Hollywood Has a Tendency to Only Cast Mixed Asians—Is that Problematic?

Last year, it was announced that Warner Bros. would be making a film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s popular novel, “Crazy Rich Asians,” directed by Jon M. Chu.  Plenty of people were excited at the prospect of seeing a major studio movie featuring an exclusively Asian cast, especially when actresses like Michelle Yeoh and Constance Wu joined the project.

Then, about a month ago, I came across an article by Kristen Yoonsoo Kim who said it was “kind of a bummer” that the Asian male lead went to Henry Golding, a television host of Malaysian descent who is half white. “[Casting him is] a reminder that many of the Asian actresses [sic] who break out in the industry have white blood or white features (see: Keanu Reeves, Olivia Munn, Maggie Q),” she wrote. The article goes on to mention that there are levels to whitewashing, that whitewashing doesn’t just entail a white person playing someone Asian, such as the recent debacles with “Ghost in the Shell” and “Doctor Strange,” but includes mixed race casting.

I’ve written a lot in the past about both the dearth and quality of Asian representation, and Kim’s commentary made me stop and think. It seems that Hollywood casting directors and executives can’t wrap their heads around Asians as interesting individuals worthy of screen time. Even when they do cast Asians in shows and movies, we are often relegated to minor and/or stereotypical characters. I certainly understand the cynicism leading to thinking that this is the case with “Crazy Rich Asians.”

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However, it’s too simple to argue that casting a mixed-race Asian is a disappointment. Like many other things, Asian representation exists on a continuum. Yes, it’s true that a film isn’t automatically “woke” or commendable because it features an Asian actor or touches on Asian cultures. It’s not progress to see yet another submissive Asian girl or an awkward Asian math geek on TV or in a movie.

And yes, it’s entirely possible that hiring mixed-race actors, instead of “full” Asians, is one way entertainment executives and directors can act like they care about diversity and representation, when in reality they think full Asian actors aren’t compelling enough to play the role.

But by that same logic, it’s also not enough to say that because a mixed-race Asian actor is cast, a type of whitewashing has occurred. It’s unfair to say people like Henry Golding or Chloe Bennet are not “real” Asians. Bennet was a pop star in China when she was 15, speaks Mandarin, and has talked at length about loving Chinese culture and her roots – which is not something every “full” Chinese person can say.

Additionally, director Jon M. Chu put out an open casting call via YouTube earlier this year, asking for any Asian individual interested in being cast to submit a video. He stated his dedication to giving opportunities to Asian actors, because he knows how hard it is to start out as an Asian actor in Hollywood.

In a BuzzFeed interview from March, Chu said he’s thought a lot about the flexibility of hiring Asians to play other Asians. He asked himself if only Chinese actors can play Chinese characters, if it’s okay to have a Korean performer portray a Chinese person and if a mixed-race actor can do that role justice. He’s even consulted others in the Asian American entertainment world for their perspective. After grappling with all these questions, Chu said it may be a “ridiculous ask” to limit his cast only to those of Chinese descent, especially since Asian actors already face so many barriers.

“That would take out so many opportunities for so many Asian actors. I mean, Meryl Streep can play any ethnicity that she kind of looks like,” Chu said to BuzzFeed. “We have U.S. soldiers being played by British dudes and superheroes—very American superheroes—being played by other people, so why do [Asian Americans] need to have that kind of restriction?”

Even if you disagree with Chu’s reasoning, it seems like the “Crazy Rich Asians” team really put in a lot of effort to cast new faces, Golding among them. If he beat out many others for the lead role, it is very possible that he was just the best out of every Asian actor who auditioned. Whitewashing may not be the issue here at all.

Overall, I think hiring mixed-race Asian actors, like Chloe Bennet, Henry Golding, Olivia Munn, or hey, Keanu Reeves, is a step in the right direction. But the main takeaway is that we shouldn’t just accept diversity at face value. It’s not good enough that a film has an Asian or mixed Asian actor—the characters they play need to be shown as real, multi-dimensional human beings too.

In that sense, the “Crazy Rich Asians” movie has a lot of promise. Sure, Henry Golding is of mixed race, but if his character is multifaceted and he gives a good performance, who cares? And let’s not forget, Constance Wu plays a leading role too, and Connie rarely lets me down.