ON THE SAME DAY that many Americans watched the fall 1999 season premier of Chicago Hope, 5-year old Benjamin Kadish went home from the hospital. Benjamin is the child who almost died from loss of blood after being shot in the leg and stomach at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, California. Saving his life was a team of three doctors: a Chinese-American emergency medicine specialist, an African-American trauma surgeon, and a Middle-Eastern vascular surgeon. In charge of Benjamin's recovery was a Chinese-American pediatric intensive care specialist.
IN 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first of several laws prohibiting Chinese immigration and denying citizenship to those already in the United States. In 1913 the California State Legislature passed the Alien Land Bill, a measure specifically designed to keep Japanese immigrants from buying land. Finally, the Immigration Act of 1924 ranked foreigners according to desirability, placing northern and western Europeans at the top, southern and eastern Europeans at the bottom, and banning Asians altogether. The restriction even extended to the bedroom: an American who married an immigrant not eligible for citizenship lost his citizenship. All of these measures have since been repealed or declared unconstitutional, but Hollywood seems not to have noticed.
IN THE FALL OF 1999, the Screen Actors' Guild commissioned a study to analyze prime-time television programming that "principally" looked "at the depiction of African Americans." What the union also needs to look at is the exclusion of Asian Americans. Asians have attracted little attention because, unlike African Americans and Latinos, they tend to eschew vociferous protest groups. As a comparatively small minority, they are ignored by national advertisers. Accordingly, networks have little incentive to include Asian Americans in their marketing demographics. All of this in the face of the fact that Americans of Asian ancestry are ubiquitous in certain vital areas of life, areas that are highly visible on television. Never seeing them on the screen in roles where they are omnipresent in reality is one of the most egregious injustices in casting.
THE OLD EXCLUSION AND IMMIGRATION LAWS are long gone, but many white Americans still perceive Asian Americans as foreigners, a perception reflected in the distrust of Asian scientists by federal authorities and how that attitude contributed to the suspicion that physicist Wen Ho Lee had stolen nuclear secrets from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Although Wen is a naturalized citizen who was born in Taiwan, the FBI's relentless investigation was based, in part, on the belief that his Chinese ethnicity produced a "kindred" loyalty to China--the exact same reasoning that led to the World War II internment of over 100,000 loyal Americans of Japanese ancestry, many of them native-born citizens.
THE WHITE AMERICAN'S INDIFFERENCE to the treatment of Wen Ho Lee is merely one sympton of a longstanding public ignorance. For six months in 1995-96 I was a member of Lynn Redgrave's Shakespeare Master Class. In one session an actor of Chinese ancestry gave an impressive reading from Hamlet. During the critique, someone asked him how Shakespeare played in China. "How would I know?" he replied. "I'm from Texas." In June, 1999, during a discussion on ABC's Nightline of alleged Chinese spying, a Japanese-American guest called attention to the perception of Asian Americans as "outsiders" when she pointed out that one out of six medical doctors in the United States is of Asian ancestry, but not a single actor with a recurring role in any of the popular television medical dramas was Asian.
HER POINT: Asian Americans are easily demonized because most whites are ignorant of the Asian presence in everyday life, an ignorance that television perpetuates because producers refuse to cast prime-time medical dramas in any way that reflects reality. The return of Ming-Na Wen to ER later that fall was only the exception that proved the rule: joining the Chicago Hope medical staff were Barbara Hershey, Lauren Holly, and Carla Gugino. The number of Asian names listed under "Physicians & Surgeons" in the yellow pages is mind-boggling, but producers see only "Marcus Welby."
STEVEN BOCHCO'S CITY OF ANGELS portrayed the work of a largely minority hospital staff, yet had no characters representing the largest minority in medicine. When I sent Bochco a copy of a letter I had e-mailed to TIME magazine about the absence of Asian doctors on his show, he replied promptly, accusing me of misrepresenting his work and pointing out that the first two episodes featured actor Tzi Ma. I wrote back: "[I]f you believe that casting one Asian actor in two episodes of City of Angels is tantamount to dealing with the chronic underrepresentation of Asians in medicine, then you are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Walk in to any big city hospital today, Mr. Bochco, and you can't swing a dead cat without hitting an Asian physician. But I have yet to see a photograph of the cast members of City of Angels that includes an Asian face; and the show's website lists the names of the six actors with recurring roles, but Tzi Ma is not one of them." Similarly, the first episode of Gideon's Crossing, the medical show that premiered in 2000 on ABC with an African American in the title role, included insulting references to Japanese Americans. Would the producers have included racially disparaging comments if the casting had reflected the one out of six ratio?
