The Bamboo Ceiling

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Words || Daniel Lim

It’s something that pops up on your Facebook newsfeed once every few months; an article by Buzzfeed or The Daily Mail, or maybe a rant from an angry Asian friend who you’ve thought about unfriending more than once because their posts are getting on the annoying side. It’s title is something along the lines of ‘Misrepresentation of Asians in Media’. It could be interesting so you give it a skim. You pick up on the keywords: whitewashing, racist, minority. You finish reading and like the post to show your support, but that’s about how deep your concern goes.

However, what most people don’t consider is that there are real people living and working through this issue, struggling to make a steady income because of the angle of their eyes and their ‘yellow’ skin. The portrayal of Asians in film and television is problematic to say the least. Men are emasculated while women are fetishised, and it’s these stereotypes that paint an undesirable portrait for the Asian community.

So if you’re still wondering why this is such a big problem, buckle up, Indiana Jones, because Shorty – the Chinese kid sidekick in The Temple of Doom – is going to take you for a ride.

If you think the actors, directors, producers or even the film industry are at fault for widespread discrimination, injustice, and misrepresentation, you are wrong. It’s us, the audience who is to blame.

It’s about two things: supply and demand, and the fact that the film industry works in fear. This is an industry worth billions of dollars, therefore it is understandable that they respond to the demands of their target audience to maximise financial returns. Certain actors are prioritised because the people know their work; audiences physically or mentally empathise with them, and big names are a sure-fire way of attracting large crowds to the movie. Why would the film industry take a risk and cast someone who doesn’t appeal to their target demographic? Who wants to see a movie with characters they can’t relate to?

However, this logic has been continuously disproven. The Dragonball Z and The Last Airbender live action remakes had extraordinary source material, but with whitewashed characters, these films still failed at the box office. Not even Emma Stone could save ALOHA from flopping with her white-washed portrayal of Allison Ng, a Hawaiian-Chinese-Swedish fighter pilot. Hollywood’s excuse for blatant discrimination can’t even be justified in terms of profit, so why do they insist on this systemic racism?

We’ve seen the stereotypes countless times; the token Asian best friend, the giggling submissive sex toy, the kung-fu badass, the chastised nerd. But even these roles are limited, with only one in twenty speaking roles going to an Asian actor and only one per cent of leading film roles being an Asian actor. These actors are burdened with the task of representing an entire race within the limited and often denigrating roles that are offered to Asian actors.

The film industry doesn’t consider the repercussions their casting choices have on society. Growing up in Australia, I found it difficult to pinpoint any idols I could relate to, and it’s probable that many Asian-Australians had similar experiences. The pool of candidates was limited, to say the least. From memory I can only think of a few: Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, Jeff from The Wiggles, the Yellow Power Ranger and that girl who played Caitlin Stacey’s sister on Neighbours.

Not only did this affect me negatively, but it also affected those around me; people couldn’t help but stereotype me. What’s even worse is that I lived by the expectations placed upon Asian people and accepted them. I felt conflicted because I loved to draw and didn’t enjoy math. When asked, I told people that I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up – not because it was what I wanted, but because it was what I thought they expected. As an audience, we translate these narrow and inaccurate representations of Asian people from film into real life; we accept and enforce these norms. The widespread distribution of these misrepresentations has instilled these misconceptions into the deepest crevices of our minds, resulting in an unconscious bias against the entire Asian community.

One positive thing that has come out of this, however, is my support for Asians in the creative industry. The internet has allowed people to gain recognition, with some of my idols today including Natalie Tran, Alexander Wang, Anna Akana, Benjamin Law and Sha’an d’Anthes, just to name a few. Whenever I see an Asian pursuing their creative passions, I’m always quietly rooting for them.  

Furthermore, one notable character came unexpectedly last year in The Edge of Seventeen Erwin, played by Hayden Szeto, is a portrayal of an Asian character done right. Erwin is three-dimensional; awkward, yet charismatic. His intelligence wasn’t an overarching aspect of his character and his creativity was emphasised through his ambition and talent. The Edge of Seventeen is a film to be commended because it took a risk. They made Erwin a love interest, but notably, he was a white girl’s love interest.

So what can we do about this? How do we break more Erwins through the bamboo ceiling of Hollywood? The best way to do this is to support your favourite films, TV shows, radio stations and social media platforms that feature diverse people. Go to their movies, purchase their work, subscribe to their channels, like their pages – it’s that simple.

Being an individual is important, but how can you develop a sense of identity when you are instantly judged based on your appearance? This is for the kids who were told their food looked ‘gross’ at lunch and their house smelt ‘weird’. This is for the people whose stories aren’t told because of the colour of their skin. This is for everyone who fights the invisible barrier of discrimination every day. This is for everybody to remember that they are the protagonist of their own story.


*Disclaimer: this article focused on my personal experiences as a Chinese male. When I refer to Asians, I generally mean people of East Asian descent.