As the wise Jason Mendoza points out in The Good Place, “Everyone thinks I’m Taiwanese. I’m Filipino. That’s racist. Heaven is so racist.” Now replace heaven with Hollywood, and you have a problem that’s been plaguing the entertainment industry for decades.
For a while now, there’s been outrage over Hollywood whitewashing Asian roles instead of casting Asian actors. Was it necessary to change the character of a Tibetan man to a white woman in Doctor Strange? What about casting Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese soldier in Ghost in the Shell? The answer will always be no. Whitewashing is so common that Asians heave a sigh of relief when a character isn’t whitewashed, like Mulan in Disney’s upcoming live-action adaptation. And with the history-making success of Crazy Rich Asians, there’s no doubt that things are slowly getting better.
However, as Asians continue to make progress in achieving representation in Hollywood, a new question looms on the horizon: Is it OK to cast someone as long as they’re the right race, even if they’re the wrong ethnicity? Just like Jason Mendoza, I, a Korean-American, grew up often reminding others that not all Asians are the same. Shouldn’t these distinctions matter more in the entertainment industry?
In Netflix’s To All the Boys I Loved Before, based on the book by Jenny Han, Lana Condor plays Lara Jean Covey, a half-Korean, half-white teenager who accidentally sends love letters to five of her past crushes. However, Condor isn’t Korean. She’s Vietnamese. There’s a similar issue with the role of Lara Jean’s older sister, played by Janel Parrish, who is Chinese and white, not Korean. To All the Boys I Loved Before isn’t the first time an Asian actor has subbed in for another Asian ethnicity. It happened in Once Upon a Time, when Korean actor Jamie Chung played Chinese hero Mulan; in Memoirs of a Geisha when Chinese actor Zhang Ziyi played Japanese geisha Chiyo; and in Fresh Off the Boat when Korean actor Randall Park played Taiwanese immigrant Louis Huang. To make matters worse, many of these characters are rooted in cultural context that other Asian ethnicities might not understand, which begs the question: Does this mean that Asians—or any race for that matter—are interchangeable?
Does this mean that Asians—or any race for that matter—are interchangeable?
Sure, the physical appearance might be similar, and there are times when even Asians aren’t sure what ethnicity other Asians are, but nothing else lines up. It makes me wonder whether Chung speaking in a terrible Chinese accent in Premium Rush is the same as Mickey Rooney speaking in a terrible Japanese one in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or whether Condor pretending to be half-Korean is that different from Emma Stone playing a part-Hawaiian, part-Chinese flight attendant in Aloha. Admittedly, there’s one important difference: These roles at least went to minority actors, even if they weren’t exact fits (and no yellowface was involved). Because Asian actors still struggle to nab any role due to limited options, keeping those options open for them, rather than giving them to non-Asian actors, is certainly important.
Chung brought up this struggle in an interview with CBS News after she was turned down for a role in Crazy Rich Asians because she isn’t Chinese. “There’s more consciousness now of putting Asian actors in specific roles. They want someone ethnically Chinese to play Mulan, which I appreciate, but it’s cutting into my roles as well,” Chung said. “You have actors who can play Australian, British, Irish, but Asian, it’s very specific. It’s a double-edged sword.” Like Chung, Sonoya Mizuno, who stars in Crazy Rich Asians, also highlighted the double standard that white actors are able to play other European ethnicities, while Asian actors don’t have it so easy.
In the eyes of others, Asians are all the same.
Mizuno, as well as other actors such as Korean comedian Ken Jeong, were criticized for starring in Crazy Rich Asians despite not being Chinese. Mizuno is Japanese, British and Argentinian. “It kind of pissed me off,” Mizuno told The Cut. “The reason it bothers me is because people don’t have an issue with Australian actors playing American parts and English actors playing Polish parts.” Condor made a similar point when asked about the backlash over her playing a half-Korean despite being Vietnamese. “We have representation for the first time in 25 years! Let’s all remember this is a huge stepping stone,” Condor told The Cut. “There’s a double standard here. If we’re going to be race-specific—are you asking Nicole Kidman or Margot Robbie?”
Chung, Mizuno and Condor bring up valid points. Though there have been some minor complaints about white actors portraying cultures that they don’t identify with, such as British actor Keira Knightley playing French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in 2018’s Colette, they have been mostly overlooked. However, these actors’ complaints reveal a more important issue: There are simply not enough roles for Asian actors, which is the “double-edged sword” Chung speaks of. “If I can’t play that part, what can I play? A part that’s half-Japanese, a quarter-English, and a quarter-Argentinean?” Mizuno said. “How many parts are there for that? It’s hard enough as it is.” With so few options, how can an Asian actor be picky and fit into a box that’s too small to begin with? In an ideal future, there will be so many roles available to Asians that it won’t matter if one or two Korean roles go to Chinese actors. However, that’s obviously not the case at the moment.
How can an Asian actor be picky and fit into a box that’s too small to begin with?
Despite Chung’s grievances, I deem it a step forward that Hollywood is showing any sign of consciousness regarding different ethnicities. And maybe there’s an approach that suits the career needs of actors and the needs of Asians who want more and better representation. Perhaps a line can be drawn based on how focused a character is on the ethnicity they’re representing. Would it have been weird if Condor had worn a Korean hanbok and celebrated Korean holidays in To All the Boys I Loved Before? Yes. Was the movie perfectly fine with those scenes from the book removed altogether? Also yes. Can the same be said for a film like Memoirs of a Geisha, a story rooted in Japanese history and tradition? That’s a resounding no. When Ziyi, a Chinese actor, was cast as Chiyo in Memoirs of a Geisha, it sparked a huge and understandable controversy. The movie attempted to shed light on Japan’s history and culture. (Its inaccuracy is another point altogether.) “It felt like I was watching a movie set in China, rather than Japan,” one audience member, Yumiko Kamiyama, told The AP.
The issue boils down to people still having trouble telling different Asian ethnicities apart—if they even care to try. In Hollywood, as long as the look fits, casting directors often don’t even bother to make distinctions. If the actor looks Asian enough, that’s apparently good enough for many of them. These actors are cast for being different, without properly diving into what makes them different.
These actors are cast for being different, without properly diving into what makes them different.
There’s so much cultural variety and history among Asian countries, but in the eyes of many, Asians are all the same. They’re interchangeable. They can simply adopt a different accent. But I’m not comfortable with that—and neither are many others, including Park. Although Park ultimately accepted the role of a Taiwanese immigrant on Fresh Off the Boat, he admitted to Vulture that he had a hard time playing an ethnicity that wasn’t his own. “It was a problem for me, for sure,” Park said. “I still have a little trouble with that at times. I guess the goal is that, eventually we can be at a place where we won’t see white people playing Asian people anymore. We’re not there yet. But in an ideal world you won’t see a Korean-American playing a Taiwanese character, especially an immigrant character.”
As Park suggests, perhaps now isn’t the time to dive fully into this issue when minorities as a group are still dealing with more important problems. Perhaps it’s a question for down the road, when hopefully representation is no longer an issue—when a Taiwanese actor doesn’t feel pressured to audition for just any Asian role for the sake of having work. However, it’s a question that I’m asking now because it’s never too early to start noticing and forming your own opinions. Whether that particular conversation is to be had now or later, its time will come.