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Rise of the Dragon: From Blossom to Badass in a Hundred Years This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

On the hit TV show Ally McBeal, Lucy Liu bares her slender, angular shoulders in a provocative lace halter top, eases her ruby red nails into Greg Germann’s dirty blonde locks, then whiplashes him with her serpentine tongue. As the camera pans upward, Liu’s obsidian eyes meet our gaze in a mixture of lust and conniving, danger and mystery; she is the dragon lady of the East, an Asian vixen who is sweet maiden one moment and lethal siren the next. Liu’s role as Ling Woo, the Asian attorney on Fox’s most popular legal drama series, perpetuated one of two Asian-American female archetypes in Hollywood: the lotus blossom and the dragon lady. Asian-American males have tolerated an even worse fate. Castrated and relegated to the category of bespectacled wimpy nerd, they have suffered a social ostracism that has cast a pall over their masculinity, so much so that even some of their own race won’t date them. So, how have these stereotypes been perpetuated, and why should we care about how this tiny group is represented?

For six centuries, beginning with the Portuguese, Western European countries had colonized Asia, seeking to plunder its rolling riches, exploit its strategic trading ports, and civilize its native people. During the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars of the nineteenth century, Britain drugged an entire nation and barred its citizens from living anywhere but the slums, where dejected octogenarians roamed with pipes of opium and dingy feral cats waded in flooded, rusty shacks. This ingrained attitude of colonization naturally led to viewing Asian people as possessions, from which emerged the image of the delicate, self-sacrificing Chinese girl as lotus blossom. In fact, the first Chinese-American movie star, Anna Mae Wong, played a character named Lotus Flower, after which she became so tired of playing prostitutes and blossoms that she fled to Europe in the 1920s just so she could play a human being. “I think I left Hollywood because I died so often,” Wong lamented, reflecting upon her forty-year career. Even today, the stereotype of the self-sacrificing Asian girl has not died. In the Broadway musical Miss Saigon, a young Vietnamese prostitute kills herself for her white American soldier husband so that her son with him may lead a better life. Between being a “silent suffering doormat” or a “deceitful sexual provocateur”—the chaste, hapless virgin or the devious, assertive whore—the Asian-American woman has no middle path.

In America, Asian women are also considered food; they are constantly dehumanized and condescendingly objectified. In the popular Broadway musical Flower Drum Song, a lighthearted story about immigrant life in Los Angeles, the waiflike Nancy Kwan prances along lantern-lit Chinatown streets, cheerfully chirping that “the girl who serves you all your food/is another tasty dish!” Ten years later, even the 1967 James Bond movie You Only Live Twice opens with a blatant stereotype: Bond is in bed with another sexy companion, this time a blunt-banged Chinese siren, Kissy Suzuki, who speaks only broken English and happens to taste exactly like Peking duck:

“Why is it that Chinese girls taste different from all other girls?” he asks her.

“You think Chinese girls bet-tuh, huh?”

“Not better, just different—the way Peking duck is different from Russian caviar, but I love them both,” Bond says.

“Dah-ling, I give you very best duck.”

Then, just as Delilah betrayed Samson, she deftly leaps out of bed as two of her machine-gunned cohorts, garbed in thick black suits, burst into the bedroom to mow Bond down. Clearly, Asian women have been portrayed in the media as very dangerous dishes.

Perhaps, however, it is better to be represented poorly than not at all. Because of historical anti-miscegenation laws that outlawed interracial intimacy and marriage, directors did not cast Asian actors in any films, even those starring Asian characters. For example, directors of the 1937 film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, a romantic novel about Chinese farm family life, defied Buck’s requests to cast Chinese-American actors. Instead, they featured renowned white actors Paul Muni and Luise Rainer, complete with eye tape and yellowface makeup to fabricate squinty eyes and porcelain faces. Although these divisive anti-miscegenation laws were finally repealed in 1967, Asian-Americans, long conditioned into being invisible in the media, still only played 3% of characters and appeared in 1% of opening credits as recently as 2002.

Asian-American invisibility in the media can be attributed to several factors. Hollywood fears a predominantly white audience will not relate to an Asian cast. This is a chicken-and-egg problem, for it is hard for people to relate to stereotypes, but if conventions are all that are proffered, other races will never relate to Asian-Americans. What Hollywood needs are intricate, engaging, genuine Asian characters, but who will write these characters if Asian parents encourage their children to only become degree-wielding doctors, lawyers, and dentists? Asian parents need to goad their children to become artists and screenwriters, directors and producers so that the people behind the camera can write for those in front of it. For example, many animators for Pixar’s Up were Asian, and the result of this behind-the-scenes influence led to the crafting of a half-Asian lead character modeled after Korean-American animator Peter Sohn and voiced by Japanese-American Jordan Nagai—a subtle but powerful foreshadowing of a time to come.

With China’s new openness to the West and all its products, Hollywood has been desperately courting the 1.4 billion-person movie audience that China offers. China is now the second biggest box office market in the world at $2.75 billion in 2012 and will soon be the largest by 2020. Hollywood now wants to cast more Asians in movies and tell Asian stories, as evidenced by the bidding war over who would get to turn Asian-American author Kevin Kwan’s novel Crazy Rich Asians into a film (Nina Jacobson, popular young adult movie Hunger Games’s producer, won). Veteran producer Rob Cain concurs, “[China is] becoming such a huge part of an equation in the global business. This is really just the beginning.” Cain, like many other American directors, is starting to realize China’s power over not only in opening up a huge new market from which to garner revenue, but also through China’s film investment dollars. Clearly, capitalism and corporate greed are ironically eradicating Asian racism in America.

Since Asian-Americans only make up 4.4% of the U.S. population, why should we care about representing such a tiny group? Besides the fiduciary benefit, it is always a wise idea to see other races as human beings, not plastic stereotypes; seeing those who are different from us as our equals allows us to learn from them and grow because of it. Just as Black Americans shrugged off their blackface stereotypes in film by showing us their talent for rap and reggae, Asian-Americans should flaunt their skills too. China, in truth, invented everything from paper to football, from gunpowder to the compass, and now, they are giving us an opportunity to tell their stories. Perhaps we should let them.

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