The Falcon and the Winter Soldier’s Singaporean-Chinese actor Desmond Chiam on racial inequality and Asian stereotypes in Hollywood
- Desmond Chiam, who has acted in Australia and the US, wants Asian ‘identities of all kinds to flourish’ in Hollywood productions, and is ready to fight for it
- ‘Sometimes it’s up to us to tear down those walls on set,’ says the 33-year-old, who has also joined the fight against racial inequality in America
For Singaporean-Chinese actor Desmond Chiam, breaking boundaries and being unapologetically true to one’s roots are of critical importance for an Asian artist looking to succeed in Hollywood.
Born in Melbourne, Australia, the 33-year old split his childhood between Australia and Singapore, then, at the age of 18, settled in Australia for his undergraduate studies. Acting was something he liked doing, but he realised his passion for it only later.
While at university, Desmond tried out different fields, including law, but nothing worked for him. “I’d done some commercials and figured I’d pursue them while figuring things out. Lo and behold, sometimes you stumble into what you’re meant to do. I enjoyed acting, and less than a year out of school, I just made the snap choice to make the change and haven’t looked back,” he says.
Having worked on film and television productions in Australia and the United States, Chiam says Hollywood offers more opportunities since it is the hub for entertainment. “My Asian, Middle Eastern and African-Australian mates in the industry knew, and we knew we had to go. Our biggest prospects back home were a couple of guest spots on soap operas, Neighbours and Home and Away, and after that, we knew we had to branch out,” he says.
Chiam found opportunities in Hollywood once he moved there permanently. “There was a cresting wave of Asian-American creativity in the US. Think back to Wong Fu and other Asian stars blowing up on YouTube, and we knew it was only a matter of time before that wave hit the shore.
“It hasn’t really changed since. The US most often addresses issues before Australia does. Mind you, we’ve seen some decent representation come out of Australia since, but the film and television industry there has a long way to go,” he says.
Racial inequality is a deeply personal issue for Chiam. The recent rise in the US in racial attacks targeting Asian-Americans has laid bare the prejudice they face and their social inequality. “My thesis was in the field of international constitutional law and human rights, so I’m so keenly aware of how deeply these issues run,” he says.
“We’ve fought this fight way before [Donald] Trump was on the scene, and on our current trajectory we will continue to fight on multiple fronts. Some days we were in the trenches with abuse victims directly acting as a shield against their partners, while on other days we were looking at legislative change.”
It is no surprise that Asian artists in Hollywood remain largely underrepresented in both film and television. They rarely get the lead roles, and for decades Asian characters have been portrayed by white actors, a practice known as yellowface.
Past American productions such as The Dragon Seed, The Good Earth, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Teahouse of the August Moon used white actors to portray Asian characters. These films allowed yellowface to continue in American cinema.
Although movies such as Korean-American Steven Yeun’s largely Korean-language American coming-of-age drama Minari, Sound of Metal, and Nomadland, directed by Beijing-born Chloé Zhao, have been making headlines, such prominence for films with Asian directors and cast members is rare in Hollywood.
As an actor of Asian descent, Chiam hopes to challenge stereotypical portrayals of Asians in the US.
“Deconstructing stereotypes is an interesting phrase, but I prefer to view my work as allowing a multiplicity of what it means to be Asian. We can deconstruct by providing a wider structure that allows identities of all kinds to flourish within our diaspora – not one of us left behind.”
For Chiam, translating this to the real world often means conflicts with creators, directors and producers – people who have experienced systemic racism – about choices that he feels don’t work. “People get protective, and sometimes it’s up to us to tear down those walls on set,” he adds.
For all Chiam’s optimism, Hollywood still has a long way to go to satisfy Asian artists. Assigning constructive roles to them should not be a matter of convenience, but about merit, he says. “Straight up, put our money on the table. We’ve had several commercial successes since 2018.”
The problem, he says, is that “Hollywood needs several versions of the same lesson before it really inculcates itself in the culture”.
Acting wise, Chiam has starred in Now Apocalypse and The Shannara Chronicles – and has a soft spot for the latter. “I was a Night Elf hunter. Lord of the Rings made elves sexy. I bought the hype, so playing a Chinese elf, yeah, that was special,” he says.
We will also see Chiam in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a sci-fi action-adventure miniseries by Marvel Studios that premieres on March 19. Although he is not at liberty to disclose much about his supporting role in the show, he did say that it is “a type of character, just in the details, not necessarily in the broad strokes, that we haven’t seen much before, and [one that] previously wouldn’t have been allowed much space on a Hollywood screen”.
In the near future, Chiam plans to play many different characters.
“Cowboy is still high up on the list. My producing partners and I are currently laying some groundwork for a half-legend, half-true story from the railroad building days that I don’t want to say too much about. Suffice to say it’s one of those Americana myths that … happens to centre on Asian-American pioneers,” he says.