Why We Need Asian Representation On Screen

By Nguyen Khanh Ha Doan


Looking back on the last decade or so, it’s clear that pop culture has rapidly changed. So much so that we feel like a person who was born in the year of 2000 and a person who was born in 2003 belong to two different generations.

According to Independent, on average, there are around 600 new movies released into the Box Office each year. The number could be on the rise, yet in the last twenty years, there was only one movie that contained a purely Asian cast, Crazy Rich Asians.

However, it’s not that we’ve never seen any Asians in big movies before, it’s just that we’ve never been able to relate to them. Asians have always been either too nerdy and socially awkward or they were crazy assassin-puppets that work for a scary villain. The latter in particular sometimes shouts some nonsense syllables that people assumed to some sort of Asian language, while wearing overly sexualized “traditional” clothing.

For that reason, Asian-Canadians, especially second-generation Asian-Canadians, fail to find themselves and their identities on screen, which lead to them being ambivalent of their rich and sophisticated heritage instead of being proud.

I had a talk with my friends, who are either second-generation Asians or have been raised here since a very young age. Growing up in Canada, it’s understandable that they adopted the Canadian culture, however, many were completely reluctant to try to understand Asian culture. Some even teter on the verge of rejecting their Asian identity.

“I wanted to be white when I was in Eighth Grade,” said Yvonne Le, a Ryerson’s Creative Industry student of Vietnamese descendent and a friend of mine. We were talking about being involved in high schools’ drama clubs, and she mentioned wanting to play a role in her school’s production of Les Miserables. At first, she struggled to audition because she didn't feel connected to any of the characters. She wanted to ask her teacher to change the play into a different one but looking back she couldn’t find any musical with a huge Asian representation, so she ended up playing a white person’s role.

“I was asking myself why I was born to a refugee family and that I wished I never came from one," she said.

That was when I realized how important it is to have an Asian representation in popular media; to have characters who embrace the actual depiction of Asian culture instead of just ‘looking Asian.’

It started with Fresh Off the Boat, which stars the talented Constance Wu. The first TV series that contained an all-Asian main cast. But the all-Asian cast is not the significance of the story, but rather the way the series tackles the “rejection of roots” problem that goes on in the Western-Asian communities.

Fresh Off the Boat isn’t afraid of exposing its audience to the Mandarin Chinese language. The TV series made speaking an Asian language in a Western society normal. It showed that speaking your mother tongue in your house and around people with the same root as you is something that you should be comfortable doing.

“What I regret most is that the TV series came out too late into my life because I never made effort to learn my mother tongue in my childhood,” said Christine Ng, a University of Toronto student, a friend of mine and a Cantonese descendent. “I regret that because I could barely talk to my grandmother anymore,” she said.

She expressed feeling uncomfortable speaking her mother tongue growing up, especially out of the house. Standing in line at No Frills or Costco, whenever her mom asked her something in Cantonese, she would reply in English because to her, it was uncommon for a child born in Canada to speak Cantonese.

Her Cantonese skills declined due to not practicing  and now she can’t communicate with her grandmother, who can’t speak or understand English at all. That created a gap between her and her grandmother despite being so close when she was young.

That what’s happened in Crazy Rich Asians too. When Crazy Rich Asians first became popular, I discarded it, believing it would only add to the stereotypical mindset of Asians being ‘rich, stupid and paying for citizenship,’ but it astonished me. It was more than that and the film went beyond just rich Asians but to an understanding of the culture.

The characters, though they speak perfect English, still throw around Cantonese/Singlish/Chinese slang all the times, whenever the situation seems fit. The film goes beyond having a coloured character in a movie to show ‘diversity’ and hope to attract the Chinese market and beyond just ‘shouting random Chinese-sounding syllables,’ but to adding the language in the movie to add another layer of representation.

Crazy Rich Asians shows that it’s completely fine being multilingual and that you should be proud being multilingual in this intercultural country. It’s no longer about forcing yourselves to seemingly belong anymore, but the fact that we feel like we belong no matter where we are.

Asian representations go further than just movies and TV shows. In October 2018, Awkwafina, who starred in Crazy Rich Asians, hosted Saturday Night Live. For the first time since 2000, an Asian person got to be on the biggest weekend entertainment show in America. That 18-year gap was problematic because that’s a generation of Asian-Americans who not did not have a chance to understand that their opportunities go far beyond being doctors or lawyers or engineers; that they too could be an actor, a TV show host. They could be more than what the common society assumed that they could be.

That generation probably grew up seeing the only available option for them being to study super hard in school, maintaining a GPA of 4.00 and either becoming a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. If not, they would end up with a mediocre desk job. That they feel like the Hollywood or creative industry life is not for them, it is only a white people’s option.

It’s time that they learn they are more than just stereotypes.

The success of Crazy Rich Asians and recently Kim’s Convenience in Canada contributed to the process of Asian-Canadians’ quest to self-identity and cultural appreciation. I hope this could become a base for actual diversity instead of just adding people of colour into movies as sidekicks or best friends.