Hollywood is evidently not ready for a male Asian romantic lead. Outside of films with a specific Asian focus, there has never been an Asian man in an onscreen romantic kiss in Hollywood. But why not?? Asian women have often been viewed as sexual, even fetishized beings from very early on in cinematic history, with inter-racial romance depicted as early as 1922. But Asian men have been portrayed from very early on as asexual, if not comic, subservient, or evil. Back then, Asian men weren’t even portrayed by Asian men! Christopher Lee plays the nefarious Dr. Fu Manchu in a 1960s series of movies. All the leads in The Good Earth (1937) were white; Walter Huston and Katherine Hepburn with her eyes taped star in Dragon Seed (1944); Boris Karloff at least plays Mr. Wong, Detective (1938) with dignity and no eye make-up. Mickey Rooney is horrible and cringe-inducing as Mr. Yunioshi, Audrey Hepburn’s neighbour in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (in 1961, you think they’d know better by then). Defenders of “yellowface” point to the lack of Asian actors and actresses (while ignoring early film stars Anna May Wong and Nancy Kwan), but clearly, the problem was racism in the industry. Even now, Asian men have difficulties being seen as leading men, never as romantic leading men, if they are seen in Hollywood movies at all.
The man who could have changed all this was Hong Kong action superstar Chow Yun Fat. With his Cary Grant looks and his smooth charisma, he has been called “the coolest actor in the world” by the Los Angeles Times. His big debut in Hollywood was 1998’s The Replacement Killers. Does he kiss the girl (Mira Sorvino)? No. They have tension, longing looks, but that’s it. Isn’t it part of the genre that dictates the hero gets the girl? You could say the movie was just subverting the expected norms, playing with its genre, that sort of thing, but if it were, there’s no evidence of it elsewhere. The film is a pretty straightforward action flick, and did disappointing box office. Unfortunately, Chow Yun-Fat has since been stereotyped into martial arts and action movie roles, none of which approach the quality of any of his work in Asia.
The long-standing racism in the entertainment industry is part of the story in Anne Marie Fleming’s wonderful 2003 biography of her great-grandfather, Long Tack Sam, acrobat, magician, and one of the most famous and successful vaudeville acts of his time, who opened for the Marx Brothers, mentored Orson Welles, and was a member of Houdini’s Magicians Club. Sam himself fell in love with an Austrian woman, and their relationship could have provided a model to generations. Sam’s daughters, part of the vaudeville act themselves, auditioned for The Good Earth and were told they were “too pretty” to play Chinese. But Sam refused to get into the movie industry because of the subservient or demeaning roles Asians played, and consequently, his fame faded along with vaudeville itself. Fleming’s partly animated documentary and subsequent graphic novel (both called The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam) are both wonderful, and you should really check them out (clip below).
The invisibility of the sexual Asian male is addressed in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), which displayed a surprising awareness and critical edge… don’t get me wrong, it was still a genre stoner boys movie, complete with farts and bongs. But the fact is, it manages (very pointedly) to give us the first on-screen cross-racial kiss in a Hollywood movie, featuring an Asian male lead. Am I wrong? How far we still have to go...