By: Maggie Tse
“Hollywood has been casting white actors in Asian roles for decades now, and we can’t keep pretending there isn’t something deeper at work here.” – George Takei
The first time I learned of Mulan was not, in fact, from the Disney blockbuster Mulan; instead, it was from a picture book titled Hua Mulan that I found one day in my elementary school library at the young, impressionable age of 7.
It was tucked away in the multilingual section, among other picture books written in English and another language. The section was important in my school especially, since many if not most of the students were children of colour, children of immigrants, and from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. English was the second language for many, including myself. We were part-time children, part-time translators. Immersed in one culture at school, and another one when we stepped through the front door.
Hua Mulan was a beautifully illustrated, falling-apart-at-the-seams picture book written in English and Chinese. I remember bringing it home excitedly for my mom to read to me in Cantonese. The English translation meant I could understand it in more detail, since I had already begun to lose my graps on Cantonese at that time. But regardless! Here was a story I could share with my mom, in delicate poetry for both languages. The original ballad, and a translation. As a bonus, the story itself was family-oriented, heartfelt, and about a girl who looked like me.
Now, you’ve heard it before, have probably said it, and will hear it again: this is why representation matters. Authentic, accurate representation. Fa Mulan (the picture book) was not a fictional story about an Asian girl sacrificing her youth for her family, in a way that sounds eerily stereotypical. It was about a young woman, specifically Chinese, using her autonomy to follow her values. The story has palpable roots. And not to be dramatic, but the character was the first I read about in English, who still has eyes like mine.
But not mine, specifically. Well, of course, since I was born late into the 21st century as opposed to the 6th. The story was set in Northern China, where the predominant language spoken was Mandarin (which I can speak, but only at a level similar to that of a small toddler. With difficulty). This is a very poor attempt at a segue into my topic of choice today, which is that Asian cultures are nuanced and not all the same. These nuances cannot be brushed aside. But one would arguably find that difficult to recognize it when watching mainstream films and TV shows today.
Yes, I’m referring to the whitewashing, the cultural appropriation, and the endless crimes both big and small being commited on screens of those same sizes. But there’s one topic I haven’t seen get as much attention yet, and that is the issue of casting any Asian actor to play in a specific cultural role. Take Randall Park as the Chinese father in Fresh Off the Boat, or _________.
Honestly, I get that this sounds very much like nitpicking. Why complain about something as little as this, right? I thought about it for a long while, and did come to the conclusion that casting an Asian actor who does not match the ethnicity of the role they play is no dealbreaker in itself to me. I totally understand that actors are actors, and part of the job is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. But I’m pointing this out because the consequences of this less accurate casting, and accepting it as if it’s better than nothing at all, is dangerous.
Sounds dramatic, I know. But it runs the danger of continuing that age-old saying: ‘all Asians look the same’ (insert eye roll here). I’m sure I’m surprising nobody when I say that Asian countries have a variety of cultures, and Asian culture has expanded as far as the diaspora has; in short, all over the world. We are so complex- we deserve to have out stories portrayed accurately wherever possible. We deserve to see actors understand the ethnicity of the character they’re playing, where possible. To me, settling for anything otherwise feels like an open invitation for audiences to generalize Asians yet again, and to ignore the nuances each of our cultures have. Or even the completely different mixtures of cultures we grew up with as second gen’s, adoptees, children of mixed families, and more.
This generalizing of Asian cultures feels like a surrender to Anglo-centric cultures, a continuation of the story that we’re interchangeable. Which, frankly, is nonsense. But it makes sense to Hollywood, in the name of making films and shows that are more understandable and relatable to ‘all audiences.’ What about Asian audiences? And besides, this is such an underestimate of what audiences want, regardless.
So, now what? I want to finish off with a few things I hope to see, and maybe even be a part of, in the future. The first is the telling of more accurate stories. Wong Fu Productions has done this, as well as other short film channels on YouTube (The Ming Thing, JinnyBoy TV, among others). Overseas dramas are also wonderful for seeing characters that don’t interact as much with the idea of their racialized identities as much as their day jobs as office assistants and night jobs as kickass superheroes (A reference to Strong Girl Bong-Soon). And on some days, that’s more than enough.
On other days, I want to see a reflection of the multicultural city I live in; stories where a character speaks English because she was born in the States, and then struggles to speak her native tongue to tell her dad that he left his keys in the lock again when she gets home. Or maybe not- maybe the character’s fluent, or the parents speak perfect English. A single drop in examples of the varied families and stories yet to be told. Not race centred, but not ignorant, either. Can you imagine?
We need to continue to take hold of our narratives, as we have been already. Maybe by taking a chance in creative industries, maybe in another way. Sharing our stories and expressing our feelings about them, in every form we can. I read somewhere that this is a very ‘second generation’ thing to be thinking about, since immigration stories no longer define us as a generation. Regardless, I sincerely believe that the stories yet to be told will be just as rich. I’m excited to see the new ways of how we’ll define ourselves.
One way that is near to my heart is the creation of bilingual films. The first film I saw that made me feel this way was a Canadian film titled Double Happiness, directed by Mina Shum. Ironically Sandra Oh stars in it, perhaps making me sound like a bit of a hypocrite. But it was a beautiful portrayal nonetheless, and like I said; never a dealbreaker, just something to think about. And there’s truly something breathtaking in seeing a movie and hearing a familiar language other than English seamlessly coexist together, just like in reality.
To end off on a high note, the most beautiful thing I’ve realized as of late is that we don’t need to accept one culture and reject another. Growing up, not between two cultures but instead within each one… understanding those worlds isn’t the weakness that Western societies push onto anyone ‘different’ while growing up. It’s actually pretty cool, and what’s equally important is that our identities might feel less complete if we believe otherwise.
Maggie is currently studying social work in Ontario, Canada. When not studying, she enjoys writing, photography, and watching films. She is passionate about creativity, and hopes to inspire said creativity in all fields. She also enjoys teas and cats, like many on the internet do.