A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a story in Weekender & more about an exhibit in Penn State's Pattee Library, “Establishing an Identity: The Cinema and Literature of Asian America in the University Libraries’ Collections." The exhibit, which is running through the end of May, displays old Hollywood films with Asian characters as well as modern films written and directed by Asian Americans that explore the complexities of integrating into American society.
Being half-Korean and also a something of a film buff, I was drawn to this story because I'm interested in the ways that Asians and Asian-Americans have been portrayed in film and media in general. Historically, as I wrote in the story, Asians have been portrayed as one-dimensional caricatures, such as villains, buffoons, "dragon ladies" or "China dolls." Asian men, in particular, have often been portrayed in mainstream American media as virtual eunuchs who are devoid of sex appeal. And while I was vaguely aware of the "yellow face" phenomenon, in which Caucasian actors played Asian roles in early films, the era when that practice was common was before my time. Glenn Masuchika, information literacy librarian for Penn State University Libraries and the coordinator of the exhibit, explained to me that almost all of the few Asian roles in early American films were played by white actors. Can you imagine Marlon Brando playing a Japanese character? Neither could I, but he played one in "Teahouse of the August Moon,” a post-World War II comedy about “Americanizing and democratizing” an Okinawan village. And according to Masuchika, many people are unaware that "yellow face" is still occurring periodically.
In addition to the "yellow face" films, the exhibit also features modern films and books written and directed by Asian-Americans. One of those films is "Better Luck Tomorrow," 2002 film directed by Justin Li about a group of Asian American overachievers, who, bored with their lives, enter a world of crime and material excess. That film, along with some others featured in the exhibit, seek to portray Asian-Americans as complicated individuals, just like any other group. Speaking from personal experience, I have found that many Caucasians exoticize Asian cultures. That is somewhat understandable, considering that Asians are still a relatively small minority in the U.S., and often present themselves as a "model minority." But exoticizing, in my opinion, is just as much of a problem as overt discrimination. Both of those practices objectify individuals instead of recognizing them as authentic human beings, not cultural abstractions. White Americans also have a tendency to lump all Asian groups together, and this exhibit demonstrates that there is no consensus among Asian Americans as to what defines an Asian American. There are many different Asian American groups, and also people of mixed heritage, such as myself. We all have our own unique experiences and points of view. Classifying everyone with a similar heritage under one umbrella fails to recognize the diversity and individuality of the people in those groups.
All of the films and books that are featured in the Asian cinema and literature exhibit are available for checkout from the Penn State libraries. Masuchika told me that he would like for Penn State to offer an Asian American studies minor, but with the university dealing with massive state funding cuts, that's a pipe dream for the forseeable future. I encourage everyone who is interested in deepening their understanding of Asian American issues to check out this exhibit while they still can.