by Siang Lu
Published August 2022
by Charles Yu
Published November 2020
Asians lack presence. Asians take up apologetic space. We don’t even have enough presence to be considered real minorities. We’re not racial enough to be token. We’re so post-racial we’re silicon.Cathy Park Hong, Minor Feelings.
I genuinely believe that representation is the key to cultural acceptance. If your heroes on the screen, in the world, look like you, that can change everything! So if what I’m doing is able to shift the needle even an inch towards mainstream cultural acceptance of Asians in film and TV, then there could be a whole new group of kids out there who mightn’t have the baggage that I had growing up. All the wasted energy I spent trying to fit in and act white.Siang Lu, The Whitewash.
So muses JK Jr, the actor at the heart of Siang Lu’s debut novel, The Whitewash. He is reflecting on a common experience of children of the diaspora, including me: growing up, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me on screen. I had to project my experiences and thoughts and feelings onto white characters, or maybe the funny Asian friend who I’d be so lucky to see every once in a while. How sad is that, that I never got to feel seen? So when I saw this film, or watched this series, and finally I saw a face or a life that looked a little bit like mine, it felt miraculous. I finally felt understood, and I stepped into the light.
And it’s true – things have changed. Compared to the 90s and early 2000s when I was coming of age, we have so much now. We have The Family Law and Fresh Off the Boat. We have Fire Island (a gay Asian rom-com!) and Crazy Rich Asians (the highest-grossing romantic comedy of the 2010s!) We have Everything Everywhere All At Once (name a better film, I’ll wait). We have much more than a Chinese family on Neighbours who were accused of eating a dog (real storyline, look it up).
‘The power of representation is in the patchwork,’ says Eric Dutton, another character in The Whitewash. ‘The chatter of authentic voices. There is a significance in having these films and shows out there, highly visible, entertaining, allowing a new generation of Asian kids to see themselves reflected on the screen.’
So we’ve gotten here, finally: these stories are now in the mainstream. Finally, it’s not just white as far as the eye can see. But what about now, when these faces are on screen? What’s the messy stuff that goes on underneath that? How are racism and capitalism still – and inextricably – intertwined? Is representation – the simple fact of visibility – enough?
The Whitewash and Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown tackle this topic from different perspectives, using novel storytelling devices and forms to interrogate these questions. Both employ metafictive techniques and blend real and invented histories to construct, then deconstruct, miniature manifestations of these issues.
Whitewashing has a storied history in entertainment, from Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and David Carradine in Kung Fu (1972-75) to Emma Stone in Aloha (2015) and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell (2017). It’s not limited to screen actors, either – in the excellent animated series BoJack Horseman (2014-2020), which so delicately unpicked everything from substance abuse to intergenerational trauma, one of the most nuanced and well-rendered characters, the Vietnamese-American writer Diane Nguyen, was voiced by white actress Alison Brie. In the early years this was happening in parallel with the rise and rise of Bruce Lee and martial arts films, culminating in the Bruceploitation genre, where lookalikes were cast to profit off the actor’s immense international popularity.
These seemingly disparate phenomena have a surprising amount in common – either completely erasing the presence of Asian people, or flattening and homogenising the culture for the white gaze. Either way, the result is the same: disappearance.
Using this ongoing cultural phenomenon as its backdrop, The Whitewash presents itself as an oral history of the whitewashing of a $350 million Hollywood spy blockbuster, which was pegged to have the world’s first Asian male lead in such a role. Brood Empire, based on the fictional Brando X book series by a Hong Kong author, was going to be JK Jr’s big break, until he was replaced with a white actor, Chase Donovan – the stunt double.
Lu’s satirical novel is a clever, layered work that animates a host of different voices. We hear from media talking heads (the publication running the oral history, Click Bae, is an ethically dubious TMZ-esque gossip rag), academics (Eric Dutton, an adjunct professor in Chinese cultural studies, who’s standing in for an Asian academic who refused to be involved – another whitewash), and folks working in production and distribution. The latter group includes not only the Brood Empire production team, headed by shady executive producer Henry Lavida, but also kung fu legend Johnny Chao and the team behind Honour Capital, a Chinese multimedia giant that funds, and therefore controls, the production. It reflects the way that China often censors, or at least heavily influences the cultural direction of, the films that it funds (2020’s live-action remake of Mulan is a great example). Lu’s characterisation comes to life through the voices of his characters, with idiosyncrasies and catch-phrases that allow their personalities to shine through, while also revealing their weaknesses and biases. In a way, they are all unreliable narrators.
