"They have to continue to fight for better images and more roles."
Mulan voice actor James Hong has discussed how Asian representation in film has changed through his career.
In an interview with Deadline, Mulan voice actor James Hong discussed how young people need to fight for Asian representation on screen.
The 89-year-old Asian American actor has 500 credits to his name including Mulan and the Kung Fu Panda franchise. Hong describes his role in Kung Fu Panda as a “wonderful peak in [his] career,” as he was “sort of a leading character. I did the voice as a cross between a Jewish mother and a Chinese waiter.”
However, the acting veteran still holds many qualms about Hollywood’s reluctance to cast Asians in mainstream roles.
Recalling the early days of his career, Hong said it was difficult to find convincing work as an Asian actor.“When I first came here in 1953, basically, there were no Asian roles that were not cliche,” he said. “All stereotypes … no real drama classes or clubs, only one Asian casting director and East/West players was non existent.”
Hong said he had to fight the corner for Asian Americans whilst being an actor. “There was no advocacy for Asians actors. There were no leading men roles. I became an actor, but then I had to fight for a very long time for Asian Americans.”
As an artist and actor, Hong struggled with finding roles that reflected” true Asian Americans, especially in at the start of his career. “Being from Minnesota, I’m a fighter, you know,” he said. “I was an artist and wanted something more because it’s a lifetime of work. You just don’t want to get a paycheck to become a cliché person.”
“In the beginning, I played all those roles, but they were all houseboys, laundry men, railroad workers and villains, always the bad guy or always the persecuted Chinaman, always being saved by a white person. There were no roles as a principle person in American society.”
Hong had to take matters into his own hands. With the help of fellow Asian actor Mako Al Huang, Hong formed a group which would perform a play – Rashomon.
“Everyone just pitched in, and the play got good reviews,” Hong said. “I was the producer and played the gatekeeper. Mako played the bandit. June Kim was also in the play.”
After the play, Asian actors began to see some traction and momentum in the industry.
“I look back, now I’m almost 90 years old, and think is that what I started?” said Hong. “There were so many good students, teachers and actors flowing through those doors. But, I just did what I had to do.”
Fast-forward to the present day, Hong is pleased with the progress in representation. “Now things are just starting to change,” said Hong. “After 50 to 60 years, things are starting to look better. I never thought it would take this long. At least I’m alive to see it, but it took this long to get this far.”
However, he still believes the Asian acting community in America has a long way to go. “The young people have to fight and gain more ground,” hong said. “They have to continue to fight for better images and more roles. There are a few roles, but they are still not casting Asians in leading roles like businessmen.”
“And I’m sure it will get better because China has all the money,” he added with a laugh.