On Tuesday, May 10, at the Screen Actors Guild’s Hollywood headquarters, a panel was presented by the SAG National Ethnic Employment Opportunities Committee called “The New Asia America: Transforming Perceptions.” Panelists included actors James Hong and Sandra Oh, executive Ken Mok, casting director Julia Kim, actor-director Chris Tashima, and actor–new media producer Ellen Ho.
After watching Tashima’s Academy Award–winning short “Visas and Virtues” and documentary short “Long Story Short” from moderator Jodi Long, a heated discussion began almost instantly.
Long kicked off the panel by asking, “We know where we come from, but what is our future? Where do we go from here? What shift is needed? We can play more than dragon ladies and newscasters. We’re multifaceted human beings. How do we transcend other people’s perceptions and how do we continue to do our work in spite of what we come up against?”
“We’re still caught in a cliché,” said Hong. “I don’t have the answer to how to break the cliché. That image is still out there.”
Hong admitted he wasn’t proud of some of the stereotypical roles he played early in his career, though other panelists professed that without his pioneering efforts, they wouldn’t be where they were in their careers today.
When Oh questioned Hong’s reasons for continuing to take on stereotypical Asian roles, Tashima piped up saying he didn’t believe actors should have to be revolutionists.
“Gedde Watanabe was dragged through hell for his role in ‘Sixteen Candles,’ ” said Tashima. “He didn’t create that role. That was John Hughes. If Gedde didn’t [play the role of Long Duk Dong], someone else would have. And if an Asian wouldn’t do it, they would have put a guy in yellow-face.”
Moderator Long said she believed one of the best ways to get past the clichés was to write and create your own project. “If we don’t tell our stories, who is going to tell them?” she asked.
“Not all actors are writers,” Tashima pointed out. “Nobody ever told Robert De Niro, ‘You want to work? You better write your own roles.’ That’s just a thing that minorities get all the time.”
Mok said he believes that real changes in perception will happen only if the people behind the scenes—such as directors, writers, and producers—change their perceptions.
“Usually on a television series, ‘diversity’ means you have one Asian person, one black person, or one Latino person,” he said. “That’s not diverse to me. On ‘America’s Next Top Model,’ me and Tyra [Banks] fight that fight all the time. Diverse to me is if we have 14 girls on the show, seven or eight of them are women of color. We have to fight that fight every day. But I feel like when you start doing that, it changes perceptions.”