a rant by

Al Wong

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January 28, 1997


Just last night I saw the movie, The Joy Luck Club (JLC), which played on television for the first time in Los Angeles. I had been meaning to see this movie but never got around to it until now. Since many female friends recommended this 1993 movie to me, including my own sister, I was looking forward to experiencing a great work of art. Up to this point, I have heard nothing but glowing reviews about this movie.

Near the end of the movie I found myself thinking,

    There is something terribly wrong here!
    All the Chinese men are portrayed as bad and weak!
    Why is this movie getting good reviews? Are the critics all blind?

Then I started to get angry. What a rip-off! I'm glad I didn't spend money to see the JLC in the movie theater. I only spent 3 hours of my time at home.

I noticed there were very few reviews mentioning there were Chinese stereotypes in the movie. (One review even claimed there were none!) I am a first generation Chinese-American male, born and raised in the USA. I am living the reality of the Asian experience. I am not a Militant-Chinese-Power-Fanatic but since none of my Chinese brethren appear to be commenting on the JLC, I feel compelled to write this review. (Why aren't there any well known movie critics of Chinese descent?)

According to the 1990 US Census, Asians make less than 3% of the US population. I can unofficially confirm this during my travels. Asians appear to be concentrated near the ports-of-entry cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York. In the Mid-West and Southern states, usually I draw stares being the only Asian in the crowd. At first, I thought this was rude. Then it occurred to me, perhaps they have never seen an Asian before! In the flesh.

We are less than 3%! This means most Americans will get their exposure to Asians and Asian culture through the media, i.e. newspapers, magazines, television and movies. The JLC does a great disservice to Chinese and Asians in general by perpetuating stereotypes to Middle-America, giving a distorted view of our culture. Does anyone else see this?

For those of you that have not seen the JLC, it's about the mother-daughter generation gap between four Chinese mother-daughter pairs. All the Chinese mothers appear to have been raised in China before World War II although this isn't stated. They all go through amazing hardships which has scarred them emotionally before coming to the US. All the daughters were born and raised in the US. The movie appears to be occurring in the present time although this isn't stated. It is definitely a feminist type movie with the male characters taking a back seat to the female characters. That isn't bad. What's bad is the negative Chinese male characters and stereotypes the movie portrays.

No Stereotypes? You Must Be Joking!

    From: The Washington Post, Desson Howe, September 24, 1993
    ..."Joy Luck Club" is nourishing for its avoidance of Asian stereotypes. There isn't the slightest trace of a laundry man, kung fu killer or aphorism-spouting, pidgin-English-speaking detective...

Huh? Avoidance of Asian stereotypes? Did we see the same movie?

The JLC has perpetuated at least two major Chinese stereotypes and has all but set back the Chinese-American image by 30 years. The two obvious stereotypes perpetuated by the JLC are what I call the Gangster and the China Doll. I describe them below with other generic Chinese stereotypes. Sadly, many Chinese-made movies, especially the older ones, also perpetuate these stereotypes.

Asian Male Stereotypes

  1. The Gangster
    • Rich, powerful but evil.
    • Can be a young punk or grown man.
    • Cold blooded killer.
    • Rape your daughter/wife/girlfriend without blinking.
    • Drug/weapons dealer.
    • Surprisingly, this stereotype speaks perfect English more often than not.

  2. Yellow Uncle Tom
    • Can be an ineffectual old man or weak young man.
    • Can be very wise or very stupid.
    • Usually talks like he doesn't have a pair. Whiny.
    • Generally no one listens to him.
    • Broken English.

  3. The Mystic Fighter
    • Powerful, fights for good but usually not rich.
    • Fights well.
    • Can have supernatural powers.
    • Intellectually aloof.
    • Not quite human, more demigod/terminator.
    • Broken English.

Bruce Lee introduced the Mystic Fighter. Whereas this is an improvement over the Yellow Uncle Tom and The Gangster, it doesn't go far enough. The character is an inhuman terminator and has now been stereotyped too often.

