols.2004-2010
  • Dexter
    The character Vince Masuka is goofy, but very clever. Counter to the stereotype of the asexual Asian man, Masuka is oversexed.  2006-2013
  • Heroes
    Hiro is everyone's favorite cuddly, nerdy Asian superhero. 2006-2010
  • The big bang theory 
    Highly intellectual geeks abound, but where are the East Asians among the regulars? 2007-
  • Glee
    Praised for featuring a diverse cast playing mostly non-stereotypical characters. 2009-2015
  • Orange is the new black
    Even in the environment of a prison, the Asian characters don't assimilate well, although there is some development that way in later seasons. 2013-
  • Parks and Recreation
    The character of Tom Haverford, played by Aziz Ansari, typifies an Indian American's attempt to assimilate. 2009-2015
  • The Walking dead
    The character of Glenn Rhee, Korean American, has been called the "heart of the show." 2010-
  • Fresh off the boat
    The first successful American television sitcom starring an Asian-American family. 2015-

Documentary Film and Television

  • Color of honor
    Experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II who served in the U.S. armed forces as translators and interpreters in military intelligence contrasted with Japanese Americans who were placed in concentration camps.
  • Hearts and minds
    Through its use of interviews with Vietnamese citizens and television footage, this anti-war documentary helped break down some racial stereotypes, but perpetuated others.
  • The Heat is on: The making of Miss Saigon
    A 1989 documentary tracing various aspects of the creation of the musical Miss Saigon up until it opened in London, including controversial casting decisions.
  • Hollywood Chinese
    A 2007 documentary on the representation and involvement of the Chinese in American cinema from the silent era to the 21st century
  • Manufactured landscapes
    A 2006 film following a photographer as he travels through China. The film reveals the effects of the massive industrial revolution on Chinese life.
  • Slaying the dragon
    Two broadcasts, one from 1987 and the other from 2011, that describe racial and gender stereotyping of Asian women in U.S. motion pictures and other filmic media.
  • Who is Albert Woo?
    Explores the question what it really means to be an Asian man living in the West today as the film examines the way identities are shaped by the media, history, and cultural legacy. 2001.