In the summer of ’95 I was called “Short Round” for two glorious weeks. I was 10 years old. I’d just watched Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and was being shipped off to summer camp on the Isle of Wight. When asked my name at orientation, I said confidently: “My name is Laura Lai, but everyone calls me Short Round.” An outrageous lie, but I was obsessed with Ke Huy Quan. Shorty was cheeky, he could do Taekwondo, and he was Asian. I was cheeky, learning Karate, and half Malaysian. This was East Asian representation in the ’90s.
Growing up, no one on television or in film really looked or acted like me. Quan was the closest I got. Here was a kid starring in a blockbuster action movie whose character had a sense of humour, was outspoken and fiercely independent. At the time, Asian stereotypes in cinema were far removed from this. Fast forward almost 30 years, and Quan is back in the spotlight starring alongside Malaysian icon Michelle Yeoh in the critically acclaimed and Oscar-tipped Everything Everywhere All At Once.
He openly stated that he returned to acting after a long hiatus (prompted by a lack of opportunities for an actor who looked like him) because of Crazy Rich Asians. But it wasn’t the story, the soundtrack or the characters that inspired him—although I will proudly say that I adore this movie, the soundtrack and Michelle Yeoh, whose resemblance in the film to my own tiger mother is uncanny. It was the simple fact that a Hollywood movie with so many Asian faces could make so much money. It was a global phenomenon that raked in £185 million at the box office and reinforced the idea that diversity could also mean good business.
While the conversation around Asian representation in Hollywood certainly isn’t anything new, it feels more powerful this time. In part, because it’s not just one actor triumphing at a key moment in time, but many—all of whom have used their acceptance speeches so far to reference diversity. After his history-making win at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards, an emotional Quan spoke of his departure from acting for many years because of “so few opportunities”, and how “the landscape looks so different now than before”.
Meanwhile Yeoh—who made history with her SAGs success—talked about celebrating her win with “every little girl that looks like [her]” before thanking SAG for finally “giving [her] a seat at the table”. And James Hong, who earned his first SAG Award at the ripe old age of 94 alongside his EEAAO co-stars, surely secured the film’s Best Picture win at the Oscars when he reflected on the early days of his career: “Producers said Asians are not good enough. And they are not box office. But look at us now, huh!”
This hit home hard. You don’t understand how important representation is until you see it and realise you’ve been missing it your whole life. Asians in film are no longer destined to be Kung Fu warriors, sidekicks or secondary characters. And representation is not just one Asian star flying the flag for an entire continent. Several iconic actors, directors and screenwriters have all helped move the needle to get us to a point where The Joy Luck Club seems like a distant memory. Not only are we gaining better Asian representation as a whole, but stronger ethnic representation across Asia from South Korea (Parasite) to the Philippines (Easter Sunday), and in the shape of films that offer cross-cultural appeal.
And that’s the key for me. A quick search of Asian-led films shows you just how narrow in scope they’ve been in the past, tending to fall under one of three categories: comedy, drama or romance, and this includes my beloved Crazy Rich Asians. But it’s EEAAO that is arguably one of the first worthy Asian-led Hollywood blockbusters. It’s got inventive action scenes, slick visuals, a solid original narrative, and captivating characters who just happen to be Asian. The film wouldn’t fall apart if you removed the ethnic accoutrements, and that’s the mark of a quality film. It’s a majority Asian-led ensemble cast that’s not focused on flaunting ethnic quirks and customs, but simply telling a great story.
Asian actors don’t want to be pigeonholed into narrow and reductive parts, and Asian viewers don’t want to just be seen within the context of our ethnic roots. We want to be seen and celebrated in a multicultural setting. If the tide on Asian representation was turning, then EEAAO has helped to channel it permanently in the right direction–and with my childhood hero leading the way.
This article was originally published on British Vogue.