EssaysWeekend

What Hollywood Does to Asian Actors

Hollywood stereotypes define the Asian male as bowing, scraping, obsequious, devious, sneaky, dismal, and sexually frustrated.

Burt Kwouk as Cato Fong in Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978), directed by Blake Edwards (screenshot of movie trailer via YouTube)

Blake Edwards is best known for directing Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Days of Wine and Roses (1962), and five of the “Pink Panther” films, starring Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau: The Pink Panther (1963); A Shot in the Dark (1964); The Return of the Pink Panther (1975); The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976); Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978). After Sellers died in 1980, Edwards directed three more “Pink Panther” films: Trail of the Pink Panther (1982); Curse of the Pink Panther (1983); and Son of the Pink Panther (1993). None of the films without Sellers were critically or financial successful.

The other star to appear regularly in the “Pink Panther” films was Burt Kwouk, who played Cato Fong, Inspector Clouseau’s manservant, in seven of the films, starting with A Shot in the Dark. Fong’s duties include assaulting Clouseau unexpectedly, to help prepare him for surprise attacks by criminals. Typically, Fong does kung fu on Clouseau in his apartment, destroying the furniture, but always composes himself quickly enough to answer the phone and act unruffled and polite. Whenever Fong attacks, he cries out “Saaaaaaaaaah” announcing his presence. In turn, Clouseau responds with, “My little yellow friend.”

Edwards liked having someone playing an Asian stereotype in his films because he knew the audience would find the character entertaining and that the acting would get a lot of laughs. Enduring humiliation and slurs was part of the job description. You needed to be Asian to apply. Speaking about his long career in film and television, Kwouk stated: “They can call me anything they like, as long I get paid and my name is spelt correctly.”

In 1961, as the director of the film version of Truman Capote’s novel, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Edwards convinced Mickey Rooney – whom Laurence Olivier considered to be “the greatest actor of them all” – to take the worst, most offensive, self-demeaning role of his career, that of the heavily accented, bumbling, buck-toothed I. Y. Yunioshi, the upstairs Japanese neighbor of Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn).

There is also an Asian woman in the movie – the only person of color at the drunken party in Holly Golightly’s apartment, which so enraged Rooney’s Yunioshi. The camera glides past her three times. She is wearing a red sequined dress, which makes her look further out of place from the other women at the party, who are clad in unadorned monochrome. The one time the camera veers close to her, we hear her talking but cannot understand what she is saying. In Breakfast at Tiffaany’s, Edwards’s apparent view of Asians is that they are either repulsive caricatures or out of place and incomprehensible, even if, in the case of the woman, they get to dance with a white man. 

In 2008, when Rooney learned that Breakfast at Tiffany’s had been pulled from a free film series because it offended many people, Rooney was quoted extensively in an article by Stephen Magagnini that appeared in the Sacramento Bee (September 28, 2008):

One of the most beloved and enduring movie actors in American history, Rooney was shocked to hear that his comic role as Mr. Yunioshi, Audrey Hepburn’s character’s cantankerous upstairs neighbor, had been branded racist by several Asian-American activists.

“Don’t break me up — I wouldn’t offend any person, be they black, Asian or whatever,” said the veteran of 360 films. Rooney still performs worldwide with his eighth wife, Jan Chamberlain. He noted that the Chinese consider eight a lucky number.

The same article contains the following, odd remarks:

“Blake Edwards, who directed the picture, wanted me to do it because he was a comedy director. They hired me to do this overboard, and we had fun doing it.”

Mickey Rooney as I. Y. Yunioshi in movie trailer for Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), directed by Blake Edwards (Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons)

Instead of trying to find out what Rooney meant by “fun,” Magagnini goes on to write:

Rooney said he loves everybody, and his life is a testament to that. “I was born in Brooklyn, delivered by a Chinese doctor on a table in a boarding house on September 23, 1920,” he said. “I came from a poor family, my father was from Glasgow, Scotland, my mother’s brothers were brakemen on the railroad, we didn’t have anything but mush for breakfast.”

Rooney’s wife Jan, who said they were married in Hong Kong and love Chinese art, food, culture and medicine, said the role was meant to be fun. “It’s terribly sad and I feel bad for the people taking offense,” she said.

Although Yunioshi was played by Rooney, a white man, and Fong was played by Kwouk, who was Chinese, their roles have in common their depiction of an Asian male as a bowing, scraping, obsequious, devious, sneaky, dismal, sexually frustrated type speaking in a faux Asian accent.

