“Crazy Rich Asians” star Gemma Chan is not backing down from the fight for representation.
In an interview with Allure, the actress explained why she feels she should be able to portray white characters. Chan, who was recently featured in “Captain Marvel,” asked, “Why are actors of color, who have fewer opportunities anyway, only allowed to play their own race?”
“And sometimes they’re not even allowed to play their own race,” she continued. “In the past, the role would be given to a white actor who would tape up their eyes and do the role in yellowface. John Wayne played Genghis Khan. If John Wayne can play Genghis Khan, I can play Bess of Hardwick.”
Asian-Americans are familiar with many Asian or Asian-inspired roles that have been given to white actors. Scarlett Johansson’s whitewashed Major in “Ghost in the Shell” and Emma Stone’s Allison Ng in “Aloha” stand out in recent memory. And throughout Hollywood history, roles that should have gone to Asians also went to white actors. In some cases, they even brought home awards for these depictions. Yul Brynner, who was mainly of Russian descent, portrayed the King of Siam in the 1956 musical “The King and I,” winning an Oscar for Best Actor. Luise Rainer won the Best Actress Academy Award in 1938 for her portrayal of O-Lan in “The Good Earth,” based on a book of the same name about a family of Chinese farmers.
Chan explained that when it comes to representation, the stories of the past involving people of color still need to be highlighted. She spent a portion of last year working on a documentary about the Chinese Labour Corps, a group of some 95,000 Chinese farm laborers who were recruited from their villages to serve Britain during World War I.
She said that it’s pertinent for viewers to see a history that isn’t solely white; after all, history is filled with major contributions from people of color.
“If we portray a pure white past, people start to believe that’s how it was, and that’s not how it was. If people understood that, my parents might not have been told, ‘Go home, go back to where you came from’ multiple times.”
To read the full interview, head over to Allure.