Development of Asian Male Romantic Leads in American Films from the 1900s-2000s

Due to the growing space for Asian creators behind the camera, we can see more diverse and meaningful representations of Asian characters, particularly of male romantic leads, in front of the camera. Historically, Asian male characters have either been portrayed as martial arts heroes or emasculated nerds, both stereotypes leaving little room for romantic encounters or sexual attraction. However, in recent years, there has been a slight increase in the number of films created by Asian directors, which has led to a similar increase in the depth and range of Asian characters. Through the analysis of films featuring Asian male characters in romantically-involved roles, we can see the correlation between Asian representation behind the camera and Asian portrayals on screen.

The Cheat (1915) and The Beggar Prince (1920)

Cecil B. Demille, director of The Cheat (Source: LA Times)

Cecil B. Demille directed American silent drama, The Cheat (1915), as a star vehicle for lead actress Fannie Ward. However, the movie made Sessue Hayakawa, a Japanese American actor who played the villain, a breakout star. Hayakawa plays a friend of the female lead, vaguely oriental and equally feminized and sexually deviant. He attempts to rape Ward’s character before he is eventually thwarted by Ward’s husband. The movie ends with Ward reuniting with her husband, Hayakawa justly convicted, and the white nuclear family reaffirmed.

Here we see the stereotype many Asian male characters would later fall into – feminized to the point of emasculation as well as sexually deviant so as to be a threat to white women. However, this movie accrued financial and social capital for Hayakawa. Many consider him one of Hollywood’s first sex symbols in an age of yellow peril. He was highly paid and highly regarded. Thus, this allowed him to establish his own production company, Haworth Pictures, in 1918, the first Asian-owned production company in America (Monaghan, 2018). Haworth Pictures produced 19 films from 1918 to 1922, many of which Hayakawa got to play the lead romantic role. These included The Dragon Painter (1919) and The Beggar Prince (1920). Interestingly enough, Hayakawa plays both the romantic lead and the villain of The Beggar Prince in which the female romantic lead is a white woman. As the villain (the Prince of the Island of Desire), he attempts to rape the love interest and as the hero (a doppelganger of the villain), he tricks the villain and takes his place as the prince. Like Hayakawa’s own negotiated status as an actor – both typecast as a threat, but fervently desired as a sex symbol by audiences, Hayakawa’s two characters in The Beggar Prince negotiate their positions as a feared villain and an unlikely yet desirable love interest.

Still from The Cheat (Source: Atlas Obscura)
Still from The Beggar Prince (Source: Wisconsin Historical Society)

In these two, one from The Cheat and one from The Beggar Prince, we see a stark difference in Hayakawa’s roles. In The Cheat, Hayakawa cowers, making himself smaller. He hides in the shadows, highlighting his role as a criminal. However, when he gets to play the prince in The Beggar Prince, Hayakawa is powerful. He sits on a throne, looking straight back at the viewer. He does not cower, instead he takes up most of the frame. We see in these two photos, one from a production helmed by non-Asians and the other produced by Hayakawa himself, just how differently Asian men can be represented when there is space for Asian Americans behind the camera.

Flower Drum Song (1961)

Henry Koster, director of Flower Drum Song (Source: IMDB)

Flower Drum Song (1961) became Hollywood’s first major feature film to cast majority Asian actors in a contemporary Asian-American story, tackling issues like the gap between immigrant parents and their children and dating among Asian Americans. Nancy Kwan plays the romantic female lead while James Shigeta plays her counterpart. This film was produced by non-Asians, but the book it was based on was written by C.Y. Lee, a Chinese American. Although this film is wrought with stereotypes (as we can see in the picture in which one of the characters is happily banging a gong), it still featured Asian men as romantic leads and complex characters in the same year white men could play racist caricatures of Asian men in lesser movies (i.e. Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s).

Source: Wikipedia

16 Candles (1984)

Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles (1984) is a notorious character that generated new stereotypes for the Asian male community in America. Long Duk Dong plays a foreign exchange student, emphasis on foreign, who is absurdly and inappropriately sexual as well as awkward. He ends up dating a girl called Lumberjack who is both larger and more traditionally masculine than him. As Kent Ono and Vincent Pham write in Asian Americans and the Media, “the gender roles are switched… while this representation aims to provide comic relief, it both feminizes Asian American men and simultaneously constructs alternative gender and sexuality as aberrant (2009).”

John Hughes, director of 16 Candles (Source: Britannica)

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We can see this gender role reversal in the picture. Long Duk Dong clutches Lumberjack in a way that we would normally expect a woman to embrace her boyfriend. However, instead of using this as a way to explore gender roles in a relationship, it is used to depict Long Duk Dong as a caricature of Asian male sexuality and gender. It is a particularly pernicious joke made at Asian men’s expense.

