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Where are the Asian Lead Actors in Hollywood?

Updated on March 2, 2012
The first major Asian star in U.S. cinema--Sessue Hayakawa--circa 1920s
The first major Asian star in U.S. cinema--Sessue Hayakawa--circa 1920s | Source

When moviegoers think of influential actors, they bring up names like Nancy Kwan, Sessue Hayakawa, Yul Brynner, Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Ben Kingsley. These prominent Asian actors would make great conversation-starters but what about the growth of Asian celebrities in Hollywood, in general? Leading roles featuring an Asian man or woman in Hollywood are mostly non-existent and stagnant. Only a few roles are occupied by Asians and only a handful openings are available each year.

If there is an increase in Hollywood, it is the growth of Asian directors, producers, and executives who populate tinsel town. Despite the modest growth "behind the camera," Asian actors are largely excluded and limited to productions made overseas and featured mostly in independent theaters.

Martial Arts icons: Bruce Lee (left) and Jackie Chan (right)
Martial Arts icons: Bruce Lee (left) and Jackie Chan (right) | Source
Nancy Kwan the "Chinese Bardot" of the 1960s
Nancy Kwan the "Chinese Bardot" of the 1960s | Source
Academy Award winning actor Yul Brynner
Academy Award winning actor Yul Brynner | Source
Sir Ben Kingsley, Academy Award winner for "Ghandhi."
Sir Ben Kingsley, Academy Award winner for "Ghandhi." | Source

Influential Asian Actors

The influential Asian actors of the generation are Sessue Hayakawa , Yul Brynner, Nancy Kwan, Bruce Lee, Ben Kingsley, and Jackie Chan.

Japanese actor, Sessue Hayakawa, was featured in 20 silent movies until 1918, when he started his own production company. Hayakawa was the first Asian male nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor in the 1957 film, "The Bridge on the River Kwai." Years before, Indian actress Merle Oberon was the first Asian actress to be nominated for an Oscar in 1935 for "The Dark Angel."

Hayakawa's star is located on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Vine Street, Hollywood, California.

Yul Brynner, was born in Russia and is of Mongolian-Buryat descent, would be the first Asian to win an Academy Award for Best Actor in "The King and I" (1956). Brynner would forge a successful career with a long list of films that included "The Ten Commandments" (1956), "The Brothers Kazmarov" (1958), "The Magnificent Seven" (1960), and "Westworld" (1973).

After Brynner's win for best actor in 1956, Miyoshi Umeki would be the first Asian actress to win an Academy award as a supporting actress in "Sayonara" (1957).

Chinese-Scottish actress, Nancy Kwan, came to prominence when she starred in the landmark film "The World of Suzie Wong" (1960) and then the "Flower Drum Song" (1961). Kwan became a reluctant sex symbol in the 1960s but went on to have a long and successful career in Hollywood.

The 2 iconic Asian martial artists/actors are Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan whose careers were intertwined. Chan appeared in Lee's film, "Enter the Dragon" in 1973 and went on to have a long and successful career that would eclipse Lee's shortened career. As for Lee, his legendary status was cemented by an early death, electrifying performances on-screen, popularity among movie fans, and a cult-following among martial arts' fans around the world.

British actor Ben Kingsley, who is of Indian descent, would be the second Asian star to win "The Best Actor" Academy Award for his performance in "Gandhi" (1982). A year later, Cambodian-American actor Haing S. Ngor would win the Oscar for his supporting role in "The Killing Fields" in 1984.

Kingsley's impressive body of work includes "Sneakers" (1992), "Dave" (1993), "Schindler's List" (1993), "Rules of Engagement" (2000), "Sexy Beast" (2000), TV movie "Anne Frank: the Whole Story" (2001), "House of Sand and Fog" (2003), "Shutter Island" (2010), and "Hugo" (2011).

He is the only Asian actor to be "knighted" by Queen Elizabeth II in 2001 for his contribution to the arts.

Hayakawa brought dignity and grace for Asians in the early 20th Century. Brynner, who is credited for making "bald men" sexy, brought charisma and the Asian Community's first Oscar win. Kwan was influential in making the Asian woman as vibrant and sexy as other non-Asian women to which the media dubbed her the "Chinese-Bardot" (after famous French actress Bridget Bardot) . Lee invoked a "bad boy" image to the Asian persona in his martial arts films while Chan brought versatility to "chopsocky films" by adding a comedic and daredevil flair to the genre. Lastly, Kingsley validated the Asian presence in Hollywood with his Oscar win in 1982.

All of these actors and actresses are indeed influential for all Asian actors and, all actors in general, but who will carry the Asian acting community from now on?

Only time will tell.

John Wayne, Ricardo Montalban, Mickey Rooney, and Helen Hunt are non-Asians who played an Asian role.
John Wayne, Ricardo Montalban, Mickey Rooney, and Helen Hunt are non-Asians who played an Asian role. | Source


The Asians have been stereotyped since the 1930s in the popular "Charlie Chan" film series in which a Chinese-American detective solves crimes around the world among caucasians. Chan was portrayed in a positive manner despite being played by a non-Chinese actor, Warner Oland, but critics denounced the character as being a stereotype and subservient. The author of Charlie Chan, Earl Derr Biggers, portrayed the character that was sympathetic to the Chinese at the turn of the century but critics believed otherwise.

