Discover Nikkei

A Partial and Personal Timeline of Asian American Men on Stage and Screen

Teahouse of the August Moon (1979)

I’m dressed in a long dyed-purple tunic that comes down to my knees, with a wide white sailor collar. I am in third grade in Roseville, California. My dad Taku has refused to let the costuming department dye my hair. My hair is still auburn, though I’m supposed to be an Okinawan child in the late 1940s. Together my dad and I are in a college production of Teahouse of the August Moon at California State, Sacramento.

Taku Nimura in Teahouse of the August Moon, 1979

In my memory, I have two lines penciled into the script: “Wasureta,” and “Kita yo.” I forgot. Here they come. The lines were added in by my dad, who spoke enough Japanese to know what lines would be appropriate to add for a village child, and who spoke past playwright John Patrick’s phonetic approximations of Japanese to speak Japanese correctly, to provide the right Japanese words. 

Besides the fluorescent yellow highlighter that my dad used to remember his lines, I remember running lines with him. I remember my two penciled-in lines. And I remember my dad at the opening of the play, standing in front of three horizontal panels of bamboo curtains. He is playing the part of Sakini, the Okinawan interpreter and native informant for the American occupation forces. 

As a third-grader, I thought that my dad was the main character of the play. Sakini opens and closes the play, after all, a sort of Puck-like figure that interprets the villagers’ actions and words to the American GI’s. As problematic as the role might be now, I’m glad that I got to see him in this role, speaking Japanese a bit (and pronouncing it correctly). 

White actor David Wayne, it’s noted, won an award for playing Sakini in other productions of the play. 

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Goonies (1985)

The first Vietnamese American actor I ever saw onscreen was 12 years old. Scrawny, scrappy, sidekick to Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, his character’s name is Short Round. I know that’s not an Asian name, so I check—Wikipedia says the character was named after a producer’s dog.

In Goonies, a young Vietnamese American kid is tinkering with gadgets, a zipline between houses. His name in the movie is Data. I loved his inventiveness and his spunk. 

I didn’t see the actor onscreen again for decades.

Easter Parade (1948)

“How was the show, Mr. Hewes?,” Peter Chong asks Fred Astaire. Chong is playing Sam, Astaire’s valet.

“Terrible,” answers Astaire.

“Oh, that’s too bad,” says Chong.

In the final musical number of the show, Chong goes to fetch Astaire’s coat as Judy Garland whisks Astaire away to promenade on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Singin’ in the Rain (1953)

Gene Kelly has just torn himself, or at least his tuxedo, from Debbie Reynolds’s side. She pulls up to a mansion where a handsome Filipino man dressed in a white tuxedo is standing in a shadowed entrance. 

“Is this R.F. Simpson’s party?,” she asks.

“Yes, miss,” he answers.

“Well, I’m one of the girls from the Coconut Grove.”

“Ah yes, the floor show. Around the back, please.” 

Leon Lontoc plays “Filipino Butler,” the house servant who greets Debbie Reynolds at a Beverly Hills mansion before she bursts out of a cake and sings “All I Do Is Dream of You.” 

I have never seen Leon Lontoc again onscreen, though he goes on to have a career of many small parts in movies and television series. I never looked at him closely enough to remember—which is intentional. The Filipino Butler (no name, even) is not meant to be a part that’s remembered.  

Hito Hata (Raise the Banner) (1980) 

I am with a crowd of Japanese Americans in a darkened movie theater in San Francisco, waiting for Hito Hata to begin. There is a large white cloth banner with kanji on it, stating the movie title. My Uncle Hiroshi is in the film. I was too young to remember the movie, but I remember what it was like to be in that crowd, so many of us on screen and off, Japanese Americans together. 

Goldfinger (1964)

In this classic James Bond film, Harold Sakata plays the silent and deadly villain Oddjob. Dressed in a suit with a bowler hat that he weaponizes, he never speaks. 

Sixteen Candles (1984)

The “foreign” exchange student is hanging his head over from a bunk bed. His hair is rumpled. “What-sa happenin’, hot stuff?” he asks. And a gong sounds. 

His name is Long Duk Dong, played by Gedde Watanabe. 

He has a number of cringey lines, including “oh, sexy girlll-friend,” but every time he speaks, a gong sounds, as if to emphasize that 1) he’s Asian, and 2) whatever he says must be foreign and funny. 

As much as I love John Hughes’s movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I still can’t get over Sixteen Candles. It is painful and embarrassing. 

Superstore (TV) (2015-2021)

Filipino American actor Nico Santos plays a queer undocumented clerk at a big box store named Cloud 9. It’s a wonderfully complex role, and it only grows as the seasons progress. 

And yet. For seven seasons, Jon Miyahara plays Brett Kobayashigawa, the perennially silent clerk at a big box store in the Midwest. Even with a presumed death at one point in the series, his character speaks once in those seven years. 

The Good Place (TV) (2015)

Playing on the “silent Asian male” stereotype, at first Manny Jacinto as Jason Mendoza plays Jianyu, a silent monk. Not long into the series, he turns several Asian male stereotypes on their heads by being not only a talkative character, but also a lovable character who is perhaps not the brightest bulb on the tree.

And yet. There’s Takato Yonemoto who plays Daisuke (misspelled as Dasike on the show’s Wiki/fan page) on The Good Place. Disappointingly, out of the full multiracial Good Place Committee, Daisuke is the only character who does not speak.

Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)

Finally, after hearing so much about it, I watch Everything Everywhere All At Once. It is a chaotic multiverse with masterful editing that takes us through the multiple lives of of Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn and Ke Huy Quan’s Waymond with Stephanie Hsu and James Hong. At its heart it is an intergenerational love story. One of its major speaking roles belongs to Ke Huy Quan. At first, I don’t recognize the young sidekick to Indiana Jones or the scrappiness of Data from Goonies. 

It’s the multiplicity and the complexity of the roles that wins my heart. The characters are passionate, frumpy, dapper, elegant, and weary, depending on the parts of the movie. Not only do the characters have multiple lines, they have multiple roles in this universe. No one character bears the sole burden of representation of being Asian American. No one actor has a stereotype to break or support. They are main characters, not side characters. 

This is why I am so thrilled by “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” as I watch Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan accept multiple awards for their performances. I am thinking of my dad, about how much strength and dignity he brought to the comic relief and yes, stereotypical role of the Okinawan interpreter in Teahouse of the August Moon. I am thinking about my uncle, Hiroshi Kashiwagi, and how he was even able to play leading roles in independent movies before he passed away. I am thinking about Ke Huy Quan’s reluctant departure from acting and his triumphant return after being offscreen for decades. 

I am thinking about opportunities, not just representation, not just Asian faces on a screen or stage. 

Oscars ceremony (2023)

I watch Ke Huy Quan’s speech over and over. I start to follow him on Instagram, where every selfie he posts is filled with joy. 


© 2023 Tamiko Nimura

acting actors artists Asian American actors entertainers movies stereotypes TV shows
About the Author

Tamiko Nimura is an Asian American writer living in Tacoma, Washington. Her training in literature and American ethnic studies (MA, PhD, University of Washington) prepared her to research, document, and tell the stories of people of color. She has been writing for Discover Nikkei since 2008.

Tamiko just published her first book, Rosa Franklin: A Life in Health Care, Public Service, and Social Justice (Washington State Legislature Oral History Program, 2020). Her second book is a co-written graphic novel, titled We Hereby Refuse: Japanese American Resistance to Wartime Incarceration (Chin Music Press/Wing Luke Asian Museum). She is working on a memoir called PILGRIMAGE.

Updated November 2020

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