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A short history of Chinese American women on screen, from Celeste Ng
Editor’s note: Our August pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club, “Now Read This” is Maxine Hong Kingston’s 1976 memoir “The Woman Warrior,” which was chosen by author Celeste Ng. Become a member of the book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.
The Woman Warrior was one of the first places I saw myself represented as a Chinese American woman, one of the few books I had growing up that showed anything like my experience. Onscreen, the images of people who looked like me were even rarer. Below are some of the portrayals that shaped my understanding — for better or for worse — of how Chinese and Chinese American women could be seen in film and on TV.
Anna May Wong
I’d heard of Anna May Wong before, but after I read Peter Ho Davies’ fantastic novel “The Fortunes,” one section of which focuses on Wong’s life and career, I wanted to learn everything I could about her. Wong was the first Chinese American (and Asian American) movie star, gorgeous and glamorous and politically outspoken. Even in the 1930s, she sharply critiqued the way Hollywood portrayed Chinese and Chinese Americans only as stereotypical villains, “Dragon Ladies,” or “exotic flowers.”
But Wong’s story also infuriates me. She was passed over for lead roles because anti-miscegenation laws prohibited actors of different races from kissing on screen–and all the leading actors at the time were white. Instead, white actresses portrayed Asian lead characters–famously, Louise Rainer won an Oscar for her yellowface portrayal of the Chinese woman O-Lan in “The Good Earth”–while Wong was relegated to minor roles. I hope someday someone will make a biopic of Wong, with a Chinese American actress in the lead, bringing the life of this hidden star to light.
Wong was the subject of a documentary, “Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words,” by Yunah Hong. Here’s the trailer, which includes commentary by film historians and clips of Wong’s films.
Katharine Hepburn as “Jade” in “Dragon Seed” (1944)
Why is Katharine Hepburn in a list of Chinese American women in film? Excellent question. In Hollywood, Asian Americans are often portrayed by non-Asian actors–a practice known as “yellowface.” But I didn’t know until recently that even notable actresses like Katharine Hepburn–an actress I otherwise adore–took part in it.
In 1944, Hepburn played Jade, a Chinese peasant woman and the lead character in “Dragon Seed,” a film based on the Pearl S. Buck novel of the same name. If you’re thinking that Hepburn doesn’t look remotely Chinese, you’re correct, and the result is one of the most cringeworthy portrayals of a “Chinese” woman I’ve ever seen–and one of the most glaring examples of yellowface in Hollywood history. It stings, knowing that Hollywood wanted to tell a story about Chinese people but didn’t bother to use an actor with Chinese heritage. And looking at Hepburn’s caricature of a Chinese woman, I think, “Is that really how my country sees me?”
Nancy Kwan as “Linda Low” in “Flower Drum Song” (1961)
When I was a child, my mother and my sister loved “Flower Drum Song,” but I didn’t appreciate how revolutionary the film was until I was older: a major Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about Chinese Americans that took place in Chinatown, a place that most people still overlook as unworthy of attention. Even more revolutionary, almost everyone in the cast is Asian American–something that wouldn’t happen again in a major motion picture for decades–and many of the major characters are portrayed without a Chinese accent.
The film is not without its problematic aspects (it was the 1960s, after all), but I think Nancy Kwan in “I Enjoy Being a Girl” was the first time I saw a Chinese-American girl being unapologetically confident and sexy–not for a man, but for herself! And I have to admit that I cannot walk down Grant Avenue in San Francisco’s Chinatown without singing “Grant Avenue” in my head.
Nancy Kwan performing “I Enjoy Being a Girl” (vocals by B.J. Baker)
Connie Chung, NBC and CBS (1980s)
Before Connie Chung began anchoring the evening news–first on NBC, and then on CBS–I almost never saw a face like mine on screen, let alone in a position of authority. But suddenly, there was Connie Chung on my TV screen, telling everyone what was important, what we should be paying attention to. She didn’t have an accent, she wasn’t dressed in a cheongsam; she dressed in polished suits and had the carefully coiffed cloud of ’80s hair just like all the other women I saw around me, including my mom. She wasn’t, in any way, being cast as “other,” and seeing her face evening after evening broadened my ideas of what a Chinese American woman could do.
