The fact that I had such a difficult time coming up with a list of Asian (especially East Asian) characters in speculative works is a resounding proclamation of the complete and utter lack of such characters. If we take a quick glance at media as a whole, without looking specifically at the speculative (which further limits the pool of candidates), we do see Asian representation in film. But who comes to mind? Leslie Chow of the Hangover series? Lucy Liu in Charlie’s Angels…and Kill Bill…and Man with the Iron Fists? Jackie Chan? Bruce Lee? Already we have all the makings of one big, fat Asian stereotype—for if not the nerdy, emasculate, I-can’t-speak-no-English math genius, then it’s the kungfu fighting master of the Exotic East.
Let’s eliminate more potential individuals by exclusively looking at Asian characters in speculative media. In particular, I want to examine three characters: Cho Chang of the Harry Potter series; Amber from Sucker Punch; and Trini Kwan, one of the Power Rangers. Asian stereotypes are continually propagated through over-generalized and clichéd depictions of Asian people and Asia itself, further marginalizing an already underrepresented minority. This has profound ramifications because how these people are imagined and represented in media and text ultimately comes to affect how these people see themselves.
While I loved her character in the books, I was exasperated by Katie Leung’s portrayal of Cho Chang in the movie series. Asian heterosexual femininity can often be thought of as inhabiting two spheres: the first is the “butterfly” trope—the helpless, submissive, and timid Asian female; and the second is the “dragon lady” trope—the wily and sexually aggressive Asian woman, à la majority of Lucy Liu’s on-screen characters. Cho Chang undoubtedly falls into the former category, and her constant whimpering and crying throughout the movies made me so annoyed at her performance. The ONLY East Asian character in the series, and she’s as disposable as a napkin. Moreover, there is an undeniable fetishization of her character; she goes around crying from guy to guy, dependent on a male figure for happiness, merely serving as a useless pretty face. And can we just take a moment to reflect on the fact that her name is Cho-freaking-Chang . My love for J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter world is boundless, but come on…Cho Chang might as well have been named “Ching Chong.”
Okay, so Amber is pretty badass, I must admit. She can fight her own fight. But alas, she’s just not as confident as all the other girls in the gang. And this seems to be a pattern with Asian characters—they all have some complex that renders them unqualified to be major protagonists; they’re suitable only as minor characters. Also, take a look at her character portrait:
Notice the cutesy, bubble-gum pink lollipop she’s holding? And her bunny rabbit man-destroying machine in the back? Like so many other depictions of Asians in the media, she just can’t be a normal cool person. She works at a brothel, but she’s shy; she knows how to fight, but she acts cute. She can never fully be a Lara Croft-type character because God forbid she’d be seen as threatening, and Hollywood seems threatened by Asians who don’t submit to the preordained, and often racist, status quo. Consequently, every bold and awesome thing she accomplishes by herself is veiled by a convenient gloss of Asian stereotypes.
Three words: Yellow Power Ranger. As if the producers of the show couldn’t make her ethnicity any more explicit, they just had to make sure everyone knew she was Asian by making her costume bright yellow. Because even after decades, we still haven’t moved on from notions of Orientalism and Yellow Peril. Not to mention that’s she’s super “soft-spoken” and “polite” and that she obviously knows martial arts. Obviously.
At the end of the day, I want to find unique and dynamic Asian characters in speculative media that’s not specifically labelled as “Asian Fantasy” or “Asian Sci-Fi,” and where it’s not clearly tinted with a neo-Asian flavour (e.g. set in Ancient China where the protagonist is karate fighting the Water Dragon God of some forsaken cave in the Northern Mountains). I want more characters like Minho from The Maze Runner; I want books that don’t try hard to make their Asian characters explicitly “Asian.” Please, Hollywood writers and directors, take a page out of a book like Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor. She does an incredible job incorporating a mesmerizing story with an informed dialogue about culture, and she respects the fact that race shouldn’t be commodified and condensed into stereotypes.
Finally, I vote no more calling any Asian characters ANYTHING with dragon or jade in the name, or any animal name preceded by a colour (e.g. golden tiger). Please stop.
-contributed by Janice To