Chance en­counter leads to re­al­iza­tion

China Daily (Latin America Weekly) - - Page Two - Con­tact the writer at ly­don@chi­nadaily.com.cn

In the late Ital­ian Re­nais­sance, a pop­u­lar the­ater form arose called Com­me­dia del Arte, the Com­edy of Art. The plays had rudi­men­tary story lines re­volv­ing around some ba­sic, funny sit­u­a­tion, the gag. Be­cause they were im­pro­vised, they needed some spe­cial fac­tor to hold ev­ery­thing to­gether.

En­ter the stock char­ac­ters, so­cial stereo­types the au­di­ence would rec­og­nize be­hav­ing pre­cisely as ex­pected.

They in­cluded il Dot­tore (the Doc­tor), an older scholar who wore an aca­demic robe; the ser­vants Ar­lecchino (Har­lequin, a clown) and Colom­bina (the Dove); and Pan­talone (Trousers), a wealthy old man who wore a cape and red pants.

The char­ac­ters all came across as roughly sketched car­i­ca­tures rather than ac­tual peo­ple.

I got in­ter­ested in Com­me­dia del Arte many years ago but had for­got­ten all about it un­til re­cently, when I read an ac­tor’s obit­u­ary in The New York Times.

What drew my at­ten­tion was the photo — a face I had seen many times, though I couldn’t re­mem­ber him play­ing any par­tic­u­lar role — and the head­line:

“Soon-Tek Oh, Ac­tor Who Chafed at Asian Stereo­types”.

Oh left his na­tive Korea for the United States and had great suc­cess as a bit part ac­tor, it said. He ap­peared in more than 100 tele­vi­sion episodes and films from the 1960s to 2006. Of­ten, es­pe­cially early in his ca­reer, he was cast as the stock Asian, rather than a flesh-and­blood per­son — the “house­boy” or some other Asian stereo­type in pro­duc­tions where any role of sub­stance was played by a white ac­tor.

The obit­u­ary quoted Chi­nese-Amer­i­can ac­tress Pat Li: “You don’t know how tired you can get of al­ways be­ing Suzie Wong ... or a house­boy.”

Oh, Li and seven other ac­tors started a the­ater com­pany called the East West Play­ers to give Asian ac­tors an op­por­tu­nity to play real roles in­stead of the car­i­ca­tures they were al­ways cast as. That com­pany still ex­ists and is cred­ited with help­ing ad­vance the­ater de­pict­ing eth­nic Asians as part of the fab­ric of main­stream Amer­i­can life.

Oh’s obit­u­ary got me think­ing about how Asians were de­picted in the tele­vi­sion pro­grams and films I had seen as an Amer­i­can child in the early days of Oh’s ca­reer.

There wasn’t much to re­mem­ber — Asian roles were rare in those days. The few that came to mind were mostly one-di­men­sional stereo­types, like a Chi­nese cook oc­ca­sion­ally scur­ry­ing around in a cow­boy se­ries.

There were a few roles of more sub­stance de­pict­ing Asians, but they al­ways some­how mit­i­gated that fac­tor — to mol­lify a pre­vail­ing racism?

Bruce Lee had a reg­u­lar role in a se­ries about a masked crime-fighter … he was the hero’s driver. In a se­ries about a Shaolin monk roam­ing the Amer­i­can West, the char­ac­ter was sup­posed to be half Chi­nese, half white and was played by a white Amer­i­can ac­tor.

And there were the re­runs of a film se­ries about a bril­liant Chi­nese de­tec­tive in Honolulu. But the char­ac­ter, de­picted almost as a far­ci­cal fig­ure, was played by a white ac­tor.

I can think of only one reg­u­lar se­ries in the 1960s, a de­tec­tive se­ries, that had a reg­u­larly ap­pear­ing Asian role played by and de­picted as a real per­son of Asian her­itage.

How odd that never oc­curred to me be­fore.

ZHANG YONGJIN / XIN­HUA

A he­li­copter car­ries off spe­cial forces sol­diers af­ter they com­pleted a train­ing mis­sion on Satur­day in Korla, Xin­jiang Uygur au­ton­o­mous re­gion.

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