11 Seriously Badass Old-School Asian Actors You Should Know About

Anna May Wong was impossibly cool.
Getty Images

There鈥檚 no denying that Hollywood has a representation problem when it comes to Asian actors. According to a 2016 diversity study, Asian actors nabbed only 3.9 percent of speaking roles in film 鈥 a stark contrast from the 73.7 percent white actors received.

It always has, too. From the silent era onward, the film industry has a long history of whitewashing, or, casting white actors in stories about Asians or Asian Americans.

Case in point? Katharine Hepburn鈥檚 yellowface and exaggerated taped eyelids in 1944鈥檚 鈥淒ragon Seed,鈥 and Mickey Rooney鈥檚 ridiculous buck-toothed neighbor in 1961鈥檚 鈥淏reakfast at Tiffany鈥檚.鈥

Still, actual Asians were working in Hollywood at the time, paving the way for the likes of present-day actors like Constance Wu and John Cho.

Below, we remember 11 badass old-school Asian actors that you should know about 鈥 if you don鈥檛 already.

Anna May Wong
Silver Screen Collection via Getty Images
Arguably the best-known Asian actor of Hollywood's golden age, the sultry American-born Anna May Wonglanded her breakthrough role at age 17 in 1922's "The Toll of the Sea." Wong was also quite the clotheshorse -- in 1934, the Mayfair Mannequin Society of New York voted her the "world's best dressed woman," a big deal at the time.

In spite of her personal success, Wong openly complained about the lack of quality roles for Asians in Hollywood.

"I was so tired of the parts I had to play," she once told journalist Doris Mackie. "Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain -- murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass."
Sessue Hayakawa
Hulton Archive via Getty Images
Considered a major Hollywood heartthrob on par with Valentino in the 1910s and 1920s, brooding Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa rose to fame after starring in Cecil B. DeMille鈥檚 1915 silent drama, "The Cheat." The movie shocked audiences of the time for its implied interracial sex.

Though his heyday was the silent era, Hayakawa received an Oscar nomination for his role as the camp commander in the 1957 epic "The Bridge on the River Kwai."
Tsuru Aoki
Born in Tokyo, Japan, Tsuru Aoki became one of Hollywood's first Asian leading ladies after emigrating to the U.S. in 1903. Aoki was the wife of Sessue Hayakawa; the couple starred in numerous films together.

They were also known to put on one hell of a good time. The couple reportedly held Gatsby-esque Hollywood parties at their mansion, which was known as the 鈥淎rgyle Castle."
James Shigeta
Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images
You probably know James Shigeta for playing the doomed chief executive of the Nakatomi corporation in "Die Hard." But in the 1960s, the Hawaiian-born Japanese actor lent his leading man good looks to such films as "Bridge to the Sun" and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Flower Drum Song."

In an interview with the San Jose Mercury News in 2006, Shigeta said things were slightly better for Asian actors in Hollywood in the wake of "Flower Drum Song."

"Finally, they started portraying the Asian American as something other than the poor man in a menial job, as a doctor or attorney," he said.
Miyoshi Umeki
Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images
Japanese-born actress Miyoshi Umeki is best known for her Oscar award-winning performance as Katsumi, the Japanese wartime bride of Red Buttons' airman character, Joe, in 1957's "Sayonara." (Umeki is pictured here with her little gold man.)

Umeki remained the only Asian woman to win an Academy Award for acting until 2021, when Korean acting vet Youn Yuh-jung took one home for her supporting role in "Minari."
Merle Oberon
John Springer Collection via Getty Images
Screen legend Merle Oberon was the only Indian actress to be nominated for an Oscar -- though no one knew it at the time. Hollywood execs kept her Anglo-Indian background a secret throughout her career. Although it was claimed she was born in Tasmania, off Australia鈥檚 southern coast, Oberon was actually born in Mumbai to an Indian mother and an Anglo father.

"The studio reconstructed her history and she had to live that life story and keep living that life story," according to Mar茅e Delofski, the director of a 2002 documentary exploring Oberon's life titled "The Trouble With Merle."
Keye Luke
Film Favorites via Getty Images
Throughout his career, spanning 60 years, Chinese-born actor Keye Luke starred in more than 100 films -- most notably as the "No. 1 Son" in the Charlie Chan detective films. (And clearly, the dude could rock a leather jacket. See the pic above for proof.)

His personal favorite role was that of Master Po, David Carradine's mentor in "Kung Fu," a martial arts Western drama television series that ran in the '70s.

"I was giving the actual sayings of great Chinese philosophers like Confucius for dialogue," he said, in 1985. "It worked for me on every level."
Li Li-Hua
Bettmann via Getty Images
Born to parents who performed in the Peking opera, screen beauty Li Li-Hua emigrated to the U.S. and starred in more than 120 movies between the 1940s and 1970s. Her career lasted so long, she was given the nickname "China鈥檚 Evergreen Tree.鈥
Nancy Kwan
Boris Spremo via Getty Images
In the 1960s, Nancy Kwan -- whose father was Chinese and mother was Scottish -- made waves in the "The World of Suzie Wong" and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Flower Drum Song."

"It was about time to cast Asians in Asian roles," Kwan told told the Los Angeles Times of the landmark musical. "It gave work to a lot of Asians, and it felt so good being in a film like that."
Gloria Fong aka Maylia
Gloria Fong, the actress known as Maylia, starred in the '40s films "Singapore" and "To the Ends of the Earth." Born in Detroit, the actress was visiting her sister in California when was discovered in a canteen at Paramount Studios by screenwriter Jay Richard Kennedy.

She went on to marry "Charlie Chan" actor Benson Fong and, together, they opened a Chinese restaurant chain in Los Angeles.
Bruce Lee
Archive Photos via Getty Images
What, you thought we were going to forget Bruce Lee?

The Asian action hero only starred in five feature films as an adult before his death in 1973, but that's all it took for him to shatter the conception of Asian American masculinity as "weak."

"Before Lee's time, Asian men had been largely depicted as emasculated and childlike -- coolies, domestics, etc. -- in American popular culture," Hye Seung Chung, an associate professor of film and media studies at Colorado State University, told ABC News in 2005. "Lee proved that the image of the Asian man can be tough, strong and sexy."

CORRECTION: This article misstated that Umeki鈥檚 character was married to Marlon Brando鈥檚 character in 鈥淪ayonara.鈥 She married the character played by Red Buttons.

Before You Go


What's Hot