From Gedde Watanabe’s Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles to Lucy Lui’s “Dragon Lady” Ling Woo in Ally McBeal, Asian identity on screen has often played up to Western stereotypes.
These stereotypes present Asian people more as caricatures rather than truly representative characters, and Mr. Chow from The Hangover franchise has been accused of that though the actor who played him says that was exactly the point.
Ken Jeong, who plays Goh Wye Mun in Crazy Rich Asians, helped create the character and says the intention was always to send up these historically exaggerated Asian roles.
“Mr. Chow is a meta-joke on the stereotype where you’re actually making fun of it,” Jeong explained to Yahoo Movies UK. “You’re playing something so hard where usually the Asian is very passive.
“I’ve never done a live-action role in an accent since The Hangover because… you’re just going so hard that you can’t even top it.”
For this film, he dupes the audience into thinking that he is going down the Mr. Chow route when really he’s nodding to the ridiculousness of that character, and Asian stereotypes, again.
“In retrospect with Crazy Rich Asian doing the accent… you’ve got the audience going, ‘is this Mr. Chow?’, and then you’re going on and talking without an accent,” the actor added. “I didn’t know if it would make it in the film, you know we thought it would be in the gag reel but [it’s a] testament to John Chu, he really just kept all our improv in it.”
Crazy Rich Asians has been celebrated for its diverse representation of Asian and Asian-American culture but there has also been some backlash over Awkwafina’s performance.
The Asian-American rapper-turned-actress from Queens, New York, plays Goh Peik Lin the best friend of the film’s lead protagonist Rachel (Constance Wu) but some people have accused her of appropriating black culture for the characterisation.
Writer Muqing M. Zhang says Awkwafina’s role is “a minstrel-esque performance of the ‘sassy Black sidekick’ caricature, complete with the actress speaking in forced African American Vernacular English (AAVE),” and a number of black female cultural critics have agreed.
Though some have defended her, like Akilah Hughes who pointed towards her multicultural upbringing in Queens.
Yahoo Movies UK spoke with Awkwafina at the UK press junket for Crazy Rich Asians to gauge her response to both the criticism and support.
“I don’t really take the stance where I’m just like well you know I’m from this [place],” Awkwafina said.
“I welcome that conversation because as an Asian-American identity we’re still trying to figure out what that is, so I welcome the conversation.”
Crazy Rich Asians is in cinemas this Friday