In class, we watched Forbidden City USA, a documentary by Arthur Dong. The film showcased the stories of Asian American who were entertainers in their youth. Forbidden City, a San Francisco nightclub that was established in 1938, was the first nightclub that featured a full cast of Asians and Asian Americans. The entertainers certainly surprised many Americans in how they could be just like any other American entertainer, and dispelled many of the false stereotypes and assumptions of Asian Americans. The part of the film that I took away, however, was how the entertainers rebelled against not only mainstream American society, but also their own families and communities, and how old traditions and values were challenged.
I see the same kind of traditional expectations today, as Asian American children are still expected to grow up to become doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, or accountants. Yet, we also grow up watching cartoons/movies/YouTube videos, listening to music, and playing video games. We aspire to be writers, dancers, artists, musicians, creators. Yes, we have a bit more privilege in being able to take classes to develop these skills and talents, but what I find most intriguing is that our parents views on careers and life goals are ultimately unchanged. To become a writer, dancer, artist, or musician is to lose one’s own sanity. If an Asian American child conveyed such a wish to his or her parents, they would almost certainly be lectured on why such career choices are impractical, short-lived, or even immoral. Keep in mind that I’m mostly talking about families with immigrant parents. I’ve never really had much contact or experience with Asian Americans who had called America home for generations, which brings me to my next point.
Forbidden City USA enlightened me on a topic about Asian Americans that I hardly knew about but have always wished to learn. What is it like to have a background that is actually rooted in America? How are Asian Americans of past and present generations dealing with racism now and what can we learn from the past to make the future better? I saw a glimpse of some answers in the film, but I hope to learn more as we move along in this course.
Both sections of Straightjacket Sexualities and Asian Americans in the Media discuss the portrayals of hyposexuality of men and the hypersexuality of women in the media. When we’re talking about the hyposexuality of men, I think the descriptions in Media aptly outline the notion that yellow peril, or the irrational fear that the East is taking over the West, has justified many Chinese immigration exclusion acts, as I talked about in Week 2. Although Pearl Harbor happened 5 days before the release of Arthur Szyk’s Collier’s image, it was labeled as anti-war propaganda at the time. However, the picture is meant to invoke fear of Asians, and in a broader sense, threaten American democracy and safety. Because most of these pictures depict Asian men as fiends hurting women, it is implied that the white man should come to the rescue.
As recently as 1999, the Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee was accused of being a spy that handed over essential nuclear information to China (Ono, Pham p. 40). Many of the claims were completely unjustified, and although all Chinese labor and immigration laws had been lifted for several decades, reminiscent themes of yellow peril depicted him as “sneaky and deceptive.” A few more contemporary examples include Gedde Watanabe’s comical and childlike performance in Sixteen Candles and yet another apperanace from Ken Jeong in the Hangover 2. Both movies display these characters receiving chiding remarks from Caucasian groups. Moreover, they utter minimal lines that do not evoke some sort of Asian stereotype.
The Forbidden City, USA documentary that we watched in class today showed a turning point for Asian receptivity in the West. Many Chinese American families, including the ones featured in the movie, immigrated through San Francisco and settled for the most affordable city that they ended up in. By the 1930s these were predominantly white communities, so the first generation of Asian Americans would usually assimilate into Western, Caucasian culture until they became adults. Initially, Forbidden City had trouble recruiting dancers due to the stigma of hypersexual women that both textbooks describe at length. Luckily, the Forbidden City nightclub in San Francisco, one of twelve in the Chinatown vicinity, allowed whites to experience a pure Chinese American nightclub without feeling alienated or uncomfortable by their surroundings. Although many of the dancers enjoyed showcasing authentic traditional dancing, they still heard many derogatory comments from the white audience. One of the saddest comments I heard from an interviewee was “You have to just let them wash over you, as they are a part of everyday life.” This represents a similar experience to Asian Americans who visited the Jim Crowe South for the first time, and were unsure if they were required to adhere to the same segregation requirements that blacks do. I think that the Forbidden City story turned out to be very positive for Asian American representation in the media, but there seems to be only one of its nature in the 20th century. Finding a niche in the media for Asian Americans that is not subject to Western scrutiny or mockery will be an important task for us millenials.
In Straitjacket Sexualities by Celine Parraeñas Shimizu, she talks about Bruce Lee. He was born in the United States and raised in Hong Kong. However he was educated in both. She discuses how in the 1990s A New York Times film reviewer, Vincent Canby “comments on Bruce Lee’s audition tape for The Green Hornet, saying Bruce Lee seems so American but also not.” This is an interesting comment to make because Bruce Lee is American so perhaps that is why he “seems so American.” I believe that people have problems with situations that are ambiguous so they try really hard to put labels.
Bruce Lee was able to gain fame after moving to Hong Kong to make films. It is not fair that people have to literally leave the stereotypic roles in Hollywood. It is unfortunate that not many roles are made for Asian Americans. I do not think that Asian Americans should leave Hollywood to find acting jobs in Asia unless that is what they really want. In fact, the documentary Forbidden City is an example how hard it was for Asian American entertainers to find jobs. They had to leave their homes to San Francisco in order to sing and dance. Yet, they were portrayed in stereotypic roles. They were put in traditional chinese clothes and were called orientals.
