Asian American representation in film is on the rise -- but so is real-world anti-Asian hate

From Marvel's Shang-Chi to Oscar-winning Minari, it's a "golden age" for Asian Americans in cinema, and that's important at a time when anti-Asian violence is surging too.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
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Roger Cheng
3 min read

It's a "golden age" of Asian representation in cinema, said Jimmy Wong, star of Netflix's Wish Dragon, who rose to fame as a YouTube star. But at the same time, the last year has been a nightmare for the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, which has faced near-daily attacks in the US. 

2021 is shaping up to be a banner year for Asians in media. There was the film Minari, which led to a best supporting actress Oscar for Yuh-Jung Youn, only the second actress of Asian descent to win in that category. Director Chloé Zhao won best director for Nomadland and will be ushering in the cosmically epic Marvel film Eternals. But before then, Marvel will release Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Yet violence against the AAPI community is also at an all-time high, made more visible thanks to social media and smartphone cameras. Public awareness of the epidemic peaked in March after a shooter in Atlanta killed eight people -- six of them Asian American women. And even if attention on the problem has dissipated, the attacks haven't. 

That's why Asian representation in film and television is so important. As in the case of Minari, it's a chance to tell an American story with characters and families that some people may not traditionally consider American. It's often too easy to paint Asian Americans as alien, so a more steady presence on screen, alongside their unique stories, is a way to tear down the notion that Asian Americans are different.

"With the rise in anti-Asian crime, it's more important than ever that people are making these stories, and you can tell there is a renewed urgency," Wong said in an interview for CNET's Now What series. 

And though a big Marvel film like Shang-Chi, starring Simu Liu, will get a lot of attention, Wong made a throwback reference to Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, starring John Cho (who co-stars with Wong in Wish Dragon) and Kal Penn, as an example of a film that resonated with him. That's because it involved a main character, played by Cho, who was just a relatable, funny but clumsy guy. One who didn't know martial arts, but he ended up with the girl. 

"The more positive role models we have, the more positive news and things that we have, the better that we can see ourselves reflected in society, and then that helps us elevate ourselves to a higher level," Wong said. 

Wong said the rise in anti-Asian hate and violence has been "rough, mentally. "

He hopes people ask questions, avoid jumping to conclusions, and try to get a larger understanding from a broader perspective. 

"Maybe from there," he said, "we can make some more meaningful change."

Now What is a video interview series with industry leaders, celebrities and influencers that covers trends impacting businesses and consumers amid the "new normal." There will always be change in our world, and we'll be here to discuss how to navigate it all.