Asians have long had an uneven relationship with Hollywood.
Over the decades, they have found themselves oddly misrepresented on screen, subject to an industry that plays off comical caricatures of broken English, uncouth behaviour and nerdy, awkward science geeks.
An example of this is the character of Long Duk Dong in the 1984 teen film “Sixteen Candles”. Short, skinny, and awkward, Long Duk Dong represented the comical caricature that Asian actors were reduced to in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Either that, or they are underrepresented, typecasted into minor roles often based on racial stereotypes. But the tide seems to be turning in 2017, with a new wave of well-received television shows featuring Asians and Asian-Americans taking centre stage.
At the top of this list of game changers is ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” now into its third season. Based on the memoir of celebrity chef Eddie Huang, the sitcom revolves around the experience of a newly immigrated Taiwanese-American family who run a cowboy-themed restaurant called “Cattleman’s Ranch” in Florida.
The series quickly gained cult status when it first premiered in 2015, and has been a significant driving force behind the push for better Asian representation on screen since.
Cheap jokes aside, the comedy thrives on its unique depiction of the quirks of growing up in an Asian family, an experience not often documented on television.
Constance Wu’s outstanding performance as family matriarch and tiger mom Jessica Huang not only garnered award nominations and praise from critics, it landed her a coveted place on Time’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people in 2017. Lena Dunham, creator of the hit HBO series “Girls”, profiled her for Time magazine, saying:
“Constance also knows that—as one of the only actors to portray Asian-American womanhood on television—she is tasked with being more than just an actor. And she takes this second gig just as seriously.”
While “Fresh Off the Boat’s” success indicates a growing desire for diversity in Hollywood, Netflix’s critically acclaimed series “Master of None” the viewer’s expectations of what an Asian-centric TV series can do.
In “Master of None,” Aziz Ansari plays struggling Indian-American actor Dev Shah- a character loosely based on himself – who navigates New York City’s diverse social scene.
The most striking thing about Dev in “Master of None” is his ordinariness. He gets entangled in the typical misadventures one would expect from a bachelor in NYC – a one-night stand gone wrong, a string of comically bad first dates, and even a three-month sabbatical to Italy in the show’s second season .
“There’s 17 million Asian Americans in this country, and there are 17 million Italian Americans. They have the Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky and the Sopranos, we got Long Duk Dong.” – Alan Yang, Master of None co-creator.
While the commercial and critical success of “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Master of None” are huge milestones for the Asian and Asian American communities, there is still a long road ahead in the push for better representation on screen. But if the quality of these shows are anything to show for, the cultural legacy of Asians in Hollywood looks set to move beyond that of Long Duk Dong.