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Asian-American men fight for lead roles in Hollywood

Korean-American actor Daniel Henney was a model in the U.S., but became a big movie star in Korea.
Korean-American actor Daniel Henney was a model in the U.S., but became a big movie star in Korea.
Sidus FNH

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Tim Chiou is not shy about describing the situation he and other actors like him face in Hollywood: “There’s this unofficial rule that Asian-American men are at the bottom of the food chain in terms of love and sex.” 

This “unofficial rule” isn’t just a pet theory of his. In 2009, the dating site OkCupid analyzed how users rate each other. Asian and black men are consistently rated the worst by female users, but Asian men have a unique disadvantage: unlike other minorities, they’re not even the top pick for their female counterparts on the website. Overall, Asian women preferred white men.

These trends seem to translate to movies and TV too. Only three men of Asian descent have ever won an Academy Award for acting, fewer than any other ethnic group. And despite two recent ABC comedies with Asian leads — “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Dr. Ken” — just four percent of regular characters on broadcast TV shows last year were played by Asian or Pacific Islander actors. 

“As an actor, everybody wants to do the leading man roles," says Chious, "but there are none for Asian American men because we’re just not as desired in the same way that other races are."

And when Asian men do get parts, they’re usually not romantic leads. In fact, Asian actors still seem to be living down the character Long Duk Dong from the 1984 film, "Sixteen Candles." 

“There’s so much baggage with that role," Chiou says. “Long Duk Dong was so formative in so many people’s perception of Asian-Americans, and it’s so powerful.”

Asian men have a unique set of stereotypes to contend with. According to Chiou, one of the biggest problems is that Hollywood struggles with the concept of Asians as Americans. Historically, the industry equates Asian-ness with foreignness. 

The actor who played Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles”? Gedde Watanabe is Japanese and was born in Utah. That accent? Not his real voice. More than 30 years later, things haven't changed all that much. Chiou says:

One of my very first roles was a Chinese food delivery guy. It was literally just like two words. It was "Chinese food." I did it once with normal English, and they’re like, Great. Can you do it with an accent? My Chinese-ness was a joke in that show. 

This can be really disheartening. So much so, that some actors have tried their luck elsewhere. Like Korean-American actor Daniel Henney, who started out modeling in the U.S., but eventually landed a spokesperson gig in South Korea. Despite speaking no Korean, this led to a big part in one of the country’s most popular TV shows, “My Lovely Sam Soon.”

“He’s got movie star written all over him," says producer Janet Yang, who worked with Henney on a film called “Shanghai Calling.” "And everybody who knows his work would say the same thing. He is a leading man in every way.”  But, Yang says, “He has mostly been making movies in Korea because they love him there, and don’t love him as much here.”

In a 2014 email leaked in the Sony hack, screenwriter and producer Aaron Sorkin wrote that adapting a novel with an Asian protagonist for the big screen is difficult because “there aren’t any Asian movie stars.”   

Yang acknowledges there’s some truth to the statement, but says it ignores the bigger problem: 

The fact that there are no big stars that are Asian-American — and I’m saying big, huge, household names — that is a factor. I’m not going to completely discount that, but it’s too easy an answer and we are not breeding them. We’re not giving them the opportunities to become stars. 

If Hollywood won’t cast you and you’re not ready to pack up your bags and move to Asia, there is another option: the Internet.

Eugene Lee Yang is a video producer at BuzzFeed. A few years ago his bosses started asking him to get in front of the camera too. Before he knew it, Yang had become something of an Internet celebrity. 

I would walk down the street and people would scream from their cars at me and, generally, I’d turn around and it’s a 13-year-old girl. And it’s funny because that is the audience that I think big studios are always trying to target. 

Plenty of other Asian actors are making a place for themselves online too. Tim Chiou’s most recent big projects are a web series called “John Hughes Ruined My Life” and a crowdfunded movie, “Crush the Skull.” Both had Asian-American directors and leads, and have been hits at film festivals. In all likelihood, they never would have been greenlit by a big studio. 

“We still really have to fight and create these characters and roles for ourselves because who else is going to do it for us?” Chiou says. “And we’re kind of taking back, slowly but surely, the Long Duck Dong image, and replacing it with something more genuine.”

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