By Mark Lee
Northwest Asian Weekly
Two significant events in Asian American media are currently pending. One is regarding the release of “Americanese,” a film adapted from Shawn Wong’s novel “American Knees,” which will be released later this year. The other is a new novel by Amy Tan.
“Americanese” is significant because it tells a story that has never been told in American movies. Tan’s book bears recognition because she is probably the most well-known Asian American author today.
Tan is best known for “The Joy Luck Club” back in 1989, which was later adapted into a Hollywood film.In a recent PBS special entitled “Hollywood Chinese,” Tan spoke about her experiences with racism when growing up as a child. Unfortunately, in my opinion, Tan has contributed to the very racism that she complains about.
“Joy Luck Club” was about Chinese mothers and their American born daughters. In the story, the mothers attempt to maintain control, while the daughters try to break free. The mothers were portrayed as being victims of a sexist society in China.
The book received praise for showing women in strong, starring roles. However, the story has a flip side. The novel portrayed Asian men as scapegoats and cast them as inferior to white men.
In the film, there are three Chinese husbands who are married to the mothers when they lived in China. One man is a gangster with four wives and another is an abusive playboy. The third husband was a young man who, in spite of his age, was also abusive.
Married to one of the daughters is an Asian American. He, too, is portrayed as an insensitive jerk who pays more attention to his bills than his wife.
On the other hand, there are two white, male characters that are romantic. One is the boyfriend of one of the daughters. He is portrayed as a good guy who treats his girlfriend like a princess.
The other is from a wealthy family in California, whose marriage with one of the daughters ends in divorce. In one scene, he says that though he had been having an affair, the reason for the divorce was because his Asian American wife was not as assertive as she was when they first met.
Even though he cheated, the man is shown as still being a good guy because he encourages his wife to be more outspoken.
There is nothing wrong with a story that illustrates sexism and the oppression that results from it. However, when you look at the repeated portrayals of Asian men in a negative light and contrast them with the more positive portrayal of their white counterparts, the story begins to look suspicious.
It is impossible to know exactly why Tan chose to write such a skewed story in regard to Asian men and white men. She possibly could have thought that a white editor would be in favor of selling a story that portrayed a white man in a superior role. However, in doing that, it feeds the continuing racial bias against Asian men.
Tan had a demanding mother herself, who pushed her to get ahead in society. Maybe this pressure, as well as her own experiences with racism, caused her to become fixated on social status and led her to feel that white men are superior.
Regardless of what Tan’s motivations were in “The Joy Luck Club,” the result has been a repetition of the same Hollywood clichés, showing white males as vastly superior to Asian men.
In contrast, “Americanese” flips this story upside down and presents a much more complicated and subtle exploration of how racism affects Asian Americans. The film examines the relationship between Raymond, an Asian American man, and Aurora, a half white, half Asian woman.
Aurora and Raymond are complex characters who struggle with their inner contradictions and flaws. Raymond’s personal shortcomings cause him to bungle his relationship. Aurora must struggle with her own inclination that she is better because she is part white, although she has experienced racism herself.
“Americanese” shows the pain that racism causes to the characters and ties the relationship to the broader influences that socially created attitudes have on race.
We each have our own unique story in life. Hollywood does not generally portray these unique stories. Instead, it often reduces Asians to stereotypes. By doing so, it presents false stories and creates propaganda.
I am not optimistic that Hollywood will significantly change within our lifetime. I would like to see an alternative Asian American film industry created through funding from Asians who have become wealthy in the technology field.
I want to see Hollywood being held accountable through boycotts in both the United States and in foreign countries where Hollywood makes a lot of money. The 20th century involved the civil rights struggle for legal equality in jobs and housing. Equality in the media for all races is and will be a major civil rights challenge in America in the 21st century. ♦
Mark Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.