For the vast majority of TV history, Asian Americans have played a minimal yet nevertheless infamous role. From the “yellow peril” to the “model minority,” racial stereotypes have been used to characterize Asians and Asian Americans on the television screen. In the rare instances when Asian American actors did appear, they either were in minor roles or as figures from a bad racist dream. Research on Asian Americans on TV comes from many disciplines and cuts across multiple fields such as media studies and Asian American studies. This article discusses the early history of Asian Americans on TV, traces notable figures in contemporary television, and concludes with the role of digital convergence and the development of delivery and recovery platforms. It also provides an overview of scholarly literature written about Asian Americans on TV, including articles and books written about Asian American TV shows, the history of Asian American TV representation, and research on TV and digital media, including YouTube and other transmedia convergence cultural materials.
Alison Yeh Cheung and Kent A. Ono
The Cold War (defined here by the popular, though much-questioned, time frame of 1947–1991) coincides initially with a post-World War II wave of literature by Asian Americans as well as reforms affecting immigration numbers and national origins. Post-1965, further immigration reform and refugee admission led to a different wave of authors, which coincides in its turn with geopolitical shifts, including the ongoing massive conflicts and regime changes in Asia, that would ultimately lead to rapprochement and the generally accepted end of the Cold War around the late 1980s. Furthermore, these years coincide with the birth of pan-Asian American consciousness and political movements in the late 1960s and 1970s. Thus, there is an unsurprising plethora of literature from this era, as well as an increasing volume of literary criticism on it, though neither usually treats the geopolitical or domestic US concerns most commonly identified with the Cold War. Asian American literature and authors importantly fit the logic of the early Cold War by illustrating, as proto-model minorities, the blessings of life in America as a contrast to an increasingly Communist-identified Asia after the “loss” of China to Communism in 1949. Their identification with Confucian or other traditional ideals also made them role models for the domestic social containment that constrained middle-class America to conformity in the 1950s (though, of course, there were less mainstream narratives that combated this trend). However, both of these narratives shifted in the 1970s. From exemplary immigrants, Asian American literary depictions turned toward much more ambivalent and traumatized refugees, chiefly from Southeast Asia. Likewise, a generation of authors rebelling against the model minority image protested racial inequities in both a domestic and international framework. Linking nation and globe via Third World solidarity, later Cold War works and post-Cold War reflections on the period heavily critiqued the US military presence in Asia and reflected on the enduring traumas and difficulties of racialization for Asian Americans inextricably identified as foreign or Other. Calling for civil rights out of a re-narrated history of exclusion, incarceration, and discrimination, rather than appealing to the vague pluralism of the early Cold War, Asian American literature illustrates this era’s conflict through exemplars of containment and a more explicitly revolutionary and diverse set of works.
Eun Joo Kim
Koreans have been represented in North American film and television for almost a century. However, in the early part of the 20th century most representations took place only through the actual bodies of Korean American actors who were portraying Chinese or Japanese characters in American films. The practice of crossethnic, and even crossracial, casting was common for Asian characters in these earlier productions. It was not until the mid-20th century that Korean American actors began to portray ethnically Korean characters. However, these roles often required them to speak, dress, and act as if they were not assimilated to American culture, contributing to the stereotype of Asians as perpetual foreigners to Western society. Since the turn of the 21st century there have been more opportunities for Korean Americans and Korean Canadians to draw from their own lived experiences in their portrayals of characters who speak unaccented English and whose cultural backgrounds are not necessarily their most distinguishing features. Consciously challenging discriminatory practices and countering stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans led to shifts in media representations and more fully developed portrayals of Korean North American characters.
From the dawn of cinema in 1895 to the coming of World War II, the representation of Asian immigrants on the American screen shifted from unwanted aliens to accepted, if exotic, citizens—in other words, from Asian immigrants to Asian Americans. Since World War II, American race relations have been defined mainly through the comparison of white and black experiences; however, in the latter half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, white American fears about racial and cultural purity focused on Asian immigration. Although there was immigration from other Asian countries, at the time, the vast majority of Asian immigrants were arriving from China. In newspaper articles and popular fiction, writers exploited and extended Yellow Peril fears about Chinese immigration through tales of Chinese immorality and criminality. American filmmakers then capitalized on these familiar stories and repeated the stereotypes of the evil “Oriental villain” such as Dr. Fu Manchu and the benign “model minority” such as detective Charlie Chan. American culture more broadly, and American film more specifically, conflated different Asian peoples and cultures and represented Asian immigration, for the most part, through white American attitudes toward Chinese immigrants. In film, this resulted in Japanese and Korean American actors playing Chinese and Chinese American characters before the war, and Chinese and Korean American actors playing Japanese characters during and after the war. More notoriously, however, American films often cast white actors in Chinese roles, especially when those characters were more prominent in the narrative. This practice of “yellowface” contributed to the continuance of stereotyped representations of Chinese characters in film and exposed the systemic racism of a film industry that rarely allowed Asian Americans to represent themselves. With World War II, the Japanese replaced the Chinese as America’s Yellow Peril villain, and American race relations turned from the question of Asian immigration to that of African American civil rights.
Twenty-first-century understandings of how disability figures in Asian American literature and the representation of Asian American individuals have greatly evolved. Earlier, highly pejorative characterizations associated with the 19th-century “Oriental” or “yellow peril” as a carrier of disease whose body needed to be quarantined and excluded. Later, the model minority myth typecast Asian Americans as having extreme intellectual abilities to the point of freakishness. Disability studies asserts that having an “imperfect” disabled body is nothing to hide and questions beliefs in norms of behavior and experience. Focusing on disability in Asian American literature opens a new path to reflect on Asian American identity and experience in ways that break away from the racial types and narrative trajectories of immigrant success that have often been seen as defining what it is to be Asian American. Integrating a disability studies perspective into Asian American studies provides a compelling and necessary means of critiquing stereotypes such as the model minority myth, as well as to reread many classic texts of Asian American literature with attentiveness to difference, impairment, and loss.