The “Asian-washing” controversy and why it’s harmful

We’ve all heard of the term whitewashing – when white actors are cast in films and TV shows for originally non-white roles. And the poor Asian/Oriental community seems to get the brunt of it, with one common reason being because it’s hard to find Asian actors good enough. Japanese-American actor Masi Oka recently used this excuse as to why his live-action production of the Japanese manga Death Note will feature white actors in the place of Japanese characters, saying most of those who auditioned didn’t speak perfect English. Well, firstly you can always stick even truer to the manga by it being in Japanese and subbed in English or coach them to improve. But alas, he decided whitewashing was the way forward.

memoirs-of-a-geisha
Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li are three Chinese actresses who played Japanese women in Memoirs of a Geisha.

However, a problem that seems to go unnoticed by many – except perhaps Asians themselves – is the idea of “Asian-washing”. While this isn’t a “real” term per se, it’s one I’ve personally coined (Choon Young Tan, 2017©) and is similar to “racebending” and “colour-blind casting” and best describes the casting of for example, a Chinese actor as a Japanese character. This happens far too often, particularly in TV shows where Asian/Oriental characters are given token or guest/recurring appearances and therefore their character’s particular ethnic or cultural background isn’t mentioned or explored. Why this happens is a mystery because most people who are in charge of casting would never admit to being racist, discriminatory, “colour blind”, ignorant or stupid and nor would they admit to believing the general audience are any of those things to not notice.

The main reason one can only presume is that because the character as an Asian is only there for the sake of diversity or because it’s a smaller, forgettable role, that what ethnicity the actor or actress is is not important to the character they portray. Or it simply could be because they think all Asians/Orientals look the same so “they’ll do”. Except it’s quite clear to many just from the actor’s and character’s different names that that is not the case. If you were to search the film credits of pretty much any American-based Chinese, Japanese or Korean actor, you are likely to find a fair few characters they’ve played with “other Oriental-sounding names”.

And while for the most part it might not really matter or make a difference to the show or film itself, I find it hard to understand why they can’t get it right, even for a role so small, and cast someone of the matching ethnicity. There are, contrary to belief, quite a large and growing number of Chinese, Japanese and Korean actors, whom I sure could each fulfil the roles of characters of those backgrounds and own them too, allowing them to bring them more to life, instead of just having them there as an extra character. The same confusion and mixup has often happened to other Asian groups too.

Although it may be somewhat passable if the roles are small because the characters are so underdeveloped, it’s when they are more principal members of the cast that it becomes more frustrating. One of the most popular examples is Memoirs of a Geisha – at least five of the main cast members were not Japanese. Despite the film’s success, there was outcry from some Japanese people about the casting of four Chinese actresses and one Korean actress. Unsurprisingly, the director and producers defended these decisions saying acting ability and star power were their main priorities when casting, adding that Zhang Ziyi, Michelle Yeoh and Gong Li are even more profitable than Japanese actresses in Japan. Proof that money is obviously a major factor over historical accuracy.

Other prominent examples are: Kelly Hu as Yuriko Oyama (or “Lady Deathstrike”) – a mutant of Japanese descent – in X-Men 2, although her character is significantly downsized from the comics and given just one line (token Asian character alert), and Kristin Kreuk as the titular character of the film Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. Although Kristin has some Chinese heritage from her mother’s side, many were bitterly disappointed that Chun-Li’s full Chinese ethnicity was discarded. That and it was a pile of shit. And most recently, Korean actor Daniel Dae Kim, took on the role of Ben Daimio, a Japanese-American character in Hellboy after the whitewashing controversy the producers faced for casting Ed Skrein; after several steps back for that, they moved forward but still missed the mark.

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In ABC’s hit TV show Fresh Off the Boat, based on the life of Taiwanese-American Eddie Huang, Eddie’s father Louis Huang is played by Korean-American Randall Park. And I’m not even sure why because he’s not that great in it either. Adding further insult to injury, Louis’ brother, sister-in-law and her husband are also played by Koreans actors. Was it really that hard for them to find four Chinese/Taiwanese actors and actresses to portray these roles? Surely not since they found three talented young actors of Chinese descent (Forrest Wheeler is mixed race) to play Eddie and his two brothers, proving that the Oriental talent pool in America isn’t that empty and IS varied.

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The same problem of using the phrase “all-Asian cast” arose with the upcoming film adaption of Crazy Rich Asians about the lives of Chinese-Americans and Singaporean-Chinese. “Asian” is quite a blanket term considering how huge Asia is and the number of countries and ethnicities that exist in that continent. Director Jon M. Chu got it 99% right with his casting, except with main male character Nick Young. Henry Golding, whose father is English and mother descends from the Iban tribe in Malaysia, has no Chinese blood. Oh dear, so close yet not quite there.

But the question now is why do these actors go for or accept these roles? Do they themselves believe the idea that they “look the same” so it’s ok or are they simply glad to be getting more roles and exposure? Of course, it’s great when TV shows such as FOTB have a nearly all-Asian cast, but something isn’t quite right when it’s still not fully authentic. As well as the film and shows’ creators, producers, directors and casting directors’ responsibilities to be more respectful of and tuned in on these things, the actors themselves have the opportunity to take responsibility as both an under-represented minority and be respectful to the ethnicity and culture of others whom they are prepared to portray, as well their fellow actors who could fulfil the roles as well and are truer to the character’s background, as it were.

So, if any “Oriental” actors and actresses – however famous or amateur, are by some miracle reading this, PLEASE think about what roles you are going for or taking in the future. I can imagine we’ve all been subject to the confusion, misunderstanding or mixing up (or ignorance of) different ethnicities based on just our looks and some similar cultural aspects and I’m sure most of us didn’t appreciate it. But by happily accepting roles of characters who are meant to be of a different race/ethnicity to you and not challenging it, you are subconsciously aiding many people’s views of us as a community while at the same time diminishing the presence and uniqueness of your own. And to those who are actively giving out such roles, use some common sense or at least change the character’s name even if you don’t want to elaborate on their background if at all possible.

5 comments

  1. Ah, thanks to your definition of asian-washing, I finally understand what whitewashing is. It’s not when they hire white actors in place of non-white characters. It’s when they hire italian actors instead of french, or british/australian instead of american. Wow, the audacity

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    1. Well “Asian-washing” isn’t exactly like whitewashing. I’d say whitewashing is hiring White actors to play non-White roles but could extend to that. “Asian-washing” isn’t hiring Asian actors to play White roles but is thinking/assuming Asians are all the same so can play any Asian role. However I believe it depends on the role being portrayed and how it’s being portrayed. Asians have faced the problem of Asian-washing because they are already highly stereotyped, pigeonholed and highly under-represented in Western media.

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