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  • What Was Asian American Cinema?
  • Sylvia Shin Huey Chong (bio)

The year 2016 has had a bumper crop of media controversies involving Asian American representation. Just before their Super Bowl appearance, Coldplay and Beyoncé were criticized for appropriating Indian culture in their video "Hymn for the Weekend" (Ben Mor, 2016). Then, despite (or perhaps because of) the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, comedians Chris Rock and Ali G cracked anti-Asian jokes at the Academy Awards, sparking condemnation from prominent Asian American directors and actors such as Ang Lee and Sandra Oh. Of course, there was the endless stream of poor casting choices, from Tilda Swinton as a Tibetan monk in the comic-book film Doctor Strange (Scott Derrickson, 2016) to Scarlett Johansson as Major Kusanagi in a live-action remake of a famous Japanese anime, Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders, 2017), and, most recently, Matt Damon as an unnamed white savior in the transnational production The Great Wall (Zhang Yimou, 2017)—all of these echoing earlier controversies over Aloha (Cameron Crowe, 2015), The Last Airbender (M. Night Shyamalan, 2010), and 21 (Robert Luketic, 2008). In addition to the vociferous criticism of these announcements on Twitter and blogs, Asian American performers also spoke out against such practices in public forums, including Fresh off the Boat (ABC, 2015–present) star Constance Wu, at a panel sponsored by the Chinese American group Committee of 100 in Los Angeles, and veteran actor B. D. Wong at an event titled "Beyond Orientalism" in New York directed at theater professionals. The terms "yellowface" and "whitewashing" even began showing up outside of academia and the blogosphere, entering the mainstream media.

With such growing consciousness of the need for Asian American representation, might we conclude that the time is ripe for something called "Asian American cinema"? If the problem with racist misrepresentation is racial invisibility, then the solution seems to call [End Page 130] for some kind of forced integration of American popular culture in order to claim visibility. And what might that cinema look like? Perhaps one clue might be found in the recent Internet meme sparked by these controversies: #Starring JohnCho, photoshopping the Korean American actor into a variety of films ranging from The Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012), Jurassic World (Colin Trevorrow, 2015), and the latest James Bond flick, to the rom-com Me before You (Thea Sharrock, 2016), the buddy film The Nice Guys (Shane Black, 2016), and so on. (A similar meme places Constance Wu in The Hunger Games [Gary Ross, 2012] and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past [Mark Waters, 2009].) In essence, the campaign is a new-media sit-in of the mostly white world of Hollywood films and television shows, replacing white bodies with Asian ones so as to highlight their erasure from popular representation, but also to assert their utter normalcy in these contexts. We are asked to accept the possibility of Asian American heroes and love interests—the latter in particular confronting the ghosts of antimiscegenation that kept Asian and Asian American actors out of older films such as The Good Earth (Sidney Franklin, 1937) and The Mask of Fu Manchu (Charles Brabin, 1932).

These calls for Asian American representation and inclusion in the media are certainly important, and they highlight not only the symbolic importance of the cultural industry but also its economic dimensions; the paucity of jobs for Asian American actors, directors, writers, and producers points to a form of employment discrimination that would be actionable in other fields that cannot claim the invisible hand of "the box office" as an excuse. Yet the call for economic parity is overdetermined by the symbolic economy in which these roles, especially on-screen ones, participate. It is not enough to simply have more Asian American deliverymen, dry cleaners, prostitutes, martial artists, or dictators in films and television. But on the flip side, the clamor for "better" roles potentially buys into fantasies of power that Hollywood peddles not only to audiences of color but to all consumers. What, for example, does an Asian American James Bond or Captain America accomplish, other than recruit Asian Americans into a toxic heterosexual masculinity in order to make up for their historical emasculation? This discourse of visibility...