In his article in The New York Daily News (July 17, 2011), Jeff Yang raises the question that is still to be answered: What did it mean to have Mickey Rooney, “the Brooklyn boy who’d found stardom playing the sweetheart of America’s heartland, Andy Hardy […] playing a Japanese character named Mr. Yunioshi, who alternated between fury at ‘Miss Gorightry’s’ interruptions and a yearning to photograph her in his bedroom studio.”

Mickey Rooney’s incongruent roles as Andy Hardy and Mr. Yunioshi are mirrored in Boris Karloff’s turns as the man-made monster in Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939), and as Dr. Fu Manchu in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), as well as the private detective James Wong in a short-lived series meant to rival the Charlie Chan films.

The stiff, overacting Karloff, who was never offered the role of a sweetheart, played monsters, mummies, murderers, and Asians because Hollywood saw them as inhuman and interchangeable even when, as in the case of private detective James Wong, they were essentially good. Being a sweetheart meant that you were superior and could procreate, something Frankenstein could not do and Yunioshi would not be permitted to do.

Yunioshi’s fruitless dreams of photographing Holly Golightly in his bedroom, and Fong’s conversion of Clouseau’s apartment into a brothel (from which he himself abstains) in Revenge of the Pink Panther and Curse of the Pink Panther underscore the precept that sex is something that Asian males never experience in Hollywood movies. They are destined never to achieve orgasm or to be anything but self-denying, like a warped Western version of a Buddhist monk.

Burt Kwouk as Cato Fong in Curse of the Pink Panther (1983), directed by Blake Edwards (screenshot of movie trailer via YouTube)

Think of the character Mike Yanagita (Steve Park) in Coen Brother’s film, Fargo (1996), a pathetic failure who lives with his parents and lies to Marge Gunderson (played by Frances McDormand), police chief of Brainerd, Minnesota, in a pitiable attempt to seduce her. In 1997, in response to the criticism of his role, Park approached The Los Angeles Times with a mission statement decrying roles that are “insulting and stereotypical,” which they declined to print. After he posted it on the internet, the statement was reprinted in several Asian American publications.

In an online article by Michael Lasalle that appeared in SFGATE (Tuesday, May 27, 1997) Park, who obviously was thinking of his own role in Fargo, states:

The images that are being put out there, in these mainstream films, are really demeaning, and they perpetuate a certain feeling around Asian people which encourages anti-Asian violence. I think it has a very damaging psychic effect on the Asian American community .

When pressed for an example, Park pointed to Absolute Power (1997), directed by Clint Eastwood, who played the lead role alongside Gene Hackman and Ed Harris. The single Asian character in the film was a bowing, scraping, badly speaking waiter.

When I looked for movies that Park starred in after posting his statement, I did not find any of note.

The inability of Yunioshi, Fong, and Yanagita to have a sexual encounter or even a romantic relationship is something they have in common with the martial arts movie star, Bruce Lee.

Along with his recurring role on the “Pink Panther” series, Kwouk played Mr. Ling, a Chinese expert in nuclear fission in the James Bond film Goldfinger (1964), a Japanese operative named Spectre 3 in You Only Live Twice (1967), and an uncredited role as a Chinese general in the spoof, Casino Royale (1967). Between his appearances in the James Bond films, he played Feng in The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), starring the non-Asian Christopher Lee in the title role.

To answer the phone perfectly despite what is happening around him, as he always does in the “Pink Panther” films, Cato Fong must be the perfect, inscrutable valet — the emotionless Asian for whom individuality and tears do not exist, a well-programmed yellow robot.

And when a film calls for an Asian to play a human-cyborg hybrid soldier named Major Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell (2017), based on the Japanese anime, Hollywood chose Scarlett Johansson to play the role, in which the original character’s ethnicity is erased. When asked about this, Johansson replied: “I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person.”

Inserting a white actress or actor into an Asian role is a long tradition in Hollywood that dates back to “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford, starring as Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly (1915), and includes Luise Rainer as O-Lan in the film adaption of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth (1937) about Chinese farmers struggling to survive, and Katherine Hepburn as Jade Tan in Dragon Seed (1944). On the male side, there is John Gielgud as Chang in Lost Horizon (1973), Peter Ustinov reprising the role of Charley Chan in Charley Chan and The Curse of the Dragon Queen (1981), Paul Rodriguez as Mr. Wong in Cloud 9 (2006), and Christopher Walken as Feng in Balls of Fury (2007).

The more some things change, the more other things stay the same.

comments (0)