Going a long way in a sea of prejudice

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 March, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 March, 2000, 12:00am

When Hilary Swank declared 'we've come a long way' as she celebrated her Best Actress victory in this week's Academy Awards, Hong Kong's Chow Yun-fat could have been excused for nodding sagely.

Swank was referring to the recognition accorded Boys Don't Cry, a sensitive, independent film about hate crime and a woman who pretends to be man. For Chow, his appearance as a guest presenter at the Oscar's represented yet another step in Tinseltown's slow but steady acceptance of Asians on their own merits.

Chow's quiet, dignified appearance comes after a heady year that has seen several prominent Asian actors start to attract the attention they deserve. While Chow still must face billing descriptions such as 'Tom Cruise of the East', he is nonetheless building widespread acceptance. He was, after-all, prominent in People magazine's 'Sexiest Men Alive' issue, a rough barometer of Hollywood mood.

Another success story is the feisty Chinese-American actress Lucy Liu of the sit-com Ally McBeal. Liu's most recent coup is her selection to star in the re-make of Charlie's Angels, the 1970s series famous for its original white-bread cast.

Asian-Americans warn it has all been a long time coming. Despite an image of itself as eternally hip, Hollywood has been slow to reflect the changes in American society, particularly the role of Asian-Americans. Just think back to the late 1970s, when actors such as Japanese-American Pat Morita found themselves type-cast into often patronising generic bit-parts and wheeled out in roles that stretched from a Korean peasant in M.A.S.H to a chopper-wielding restaurant chef in Happy Days.

And it still has some way to go, if you consider some of the latest figures. Just take the University of California at Berkeley, one of the finest public institutions in America, whose enrolment is now 39 per cent Asian. The prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has a roll comprising 28 per cent Asians, and Ivy League Harvard has 19 per cent.

Asians now make up four per cent of the United States' population - or 11 million people - two-thirds of whom are immigrants, most of whom arrived after 1965. They have an average monthly household income of US$3,800 (about HK$30,000) - more than any other ethnic group, including whites.

Such successes, it must be remembered, have been achieved despite a long history of discrimination, from bans on Chinese immigration to the internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II.

The body that prepared the statistics released earlier this month, Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP), was quick to warn, however, that old stereotypes remain and Asians still find themselves viewed as 'perpetual foreigners'.

Their considerable achievements still mask considerable challenges, particularly for poorly-educated new arrivals from China and Southeast Asia who find themselves in the growing poverty trap suffered by the nation's poorest.

Releasing the report, Paul Ong, a social policy professor, warned that race in America was no longer a simple matter of colour. 'It is also one of ethnicity . . . Too many people in this country continue to see us in simple stereotypes,' he said.

Despite a view in some circles that Asian-Americans are doing too well through perceptions of an unfair advantage, the study shows they remain under-represented in politics, corporate life, top academia and the civil service. The study also warns of on-going perceptions of Asian-Americans as secretive and inscrutable - a dangerous view in times of Sino-US tension.

'It is true that on one level Asian-Americans have made vast strides in terms of education and employment,' leading Filipino-American Joe Melegrito said recently. 'But it is also true that we are far from achieving fairness and equity in this society. It is a real dilemma.' For many Asian-Americans, two recent events have fuelled concerns. The relatively paltry domestic media attention given presidential hopeful John McCain's use of the word 'gook' to describe his Vietnamese captors showed just how insensitive the political machine can be. Internet chat-rooms and newspaper letters columns simmered for days, however.

'Just a thought,' one chat-room participant asked, 'but if McCain had been caught by Africans while fighting in Somalia . . . would he feel as comfortable calling his torturers 'niggers' . . . The real issue is not McCain's racial beliefs, but the fact that Asian-Americans as a voting group aren't formidable enough to make him wary of offending them.' The other more significant issue is the detention of Taiwanese-born government nuclear scientist Lee Wen-ho on charges of misusing classified information. He has not been charged with espionage, and his repeated requests for bail have been denied even as reports emerge revealing a deeply troubled investigation of security breaches at America's most secret nuclear laboratories.