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Ellen Lee's East Bay Livin'

Monday, May 23, 2005

On being Asian American in Hollywood

John Cho, who played Harold in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, spoke at the AAJA San Francisco Bay Area chapter's 20th Anniversary and Asian American Heritage Month Gala on Sunday.

Cho, a UC Berkeley graduate who got his first big break with Berkeley Repertory, gave an interesting talk on what it's like to be an Asian American actor in Hollywood, the decisions he makes in accepting certain roles and how Asian Americans are portrayed in popular culture.

He recently appeared in Fox's medical drama House as the patient of the week with a mysterious ailment. I didn't see this episode, but I heard about it from a friend who was disturbed by it. Cho played an Asian American accountant with a penchant for -- how do I put this nicely for a family friendly newspaper? -- rough sex. The role obviously did not portray Asian Americans in a very flattering light.

Cho argued that not all Asian American roles should have to be flattering, and that he accepted the part because it gave him an opportunity to play an *interesting* character.

Asian Americans are hardly visible on television and in movies, so when do they appear, there's a constant fear that they'll be portrayed as foreigners with accents or as the stereotypical kung fu fighter (who of course doesn't speak English). But Cho pointed out that the other extreme is that, in compensation, this fear will lead to only bland, nicey-nice Asian American characters, and really, what good is that? Asian American actors need meaty, multi-dimensional roles just like anybody else. That said, I do find it annoying when I only see Asian Americans in bit roles like doctors and scientists, as if those were the only characters that they could authentically play. I mean, there are Asian American desperate housewives, CIA operatives and reporters (!) out there.

Cho did put his foot down on how the parents in the episode would be portrayed: without accents and without a refererence to the family's village, since that's a common and lazy way for Hollywood writers to signify that a character is Asian (as Cho pointed out, isn't that obvious enough?).

This is just a snippet of his talk, but all in all, a lot of food for thought.


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