Lu blends actual and invented film history, intertwining them such that it’s hard to tell which is which. In this way, writing The Whitewash as a fictional response to the problems of Asian representation in cinema might be more effective than putting together a work of polemical nonfiction on the topic. If at times it does read like nonfiction, the satirical route yields much more entertaining results (especially in the novel’s humorous footnotes). And it makes clear that, wild as it all seems, what Lu posits with the downfall of Brood Empire could very well have happened in this duplicitous industry built on white supremacy. The work is complemented by Lu’s real-life project The Beige Index, a kind of Bechdel Test for race representation. His breakdown of the whiteness of the top 250 films on IMDB is grim, and supports the viability of his thesis with The Whitewash. Metatextuality with yourself – now that’s praxis.
Interior Chinatown, on the other hand, is presented as a screenplay, one that centres on Willis Wu, an actor whose life and work are blurred through his eternal existence as a bit player in the titular landscape. The actor has played the same degrading roles for his whole career – Disgraced Son, Delivery Guy, Silent Henchman, Caught Between Two Worlds, Guy Who Runs In and Gets Kicked in the Face, Striving Immigrant, Lowlife Oriental, Generic Asian Man. The other roles that Willis struggles to play are those of son and father, tapping into notions of filial piety – that these interactions, too, are laid out in a screenplay format suggests the performance aspect of these parts of a life. What he really wants, at the expense of all else, is the pinnacle of Asian achievement: to be cast as Kung Fu Guy, the ‘ideal mix of assimilated and authentic’.
Both texts circle around this mythical apex figure. It’s interesting to dissect what figures like Bruce Lee say about the general perception of Asianness, particularly in a world where Asian men are still emasculated. A 2020 article by Cary Chow surveyed a number of Asian-American men and revealed that for many of them, Bruce Lee was an aspirational figure, a positive stereotype of Asian masculinity. Yu writes, ‘Bruce Lee was proof: not all Asian Men were doomed to a life of being Generic. If there was even one guy who had made it, it was at least theoretically possible for the rest.’ But, as politician Chris Lu observes in his interview with Chow, Lee’s success was a double-edged sword, feeding into perpetual foreigner syndrome; as Yu also writes, ‘Bruce Lee proved too much’. He created a new, unattainable level of Asian male perfection.
This representation privileges a certain type of body that is rooted in Western measures of attractiveness. The opposite of the atypical muscular, hunky Asian man (see: Henry Golding and Pierre Png in Crazy Rich Asians) is the awkward, nerdy, undesirable one (see: Gedde Watanabe in 1984’s Sixteen Candles or, for a more recent example, Jimmy O Yang – who’s recently been announced as the lead in a TV adaptation of Interior Chinatown – in the 2021 Netflix film Love Sick). Asian women, on the other hand, are constantly sexualised, whether they’re demure or dominant. The shadow of colonialism, and its expectations of people of colour, hovers over these binary depictions.
In both books, the aspiration – to be the Asian actor who makes it big – is quickly diminished by the reality. It’s another version of the model minority myth, where even if you win, there’s an element of losing – the path is laid out for you, and there’s no choice, not really. As Willis realises: ‘The thing you thought you wanted. The role of a lifetime is one you can never bring yourself to quit… Doing well is the trap. A different kind, but still a trap. Because you’re still in a show that doesn’t have a role for you.’
The bottom line is financial viability, especially for big studios and conglomerates. The character of Henry Lavida in The Whitewash solidifies this stance with his quotes on the decision to replace JK Jr:
We had a noble goal. And I champion that goal one hundred per cent. The first Asian actor to anchor a triple-A Hollywood blockbuster spy film. Man-on-the-moon shit! People forget that we were all set to achieve it. But we had setbacks… It’s clear the world wasn’t ready for an Asian lead. If we end up losing money, we’ll lose less with Chase.
