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The Empire's New Clothes
(Review of NBC's Lost Empire)

Written by Jeff Park

THE RECENT NBC PRODUCTION of "The Lost Empire" provides a touchstone for looking at ways that anti-Asian sentiments are practiced. I say "sentiments" because at this point I am somewhat reluctant to label the movie 'racist," at least until a fuller definition of the term is operative.


Jeff  Park   
Background Information

Jeff Park is our Editor in Chief.

Mr. Park helped represent the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) during the NAACP Coalition led negotiations with the major television networks, and is a member of the Media Image Coalition's planning committee for the April 28 United Nations conference on racism and xenophobia.

Mr. Park is also a strategist forVarious Consulting Group, which offers consulting services for studios, producers and development departments on issues pertaining to under-represented groups. He can be reached at jp1713@hotmail.com.

TYPICALLY, we might think of racism as discriminatory exclusion/discriminatory selection that is institutionally enforced: People of color not matriculating at proportionate rates to whites into higher education, not being promoted to upper level management, racial profiling etc. What "The Lost Empire" has done is to take this tradition, turned it on its head and carried on in a long tradition of anti-Asian racism. The production accomplishes this by injecting a white, male, romantic lead into a Chinese myth where none before had existed.

WHAT'S PARTICULARLY DISTURBING about "The Lost Empire" is that the inclusion of the white male was mandated to screenwriter David Henry Hwang. Further, it was made clear that this white male was to serve as the romantic interest of the female Asian lead. This, from no less than the show's producer, Robert Halmi.

DIRECTOR PETER MACDONALD says that producer Halmi, "wanted the romance between Orton [the white male] and Kwan Ying [the Asian female] to be the most important element in the adventure." That seems to be a far cry from an ancient Chinese myth where whites weren't even present.

THE QUESTIONS NOW BECOME: Is this anti-Asian racism, or is it just pro-white? Or, are they different sides of the same coin? Is it pure capitalism in the form of wanting to insure market capture of the white audience, and if so, how does that comport with Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon's ten Oscar nominations, with subtitles and an all-Asian cast? In this instance, is saying that one is "pro white" obscuring the fact that one wields the power to basically do as one pleases unilaterally? Can we imagine a similar instance and would such a mandate in this present day even be handed down to a Black filmmaker such as Spike Lee? Can we imagine what would happen if, say, Asian filmmakers began re-making white American myths such as Paul Bunyan with Asian characters?

TRYING TO PIN DOWN motivation for the inclusion of whites in ethnic films is a situation best left to another essay because of limitations here. For now, let us put "The Lost Empire" among the others in Hollywood's history that have, for their own reasons, placed white males in lead roles, particularly as the heroic and romantic trope. Films that come to mind are "Come See the Paradise" (1990, Alan Parker) which placed a white, romantic male lead squarely in the story of the Japanese-American internment, and "Year of the Dragon" (1985, Michael Cimino) which placed a white, romantic male lead in New York's Chinatown. A more recent example is "Snow Falling on Cedars," (1999, Scott Hicks) along with the hit Broadway play "Miss Saigon." All share the commonality of the white male serving as the romantic interest for the Asian woman.


Media Representations
good and bad examples

Media representations often continues incorrect and false stereotypical images from the past. This can be seen with the recent debacle of the false imprisonment of Wen Ho Lee and in the Jet Li character in Romeo Must Die.

What is ironic is that there has been major films from the past that has featured a US Asian/Asian Pacific American actor in an interracial romance/marriage with a white woman (Crimson Kimono) and where where the US Asian/Asian Pacific American male "won" the white woman from his white male competitor?!?! (i.e. Bridge to the Sun. .

WHAT IS PERHAPS MOST DISTURBING is that such white male inclusion comes, for the most part, unabated by any kind of repercussions from Asians. Indeed, all of the facts for this story were gleaned from the Los Angeles Times' TV Times section, which seemingly says that a major studio such as NBC either has not considered the possible repercussions or doesn't fear any from Asians. This after a "boycott" of the major television studios by an NAACP led coalition that included Blacks, Asians, Latinos and Native Americans a little more than a year ago for failing to include people of color in their new fall schedules.

JUST AS FILM AND TELEVISION STUDIOS express their own forms of commentary on race by interjecting a white male, so too is that practice carried out in ways that have a tradition in history. It raises the question: Why Asians? For if it's true that the Los Angeles Times can talk so openly about this practice when it comes to Asians, imagine a parallel situation for Blacks. No producer in this day and age would have the gall to tell Spike Lee to place a white, heroic, romantic male in one of his movies where there wasn't one before, much less let a major metro newspaper talk about it! Indeed, the resulting public relations charge-rightly so-would be on then.

SO THE WORK --- the on-going, consistent work-needs to be undertaken toward understanding. Asians as well as other underrepresented groups such as racial minorities, gays and lesbians and the physically and mentally challenged, have resources in place such as advocacy and consulting groups. Studios, as a result of the coalition led boycott of roughly a year ago and of which I was a representative, have installed vice presidents of diversity. One thing is clear: Unless meaningful and on-going dialog is established during the development process, the door to more cultural insensitivity such as "The Lost Empire" displays will continue to remain open.

Click HERE to read the LA Times' version.


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