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Editor | Peter Bowen

Not Made in China

Posted April 24, 2008

Jeff Ma, the man behind 21

Jeff Ma, the man
behind 21

In "Goodbye Yellowface, Hello Whiteout," Sandip Roy in the SFGate considers the plight of Asian actors and characters today. Admittedly, Roy points out, no sane producers would without thinking try to pawn off an Anglo actor as an Asain (as for example, Paul Muni in the 1937 adaptation of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth), but some films, like the recent gambling caper 21, simply swaps out characters in the script: "Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe) is star student Ben Campbell. The real-life Campbell was an Asian American named Jeff Ma."






Hollywood Chinese

While there have certainly been changes since 1937, filmmaker Arthur Dong, who examine the issues in his recent documentary Hollywood Chinese, points out the gaps remaining in the system: "There are a limited number of Asian roles and plenty of hungry actors...When a non-Asian gets an Asian role, it's a slap in the face."

Lust, Caution poster

For many--both experienced and new actors--the solution is to forget Hollywood, or least not expect too much. Joan Chen, whose appeared in plenty of Hollywood fare, looks elsewhere these days. ""I'm working, but not much in Hollywood," says Chen, though she sees more roles around than when she started 25 years ago." For others, Asia offers a way to get a start. Roy points out: "Hawaii native Maggie Q made it in Hong Kong before starring in Live Free or Die Hard. Lee-Hom Wan of Lust Caution was born in Rochester, N.Y." Indeed Alexander Lee-Hom Wang began his career when he signed a recording contract when he was visiting his grandparents in Taiwan, and then went on to become an Asian sensation. Gina Kim, whose 2007 Sundance film Never Forever open in theaters last week, had to go to Korean to find the stars. As I reported for Sundance Channel Blog during the 2007 festival, the two male stars--David McInnis and Jung-Woo Ha--were cast from their strong performances in Korean movies and television--even though Mcinnis actually comes from the states and had to learn Korean for his roles.