In 1924, racism was never more evident when the U.S. passed an Immigration bill (known as the Immigration Act of 1924) limiting the number of Asians into the country because they were considered "an undesirable race." Hollywood reflected the discrimination in society by having "white actors" play Asian characters by altering their looks with makeup to look like them.

Despite overt racism in the 1930s, many Asian actors were seeking an opportunity in Hollywood. These actors included Hayakawa, Anna May Wong, Merle Oberon, Philip Ahn, Suzanna Kim, Richard Loo, Kam Tong, Keye Luke, Toshia Mori, and many more who attempted to break barriers for Asian actors in the U.S..

Traces of Asian stereotype in society and on television/film still remains in spite of changes in racism and diversity in America. Asians are usually classified as geeks, ruthless villains, or having thick accents and there is no timetable when this pattern will ever end.


Grace Park and Daniel Dae Kim promote their hit show "Hawaii 5-0"
Grace Park and Daniel Dae Kim promote their hit show "Hawaii 5-0" | Source
George Takei as "Sulu" in the Star Trek series
George Takei as "Sulu" in the Star Trek series | Source
Pat Morita in the original "Karate Kid" (1984)
Pat Morita in the original "Karate Kid" (1984) | Source
Maggie Q stars in the hit TV show "Nikita" on the CW network.
Maggie Q stars in the hit TV show "Nikita" on the CW network.

Asian Expansion into Television and the Internet

Today, the medium of television has made more progress offering increased opportunities for Asian actors. While Asians in television news have exploded, the broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, CW, FOX, and NBC) and numerous cable networks have shows that feature Asians in leading or supporting roles.

Actress/model Maggie Q stars in the CW series, "Nikita," which is in its second year. Actress/model Kelly Hu, who was the first Asian-American to win Miss Teen USA (1985) and the first Asian to pose on the cover of men's magazine, Maxim , has done numerous films and appeared recently on the new "Hawaii 5-0."

Hu joined "Hawaii 5-0" stars Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park on the show that features a cast made up almost entirely of Asians. Korean actor, Tim Kang, plays a main role as Kimball Cho on the CBS series, "The Mentalist."

Lastly, Korean actor John Cho and Indian-American actor Kal Penn had starring roles in the "Harold Kumar" film series. Cho would co-star on "Stark Trek," and a main role on the ABC series "FlashForward" (2009-2010) while Penn would appear in "Epic Movie" and "The Namesake" and TV appearances on "Law and Order: SVU" and "House."

Also appearing on film/television shows from the past and present are:

  • Chow Yun Fat
  • George Takei
  • Sandra Oh
  • Jo Koy
  • Mark Dacoscos
  • Grace Park
  • Michelle Yeoh
  • Zhang Ziyi
  • Daniel Dae Kim
  • the late Pat Morita
  • Freida Pinto
  • Joy Bisco
  • Russell Peters
  • Steve Yeun
  • Mindy Kaling
  • Sung Kang
  • Justin Chon
  • Margaret Cho
  • Jamie Chung
  • Aziz Ansari
  • Ken Jeong
  • Kelly Kapoor
  • Rajesh Koothrappali
  • Harry Shum Jr.
  • Naveen Andrews

and many more.

Asians are a success behind-the-camera as directors (Justin Lin, John Woo, Ang Lee, Wayne Wang, Dean Devlin, just to name a few), producers (Ken Mok, Janet Yang, Teddy Zee, Chris Lee, just to name a few), and many of the "movers and shakers" (executives, camera people, editors, and many others) who are shaping Hollywood and around the world.

In addition, there are a number of Asian-Americans who have a considerable presence on the internet via Youtube like Kevin Wu (aka KevJumba on Youtube), Christine Gambito (aka as "Happy Slip"), Michelle Phan (for her beauty tips), and Ryan Higa (the owner of the second most subscribed Youtube channel in Youtube history).

The cast members of the award-winning film "The Joy Luck Club" (1993).
The cast members of the award-winning film "The Joy Luck Club" (1993). | Source
Dev Patel and Freida Pinto from the hit film "Slumgdog Millionaire," which won "Best Picture" in 2008
Dev Patel and Freida Pinto from the hit film "Slumgdog Millionaire," which won "Best Picture" in 2008 | Source

The Perception of Asians is Changing

The Asian community is gaining a presence in Hollywood and it is only a matter of time when more lead roles in films and television shows employ an individual of Asian descent, instead of inserting a non-Asian for the role. While the women still dominate leading roles in Hollywood, the men are slowly making their mark in films and television. So far, the men have been regulated to supporting roles but this is a good foundation for any male actor in an industry where change is slow in some areas on the issue of diversity.

The perception of Asians has evolved from the 1930s from racism to the first major Asian star in American cinema (Sessue Hayakawa) to the first female sex symbol (Nancy Kwan) and to the two iconic symbols that personafy martial arts (Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan).

