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Thuggin’ It: Asians Want Diversity in Representation in Film Too

The countdown to my departure from the ATL has officially begun with less than a fortnight until we leave the place I have called home for 17 years, possibly for good. There is SO much I have left undiscovered in Atlanta, so many experiences I promised myself I would “get to eventually”. Between mothering and the constant need to avoid traffic on 285/85/20/400, or any tarred surfaces in the metropolitan area, I never gathered the motivation or strength to fulfill this promise; but nothing compels you to action like a ticking clock, does it? For the next few days, I’ve decided to visit famous landmarks and venues in my fair city that I’ve hitherto left unexplored.

A friend recently and suddenly found herself with lots of free time after being “promoted to customer” after years of faithful service to her company (an experience every Atlanta native and trnsplant has in common), and availed herself as my traveling companion for today’s quest. Our quarry: The studio of one of the world’s most famous filmmakers. The address of this studio is unpublished, so it took some sleuthing to unearth its location.

And guess what?

We did it. There is no greater sleuthhound than a woman with spare time on her hands.

We approached the gate and smiled at the security guard, fully expecting that a flash of our teeth would grant us entrance.

“The studio isn’t open for tours yet,” he informed us. “There’s still a lot of construction going on.”

We asked if we could just drive around the lot to see the outside of the buildings.

“No,” he said cordially, but with finality.

He didn’t care if I was moving to South Africa, or that I would never EVER be back in Atlanta again (which obviously isn’t true. My stuff is still in storage here.), he couldn’t let us onto the premises. Unless…

“Unless you’re extras for the show that’s being filmed today. These are the cars I’m letting through.”

Excited, we asked where we could apply. The web address he gave us was www.TPS.com – which is a chemical/light industrial manufacturing company instead of to the casting company.

If he was trying to throw us off the scent, he failed miserably! We sauntered into the casting director’s check-in which I spied at the corner of the entrance to acquire accurate information. On the way in, my friend struck up a conversation with an Asian woman who looked like she was of Korean descent, based on her bone structure. She was wearing a casting badge. SHE had access.

She was nice enough to give us information on which sites to visit to become an extra and told us how much pay you could expect. Neither of us was there to get paid – we just wanted to tour the site – but if that tour just mistakenly included a per diem, who were we to refuse?

“What show are you an extra on?” we asked.

“I actually play a detective,” the woman replied. “I can’t tell you which show it’s for though.

“A detective!” we exclaimed in unison. “How cool is THAT?”

She laughed and replied with a wry smile, “Yeah…typical Asian role. You know: detective, doctor, lab technician…”

“Better that than a thug or a prisoner,” I said. “That’s all WE would ever get cast for.” I pointed at my friend in our (coincidentally) matching black t-shirts.

“But you know what? I would love that. I would love to play a thug.”

Her English was still heavily accented, betraying what I’m sure is a recent immigration experience. I was gobsmacked. This woman – this petite, lithe and prim, ASIAN woman wanted to play at thug in some point in her thespian career? Who would’ve thunk it?

As they say in the old country: Getting-getting no want, wanting-wanting no get.

My friend and I hastily took pictures on our cell phones and sent them off to the casting director’s email. Our new acquaintance wished us luck and then disappeared into the hallowed building. Naturally, we didn’t expect to get approved at that moment (The casting agency never got back with either of us at all. Shocking!), so we went down to a local bar-b-q shack to eat pulled pork sandwiches and live out our fat girl dreams and recount the day’s mini adventure.

B.D. Wong plays special Agent George Huang on SVU Source: ©2002 Universal Network Television, LLC. All rights reserved.

B.D. Wong plays special Agent George Huang on SVU
Source: ©2002 Universal Network Television, LLC. All rights reserved.

I was still in awe that an Asian woman would harbor a desire to portray an image that is so completely opposite of what we perceive as “typically Asian” in America. And yet, she made an important point, indirectly: Asians – just like all people of color – are poorly represented in the mainstream (and independent) media… or at least their portrayals are limited in scope. Are there Asian drug dealers and inmates and morally bankrupt fiends of all kinds? Absolutely! But if you want to catch such diversity of character you’ll have to check out a film produced in Hong Kong and suffer through the subtitles. There are no Asian thugs in American film – only math sorcerers and psych wizards.

Oftentimes when we think of the term diversity in film, we think Black and/or gay before we think Native American, Arab or Asian. The former are generally the loudest voices in the cry for diversity and therefore get the most representation, albeit miniscule. If it weren’t for the likes of Amy Tan, Mindy Kaling and Ang Lee there would hardly be any representation of the modern Asian in either film or print at all. Most of their stories would be told from antiquity’s vantage point, where sword-wielding warriors can fly and centuries-old sages emerge from their hermitage in order to tutor a new pupil upon whose shoulders it falls to defeat some despicable enemy. Which is all great – it’s just not the reality that the average person living in 2016 experiences.

The twisted irony is that for big budget films like Dr. Strange and The Last Airbender – films centering on Asian characters, lore and settings – the leads are white (because only white people can be anything). Except for when the lead is a villain. Then we need someone a leeeettle darker to play that part. The bad guy is always dark skinned.


A user on Twitter recently noted that Hollywood loves Asian stories…as long as Asians don’t portray themselves in those stories. But that’s the good news! Asian actors are more than ready to branch out! Hollywood: Are you listening? Asians want to thug it up too. Thugging knows no race or gender.


What race or nationality do you associate with? Are you often stereotyped as one way and wish you could see yourself in pop culture another? Like, do you wish there were more Jewish pimps and hustlers on late night TV? Discuss!