Lauren Tom as “Julie” on “Friends” (1995)
Julie appears in only a few episodes of “Friends,” in Season 2, as Ross’s pre-Rachel girlfriend, but she made an outsized impression on me. She’s clearly Chinese American, but her race isn’t a part of her role at all: It isn’t mentioned by the other characters, she doesn’t speak with an accent, and she isn’t given a markedly Chinese-sounding name. She dresses in the same mid-’90s fashions as the rest of the gang. In fact, her ethnicity is mentioned only once, the first time she’s on screen: Rachel, waiting for Ross to return from a visit to Beijing, is startled to see him deplane with a young Asian woman–Julie–by his side. Flustered, she gives the bouquet she’s brought for Ross to Julie, saying loudly and slowly, “Welcome–to–our–country.” Julie responds, in the same loud, slow tone, “Thank–you–I’m–from–New–York.”
I’m used to Chinese Americans being the butt of the jokes (think Long Duk Dong in “Sixteen Candles”), but this turns the tables: The joke highlights Rachel’s prejudices, reaffirming Julie as someone who belongs. Julie isn’t a “Dragon Lady” or an “exotic flower”–she’s portrayed as just another American, the first time I’d seen that in a TV show.
The women of “The Joy Luck Club” (1993)
It’s almost impossible to talk about Chinese American women on screen without talking about “The Joy Luck Club.” A major motion picture about Chinese American women and daughters, with an all-Asian cast, still sounds like a fantasy to me–yet somehow, “The Joy Luck Club” managed to do it. Much of Amy Tan’s book had resonated with me almost painfully, and the film did the same, mirroring parts of my own experience back to me for the first time. Chinese Americans are often overlooked in American culture, and even within Chinese culture, women are often overlooked or undervalued. So to see not just one, but eight Chinese American women’s stories centered on screen was incredibly powerful. It was as if these women had looked right into the face of the world and shouted: we matter.
Mulan in “Mulan” (1998)
I grew up watching Disney movies, but none of the Disney princesses–Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Belle, Ariel–looked anything like me. When “Mulan” came out, I was almost 18, but I felt like an excited little girl walking into the theater. I knew the rough story of Fa Mu Lan from childhood, so it was a joy to see it on screen, and I was thrilled to know that the actress voicing Mulan was actually Chinese American, like me.
Still, I was nervous–I wondered if non-Chinese would find the story hokey, or if they’d make fun of the names, the clothes, the very concept of duty and family honor that made the film resonate with me. I’ve been heartened to see that “Mulan” still has a devoted fan base, enough to merit a new live-action version starring almost entirely Chinese American actors.
Lucy Liu as “Ling Woo” on “Ally McBeal” (1998-2002)
Even in college–when I watched “Ally McBeal” regularly–I had complicated feelings about Ling Woo, played by Lucy Liu. The character is a modern-day version of the “Dragon Lady” stereotype: icily beautiful, flagrantly sexual yet emotionally cold, fierce to the point of being cutthroat, villainous almost to the point of caricature. She’s the antithesis of the blond, sweet, over-emotional, all-American Ally, and she perpetuates many of the worst clichés about Chinese and Chinese American women. (Don’t get me started on how she speaks Mandarin, but appears to have a Cantonese name.)
On the other hand, Ling was competent, successful and unapologetically confident. In 1998, there were literally no other Asian-American women on American TV, and seeing her on such a major show felt like recognition, even if her character was problematic. Which is worse: bad representation, or no representation at all? I still don’t know the answer. But I’m grateful to the character of Ling for launching Lucy Liu’s career. She’s gone on to many other roles that challenge our perceptions of who Chinese American women can play, from Alex Munday in “Charlie’s Angels” (2000) to Dr. Joan Watson on “Elementary.”
