'Nomadland' and Chloé Zhao's Oscar wins are a turning point for Asians in Hollywood. Here's why

Mary Chao, NorthJersey.com
·5 min read

In a year marked by relentless violence against Asian Americans, Americans witnessed a watershed moment of Asian representation Sunday night at the 93rd Academy Awards. Chinese American director Chloé Zhao became the first Asian American woman to claim best director honors for her haunting road trip film "Nomadland." Zhao's indie drama about a working-class widow who lives out of a van also took home major awards for best picture and actress with Frances McDormand in the leading role.

This is the second consecutive year that the Oscars would be led by an Asian film director. Last year, South Korean director Bong Joon-ho won best director and best picture for the Korean language dark satire "Parasite."

Hollywood has a fraught history when it comes to treatment of Asian Americans. Consider Long Duk Dong, a fictional character who appears in 1984's "Sixteen Candles." The character played by Japanese American actor Gedde Watanabe in the John Hughes film has been called an offensive stereotype of Asian people.

More: Chloé Zhao makes Oscar history with best director win; China censors reaction

Director/Producer Chloe Zhao wins the award for best director and best picture for "Nomadland."
Director/Producer Chloe Zhao wins the award for best director and best picture for "Nomadland."

To gain acceptance in America, Chinese American actor Bruce Lee returned to Hong Kong in 1971 to star in films as leading roles evaded him in the U.S. Taiwanese American Oscar-winning director Ang Lee could not find work in America after graduating from film school and was a full-time house husband for six years until gaining acclaim when he returned to Taiwan for his Chinese language films "Pushing Hands" and "The Wedding Banquet." Lee would go on to win Oscar honors for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in 2001, "Brokeback Mountain" in 2006 and "Life of Pi" in 2013.

The tide is indeed changing for Asian Americans who work in the film industry, said Chinese American actor Michael Tow. Zhao's win is a coup in an industry that can be cliquish.

"Hopefully, this will inspire future generations of Asian American filmmakers," said Tow, who is a New York City and Boston-based actor that plays a pharmacist in this year's Oscar winning "The Sound of Metal" for best sound and best film editing. "Hopefully, her future films will include more Asian American actors."

Opening doors for Asians

Until recently, Asian representation in film roles have been few and far between. Tow, who said he is in his 40s, grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts when it was predominately white. He was ostracized with racial slurs and struggled with his racial identity.

"I was embarrassed to be Asian and wishing to be white," he recalled.

His experiences facing racism pushed him to become an actor and produce films on social justice issues.

"If you can get a seat at the table, you can open doors for others," Tow said.

Short Hills, New Jersey, resident Lisa Son, 47, a professor of psychology at Barnard College in Manhattan, recalls growing up in New Jersey with very few Asian role models.

Lisa Son, who grew up in Chatham, New Jersey, and now lives in Short Hills, New Jersey, speaks against Asian hate crimes against women.
Lisa Son, who grew up in Chatham, New Jersey, and now lives in Short Hills, New Jersey, speaks against Asian hate crimes against women.

"When I was young, there were very few Asians on the screen. I think it’s why, in high school, I started watching, and loving Korean TV dramas," Son said.

Son enjoyed the Korean dramas but it made her yearn for representation.

"It made me wish I was in Korea, where I would be with people who looked like me," she said.

The one Asian characters Son remembered from her youth was Long Duk Dong in "Sixteen Candles."

"That was embarrassing. I don’t even like talking about it," Son said. "I could imagine that it would embarrass people like my brother — any Asian male — much much worse. It was so shameful, the Asian male stereotype. And it made me sad because I wanted to love the movie too — it was loved by everyone, a classic John Hughes film. If I didn’t watch it and love it, I might not be 'American.'”

The first film Son connected with as an Asian American was "Joy Luck Club" in 1993 with a predominately Asian American cast in the tale of mothers and daughters. It wasn't until 25 years later in 2018 that another big American film with an Asian cast was released. The box office success of "Crazy Rich Asians" changed everything for Asian Americans in the film industry, Tow said.

Doors that had been shut to Asians suddenly became open, Tow recalled. He started to get more casting calls as an older Asian male.

"I've seen so many roles open up for me," Tow said.

Michael Tow in "Sound of Metal."
Michael Tow in "Sound of Metal."

In addition to Zhao's accolades at this year's Oscars, Yuh-Jung Youn won best supporting actress for her role as grandma in the Korean language film "Minari" — the tale of a Korean-American family that moves to an Arkansas farm. Youn is the first Korean to win an Oscar in acting.

For too long, Asians were not allowed in the elite Hollywood circles. While the industry is now acutely aware of the need for diverse voices, Tow cautions that it could change at any time depending on trends.

"It doesn't mean it's here to stay," Tow said.

Mary Chao 趙 慶 華 covers the Asian community and real estate for NorthJersey.com.

Email: mchao@northjersey.com

More: It was thrilling to see diversity in this year's Oscar winners. The finale ruined it.

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Chloe Zhao's 'Nomadland': Why Oscars 2021 wins were big for Asians