Asian audiences want to see themselves on screen; Western audiences want the titillation of difference without any real threat to their cultural dominance or power. Combining these things through whitewashing and cultural appropriation, all those boxes are ticked, a surface-level excursion into diversity is made – what Crazy Rich Asians writer Adele Lim, who turned down participating in the sequels over pay disparity, refers to as ‘soy sauce’ – and they’re laughing all the way to the bank.
JK Jr’s story in The Whitewash echoes that of a real-life star. Before breaking into acting, the character worked in finance at Deloitte, just like the fastest-rising Asian actor working today, Simu Liu, who became the first Asian Marvel superhero in 2021. It is, ostensibly, the peak of what an Asian actor can achieve in the Western world – what Interior Chinatown’s protagonist, Willis Wu, sets out for in his ambition to become Kung Fu Guy. If we use Liu as a case study, though, the show that made him famous is a great example of how productions with noble intentions can be driven by more nefarious forces which perpetuate racism and white supremacy.
The Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience ran for six seasons from 2016 to 2021, and was heralded as a beacon of positive representation with its charming depiction of a ramshackle Korean family. Of course, some of its Canadian-born actors faced that familiar bind, explored also in Interior Chinatown – having to put on an accent to play characters from their culture – but mostly it was received as a warm, respectful tribute to the multigenerational lives of Korean-Canadians.
Behind the scenes, though, all was not well. In June 2021, following the show’s abrupt cancellation, actors including Liu and Jean Yoon revealed their conditions working on Kim’s Convenience, which Yoon called‘painful’ – overtly racist storylines and punchlines written by white writers for white audiences to laugh at. Yoon pointed out the inaccuracies in the later seasons’ plots, from a lack of knowledge of Korean food to using her character, Mrs Kim, as the butt of a joke, implying a bumbling lack of intelligence.
Despite the show having originated from a play written by a Korean-Canadian, Ins Choi, as its seasons went on it was dominated by a white showrunner and producer, and a primarily white writing room. So for all the appearance of diversity and representation, the actors essentially slowly became puppets, acting out a whitewashed vision of their lives and culture. As Megan Liu writes, ‘Treating Kim’s Convenience as a paragon of Asian immigrant representation ignores the difficulties that stemmed from a corporate denial of Asian immigrant autonomy and creativity.’
It’s an echo of what happened to actor Margaret Cho on her 1990s show All-American Girl, which Lu uses in The Whitewash as a historical anchor for the downfall of Brood Empire. The one-season show was a continuation of the ground broken by The Joy Luck Club several years prior – ‘no guns, no wires, no martial artists in sight’ – yet Cho was beleaguered by the demands, and shifting, impossible goalposts, of her white bosses:
Executives told Cho she could not play herself unless she lost weight. They said she was ‘too Asian’. They said she was ‘not Asian enough’. They hired a cultural consultant to teach her how to be ‘more Asian’. They removed her comedic voice, replaced it with scripts that conformed to stereotypes and unappealing jokes. Without champions in high places, her show was designed, at the outset, to fail. The white embrace that The Joy Luck Club had to thank for its success turned out to have been a rear naked choke in disguise.
In footnote: ‘The plot of the finale? Margaret pretends to lose her voice in order to escape paying a late phone bill. No joke. The landmark TV show in Asian representation ended its pitiful run with a story in which the Asian is rendered invisible, mute, voiceless. Utterly without agency.’
For all appearances of progress, history repeats itself.
It’s not possible to talk about racism, though, without talking about the other isms that can intersect with it. The popular entertainment industry is also rife with misogyny and sexualisation – The Whitewash’s celebrity photographer Damo Smith is a prime agent. And of course, there is the issue of lateral violence.
A subplot in The Whitewash concerns JK Jr’s on-off girlfriend, Angela Mu, who is also an actress. Through this character, Lu shows the ways that misogyny and racism work in tandem: when Angela auditions for Brood Empire, Henry Lavida confides that it was as a favour to JK Jr but that, despite her talent and the chemistry between the actors, she never stood a real chance: ‘It’s a big ask for audiences to accept an Asian leading man. Cast an Asian leading lady too and you might as well add subtitles. Then instead of a Hollywood premiere we can all just commit mass suicide.’