The Asian presence in American cinema paved the way to eventually branch out to television, commercial ads, and print media. It is now common to see commercials and print ads depicting Asians in a positive manner. Gone are the days when Western nations were prejudiced towards Asians, often referring to them as "the sick men of Asia" or the "yellow peril" but that perception changed over time.

Racism against Asians may have disappeared but stereotypes still linger. Asians can only hope that their hard work and dedication in the entertainment industry will one day make them equals in Hollywood.

Documentary of Asian Actors in Hollywood "The Slanted Screen" Part 1 of 4

"The Slanted Screen" Part 2 of 4

"The Slanted Screen" Part 3 of 4

"The Slanted Screen" Part 4 of 4

Youtube star Christine Gambito (aka "Happy Slip")

Comedic talents of Kev Jumba, Chester See, and Ryan Higa

Michelle Phan; Makeup for Valentine's Day!


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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Sorry about my rambling about hollywood stars like Christian Bale and Tom Cruise. I don't mean to sound selfish and I agree the American studios need to try or at least recognize talent instead of just thinking about money. My sister is asian and she is very dedicated. And growing up with her I sometimes got annoyed because my parents always forced me to see her plays all through her school years (from elementary to high school). She eventually gave up on show business, which is a shame because that's all she grew up with and prepared herself for.

      I feel that one day there would be another exciting asian like Bruce Lee that comes along, and it would open doors for other Asians. Brandon Lee would've open doors if he had lived. There is Psy and he is the most watched on youtube, but his music video and his appearance isn't very flattering lol. I understand he is a comedian and I'm sure he had no idea for the video to go that viral, however, the video still does reminds you of the negative stereotypes, even though it was unintentional and he was just trying to be funny.

    • Paul Bisquera profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Bisquera 

      6 years ago from Los Angeles


      Yes, the majority of all the Hollywood studios repeat the same mantra that having a minority in a leading role is "bankable in films." Seems like Dwayne Johnson is the only minority (Pacific Islander-African-American) among the caucasians that we can count as a "bankable star."

      Does hollywood have the guts to feature an Asian/Pacific Islander minority, besides Dwayne Johnson and John Cho/Kal Penn? We'll never know unless they try.

    • Paul Bisquera profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Bisquera 

      6 years ago from Los Angeles


      Yes, Yul Brynner, should be acknowledged as an Asian but is always mistakenly characterized as caucasian.

      I too am I Bruce Lee fan and like many people collected all the posters, memorabilia, and books about him.

      Thanks for the comment.

    • profile image


      6 years ago


      Even though Yul Brynner has some mix heritage, majority of his roles were NOT cast just because he is mix. He was marketed as being caucasian, because he is more caucasian than asian, like Val Kilmer and Johnny Depp have very little Native American ancestry and both are marketed as being caucasian.

      Majority of American films are NOT considered bankable with minorities as the leads, this is why white actors in non white roles are usually cast in leads. Only white people are bankable even in Asian countries like "Flowers of War" movie with Christian Bale, and it's all about Christian Bale, because Christian Bale is a badass and it's all about Christian Bale as a bad ass even in Asian countries, even his name Christian Bale is a bad ass lol. And let's not forget about Christian Bale folks, because he is a bad ass like Tom Cruise in "The Last Samurai," because Tom Cruise is a bad ass, even his name folks, even in asia he is considered bankable, because Tom Cruise is Tom Cruise man, need I say more lol??

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      It's nice to finally see Yul Brynner acknowledged as "Asian" in a listing of Asian leading men.

      I've often seen him mistakenly mentioned as an example of "white actors in Asian face" (for "The King And I"), when in fact, being of part Siberian/Mongol (Buryat) heritage, makes him...Asian (and one of the first Asian superstars, a decade or two before Bruce Lee would ignite the small and big screen.)

      By the way, I'm a big Bruce Lee fan...and a big Yul Brynner fan...and I'm an Asian guy who does theater and looks up to both of them!

      And on that note, Bruce did non-martial arts roles as a child star in Hong Kong (and on an episode of "Here Come The Brides") and Yul was "The Ultimate Warrior"...a martial arts role!

      Just had to add that.

    • profile image

      Della Ware 

      6 years ago

      Thought I'd look to see if anyone, family, friends or former colleagues of actor Arthur Wong of the early 1960s had given him page. He is now deceased. But in the 1960s Mr. Wong also used to be the "Host" of the Chinese Restaurant Far East Terrace in No. Hollywood/Toluca Lake, Ca. Was just a ways from the Universal Studios. He was a very kind man. Good actor, as well. My Mom used to take me there quike often in those days growing up. God Bless Mr. Wong's memory.5/14/12

    • RedElf profile image


      7 years ago from Canada

      Thanks for this informative and eye-opening hub. Hollywood had a bad habit of casting non-ethnics in ethnic roles, as did early television. It's so great to see movies and series with people of different ethnicities in sympathetic roles. The times, they are a-changing - slowly but surely.


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