Asian Female Stereotypes

  1. The China Doll
    • Beautiful.
    • Young, thin, willowy.
    • Weak.
    • Subservient, demur, innocent.
    • Soft spoken.
    • Sexual toy.
    • Runs off with the white guy.
    • Speaks perfect English more times than not.

    The China Doll may even speak with a British accent. This, of course, implies a fine, expensive, foreign education. Not bad as Chinese women are also portrayed as second class citizens who are lucky to get an education at all, let alone a fine education. A contradiction in stereotypes here.

Stereotype Notes

  • These are the generic stereotypes and they may not have all the characteristics listed. And not all stereotypes are used in every movie. As always, your mileage may vary. However, these characters, in all variations, are immediately recognizable.

  • The China Doll stereotype is used 99% of the time to portray Asian women.

  • The point is all Asian actors, you see on television and in movies, play these stereotypes! This bears repeating. ALL Asian actors! If you don't believe me, name two movies or two television shows with Asian actors that do not play these stereotypes. Can you name even one?

The Mothers and Daughters

In the JLC, all the mothers and daughters were China Dolls at some point in their life. This cannot be debated. They were all young, innocent, weak and subservient. All the mothers end up having a tragic youth experience which scars them emotionally for life. It seems they also could not prevent their daughters from avoiding this stereotypical trap.

The Mothers' Husbands

Guess what stereotype was the rapist husband? Exactly, a gangster. He was rich enough to afford 4 wives and obviously had power to take what he wanted. The other husbands were a playboy and a young boy. The fourth father of the twin babies was never mentioned. Presumably he was killed during the WW II invasion of China or abandoned the family.

A rapist and a playboy. Not exactly ideal role models. The young boy doesn't count.

It may be argued the husband of the dead mother, who describes to his daughter what really happened when the mother abandoned the twin babies, is not a bad character. This is true but he is a neutral Uncle Tom. He is a vehicle needed to explain the story simply because the dead mother cannot. A non-entity. The character could have been easily replaced by a friend or another aunt.

The Daughters' Husbands

Two of the husbands were white men and were portrayed in a better light than the Chinese men in the movie. I don't think there was a fourth husband.

In the one unbelievable relationship with the lone Chinese husband, one daughter splits all expenses 50-50 with her future husband even though he earns 7 times her salary! She even ends up marrying the tight bastard. Now tell me, is that reality? Did she really believe he loved her? Did she really love him? Would any modern Chinese woman be that stupid? I don't think so.

Sorting Out The Husbands

Let's see what we have for the Chinese husbands. A rapist, a promiscuous husband and a clueless cheapskate. Of the two white husbands, one is simply ignorant of table manners and the other is a very rich man who plays around with other women. What kind of message does that send to young Asian boys? To young Asian girls?

What other positive Asian male role models are there? Damn few, I'm sorry to say. I did like one and describe it in the box. Even this character was flawed too.

Alternative Asian Male Character

Vanishing Son

This short lived television show starred a twenty-something Asian actor (though half Asian) as the main character! This alone was revolutionary given the earlier TV shows like Kung Fu which starred a white guy playing a Chinese man.

He was even real. Attended college, played the violin and even had a white girlfriend! This too was revolutionary. He was strong. He was intelligent. He had a code of ethics. He was even presentable and spoke perfect English.

Then like in all TV shows, media executives had to pee in it and make the stereotype. This guy was a master of Kung Fu, glowed while meditating, put out candle flames with his hand five inches away, etc. Shades of Mystic Fighter! To lock in the cliche, they made his brother a Gangster! His gangster brother turns out to be their mutual downfall, blah, blah, blah.

It really was a shame the show was cancelled. I can see why though. It was getting too supernatural and too fortune cookie-ish.

Other Reviews

The Internet Movie Database has a collection of reviews for the JLC. This includes Mr. Tanaka's excellent review (text) of the JLC which gives a blow by blow dissection of the movie's characters which I highly recommend reading. Also, read the review by Michael Park.

Why Was This Movie Made?

