Updated on May 27 at 1 p.m.
As an actor, I have spent most of my life attempting to prove that I am “enough.” Because of my ethnic origin — I am Taiwanese American — that means also trying to prove, consciously or not, that I am “American enough.” My life has been shaped by the idea that my value in America is based on someone else’s perception of me — and by how well I fit into the dominant white culture.
I began acting at an early age. Initially, I landed small parts as the token Asian character: I was a Spock-like character (brainy, unemotional) in a PBS series. In an Oliver Stone film, my face was juxtaposed with images of Vietnamese villagers during the Vietnam War. Then, I graduated to playing Asian immigrants with accents. I was a character named “Ching Chong.” I was an Asian masseuse on an HBO series. Despite landing less stereotypical roles — I was a dumb jock on a sitcom series — my early understanding of my identity as an actor at the beginning of my career was as an “Asian” one.
You have to understand – I saw being Asian ultimately as an asset. I was a proud daughter of an even prouder immigrant mother; it gave me a rich cultural identity from which I could pull.
An acting teacher once said to me, “You’re going to have to work harder than anyone in this room. You’re going to have to be better than your white counterpart.” That remark has never left my psyche. It was a harsh, but true, statement. Although I used it to develop an incredible work ethic, I also unwittingly accepted the paradigm that I would always be inferior the minute I walked into an audition. Being Asian was a handicap I had to overcome, and I was determined to prove I had worth.
When I landed a handsome holding contract exclusively for ABC/Touchstone — a deal in which you are paid to audition for only one network — I thought my hard work had paid off. At that time, networks were beginning to push for more “diversity” in front of the camera. Part of my job was to convince skeptical TV producers that they could reimagine their presumably white characters as ethnic.
This was a daunting task. Being on the receiving end of unspoken negative bias is a distinctly uncomfortable experience, yet not something one can necessarily prove — it’s simply a feeling, a dynamic which many of my auditions seemed to be charged with. I was often left to contend with the paradigm on my own.
The auditions under my contract caused me to swing between uber confidence and uber confusion. The work it took for me to go into a room and try to change someone’s perceptions of me, or hit the magical bull's eye in which they would think of me as diverse and talented, or pretend they didn’t see my Asianness — all of it exacted a substantial mental toll. I also discovered I wasn’t just competing against white actors, but other actors of color, too.
As part of trying to reconcile these issues, I began exploring the subconscious through dreams, as both a therapeutic and creative process. I often found myself wrestling with themes and deep-seated emotions around invisibility. I once dreamed I was a ghost with no face. I was shaken by the image, yet it felt befitting.
When I was cast as Anna May Wong in the Netflix series “Hollywood,” little did I know I would be portraying my invisibility on-screen. The true story, also told in the series, goes like this: Wong, born in Los Angeles in 1905, was an Asian American actress who spent her entire career trying to prove her worth to Hollywood. She did so by playing the largely stereotypical roles she was offered, but in the end, it still wasn’t enough.
The one role that would have garnered Wong her first leading role in a major Hollywood production — 1937’s “The Good Earth” — was instead given to Luise Rainer, a German actress who performed in yellowface. The reasoning for this was a masterpiece of twisted racist logic: When a white actor was cast to play the Chinese male lead, the Hays Code of 1930 was used to rule out Wong from playing the female lead — because this would result in the depiction of an interracial relationship between actors. Rainer won an Oscar for the role. The impact Wong could’ve had in the role, and in the Oscar arena, can’t be overstated.
What felt most familiar to me about Wong’s story was that her identity as a Chinese American actor was continuously being defined by others. She was subject to racism from all sides. She was a third-generation American citizen who had to apply for a visa to leave and return to America. When she traveled abroad to China, people rejected her for the stereotypical roles she was subjected to play back in America. And yet she was perceived as too Chinese for Chinese roles in America.
It’s a futile task within an unworkable paradigm, and I cannot single-handedly change a system inherently biased against people of Asian heritage. When I saw one of Wong’s last roles in “Portrait in Black,” — she played a servant who was depicted as perhaps villainous, hiding in the shadows — I wept. Even Wong, with her global stardom, could not overcome it.
It wasn’t just Anna May Wong. I started tracking the myriad examples of racism on the national stage: the Hollywood whitewashing of Asian-specific roles; my industry colleagues being asked to remove Asian protagonists from their stories. I listened to John Chiang speak about his gubernatorial bid and how often the press omitted his progress. I tracked Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign, and how he was repeatedly and blatantly ignored by the media. I saw these Asian Americans — but the press rendered them invisible, mute. They, too, became ghosts.
Before the birth of my first child, eight years ago now, another dream image came to me: It was a long wooden table, where many figures sat. This was the metaphorical table I had so fiercely fought to have a seat at for my entire career. And to my surprise, I discovered that I no longer wanted a seat at this table, because I no longer knew what value I was bringing to it.
So I took a mental break. I no longer applied myself with the same fervor.
If the phone didn’t ring for work, I was grateful. My self-perception began to clarify, and I came to understand that it’s not my job to change people’s minds about how they see me. Whatever distorted or limited values others may ascribe to me is their own personal dilemma and responsibility to overcome.
I began to build a new belief system where I determined my own value as an artist, a woman, a wife, a mother and as an American who gets to define what my heritage means to me. This is who sits at my table now.
Having played the role of Anna May Wong in “Hollywood,” I’m thrilled to see her image take center stage in a different light. Her story, like mine, has become an empowered one. And while things have not entirely changed since Wong’s time, I know I’m not alone in reaching for progress amid long-entrenched racism in the entertainment industry. There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done to create true equity, but it’s good to know I have allies. “Hollywood” creator Ryan Murphy is an ally, and there are others. The latest crop of next-generation Asian American talent are vocal and unafraid of challenging the system.
If we are to purge the racism that creeps into all of our minds, those who are targeted by it can’t be the only ones doing the heavy-lifting. The idea that racism is just my problem overlooks the fact that allies, too, have important work to do in creating and providing opportunities, transforming perceptions of “the other,” and standing against injustice. If we, as a society, are to recognize that all human beings have value, the rejection of racist hate is not just the responsibility of a select group.
It must come from a new and greater collective. All of us.