Orientalism is pretty rough term to define. Simply, the definition stands for anything pertaining to Asia. From that, “orientals” are just people from Asia. However, I’m here to look for how this term is related in Hollywood and multiple forms of entertainment. The view on Asian Americans in movies and other works of art has changed over the years. The first images that emerged were of Anna May Wong as the seductive “Dragon Lady”, then to Sessue Hayakawa as the hypersexualized villain in The Cheat, to Pat Morita as the wise master in The Karate Kid, to Parry Shen as Ben in Better Luck Tomorrow. All these Asian characters fit into a created stereotype by Hollywood. My questioning is why that stereotype was created of Asians? Was it based off of observations or real first-hand encounters? Or was it an idea that the creators wanted to show and spread of Asians? In my short post, I will try to build the idea that Orientalism is a tool created and used by the West using entertainment and movies.
So to start with some history, the term “orientalism” was widely used by western artists to describe Asian art and such. In a way, one could see that “orientalism” was a term that was built by observers, which in this case are the westerners. These whites were able to build any image of what they wanted of these Asians, and that could be the fact that the rest of the population believes. Orientalism was important to whites because it allowed them to create a “stronger” more “American” image of themselves. Anna May Wong was always given the role of the conniving villain in her movies, such as The Daughter of the Dragon where she acted as the evil Fu Manchu’s daughter. By introducing a new race in movies and keeping them consistently villainous, the whites were always seen as the heroes in the face of evil. With The Cheat, Hayakawa was a flirtatious character that branded the woman that he wanted, giving the image that Asians were crazy and evil. But then again, that was an image that was created by these American screenwriters. At the time of these movies, there were issues the Yellow Peril and the anxiety of the immigration of Asians of breaking the national family. These movies only helped to support those fears by giving these Asian actors negative intentions. This made the “American Hero” image even stronger. By defeating the “Evil Chinese” in these movies, there was a sense of national pride that was created, especially during times of war. In Better Luck Tomorrow, the movie itself is directed and acted by all Asians, which is a change of pace from movies about Asian Americans. The struggle that the director portrays is that of the Asian Americans trying to break the pre-determined stereotype of Asians being nerdy and reserved and quit. That current idea of Asian Americans was built off ideas created by whites and non-asians, and this movie showed the struggle of Asian Americans to fight against that. When Ben and his friends go to the party, they are immediately taunted at asking if it was a mathletes meeting or something. Ben and his friends retaliated and showed that they weren’t just the ones to sit back and let the insults continue, unlike the image that Asians held.
The continuing demeaning image of Asians boosted the macho American. Orientalism was the tool that gave the west the power to define the Asians and give the original meaning to what “orient” was. Whites created contrasting images to their own desired ones as a point of comparison, and thus boosting the image of the Whites. Better Luck Tomorrow is, in my opinion, the retaliation of that Orientalism that was created by the whites. The movie shows the struggle of this tool that created shining image of whites but a demeaning image of Asians. From the entertainment industry, I believe that there are many shining examples of how Orientalism was a man-made term and tool by the whites.