It has a lot of Chinese actors in it, some even "well known". Why would these actors, obvious Asian role models, perpetuate these Asian stereotypes? I see at least four reasons:

  1. Perhaps these actors are too jaded or too new to realize they are playing stereotypes. This may be possible but I find it hard to believe.

  2. It seems the JLC's redeeming value is the relationships between the mothers and daughters. This chord has been universally described to me by my female friends from all ethnic backgrounds (Asian, Black, Hispanic, etc). It seems women can relate to this movie.

  3. For all its faults, the JLC is a movie that did "go mainstream" with a cast of almost all Asian actors. The movie played in general theaters, not in obscure specialty/foreign theaters. The photography, sets, costumes, makeup, etc. were first rate. Perhaps any exposure of Asian acting to Middle-America is better than no exposure.

  4. A person has got to eat. And Asian actors have a particularly difficult time finding regular acting gigs.


The JLC falls short of being a great movie of Asians because of it's portrayal of all negative Asian male characters and the Asian female China Doll stereotypes. The one redeeming value of the JLC is in it's mother-daughter relationships which seems have a universal appeal to all women. Also, the movie is beautifully made and has texture. However, this movie would not be my first choice to show someone ignorant of Asians and Asian culture.

April 18, 2000

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) or Comments

I had been meaning to put this section in as I'm getting a lot of repetitive questions/comments about this rant. Below are the most frequently asked questions or comments I'm getting via email.

Please note this FAQ section was added much later and is not part of my original rant. This is indicated by the green color of the text and other visual cues like a dividing horizontal line and a separate date on this section. I understand some teachers are making xerox copies of my JLC rant to pass around in their class (which is clearly a copyright violation!). Then the copies show up as all black/white text and is construed as one article which is misleading.

  1. Have you read the JLC book? It's much better than the movie.

    This appears to be the most asked question. I have two answers for this:

    1. The JLC movie will have to stand on its own. Most people do not have the time or inclination to read the book, including me. In fact, the only people I have encountered that have actually read the book were forced to because of a class at school. Most people would rather see the movie. This may be a sad commentary on society in general but it is true.

    2. It appears more than half the people who read the book say it is just as bad as the movie or worse. So I guess it depends on your point of view.

  2. How can you say Chinese are so few? Half of my classmates are Chinese! We have... (list of Asian names here..)

    I do not make this claim. It is taken from an official source, the 1990 US Census. If you take the time to research the numbers you will see that the Chinese population does not change dramatically percentage-wise across the USA. I predict we may go up a percentage point for the 2000 US Census. This may bring up the Chinese population to 2-3 percent of the total population. Still not a lot no matter how you look at it.

    As far as your classmates are concerned, your sample is too small to make an generalization as to the total US population (now over 250 million people). You are probably located in a port-of-entry city like Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York where most immigrants will naturally congregate. If you have traveled to other parts of the US like the Mid-West or South, you will see Asians are relatively rare in this country.

    Also, the names you include are not all Chinese. You have included Japanese and Vietnamese names in your list. Do you actually know the difference between Chinese and other Asians?

  3. I am a white guy with an Asian girlfriend and...

    Surprisingly, I get a lot of these types of email messages. They usually come from the aol.com domain so I can already guess the general ignorance of these people.

    Having an Asian girlfriend does not automatically make you an expert in Asians or Asian culture no matter how much you have deluded yourself. You have no idea what it's like to grow up as an Asian American.

  4. If these men were nice, honest gentlemen who treated their wives with respect, then there would be no conflict and therefore no story.

    I disagree. There still would have been conflicts only it would be in a richer sense. Not only would we see the mother-daughter generation gap conflict but we would see the fathers' viewpoint as well. This would have made a more interesting movie.

    I actually find it strange NONE of the father-mother couples were still together. At least one couple would have put an interesting contrast to the other stories.

    As it stands now, the JLC insidiously tries to say that all Chinese families are dysfunctional. This is clearly wrong if only by the fact that Chinese make up 25% of the world's population! That's a lot of family living.

August 18, 2000

But Wait, There's More!

This rant has caused such unexpected controversy that I have written a few more webpages:

June 1, 2005

Even More!

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