IGNORANCE IS ONE THING, hypocrisy another. On September 19, 1999, KNBC News in Los Angeles interviewed a Chinese-American surgeon who had operated on an infant girl with a genetic heart defect. It all took place at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the so-called "Hospital to the Stars." Picture the irony: a distinguished surgeon on the staff of a world-famous hospital where many network and studio executives and their families receive medical care, but who wouldn't be hired by the hospital in Chicago Hope because the producers wanted a heart surgeon who looked like Barbara Hershey.
MY PERSONAL MEDICAL HISTORY is typical. In the past six years I have had three major surgeries: two by an orthopedist born and educated in India and one by a urologist from Taiwan. As a cancer survivor, I have been scoped, probed, biopsied, imaged, and scanned by enough Asian medical specialists to mount a production of Miss Saigon. But my concern should not be misunderstood. I may be driven by my Eurasian background and an academic career in which my primary research field was the history of race relations; but I'm also an actor and am well aware that casting decisions must meet the dramatic requirements of the story. Only the most obtuse critic would not know that medical dramas are not really about the practice of medicine. Like all character-driven stories, they are about relationships and conflicts; hospitals and clinics merely provide the contexts. But there are many situations in which ethnicity is irrelevant; and many scenes in which the ages, genders, and ethnicities of the doctors have no dramatic significance.
IN FAIRNESS TO THE PRODUCERS of medical dramas, it should be noted that the Asian exclusion occurs on every show involving doctors. On October 6, 1999, NBC's Law & Order and the CBS movie, As Time Runs Out, included hospital scenes in which all of the physicians were white males although their sex and ethnicity had no relevance to the story lines. A doctor in Law & Order who had been a victim in a stolen car scam could have had any occupation and been of either sex and any age and ethnicity. The only story requirement was that he be able to afford a luxury car. And one did not have to wait long to be reminded of the stark contrast between Hollywood fantasy and the real world. The very next evening, KCAL News in Los Angeles carried a story about a female Chinese-American doctor at Stanford University Medical School who was the lead researcher in a program to develop a vaccination procedure that does not require needles.
IF THE PRODUCERS of medical dramas continue to ignore reality, their shows will lose all credibility because the Asian presence is only going to grow. The prestige and high incomes of medical doctors are eminently compatible with Asian cultural values whereby parents are honored by their children's successes. In June, 1999, at a Los Angeles reception for twelve young people entering Tufts University Medical School, ten of the future doctors were Asian Americans. Contrast that ratio with the acceptance rate of all other minorities (African American, Latino, and Native American) to U.S. medical schools in 2000--10.6 percent (1,729 out of 16,303 admissions). If the present trend continues, the day is not far off when non-Caucasian physicians will be a majority. In some places it has already happened. In December, 1999, a network documentary featured a segment on the overcrowded emergency rooms in several eastern inner-city hospitals where virtually all of the doctors and nurses were Asian and Middle-Eastern. Yet, is there anyone who doubts that television hospitals will continue being staffed primarily with doctors who look like Mark Harmon?
ANOTHER FORUM where doctors frequently appear is the courtroom. For years a familiar face in the media was that of L.A. County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Noguchi who often testified in high profile cases, including the deaths of Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe and Natalie Wood. Forensic expert Dr. Henry Lee was a key witness at the O. J. Simpson trial (presided over by a Japanese-American judge) who also made the national news when he testified before the grand jury investigating the JonBenet Ramsey murder. But when was the last time an Asian American testified as an expert witness on Law & Order, The Practice, Judging Amy, Family Law, Ally McBeal, or any show with courtroom scenes?
AND IT'S NOT JUST MEDICAL DOCTORS. In May, 2000, a 5-member team from North Hollywood High School won fourth place at the National Science Bowl sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The faculty coach and one student were Japanese Americans and two of the others were Chinese Americans. A year later a team from the same school won it all. Four of the five students were Chinese Americans, two of them girls. Since 1997, UC Berkeley and UCLA have admitted more Asians than whites. (In 2000 the percentages at UCLA were 41.7 to 33.5.) American universities also enroll an inordinately large number of Asian Ph.D. candidates, especially in scientific and technical fields. But how many Asian-American scientists are seen on prime time television? Besides Wen Ho Lee?
