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East Asian vs. Southeast Asian Representation in Hollywood


Representation is great — whether we’re talking about gender, body, skin color, or anything else. As an avid consumer of media, one thing I’ve noticed is the rise in popularity of Asians in mainstream media. K-Pop, anime, and for sure, Crazy Rich Asians, has definitely drawn media attention to the cultures and people of the largest continent on the planet — for the most part. Asia encompasses countries like Sri Lanka, Armenia, Nepal, among many others, but the media has been more enamored with the East Asian countries.

It’s not all bad. Hollywood brings us films and TV shows that have Chinese and Japanese origins. Chinese, Korean, and Japanese actors and directors are also recognized for their work. Quite recently, Chloe Zhao became the first Asian to win a Golden Globe. But Hollywood and the media has been turning what should have been Asian-centric stories into white ones.


Tilda Swinton in the movie, “Doctor Strange.” Photo courtesy of IMDb.


Whitewashing in Hollywood movies

Movies like The Last Samurai where Tom Cruise is the star despite the story clearly being centered on Japanese culture, but somehow a white man is the hero. Emma Stone being cast in the movie, Aloha, despite the character being Asian-American. Tilda Swinton’s role as the Ancient One in the Marvel film, Doctor Strange, was supposed to be a Tibetan woman — the necessity to whitewash her was non-existent.

While Hollywood is slowly but surely weeding out whitewashing, there is still a lot for them to learn in terms of diversity in the Asian cultures.

Comedian Ali Wong makes a joke in one of her comedy specials that she and her husband are both half “fancy Asian” and half “jungle Asian.” As a Chinoy, I get it, and I find it hilarious that I immediately knew which countries she meant were the fancy ones and which ones were not. The thing is, doesn’t it seem that the non-Asian higher-ups in Hollywood know this, and use this distinction to pick and choose which Asians they showcase?


Manny Jacinto (right) in “The Good Place.” Photo courtesy of IMDb.

Asian misrepresentation

See the TV shows, Fresh Off the Boat and Kim’s Convenience.  Admittedly, these are two great shows about immigrant Asian families. Correct me if I’m wrong, because I truly may be, but I haven’t really seen shows that focus on say, Vietnamese, Laotian, or even the Filipino experience of immigration to the U.S. And oh my God, has it been commented upon too often for them to be unaware of this?

South and Southeast Asian actors have been lumped into the category of the same actors, being made to represent any Asian or non-Asian culture they could possibly pass off as. For example: Lana Condor of the Netflix film, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, who plays Korean high-school student Lara Jean. Condor is actually Vietnamese. Janel Parrish who plays Margot, Lara Jean’s older sister, is part Chinese and plays someone of Korean descent.

Actress Vanessa Anne Hudgens is portrayed as Hispanic in the Disney movie, High School Musical. Randall Park from the aforementioned Fresh Off the Boat has features that scream Korean ancestry and yet is meant to play a Taiwanese immigrant.

And in the rare occasion that Hollywood gets it right, it’s as informed a decision as it is when they wrongly cast Asians or Caucasians for other Asians. On the TV show, The Good Place, which is set in the afterlife, the Asian character Jason Mendoza even stated, “Everyone thinks I’m Taiwanese. I’m Filipino. That’s racist. Heaven is so racist.” Manny Jacinto, who plays the character, is Filipino.


Vanessa Hudgens (right) in “High School Musical.” Photo courtesy of IMDb.


Portrayal of Asian culture

It’s clear that Hollywood has decided to give us a bit of representation, but have they really? They have cherry-picked which parts of Asian cultures are digestible by the Western audience, instead of placing Asians on center stage to feature and educate people on differences in cultures, practices, relationship dynamics, and more.

Look at how often specific Asian cultures are portrayed in mainstream media. Koreans are seen as K-Pop idols, Japanese people are tech savants, the Chinese are split, but thanks to Crazy Rich Asians, their representation lately has leaned more towards secretly mega-rich and glamorous, while Filipinos are still usually portrayed as maids or desperate OFWs. There are rarely any Vietnamese stories unless they’re about the war, or even Thai stories.

Even with Disney’s Raya The Last Dragon, which is meant to showcase South East Asian cultures, the cast is made up of a predominantly East Asian cast. Am I nitpicking? I don’t know. Maybe. I feel as though Hollywood isn’t trying hard enough because if they gave everyone a fair shot, I’m sure Dante Basco (Zuko from Avatar) would’ve made it or even Eric Bauza — both popular voice actors. Perhaps even Deedee Magno Hall (Pearl from Steven Universe) would’ve made the cut.

On one hand, I can see the steps media is making to properly represent cultures, but am I demanding too much by believing that the steps they’re taking should have graduated to leaps by now?

Do you feel that Southeast Asian representation in media is fair? How does Southeast Asian representation compare to East Asian representation? Am I getting worked up about this issue for no reason? I would really like to know what you, as someone who is of East Asian and Southeast Asian descent, think.

I just want to see a variety of Asians cast properly, and have stories told about our cultural heritage, and relationships in a way that’s relatable not only to the glamorous Asians, or the immigrants but the everyday Asians. Also, stop interchanging Asians and their cultures.

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