By Emily Feimster
Long before Bruce Lee brought martial arts to the forefront of international films, Asian performers struggled to find their place in the Hollywood entertainment scene. Such undeniable actors as heart-melting Miyoshi Umeki, sexy Nancy Kwan, and the late, beloved Pat Morita found all too few roles worthy of their talents. When they did - as in "Sayonara," "Flower Drum Song," "The World of Suzy Wong" and "The Karate Kid" - audiences were bowled over and critics lined up to offer kudos.
In more recent times, Jackie Chan and Jet Li have paved the way for many of their action hero counterparts, but even Chan has complained their roles are limited hereabouts. (Jackie, of course, doesn't need Hollywood; he's been tops in Asia's mighty film industry for decades.)
Finally, today we're seeing a powerful force of Asian talent prospering both in front of and behind the cameras in Hollywood - as in, for example, two of 2005's most important films: "Memoirs of a Geisha" and filmmaker Ang Lee's Oscar favorite, "Brokeback Mountain." Join us as we take a look at this incredible Asian invasion.
One woman catching the world's eye is Ziyi Zhang
. This "Memoirs of A Geisha" star's first appearance in an American movie was in "Rush Hour 2," but as she didn't speak English, Jackie Chan had to translate everything the director said to her. Enthralling in Ang Lee's 2000 "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the daughter of a Beijing economist and his kindergarten teacher wife is now being listed as one of Time Magazine's "World's 100 Most Influential People." They called her "China's Gift to Hollywood" and we happen to agree.
Zhang's "Geisha" love interest, Ken Watanabe, has certainly gotten his share of recognition recently. This actor, who was already a household name in Japan for his work on a TV drama series, became the sixth Asian actor to be nominated for an Academy Award as a result of his work alongside Tom Cruise in "The Last Samurai." Yes, that was pre-crazy-Tom Cruise. But Watanabe isn't the only "Geisha" star kicking some major butt. His co-star Michelle Yeoh fought her way to the top in the male-dominated genre of Hong Kong action films, where she is now known as the "queen of martial arts." What an awesome title! This former Miss Malaysia also showed off her incredible skills in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."
When it comes to fighting your way through Hollywood, Lucy Liu is no stranger. Born to Chinese immigrants in Queens, NY, Liu studied Chinese Language and Culture at the University of Michigan before heading to Los Angeles to make it as an actress. After several years of struggle, her big break came on the show "Ally McBeal" as the ill-tempered lawyer Ling Woo, but it wasn't until "Charlie's Angels" and "Kill Bill" that she proved herself to be a major power player at the box office.
There's also Bai Ling, who is given to prancing around the Hollywood scene in strange, barely-there outfits, and who starred in VH1's "But Can They Sing?" And the verdict was? NO she can't! Having starred in a number of good flicks including "The Crow" and "Red Corner," we much prefer that this sexy siren stick to acting.
Szechwan-born Ling's film credits also include "Anna and the King" - the latter of which may have been a box office disappointment, but did give Westerners who hadn't seen his hard-boiled action flicks a chance to swoon at handsome, athletic, charismatic Chow Yun-Fat, who played the King. Best known for fare such as "Bulletproof Monk" and "The Replacement Killers," he's been busy lately playing Captain Sao Feng in the forthcoming "Pirates of the Caribbean 3." Look out.
Also adding to the exposure of Asians in entertainment are a number of actors who are currently making a name for themselves on television. There was Ming-Na, who starred on "E.R." for a number of years, but now we have Daniel Dae Kim and Yoon-jin Kim, who have hit a goldmine with their hit show, "Lost." Daniel recently told us, "There's not that much minority representation on television so anytime I can play a character that increases the profile of Asian Americans in a positive way then it is such an honor. I give a lot of credit to the producers and the network for creating a show where we have such a diverse cast. I think it plays a large part in its success."
Meanwhile, out-there comedian Margaret Cho recently snagged a television deal with Fox, the broadcast media ranks boast such Asian stars as Connie Chung, Ann Curry, and Lisa Ling, and there is no artist more revered in the classical music field than cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
By the way, did everyone hear the sound of NBC's groan when ice skating star Michelle Kwan had to drop out of the Olympic Games in Turin? The beautiful Kwan had been expected to be the network's biggest ratings draw. Also pulling ratings in recent years have been such sports names as NBA player Yao Ming, tennis star Michael Chang, and popular female golfer Michelle Wie. And Tiger Woods, who is proudly multi-ethnic, and whose mother is Thai.
Despite the large amount of success all of these folks are having, many Asians recognize there still is a long way to go. One of "Mad TV's" comedians, Bobby Lee, recently spoke to us about it. "John Cho told me like seven years ago, 'Bobby, ask your agent to submit you for stuff that is for white people.' I asked him why and he said, 'Because the things that they write specifically for Asians is stuff that is very generic.' Stuff that's meaty is for white people."
Lee continued, "Asian Americans in this country haven't had a voice in television or film. We've had the genre of karate or martial arts but there's never been an American Asian voice and I just think it's time to get that voice out there." However, he does recognize that things are changing. "I've been on a show for five years now. That would have never happened 10 years ago." As for what will happen in the next 10 years? Who knows? But we suspect it will be big.