Asians are Finally Making it into Mainstream Pop Culture
By Gil Asakawa
April 6, 2012
I happened to catch a terrific documentary last night, “I Am Bruce Lee,” which combines a well-researched biography of the late great martial arts star with interviews with everyone from his wife Linda Lee Caldwell, to L.A. Lakers star (and martial artist) Kobe Bryant who discuss Lee's legacy and enormous influence on American pop culture.
Much of the documentary focuses on Lee's efforts to overcome racial stereotypes of Asians that were prevalent in the 1960s and '70s (many are still with us), and his struggles against a system that was stacked against featuring a male Asian in a leading role.
One segment got me thinking, where the film asserts that the system is still stacked against Asians — even today, there has been no major Asian male star who has the draw of, say, a Brad Pitt.
Sure, Jet Li for a time took up the martial arts mantle, and so did Jackie Chan. But Li's talent never transcended his action roles, and Chan's brand in Hollywood is as a comedic lightweight even though he can act in dramatic parts. Plus, once niched into martial arts, you're always a martial artist. Even Bruce Lee might not have overcome that hurdle, had he lived.
There are some potential future contenders, though: John Cho can hopefully rise above the youth market appeal of the "Harold and Kumar" films and build on his butt-kicking role as Sulu in the new "Star Trek" movies, and it's possible to imagine Tim Kang (TV's "The Mentalist") and Sung Kang (the "Fast and Furious" movies) cast as big budget leads someday.
But I can't monku too much about the lack of Asian men in star positions. The fact is, we're doing so much better than just a few years ago in Hollywood, that we should be celebrating.
Less than a decade ago, I was giving speeches on the lack of Asian faces on TV and in movies. I grew up in a generation where Asians played roles that were subservient (Hop Sing, the cook in the TV western "Bonanza") and silly (Fuji, or "Fooj" in the '60s sit-com "McHale's Navy”). We were always the sidekicks, the supporting players instead of the star, like Robert Ito, the actor who played the assistant to Jack Klugman's "Quincy, M.E." in the '70s.
Ironically, Bruce Lee played the sidekick role but elevated it to star status, as Kato, the martial arts-fighting driver for the Green Hornet in the superhero series that only aired for one season in the late '60s. He was so dynamic, so commanding a presence, that he helped spark the martial arts craze that exploded a few years later when he began making kung fu movies in Hong Kong. But Lee's tragedy was that his ambition included an idea for a TV series about a martial arts star that was stolen from him, and turned into "Kung Fu" starring a Caucasian, David Carradine (who was allegedly half-Chinese in the show). And he died before his biggest hit, the Hollywood-financed "Enter the Dragon" was released.Printer-friendly version