In recent years, there have been more prominent TV shows and movies featuring Asians and Chinese Americans, with many of them targeting younger audiences.
The increase in media showing Asian Americans is more than just a product of the streaming era. For summer camp director C.C. Hsu and her students, it is also a step toward more accurate representations of their identities.
The summer camp hosted by the Washington DC Taiwanese School, located in Maryland about 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) north of the U.S. capital, is made up of the children and grandchildren of immigrants from Taiwan.
“Our community is generational,” Hsu said.
Hsu, who immigrated to the U.S. as a child, aims to teach the students at the summer camp more about her culture. She said what she sees at the summer camp is reflected on screen in the new Disney+ show, “American Born Chinese.”
The show is about a child of Asian immigrants who is introduced to a new student from China and their adventures as a result of their budding friendship.
“When he [main character Jin Wang] says multiple times, ’Can you say that slower? My Chinese isn’t very good,’ this is something that is very, very familiar with the kids that are at the Taiwanese School,” Hsu said.
Emmanuelle Roberts, Hsu’s daughter and a camp student, said she would like to see more Taiwanese American representation.
“I don’t feel like Taiwanese and Taiwanese American people are portrayed enough in the media,” she said.
Her comments reflect a desire among many Taiwanese Americans for recognition of an identity distinct from Chinese Americans.
“I usually just think of myself as either Asian American or Taiwanese American,” Freddy Meng, another camp student, said. “I don’t really identify with Chinese American that much.”
More Asian faces on screen
Among the many reasons why Hollywood is producing more Asian American stories, experts said, is because changes to the structure of the industry have opened more doors for Asian talent in front of and behind the camera.
“In the last few years, the last decade or so, as Hollywood — as much of corporate America — has shifted into thinking about diversity as one of its core values, thinking about, ’How do we create a pipeline?'” said Brian Hu, who teaches television, film and new media at San Diego State University and is artistic director of the San Diego Asian Film Festival.
“This is among the first times where the showrunner is Asian American or Chinese American, where the production team behind it and the whole cast and crew … is Asian American or … Chinese American, and part of that is because we’re seeing a new generation of talent… who are… kind of reaching that level in the industry where they have that sway,” said Jason Coe, assistant professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University Academy of Film.
Hollywood has also grown more aware of the importance of Asian American representation as a component of its broader push toward diversity.
“Asian Americans are part of the diversity equation … 20 years ago that wasn’t necessarily the case. It wasn’t necessarily self-evident that if you are doing diversity, that Asian faces is a part of that,” Hu said.
The increase of anti-Asian hate incidents during the pandemic is another reason behind more shows about Asian Americans, said Yao Zhang, a Chinese Canadian YouTuber and human rights activist.
“Some people, especially Chinese people, want to show the world that we are not all spies, right? We are not all agents, right?” Zhang said. “Like, we are a loyal American citizen or whatever or just to see a different part of us.”
Hollywood and China
For years, Hollywood has been looking outside of the U.S. to China to reach one of the largest movie markets in the world. But films would first have to get past Beijing’s government censors.
“This obsession of Hollywood entering China that obsession was especially high like 10 years ago where you do see a lot of coproductions happening,” Hu said.
The Tom Cruise sequel “Top Gun: Maverick” was accused of making changes to appeal to China. In the original 1986 “Top Gun” movie, the Taiwanese and Japanese flags were on Cruise’s bomber jacket. In the trailer of the 2022 sequel, those flags do not appear. The film was accused of self-censoring to please Bejing because China considers Taiwan a part of its territory.
“When the original teaser or trailer came out that it was digitally erased or a more politically neutral flag was inserted there so as not to offend the mainland audience, but as soon as they realized they would not be that audience, the Taiwan flag came back,” Hu said.
Chinese company Tencent Holdings was supposed to be an investor, but the company decided to pull out of the film due to fears that the strong pro-U.S. military themes would anger Beijing, The Wall Street Journal reported. The film never received permission from Beijing to be shown in China.
Last week, Politico reported the U.S. Defense Department updated its rules to filmmakers, saying if Hollywood wants help from the U.S. military, it cannot let China censor its films.
Focus on Asian Americans
Film analysts say production companies may do better by focusing on audiences closer to home.
“If they see themselves as first for making a culturally American film that, of course, will have global appeal, but they know what they know, most which is that like American culture and American way of making movies that to have to, to cater culturally to somebody else is a big list, and I think they realized that let’s not be so obsessed with the Chinese market that we forget who we are,” said Hu, of San Diego State University.
Some recent productions about Chinese American stories have received positive reviews.
“I think that both ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ and ‘American Born Chinese’ are made with the Asian American and Chinese American audiences in mind, and I believe that the immigrant story is a very American story,” Coe said.
“I think what we’re proving is that there is money to be made here. People want these stories,” said Hsu, the summer camp director.
Increased Asian American representation means roles less rooted in stereotypes, activist Zhang said.
“On the TV shows or on the movies, we are just [a] certain type of people, like nerd, IT [information technology] specialist — all guys are IT specialists, all women are accountants, all nerds,” Zhang said.
The Hollywood Diversity Report 2023, conducted with the help of the University of California Los Angles College of Social Sciences, found in theatrical films that Asians make up 2.3% of lead actors, 6.5% of overall acting roles, 5.6% of directors and 4.5% of writers in 2022.
According to the 2020 U.S. Census, Asians, Native Hawaiians or Other Pacific Islanders make up 6.2% of the U.S. population.
It is unknown whether more Asian Americans will find work in Hollywood in 2023. For people such as Hsu and her summer camp attendees, increased representation is important not just for seeing more faces who look like them, but also to ensure that their experiences are meaningfully portrayed onscreen.