James Hong Reflects on Hollywood’s ‘Terrible’ History of Asian Pacific Representation: White Actors Would ‘Tape Up Their Eyes’

From racist tropes to cultural milestones, James Hong has witnessed the evolution of Asian and Pacific Islander representation in Hollywood throughout his 70-year career.

“I started in 1953, so at that time, the industry didn’t take us seriously. They just said, ‘Oh, Asians are not qualified to be the top actors,’” Hong told Variety. “You’d have the white actors tape up their eyes. It was terrible — I had to bear with that for maybe 20 years or so. And then finally, I formed the East West Players, and that started things going.”

On Friday night, 93-year-old Hong received the Icon Award at the Critics Choice Association’s inaugural Celebration of Asian Pacific Cinema and Television in Los Angeles.

“And now look where we are. We’re in Hollywood, and there’s people receiving Academy Awards — and even ‘Squid Game,’” he told Variety with a laugh. “So there’s a lot of avenues we can take now.”

The Celebration of Asian Pacific Cinema and Television spotlights the onscreen and behind-the-camera work of established and emerging talent. While several honorees praised the inaugural event on the red carpet, most emphasized that there’s still more to be done in terms of API representation in Hollywood.

“I think it’s incredible that the Critics Choice Association is putting this on. But there’s also a part of me that’s like, I wish we had this 20 years ago. I wish we had this 40 years ago,” said Frank Chi, who received the documentary short award for “38 at the Garden.” “There’s been so much incredible talent for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that has not been highlighted throughout Hollywood’s history, and now that we’re finally doing it, it feels like we’re a part of the culture.”

“There needs to be more storytellers — more people from the API communities sharing their personal stories and getting them out there,” said David Siev, who was honored with the social justice award for “Bad Axe.” “That’s how we see more representation. That’s how we change the industry.”

On meeting and working with fellow API creatives in the industry, many attendees cited notable achievements for Asian Pacific representation in the past decade.

“I definitely didn’t see a lot of Hawaiian, Pacific Islander representation on screen [growing up], so to be able to work Dwayne Johnson who — I read something that he was somewhere between 70 or 80% of all Polynesian representation in film,” Auli’i Cravalho explained while discussing 2016’s “Moana.” “To be able to meet that Goliath of a man — both literally and figuratively — I think brought out the best in me knowing that I could bring my heritage and the aloha spirit to these carpets and events, and to the workplace.”

“I think one of my favorite things was that we didn’t have to explain our culture — we just slipped right into it,” Stephanie Hsu told Variety about working with the cast of “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” “We would speak in Chinese to each other, speak Mandarin — we would get Asian food. It felt like a family very quickly, and it felt so nice to be on set where you don’t feel like an ‘only,’ and you get to actually spread your culture and bring other people into it as well.”

Below is the complete honorees list for the inaugural Celebration of Asian Pacific Cinema and Television:

Icon Award

James Hong

Trailblazer Award

Karyn Kusama

Director (Film)

Park Chan-wook (MUBI’s “Decision to Leave”)

Director (Television)

Hwang Dong-hyuk (Netflix’s “Squid Game”)

Animated Film Award

Domee Shi (Disney and Pixar’s “Turning Red”)


Soo Hugh (Apple TV+’s “Pachinko”)

Social Justice Award

David Siev (IFC Films’ “Bad Axe”)

Actor (Film)

John Cho (Prime Video’s “Don’t Make Me Go”)

Actor (Television)

Nick Mohammed (Apple TV’s “Ted Lasso”)

Actress (Television)

Zoë Chao (Apple TV+’s “The Afterparty”)

Breakthrough Actor (Film)

Joel Kim Booster (Searchlight’s “Fire Island”)

Breakthrough Actress (Film)

Li Jun Li (Paramount’s “Babylon”)

Breakthrough Actress (Television)

Élodie Yung (Fox/Warner Bros. Television’s “The Cleaning Lady”)

Ensemble Award (Television)

Cast of Disney+’s “Ms. Marvel”

Rising Star (Film), presented by IMDbPro

Auli’i Cravalho (Hulu’s “Crush”)

Rising Star (Television), presented by IMDbPro

Park Eun-bin (Netflix’s “Extraordinary Attorney Woo”)

Documentary Short Award

Frank Chi

Comedy Award

Hasan Minhaj

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