It was the moment that all romance fans look forward to at the end of a film, hearts bubbling with anticipation: the kiss. I was watching The Edge of Seventeen, a smart coming-of-age movie, in which Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) had rushed to see her awkwardly endearing classmate (Hayden Szeto). After a bungled date and a crush on another man, she had decided Erwin was the one she wanted.
And then, instead of any show of passion, there came … an affectionate pat on the back as he introduced her to his friends. Moments before, I had been delighted that a Canadian actor of Chinese descent had been cast as the love interest of a white American woman. As the credits rolled, I felt cheated.
That was three years ago, however, and since then the landscape has completely shifted for east Asian actors in Hollywood. Now they don’t just get the girl, they’re allowed to kiss them, too. We have Henry Golding set to romance Emilia Clarke in Last Christmas and the Asian American actor Randall Park out-charming Keanu Reeves in Always Be My Maybe. In 2021, Simu Liu, a Canadian actor who was born in China, will roundhouse kick his way into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as its first Asian superhero in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Suddenly, an “invisible minority” is becoming part of cinema’s mainstream. Not only are east Asian actors finally leading films rather than playing supporting roles, their characters are relatable and desirable. “If you look at the east, you’ve got lots of very famous, good-looking [Asian] leading men in romantic roles and playing heroes,” says the actor David Tse, who has starred in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Spy Game. “There’s nothing unusual about it. But in the west, there is this bamboo ceiling. There’s been this endemically racist trope that east Asian actors feel incredibly angry and resentful about.”
Apart from Sessue Hayakawa, a Japanese silent film star of the early 20th century, east Asian men have effectively been neutered in Hollywood movies. Frequently depicted as emasculated and asexual, they are more interested in martial arts or science than sex. Sure, they can be nice and handsome. But sexy? Sorry, no. That’s why The Edge of Seventeen’s Erwin is more hapless puppy dog than smouldering suitor. One of the worst instances of this was 2000’s Romeo Must Die, which paired Aaliyah – at the time, one of the most famous singers in R&B – with the Hong Kong action legend Jet Li. The two superstars were trapped in a lifeless onscreen romance that was completely devoid of passion. A scene showing them kissing was shot, but left on the cutting room floor. It was replaced with one of them hugging instead.
Daniel York Loh, who has appeared in The Beach and Rogue Trader, calls this stereotype “absolutely shocking”. “East Asian males tend to be dorky, unappealing, sometimes brutish and monosyllabic in films,” he says. “They’re an inarticulate oppressor of the east Asian female, who is generally vulnerable, fragile and sexually available. They can’t be seen to be appealing romantically. We can’t show east Asian men kissing women, because they don’t have sex. The population of China shows that not to be true.”
For him, this cliche has its roots in the racist hysteria of the “yellow peril”, which for decades presented east Asian immigration as a danger to the western world. Scaremongering that the men would rape white women was rampant. Cinema accentuated and mocked the “otherness” of east Asian men, from Fu Manchu, the fiendish Chinese criminal mastermind, created in 1913, to Long Duk Dong, the foreign exchange student in 1984’s Sixteen Candles played by Gedde Watanabe. Each of his scenes was signalled by the loud crash of a gong.
York Loh, who is of mixed British Chinese heritage, says he is one of many actors who have been asked to exaggerate their foreignness in auditions. “We’ve all had this experience where the director has said: ‘Can you make your accent stronger?’ You make it strong to the point where you stop resembling a proper human being.”
Discrimination against east Asian men is as pervasive and damaging off screen. In 2014, a survey for the dating service OkCupid found that Asian men were ranked as 12%-14% less attractive than average by white, black and Latina women. Research into speed dating by Columbia University in New York found that they had the hardest time getting a second date, while another study it carried out estimated that Asian men would have to earn an additional $247,000 (£190,000) for white women to consider dating them over a white man.
Even in China, men with western looks are considered more attractive, according to Yuan Ren, a former culture and events editor for Time Out Beijing. “There is that aspiration to date more western-looking guys,” she says. “Someone who is tall and well-built will stand out. There is this perception that non-Asian men are more masculine.”
Golding, born to a Malaysian mother and an English father, is one of the few east Asian actors who has been able to move beyond roles that are defined by race. Rakishly handsome, affable and charming, he is a bona fide sex symbol. True, Crazy Rich Asians – the first blockbuster led by an all-Asian cast since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club – was his breakthrough film. But he has also been involved in a tempestuous relationship with Blake Lively in the 2018 thriller A Simple Favour and is Clarke’s mysterious love interest in Last Christmas, the festive romcom directed by Paul Feig. He is also part of the ensemble cast of Guy Ritchie’s upcoming gangster thriller The Gentlemen.
“This is an incredible turning point,” says Tse, who was so disheartened by the lack of roles for British east Asian actors that he set up Yellow Earth Theatre and Chinese Arts Now to create more opportunities. “Henry will challenge these centuries of colonial thinking about east Asian masculinity.”
Then there’s Liu and his role in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. The decision to make an all-Asian superhero movie is truly groundbreaking as Hollywood wakes up to the fact that we live in a multicultural world full of ethnic minorities who will pay good money to see themselves represented on screen. Black Panther’s success at the box office is proof of that.
Last year’s Searching, in which John Cho played a dad frantically trying to track down his missing daughter, was the first mainstream Hollywood thriller with an Asian American actor in the lead role. Always Be My Maybe, which features Fresh Off the Boat star Park in a touching romance with Ali Wong, has been a huge hit on Netflix. And The Farewell, a US comedy drama starring Awkwafina that is about a Chinese family dealing with the news of their grandmother’s terminal illness, has been tipped to pick up Oscar nominations. Finally, it seems that east Asians are being depicted as authentic human beings rather than foreign caricatures.
Liu and Golding are “shining lights”, says Tse. “But there are many other British east Asian actors out there that should be given a chance.” York Loh is optimistic: “It’s a better time to be a young east Asian male now than it ever has been. The more audiences get to see Asian actors in leading roles, the more accustomed they’ll be to it, and the more they’ll embrace it.”
This content was originally published here.