Even though Bruce Lee was able to be a big international movie star, he never really got the girl at the end of his films. Shimizu discusses how Bruce Lee’s ethical manhood “requires him to give up his own satisfaction with his love object in order to uphold civilization. She shows how Bruce Lee’s films can be interpreted in many ways in terms of Asian American masculinity.
On the other hand, as an Asian American woman, I never really thought about how Asian American men felt about their portrayal in the media. I just know how I felt. I wonder how the absence of Asian American characters in the media made them feel? How do they feel about the effeminate, nerdy portrayal of Asian males on American television? If I was an Asian American male, I would feel angry about constantly seeing people that look like me being represented as subordinate and foreign. It amazes me how long stereotypes can perpetuate. However, I found a video that features “The Daily Show’s” Aasif Mandvi and “Survivor” winner Yul Kwon giving their insights on stereotyping Asian American men in the media.
In reading Straitjacket Sexualities by Celine Shimizu, I became aware of the subtle ways Hollywood films have framed Asian American men. Asian American men are perceived as emasculate, asexual, or queer in the media. This concept not only has other ethnicities perceiving Asian American men as such, but fellow Asian American women, too, perceive As Am men as such. Many Asian American men have accepted their place in society and often resort to humor; why fight it? However, Celine Shimizu emphasizes the importance of breaking barriers and working our way out of that straitjacket. An important example outlined by Celine Shimizu was Bruce Lee. He broke significant barriers and was portrayed, nationally, as an extremely masculine man. Lee possessed an immense amount of courage to not only stand up for Asian American men around the world, but accept the many criticisms and jokes made by the media at his expense. Thanks to Lee and many other Asian American men in the media, we see many more Asian American men in the media making strides to eliminate straitjacketing. A few examples of such include: Chin Ho Kelly on Hawaii 5-0 played by Daniel Dae Kim and Han in Fast and Furrious played by Sung Kang.
On a side note, my parents recently introduced me to a 2-part Chinese movie: Inferno Affairs that The Departed was based off of. In comparing the two movies side-to-side, the two movies were nearly identical. This, in fact, may also be considered a form of yellowfacing. Hollywood decided to remake a movie with Hong Kong roots and entirely replace the characters with white faces. As much as I love Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, when I discovered that this move was a remake of a Chinese movie, I was taken back. There was no indication to the viewers of The Departed that this was a remake, and Hollywood made variable adjustments to eliminate the Chinese aspects of the plot such as changing the Yakuza drug cartel to an Italian drug cartel.
After watching Forbidden City USA in class, one thing that stuck out to me was the fact that almost all of the performers went into careers that were not in performing. This was not exactly shocking because even now there aren’t many jobs for Asian Americans in the entertainment business. For the few of them who did go into the entertainment business, only one of them continued to perform and two of them went into helping other Asian American. I thought that it was pretty cool that the one guy went into giving dance lessons and the lady was actually a talent agent for other Asian Americans. I think that the two performers who did decide to stay in the business are really good role models for the students that they have mentored. I think that the people that they mentored are able to connect with the people from the movie because there still aren’t a lot of jobs open for Asian Americans. Also, the mentees should consider themselves very lucky to be around a lot of these pioneers of Asian Americans in the entertainment business. I think that the people in the movie should be helping the people of today because they knew how hard it was for themselves to get jobs, so they should want to be able to see change occurring.
Another thing that stood out to me was that a lot of the mothers of the performers were secretly supportive of their children. One of the mothers gave their daughter a $40, which was a lot of money back in the day, just in case something bad happened. I fully expected the dads to be against their children pursuing their dreams, but to hear these mothers being supportive was pretty heartwarming. I think that this motherly support has nothing to do with race, but just a natural motherly reaction to take care of their young.
This week’s readings were about the representation of Asian American men in film and mainly focused on how their sexuality is represented. The first part of the reading just repeated itself over and over about how Asian American men in film are always portrayed as effeminate with no real sexual drive and a lack of attention from female characters. Many of the examples from the reading were from the 1930’s and 1940’s which I believe to be a good representation of how Asian American men were portrayed but I am unsure that the same ideas all translate directly to modern interpretations of the Asian American man in media. Recently, I’ve been rewatching the 2004-2011 HBO series Entourage. In this series, there is a recurring Asian American character named Lloyd played by Rex Lee. In the show, Lloyd is an assistant to an agent named Ari played by Jeremy Piven. Ari is white and is verbally abusive to nearly every character in the show, including Lloyd. Ari is really presented as a manly man and Lloyd as his eager and helpful servant. Lloyd is a slightly effeminate character but I would attribute that to him playing a gay character more than him being Asian. His personal life, too, is not thoroughly explored because he’s not a main character but his boyfriend makes appearances and there are allusions that their relationship is very passionate. Throughout the series, Lloyd is shown to be a very strong character who occasionally has to set his boss straight with some tough love when Ari breaks down. While he is an effeminate character, Lloyd is a strong man that drives himself to eventually be a competitor to the man he once served and surpasses him. The old concept of Asian American men being dominated by their manlier white counterparts might not be completely gone in this circumstance but I believe Lloyd shows that Asian American representation has definitely evolved for the better.