THE EXCLUSION goes beyond medical dramas. Over the years many programs--e.g., The Streets of San Francisco, Suddenly Susan, Dharma and Greg, Party of Five, and Nash Bridges have been set in San Francisco, a city with a population that is 35 percent Asian and has seven Chinese-language newspapers and three Chinese-language television stations. The new owner and publisher of the Examiner, founded by "yellow peril" demagogue William Randolph Hearst, is 37-year old Ted Fang. But not only have no Chinese-Americans ever been cast in these shows, they have rarely been seen in the background. In the last year of Suddenly Susan, Chinese calligraphy could be seen on an office wall decoration. Was this supposed to be a substitute for Chinese actors? Similarly, while promoting the roles of women in today's world, Lifetime Television has managed to make Asian Americans disappear from both the practice of medicine and the city of San Francisco. Don't look for any in Whoopi Goldberg's hospital drama, Strong Medicine, or the San Francisco police show, The Division. And it's not going to get better any time soon. In August, 2000, Kurt McCortney of SAG's Board of Directors told me that every effort by the union's Asian Pacific Caucus and Asian Pacific American Task Force to persuade producers to cast more Asian Americans has hit a stone wall.
WHILE MOST OF THE CRITICISM has focused on television, the treatment of Asian Americans in motion pictures is no better. Fortunately, we rarely see the absurdity of Caucasian actors playing Asian characters, a practice that goes back to the silent screen with Lon Chaney in Mr. Wu (1927) and continued with talkies when Boris Karloff had the title role in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). White actors who played Charlie Chan included Warner Oland (who was Swedish), Sidney Toler, and Roland Winters. As recently as 1981, Peter Ustinov played the wiley detective in Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen, a film in which Chan's grandson was also played by a white actor. Some examples of Caucasians playing Asians can only be described as laughable. It may have been possible to justify casting Jack Palance as Attila in The Sign of the Pagan (1954) with the argument that the Huns were Eurasians who lived on the steppes of Central Asia; but there probably has never been a more ridiculous spectacle than 6' 4" John Wayne--with his big nose and western twang--playing Genghis Khan, a Mongol, in The Conqueror (1956). Producers will defend the casting of a major star like Wayne because of his enormous box office appeal. But in 2001 Gerard Butler played the title role in the USA channel's Attila. Gerard Butler?
CASTING WHITES AS ASIANS has even been deliberate racism. Internationally acclaimed Anna May Wong was considered a natural for the part of O'Lan in the film version of Pearl S. Buck's novel, The Good Earth. But the role was given to Austrian-born Luise Rainer because a white actor, Paul Muni, had already been chosen for the role of O'Lan's husband, Wang Lung, and the producers feared public criticism over casting an interracial couple as husband and wife, although both characters were Chinese and it was Muni who was miscast. Ranier, who received an Academy Award in 1936 for her performance in The Great Ziegfield, won a second straight Oscar; while Wong, a Los Angeles native, lost her only chance, dying in obscurity at age 54. Hollywood has come a long way since then, but, obviously, still has a long way to go.
ON MAY 15, 2000, Frank and Ray, two of the characters in the TV sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond, used the expression "50,000 screaming Chinamen." In certified letters to CBS president Leslie Moonves, executive producer Philip Rosenthal, and producer Ray Romano, I pointed out that "Chinaman" is a racial slur and, like "chink," is just as offensive to many people of Chinese ancestry as is "nigger" to African Americans. Indeed, if Frank and Ray had said "50,000 screaming niggers," the phone lines to CBS would have been tied up for hours, the incident would have been on the 11 p.m. news of every station in the country, and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume would have called for Rosenthal's head. I received no response to my letters and on July 17 CBS re-ran the show with the racial slurs.
INEXPLICABLILY DISAPPOINTING has been the silence of the Chinese community. According to Los Angeles Times television columnist Brian Lowry, my letter was the only complaint Rosenthal received. Similarly, when Guy Aoki of the Asian-Pacific Media Action Network (MANAA) criticized the stereotypical characterization of "Miss Swan" by white comedienne Alex Borstein on MAD TV, the producers refused to change anything because, they argued, Miss Swan is from a fictitious country. Conveniently ignoring the fact that it is the perception of viewers that matters, they were asking us to believe that Swan's imaginary country is not Asian; and that her Chinese-sounding name, slant-eyed make-up, clipped accent, and operation of a nail salon (an occupation that has been dominated by Vietnamese women in recent years) are all purely coincidental. If Asian Americans remain passive after they have been insulted, can producers of programs like Everybody Loves Raymond and MAD TV be blamed for believing they did nothing wrong?