Hollywood is being taken over by Asians. That is the new paranoia. An iconic industry, the cultural core of American "soft power" global influence, is becoming Chinese... Except it's not.
The phenomenon of Asians and Asian Americans in Hollywood is neither new nor reason for paranoia.
Asian, specifically Chinese, involvement with studios and stars is cause for celebration rather than complaint. We should welcome the potential for cooperation. Artistic innovation has typically been generated by contact with what is new, different, both familiar but foreign -- in particular the interaction between aesthetic traditions, including through the frisson of conflict.
Hollywood is all about self-invention. It is where Jewish immigrants and their progeny, and European exiles, perfected comedic timing and noir attitude, respectively. They were joined later by independent visionaries who began as outsiders, such as Francis Ford Coppola portraying the Mafia as if it were operatic and Spike Lee presenting civil rights as the daily struggle it is.
For that matter, Asians have been around Tinseltown since before the famous sign went up in Griffith Park. Although Hawaiian-Chinese detective Charlie Chan, whose black and white serials were among the most popular of the format, was never played by anyone Asian, Sessue Hayakawa was a leading man renowned for sex appeal when moving pictures were a new medium; Anna May Wong was a leading lady with an international following; and James Wong Howe was a cinematographer at the top of his field.
Then a lengthy period of entertainment exclusion followed, corresponding to the legal exclusion that closed the doors to migration and naturalization. Asian Americans were relegated to bit roles, other than as wartime enemies.
As we enter our Pacific era, an abundance of Asians and Asian Americans are in front of and behind the camera. The development deserves applause. Yet it has received less than a standing ovation.
Asians -- and since nobody bothers with the distinction, Asian Americans as well -- have become entertainment. We have not been in on the joke in general.
That will change. We have to make it better.
The most recent round of bullying began with the Academy Awards. The absence of African Americans among nominees, not for the first time, prompted calls for a boycott of the red-carpet ceremonies.
Late night comedian Bill Maher explained, only partly in jest, that the origin of big-screen racism was Asian audiences overseas. According to the television host, Asians don't like to look at Blacks.
While that is preposterous on its face, and taking it seriously only invites further mockery, it likely was reassuring to people who want an excuse. It feels good to have someone to blame for ongoing racial discrimination. It feels even better when it's someone else for whom you won't be mistaken.
Then Oscars ceremony emcee Chris Rock made it worse. He opened with the necessary point that there have been more urgent social justice causes than who receives awards for movies. But his micro-skit about Asians (and Asian Americans; presumably "David Moskowitz" of the trio is meant to be an adoptee) as the best accountants, despite being children, was symbolic of so much.
It was wrong, not merely offensive, because it highlighted again how Asians are excluded and exploited. Everyone watching was acutely aware of the concerns that had been raised, whether they were voting members of the Academy or ordinary folks tuning in for the show. Even at the very moment of celebrating diversity, Asians were ridiculed without repercussion.
Meanwhile, their absence in leading roles is not lamented. Imagine the implausible, an Asian American comic in primetime, given an opportunity as prominent as Chris Rock's turn -- as much as we cheer the renewal of television's Fresh Off the Boat.
As importantly, the Asian American child accountants were made fun of according to cliched racial assumptions -- rather than through original humor that would subvert the stereotype. Asian, Asian immigrant, and Asian Americans have become prevalent in professional firms. Yet the choice of children as a caricature emphasizes the model minority myth of overachieving nerds, good with numbers but not people. It infantilizes the real people in the occupation, suggesting that they belong in only junior jobs. It is no wonder they, being too young to shave, are stuck beneath the glass ceiling.
The latest headline is that household name Matt Damon will head the cast of a big-budget Chinese production. It's been done before. Bernardo Bertolucci directed The Last Emperor on location in 1987, a period biopic about the decline of the Middle Kingdom that won nine Oscars. But it hasn't been done successfully since China began its modern ascent as an economic power, and not with a box office draw of the stature of "Jason Bourne."
The news has been interpreted, however, as another sign that China will challenge America. It is the opposite.
By coincidence, Damon's last role was the title character in The Martian. In that thriller, he was an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet. His eventual rescue is the result of Chinese government intervention, assisting an American engineering team.
Commentators have said Damon is returning the favor in reality, as an American partnering with the Chinese. The Martian, however, was more complicated. The comparison should be continued. In that thriller, the NASA experts are led by a Chinese immigrant; he even quips about his "cousins." (Funny, the actor, Benedict Wong, is Anglo-Asian.) As readers of the best-selling book observed, the casting choices for the drama "whitewashed" characters, changing the race of Asian Americans -- presumably because, contra Maher, people don't want to watch Asians (including Asians themselves, who appear willing to let these matters pass, pun intended).
What made Damon compelling was his universality. Viewers were able to identify with the star. He had a distinct personality. He also was "relatable," especially as he broke the fourth wall by addressing the world.
That is why movie fans should have more hope than fear. The marketplace promotes creativity. The motion picture business depends on excitement.
What we see at the theatre frames how we perceive not only others but also ourselves. Asian cinema has inspired American directors, even as American film has motivated Asian immigrants. Through the combination of Asia and America, we will imagine a new world.