Having failed to make it as an actress, Angela enters the lucrative world of streaming, and inadvertently becomes an overnight sensation when she falls asleep during her stream. She then capitalises on this accidental success by pretending to be asleep all the time, racking up millions of views per day as Snoring Beauty. Here, Lu exposes the absurdity of viral popularity and the unpredictability of what will strike a chord with audiences – but there’s also something deeply sad about this idea of a woman who has worked hard to make a living, and finally makes it big by being silent and still, an image to consume.
Whitewashing makes its way into this storyline, too, as Angela’s popularity is overtaken by another streamer, Snow White: ‘It’s basically the same premise, but the chick is white. White streamers who can speak Chinese are all the rage.’ Lu’s point here is clear – Asian culture is more appreciated when it has a more palatable face. It’s a costume to wear, benefit from, and dispose of after use.
But Asians are not only victims of racism and appropriation – we can also be perpetrators, particularly towards the Black community. As Yen-Rong Wong observes in her review of The Whitewash for The Saturday Paper, the names of many of the players in this game – Click Bae’s editor LeBron Chew, JK Jr’s personal trainer Yolo Zhang – as well as their usage of AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) indicate the common Asian American tendency to appropriate Black culture. It’s a common criticism of Asian-American actress Awkwafina, who is known for using a ‘blaccent’ and exaggerating aspects of Black culture, despite saying that she doesn’t ever want to ‘feel like I’m making a minstrel out of our people’ by putting on an Asian accent. As Maryam Ahmad writes, ‘We can’t just use Black culture to find our own identity just because we think the only two options are Black or white.’
The disappearance of Asians, especially in an American landscape, is furthered by this clean dichotomy of Black and white. As Cathy Park Hong writes in Minor Feelings, ‘Asian Americans inhabit a purgatorial status: neither white enough nor black enough, unmentioned in most conversations about racial identity.’ Interior Chinatown zooms further in on this with its central conceit of a cop show called, literally, Black and White, in which there’s no room for an Asian actor other than as a victim or a background character. Willis expresses much more dislike and jealousy towards the lead Black detective, Miles Turner, than towards the white cop – it’s the kind of competitive otherness that leads to further divisions, rather than a more meaningful solidarity or fight against injustice. This ugliness is born from a place of pain – a desperate desire to be seen. It is one of white supremacy’s greatest tricks, to pit minorities against one another while taking it all.
The climactic scenes of Interior Chinatown, which take place in a courtroom, spell these relationships out more explicitly (almost to the point of didacticism). Willis states:
I’m guilty, too. Guilty of playing this role. Letting it define me. Internalizing the role so completely that I’ve lost track of where reality starts and the performance begins. And letting that define how I see other people. I’m as guilty of it as anyone. Fetishizing Black people and their coolness. Romanticizing White women. Wishing I were a White man. Putting myself into this category.
The complexity of Asian identity and representation in the West is compounded further when intersecting with other minority groups. Sometimes we enable it, too. Such is the nebulous nature of these issues – a hall of mirrors, reflection upon reflection, all the way down.
‘Our grandparents grew up with the Yellow Peril. Our parents grew up with yellow discomfort. Our generation grew up with yellow invisibility,’ says JK Jr. With each generation, a new problem makes itself known.
I wish there was a pithy way to end this essay: the solution is this, or we need more of that. But it’s hard – impossible, really – to sum it up in a sentence or two.
It’s undoubtedly a boon for Asian people to see themselves and their stories on screen more and more. The landscape is changing for the better, and more people of colour are involved in decisions and design behind the scenes as well as on-screen. More of this top-down approach would help. But how do you stop the rot of capitalism and white supremacy which is at the core of everything? Is it even possible?
The Whitewash and Interior Chinatown not only ask the impossible questions, but inhabit them and tear them down from the inside out. Taking up unapologetic space. Making the invisible visible.