Hit shows like ABC's Fresh Off the Boat have placed Asian-Americans actors in the spotlight (it should be noted that it is not the first primetime show to star an Asian-American—that honor goes to Margaret Cho's aptly named All-American Girl). What is interesting about the many depictions of Asian-Americans on stage and screen is that they always seem to be first or second generation immigrants. Indeed, the name Fresh off the Boat alludes to this fact. I should point out that I use the term Asian-American simply for brevity, not to get people all riled up (I KNOW NOT ALL ASIANS ARE THE SAME). For the purposes of this article the term includes Chinese, Korean, and Japanese-Americans.
The Fresh Off the Boat cast at a panel discussion for the show
The history of Asians in America spans the better part of two centuries. The first wave of Chinese immigrants came to the United States in the middle of the 19th century. They came to strike it rich in the California gold mines, farm the land and—most importantly—to build our railroads. The State Department's Office of the Historian's assertion that Asian-Americans were instrumental in building railroads in the American west is an understatement. By 1868, 4,000 workers—two thirds of them Chinese—had built the transcontinental railroad over the Sierras and into the plains. However, the influx of Asians did not sit well with most (this was a country for European immigrants only, duh). So in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This marked the first time in American history that broad restrictions were placed on immigration. The Act ended major Asian immigration to the United States. It was not until the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act—which did away with national origin quotas—that they were allowed back in large numbers.
Chinese railroad workers via ucsdnews.ucsd.edu
Anna May Wong was a descendant of one those early Chinese immigrants. Born in Los Angeles in 1905, she grew up in a normal middle class family. Her first role, as an extra, was in 1919. The New York Times proclaimed that "she should be seen again and often on the screen." She wasn't. There were no roles written for Asian actresses. Even if their were, anti-miscegenation laws made it next to impossible for her to kiss or embrace a white male actor. Amazingly, though not surprisingly, most Hollywood producers just hired white actresses to play Asian parts (in yellow face of course).
And yet, Wong managed to become a star. In 1922, she played the lead role in the first Technicolor feature, The Toll of the Sea. In 'talkies' she spoke in English, German, and French. Her stardom grew throughout the 1920s in the United States. Buzzfeed News wrote a fascinating piece on the actress. In it, they talk about how American audiences were enamored with Wong:
"Anna May Wong has never even been to China, and you might just as well know it right now. Moreover, she has seen NY’s Chinatown only from a taxi-cab, and she doesn’t wear a mandarin coat … her English is faultless. Her conversation consists of scintillating chatter that any flapper might envy. Her sense of humor is thoroughly American. She didn’t eat rice when she and I lunched together, and she distinctly impressed it upon the waiter to bring her coffee, not tea."
Wong with Marlene Dietrich in the film Shanghai Express
I mean, I guess any press is good press? She didn't take the veiled racism lying down either. in 1933, Wong asked, “Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain? And so crude a villain—murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass. We are not like that. How should we be, with a civilization that is so many times older than the West?” Strong words, but it didn't matter. Tired of being typecast, she left for Europe in the mid 1930s. Before leaving, she starred opposite Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg's Shanghai Express. Their chemistry was such that rumors spread they were real-life lovers. After a successful stint in Europe, she returned to Hollywood---only to be disappointed. For the rest of her career she was relegated to bit parts or supporting roles not befitting her talent. She died at the relatively young age of 56 largely forgotten by the movie industry.
So what of Asian-American actors today? Surely, we learn from history. Well, sort of. Asian-Americans are certainly more represented in Hollywood. But then you have the case of Emma Stone. In 2015, Stone, who is white, was cast as Asian-American Allison Ng. I wish I was kidding...