Constance Wu as “Jessica Huang” on “Fresh Off the Boat” (2015)
I was afraid to watch “Fresh Off the Boat”–not because I wasn’t excited, but because I was too excited. There hadn’t been an American TV show centered on an Asian family since Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl” (which my sister had devotedly taped and saved on VHS). I both desperately wanted to see more Chinese American representation and was terrified of how it would be received.
When the show premiered, I tuned in and soon found myself tweeting lines that literally made me fall off the couch laughing in recognition–“My family loved each other, but we didn’t say it. We showed our love through criticism and micromanagement!”–and moments that touched so close to home, I winced. Constance Wu and the rest of the cast portrayed a Chinese American family that was recognizable but not stereotypical, along with a healthy dose of jabs at race relations. It felt like a huge turning point for Chinese and Asian American representation.
Emma Stone as “Allison Ng” in “Aloha” (2015)
I was in California when I spotted a billboard for “Aloha,” and something struck me as odd: no one pictured looked very Hawaiian. I googled, and saw something even more curious: Emma Stone was playing a character called “Allison Ng.” I wasn’t the only one who noticed–a huge public outcry arose over the clearly white Stone portraying a woman who’s part Hawaiian and part Chinese.
Here’s the encouraging thing: the outcry helped call attention to the ongoing problems of yellowface. Director Cameron Crowe apologized for the casting, as did Stone herself, saying that she had learned a lot from the discussion and regretted taking the role. Even a decade ago, miscasting a white woman as an Asian woman probably wouldn’t have garnered much attention–so I see the case of “Allison Ng” as a small sign of progress.
Phillipa Soo as “Eliza” in “Hamilton” (2015)
I could go on and on about how groundbreaking Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton” is, but just as radical to me was the casting of Phillipa Soo as Eliza. Before this, the only Asian woman I’d seen in a Broadway musical was in the deeply problematic “Miss Saigon.” Yet here was Soo, an actress with Chinese American heritage, playing the wife of a founding father. She even gets to beat-box a little in the second act–something I’d definitely never gotten to see a Chinese American woman do onstage!
When we talk about diversity in the U.S., we tend to talk in terms of black and white. Recently, Latinx populations have entered the discussion, but Asians often are left out entirely. So for me, Soo’s presence in this show about American’s origins is a powerful acknowledgement that Asian Americans are here too–in the theater, and in the nation–and that we have a right to claim this as our history, as well.
I first encountered Ali Wong through her stand-up specials “Baby Cobra” and “Hard-Knock Wife”–both so funny I actually laughed until I sobbed. But strange as it sounds, I was deeply moved, too. In those specials Wong, who has Chinese and Vietnamese heritage, is outspoken, crude, and utterly hilarious — everything I’d always been told I shouldn’t, or couldn’t, be. (Did I mention that she performs seven months pregnant?)
In her comedy, Wong stretches the boundaries of what we think Chinese and Asian American women can be. She works for better Asian representation, too; recently, she starred alongside Randall Park in the delightful rom-com “Always Be My Maybe,” giving us a much-needed Asian American leading couple.
Awkwafina as “Peik Lin” in “Crazy Rich Asians” (2018)
“Crazy Rich Asians” was important for Chinese American and Asian American representation for many reasons–the first film from a major studio with an all-Asian cast in decades, and a huge box-office success, for starters–but Awkwafina’s performance made the biggest impression on me. It shocks me that even today, it’s unusual to see a character like Peik Lin onscreen: quirky, opinionated, full of attitude, and unapologetic about all of it. Yet the truth is that there are plenty of Chinese and Asian Americans like this, and it was refreshing to see.
Peik Lin has been critiqued by some as an appropriation of black culture, raising productive questions about what someone like Awkwafina–a Flushing, Queens-raised rapper with Chinese and Korean heritage–gets to call “her culture.” In an era when people of color are seeing both how important it is to work together, and how important it is to respect the differences in each group’s particular struggles, these discussions seem all the more important.