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The Wedding Banquet (1993)

Source: UCLA Library
Ang Lee, director of The Wedding Banquet (Source: Entertainment Times)

The 1993 film, The Wedding Banquet, was directed by Ang Lee, a notable Taiwanese filmmaker. This film was groundbreaking in that it featured an Asian homosexual lead, an intersection of identities not usually displayed on the big screen. The protagonist, Wai-Tung, lives an openly gay life with his boyfriend in New York, while remaining closeted to his parents in Taiwan. After repeated pestering by his parents to find a bride, Wai-Tung tells them that he’s marrying Wei-Wei, a young immigrant woman from mainland China. Things get complicated when his parents decide to attend his fake wedding in New York. This film explores the life of a character who is “successfully assimilated into mainstream America” yet still “fight[s] against the normative construct of American and Chinese societies and systems” (Ledru, 2019, p. 2). Ang Lee’s unique perspective as an Asian filmmaker allowed him to portray an Asian character with a deep and meaningful story that broke the stereotypes of desexualized Asian men.

Romeo Must Die (2000)

Source: Medium
Andrzej Bartkowiak, director of Romeo Must Die (Source: Zimbio)
Final scene of Romeo Must Die (Source: Critical Media Project)

Romeo Must Die, a film made in 2000 by Polish director Andrzej Bartkowiak, had a very promising premise for breaking Asian stereotypes in the media. The plot is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, adapted into a martial arts infused romance starring Chinese actor Jet Li and African American singer Aaliyah. The story had a lot of potential for breaking stereotypes, both of emasculated Asian men and stigmas against interracial relationships, but it unfortunately fell flat on both fronts.

In the final scene of the movie (shown below), Jet Li and Aaliyah’s characters were reunited at last and shared a passionate…hug. According to The Washington Post, “The original ending had Aaliyah kissing Li, a scenario that didn’t test well with an ‘urban audience.’ So the studio changed it. The new ending had Aaliyah giving Li a tight hug. Mainstream America, for the most part, gets uncomfortable with seeing an Asian man portrayed in a sexual light” (Lim, 2016). It is uncertain whether an Asian director would have fought against the studio to change this disappointing ending, but it’s clear that the unconscious biases against sexualizing Asian men still resided in the hearts of many Americans.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Source: NewNowNext
Jon M. Chu, director of Crazy Rich Asians (Source: Business Insider)

The 2018 film, Crazy Rich Asians, was directed by Jon M. Chu and was the first American film since 1993 to feature an all-Asian cast with an Asian American lead (Ho, 2018). The movie centers around the romance between a rich Singaporean man and a Chinese-American NYU professor. It shows off the luxurious lifestyle of the wealthy in Singapore while exploring complicated family tensions. This film goes a long way for Asian on-screen representation–the male lead, played by Henry Golding, is charming and sexy, a stark departure from the stereotypically desexualized Asian character. In the image above, the shot highlights Golding’s toned physique and emphasizes his sexy appearance. As the entire cast was Asian, the movie displayed a plethora of multifaceted characters with complicated motives and compelling storylines, showing that just like everyone else, Asian people come in all shapes and forms. All-in-all, the film was a smashing victory for Asian-American on-screen representation.

Always Be My Maybe (2019)

Source: Vox
Nahnatchka Khan, director of Always Be My Maybe (Source: Variety)

For the final example of Asian male representation in film, we look to Nahnatchka Khan’s Always Be My Maybe. Unlike many of the other films previously discussed, “Always Be My Maybe shows a groundbreaking character: an Asian American underachiever” (Shen, 2019). The male lead, Marcus (played by Randall Park), is an average, under-achieving American citizen, who finds himself reuniting with his childhood friend, Sasha (Ali Wong), and the two spark up an unlikely romance. Unlike Crazy Rich Asians, which was a display of riches and foreign extravaganza, Always Be My Maybe created a much more relatable character for Americans everywhere to laugh, cry, and endure the occasional awkward encounter with. This film actively subverts the “model minority” myth that has often portrayed Asian-Americans as highly-motivated math nerds that eventually realize their dreams of becoming doctors. Instead, here is a main character who is quirky, average, and relatable. 

Throughout history, there have been roles for Asian men in Hollywood reaching back to the silent era. However, these roles are often limited by stereotypes, curtailing Asian male characters to archetypes like the sexless martial artist or the emasculated nerd. As Asian creators find space behind the camera, taking control of production, we see more varied and diverse roles for Asian characters. Recently, with an influx of Asian filmmakers, we see Asian men find roles as a romantic lead. From Marcus in Always Be My Maybe to Harry in Crazy Rich Asians, Asian men in movies are finally allowed to break away from tired stereotypes. Hopefully, as the number of Asian filmmakers in Hollywood continues to grow, we will be able to see more and more interesting, complex Asian characters on screen too. 

References

Ho, K. K. (2018, August 15). How Crazy Rich Asians Is Going to Change Hollywood. Time. https://time.com/longform/crazy-rich-asians/.

Ledru, J. (2019, November 14). Queer and Asian: Redefining Chinese American Masculinity in The Wedding Banquet… https://journals.openedition.org/itineraires/7067.

Lim, J. (2016, April 29). Why couldn’t Jet Li kiss Aaliyah? https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/opinion/2020/03/638_203706.html.

Monaghan, A. (2018) Art and Artifice https://mag.uchicago.edu/arts-humanities/art-and-artifice

Ono, K. & Pham V. (2009)  Problematic Representations of Asian American Gender and Sexuality. Asian Americans and the Media: Media and the Minorities (p. 63-79). Cambridge: Polity Press.

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