Because we often look different than the majority, we are represented by stereotypes,” said young actor Leo Wong. “See that guy with a turban? Or that girl with different hair colour? This is what makes us afraid of foreign people thus Hollywood resorts to stereotypes to relate to the audience.”
Since the age of 14, Wong has been in many musicals, films and commercials. He has sung for sport teams such as the Vancouver White Caps and at well-known venues such as the Richmond Night Market. Featured in musicals such as Anything Goes and Our Lady of a Hundred and Third Street, Wong still struggles in finding work as an actor.
“Sometimes I get auditions for open calls where essentially anyone can audition. And 99% of the time, the Caucasian actors are chosen for the roles. That’s just the way it is. Especially with commercials where the advertising company wants someone the audience can relate to.”
Labelled as Hollywood North, Vancouver is home to many well-known film and television productions such as Fringe, Psych and Smallville, to name a few. Mr. Young, a popular Canadian youth sitcom, filmed in Burnaby, is consisted of white lead actors with some exceptions in smaller roles. Raigu Yu, a local Vancouver actor, plays Dang, the school’s cheerful Vietnamese janitor. Aside from his energetic personality, Dang speaks with a purposeful and inaccurate Vietnamese accent. If you compare that to a native speaker, you will find misrepresentation of Vietnamese people.
Often, ethnic characters are inappropriately portrayed. In the popular 2009 comedy film, The Hangover, on their way to find their lost friend, the lead characters meet their antagonist, Leslie Chow, a flamboyant Chinese gangster who used many oriental stereotypes, jokes and slang.Â Portrayed by Ken Jeong, a Korean American actor, it is considered one of Jeong’s memorable performance.
On the popular blog, Angry Asian Man, there is discussion of Ken Jeong’s portrayal of Leslie Chow, describing it as requiring the actor to repeatedly mispronounce English words and jump around buck naked for no discernible reasons, according to Giant.
A mother of two young girls, one a local child actress, Asuka Forest manages her daughter’s acting career. Her daughter’s most recent work included booking a US cable company commercial, playing a Hispanic child for Kellogg‘s Cereals, and most recently, a Mexican girl for a Nickelodeon‘s upcoming TV movie, Fairly Odd Christmas. What makes her unique is her ethnicity. With a mix of Japanese and Caucasian blood, she resembles a Hispanic child.
Despite her daughter’s appearance, her mother has not experienced any noticeable disadvantages. However, she does have one pet peeve. I don’t know for any other nationalities, but I’m Japanese, and when they cast someone who is not native Japanese in a film or TV, its often painfully obvious,” says Forest. “For a small minor role, its not a big deal, but I wish they make an effort to cast authentic Japanese actors. The film industry doesn’t support the true ethnicity of the person. For example, if you have a character that is Japanese and you cast a person that looks Japanese but isn’t Japanese, you can easily tell if that person is native to the character’s origins and that can be quite detrimental to what it means to be a Japanese person. This has been seen many times where Hollywood had Caucasian actors play ethnic roles. In the 2005 comedy film, We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year, Chris Lilley, a Caucasian Australian comedian, portrays Ricky Wong, a 23 year old Chinese student. And in the infamous 2008 Dragonballs Evolution, well, we all know how that went.
In Hollywood movies, a big percentage of actors are Caucasians, thus ethnic actors are not as prominent. But further down the road, there are more ethnic actors being cast for parts.â€ Says Carlos Mecias, a second year student film maker at Capilano University.
With a Hispanic background, Mencias is well aware of problems ethnic actors face when it comes to casting. “Although we are heading towards a better path, ethnic actors are still not being truly represented. For example, in the third season of Glee, there is an episode called Asian F, where the two Asian characters, Mike Chang (Harry Shum, Jr.) and Tina Cohen-Chang (Jenna Ushkowitz), find themselves in trouble after receiving an A minus instead of their standard A plus, and thus labeling it as an Asian F. It’s great seeing ethnic actors on the screens, but there are still many stereotypes to break through.”
Mencias promises to offer a different path for ethnic actors. “As a writer and director, I never really look at a race or a specific look. I focus on the performance. If I have an actor that does really well, I’m going to choose him or her. It’s all about the performance.”
Despite the majority of film productions looking for white actors, ethnic actors are on the rise. Skye & Chang, a new one-hour television series heading to Canada’s APTN network, features Sera-Lys McArthur (Arctic Air) and Olivia Cheng (Supernatural). They play as owners of a bodyguard company who find themselves fighting against a bigger and unknown force. Michael Coleman, owner and coach of Vancouver Acting School, expresses that “locally shot series Continuum and Skye & Chang are amazing examples of shows that are incredibly diverse in their ethnic diversity.”
We had the chance to speak with Olivia Cheng, a Chinese Canadian actress whose credits include Supernatural, Eureka, and as a freelance correspondent for Entertainment Tonight Canada. She expresses that ethnic actors need to be expanding themselves in all possible directions. “We need to make our own shit. Plain and simple. And by that I mean, we need to write, produce and direct plays, television shows and films that reflect our cultures, our stories, our communities and experiences. We need to share what’s universal to humanity in our cultures, and tell good stories. Not only will that create indigenous work within communities, but we’ll be able to train up other artists to get their voices out there. Robert Duvall said to me, acting is a noble profession. I believe it IS noble because we have the power to move people, to help them feel deeply through portraying an authentic experience. Feeling through empathy for others is such a uniting thing isn’t it? Melts away barriers and differences. I think that’s noble. And I think for ethnic actors and actresses to thrive, we’ve got to do that on a ground breaking scale.”
Cheng offers some comforting words. “Every once in a while you see it. It wouldn’t be accurate to say cultural representations of visible minorities in film are completely non-existent. But I’d definitely like to see more. More accurate and expansive representation in mainstream projects, as well as more entries from film makers from within those communities whether it be the Asian, South Asian, Ugandan, Purple People-adian communities etc.”
There is no doubt the presence of multiculturalism is vividly present in Canada. But how often is that reflected in the big screen?
In all, ethnic actors are on the rise. Despite the disadvantages ethnic actors face daily, with diligence, dedication and passion, ethnic actors may find their path to success and that can be said for all actors from all different races and backgrounds. Aside from acting and singing, Leo Wong has ventured into other paths. His next project includes producing for an independent feature film and during his free time, Wong works as a production assistant in local Vancouver film productions. He offers these words to anyone who are hitting a rough point in their careers.
“The weak wait for opportunity. The strong hold onto their opportunities. But the wise create their opportunities.”
Main photo from Â The Sheboygan Theatre Company