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Celebrating AANHPI Heritage Month: The History of Their Contributions to Film and the future

A boy and girl holding glass goblets

This May–we’re celebrating Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month! We’ll journey through decades of AANHPI history in film, the current state of representation, and how you can support AANHPI artists!

Movies Silently

Regarded as the first Asian-American film and first woman-directed film, The Curse of Quon Gwon (1916/1917), featured an all-Chinese cast with Marion E. Wong as director and producer. This indie film was subsequently entered into the National Film Registry in 2006. Concurrently, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was in effect, which enacted a 10-year ban on Chinese immigration following with severe immigration requirements making it very difficult to immigrate to the USA. The Immigration Act of 1924 established a quota system that greatly restricted immigration by Asians to the USA.

Anna May Wong sitting in a black long sleeved dress with a gold necklace and gold bracelets.

By the mid 1920s, Anna May Wong rose to superstardom through roles like Lotus Flower in The Toll of the Sea and Ling Moy in Daughter of the Dragon. Although a famous and talented actress, she still lost Asian roles to white women that wore yellowface to portray those characters. In 1937, she lost the role of O-Lan in The Good Earth to Luise Rainer. Rainer went on to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for the role.

Through the early 1940s, Wong continued to have a successful career. Concurrently, the USA entered WWII and imprisoned Japanese-Americans in internment camps following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Wrenched from their homes, businesses, and communities, people living in the US with Japanese heritage were forced to go to internment camps as a means to prevent Japanese espionage. At the conclusion of the war, Japanese-Americans were allowed to move home or start anew. (Those who had been imprisoned were each given reparations of $20k each in 1988.)

National Archives

James Wong Howe sitting behind a movie camera
National Archives | Michael Ochs Archives

By 1955, James Wong Howe was the first Asian American to win an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for The Rose Tattoo. Howe helped to revolutionize techniques like “low-key” lighting found in film noir and popularized “deep focus,” which includes narrowing the camera lens and using very bright lights. Two years later, Miyoshi Umeki won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Sayonara as Katsumi Kelly.

Rogers & Hammerstein

In 1961, Flower Drum song was the first studio produced film that featured a majority Asian cast. The film follows Mei Li as she arrives in San Francisco from China  to marry Sammy Fong, a nightclub owner who is already in love with a dancer at his club. Although there was a rise in Asian actors and roles, the 1960s and 1970s, still saw white actors cast in Asian roles donning yellowface and portraying harmful stereotypes like the “dragon lady” or docile & passive “lotus flower.” Famously, Mickey Rooney, a white actor, portrayed Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Bruce Lee standing and smirking towards the camera
South China Morning Post

Bruce Lee rose to stardom after he was cast as the sidekick to the Green Hornet. After a brief stint in Hong Kong, Lee returned to the US and began to make hit after hit, including The Way of the Dragon, Enter the Dragon, The Big Boss, and Fists of Fury. Martial arts films & practice rose to great popularity in the 1970s & 1980. These films paved the way for films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to be released in the US and for other martial artists/actors in Hollywood like Jackie Chan, Michelle Yeoh, and Jet Li.

In 1977, Representative Frank Horton introduced HJ Resolution 540 and Senator Daniel Inouye introduced SJ Resolution 72 to make the first 10 days of May as Pacific/Asian American Heritage Week. Neither resolutions passed, but, in June 1978, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed the first week of May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week.

Sir Ben Kingsley holding his Oscar for his titular role in Ghandi.
The Wrap

By the 1980s, there was even more Asian representation with the rise of Bruce Lee and more opportunities (although few) were open for Asian Americans. Ben Kingsley won the Academy Award for Best Oscar for his titular portrayal in Ghandi in 1983 and Haing S. Ngor won for his debut performance in The Killing Fields in 1984.. Unfortunately, there were still films that continued to play on harmful portrayals, like Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles. 

The Cast of Joy Luck Club

By 1992, Congress passed a law that designated May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month and AANHPI’s saw more representation with the centering of their stories. Based on the bestselling novel, The Joy Luck Club, which follows four different Chinese-American mother-daughter duos and their relationships premiered in 1993 to high praise. Other features included The Lover, Madame Butterfly, and Wedding Banquet.

From the early aughts to present, Hollywood has seen more steady progress towards AANHPI representation helming large franchises with authentic storytelling, although there were pitfalls along the way. Most notably, Emma Stone’s casting as a character who is one-quarter Chinese and one-quarter Hawaiian in Aloha. But, the past decade has seen a more AANHPI Oscar winners like Youn Yuhjung who won Best Supporting Actress for her role in Minari. She's the first AANHPI winner of the award since Miyoshi Umeki in 1958.

Simu Liu is the first Asian superhero in the MCU as Shang-Chi and the film touts a majority Asian cast, writer, and director. Dev Patel helmed and directed Monkey Man, a unique story, inspired by the legend of Hanuman, in which a young man infiltrates the sinister elite of his hometown to settle a score

Disney Movies Universal Pictures

Two more AANHPI princesses were added to the Disney canon with Moana and Raya and the Last Dragon. Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne Johnson are primed to continue as Moana and Maui in the sequel, Moana 2, coming to theaters November 27th. Raya and the Last Dragon features a South East Asian princess, Raya, journeys to find the last dragon to expel the Druun and reunite Kumandra.

Disney Movies

A24 & Warner Bros

And we couldn’t talk about major hits without mentioning Crazy Rich Asians and Everything Everywhere All at Once. Based on the novel of the same name, the film follows Rachel who travels to Singapore with her boyfriend to meet his family and slowly discovers that his family is a little more well-off than she thought. When adjusting for inflation, in October of 2018, Crazy Rich Asians was the sixth highest grossing romantic comedy ever and the highest grossing romcom of the past ten years. Everything Everywhere All at Once, a dramedy that opened to incredible praise and reviews, won seven of its 11 Academy Award nominations. Michelle Yeoh became the first woman of Asian descent to win Best Actress, Ke Huy Quan won Best Supporting Actor, the Daniels (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) won Best Directors, and the film won Best Picture.

This has been a brief overview of AANHPI's contributions to film and while we at OC are ecstatic to see people that look like us helming major franchises and winning accolades, there is still room for more of these diverse stories and storytellers. According to a study by USC’s Norman Lear Center in collaboration with Gold House, they found that films and TV series saw an increase of Asian characters from 3% to 16% from 2007 to 2022. This rise in representation is amazing and we loved 2023’s Joy Ride and have watched Never Have I Ever 100 times, but we want to continue to see these stories made.

This year, President Joe Biden proclaimed May Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander Heritage Month on April 30th, 2024. As always, be sure to consume AANHPI content, promote their stories, and support AANHPI storytellers and organizations like Film Lab or CAPE throughout the year. Stay connected with organizations like Gold House that promote AANHPI storytelling, mentorship & sponsorship programs, and celebrate AANHPI wins!

Sandra Oh said it best:

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