When veteran Chinese American actor James Hong accepted the Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast last month for “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” he called attention to Hollywood’s racist past.
“They said we weren’t box office,” the 94-year-old actor recalled the film industry’s use of white actors to play Asian roles. “But look at us now.”
For Chinese American actor Michael Tow, that speech was a watershed moment, as he struggled in finding meaningful work throughout the past 15 years.
“It resonated very deeply on a very personal level,” said Tow, who lives in Boston and works in New York City and Los Angeles.
The mostly-Asian cast of "Everything Everywhere All At Once" claimed the industry’s top honors at the 95th Academy Awards, from Ke Huy Quan as best supporting actor and Michelle Yeoh as best actress. The film swept the awards with a total of seven: with Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert winning best director and the film winning best picture and best original screenplay. Asian American actors are now finding more work. Not just in supporting or stereotypical roles, but meaningful work that goes beyond spaces that Asians have traditionally occupied.
Lack of Asian roles
Tow fell in love with acting in elementary school in Brookline, Massachusetts. He did not see anyone who looked like him in lead roles in films and didn’t think he could make a living at it. He worked in finance full-time while acting part-time.
Tow, who said he is middle-aged, kept his job as a financial advisor while seeking acting roles.
“I loved it but never thought I could make a living at it,” Tow said of acting.
That’s a common fear among Asian actors. On stage Sunday night, Quan shared how he almost gave up on his American Dream of being an actor. A boat refugee from Vietnam, Quan was a child star in films such as "Indiana Jones" and "Goonies." But he stepped aside from acting in adulthood.
“This, this is the American Dream,” Quan said, while fighting back tears. “Dreams are something you have to believe in. I almost gave up on mine.”
“Thank you to the academy, this is history in the making,” Yeoh told the crowd.
History has not been kind to Asians in Hollywood. To gain acceptance in America, martial arts actor Bruce Lee returned to Hong Kong to star in lead roles in 1971 that evaded him in the U.S., with a role in the show Kung Fu given to Caucasian actor David Carradine. Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee could not find work after film school and returned to Taiwan to direct his Chinese language films, “The Wedding Banquet” and “Pushing Hands.” He would return to America and win Oscars for “Brokeback Mountain” in 2006 and “Life of Pi” in 2013.
This is the third consecutive year that Asians took home top honors on Hollywood’s biggest stage. Chloe Zhao became the first Asian American woman to win best director for last year’s Nomadland, about a widow who lives out of her van. In 2021, South Korean actor Bong Joon-ho won best director and best picture for the Korean language film “Parasite.”
The recent successes opened doors for Asian actors. Tow said he is getting more roles and for the first time is a lead character in “Law and Order,” instead of being a side character. The role is a physical one depicting Tow in a sexual situation. He laments that Asian males have been emasculated in Hollywood typecasting while Asian woman have been hypersexualized.
For Jennifer Galvez, the surge in Asian representation on screen is a reawakening of youthful dreams. She grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, and moved to New York City in her 20s to pursue acting. But roles for Asian women were limited and in her 30s, she set aside her passion as part-time work.
“The industry does not allow us to move forward,” she said of Asian actors.
Now in her 40s, the Filipina American actress is pursuing acting full-time, flying into New York from her upstate home in Rochester. As she lost loved ones during the pandemic, Galvez realized that life is too short to give up your dreams.
“I don’t want to continue to not pursue my passion,” Galvez said.
Galvez is continuing to work as an event planner, as Tow continues his job as a financial advisor.
“A lot is changing,” Tow said. Yet he doesn’t fully believe change will last forever and keeps his day job just in case, reflecting on losing 30 years of Quan as an actor due to the lack of opportunities.
Galvez thinks the acting nominations for Asian Americans will open new doors. For this first time in history, four Asian actors received nominations in a single year. According to the nonprofit The Asian American Foundation, of the 1,808 acting nominees in the Academy’s history, only 23 were Asians.
As the cast of this year’s super hit “Everything Everywhere All at Once” took home honors, Galvez beamed with pride.
“It’s a gorgeous night. It’s a momentous occasion for all Asian creative people, Asian actors especially.”