The 12 Greatest Depictions of Asian Characters in TV And Film History


PolicyMic pundit, New York University student, and all-around awesome person Anjana Sreedhar recently published an article titled "5 Most Offensive Asian Characters in TV History." The terrific piece highlighted the love-hate relationship that some TV executives (and audiences) have with the Asian American community: they love to stereotype us, and we hate it.

Before you jump down Sreedhar’s throat, as some commenters did, you should know that she made a point of saying, "While there are positive portrayals of Asian characters, like Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek, they are few and far between." In response to, and respect of, Sreedhar’s fantastic piece, let's celebrate the 12 most awesome Asian characters in television and film history.

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1. Kunal Nayar as Rajesh Koothrapalli on 'The Big Bang Theory'

Raj has an accent. He used to be unable to talk to women. His parents are always trying to dictate his marital prospects. But our friend Raj is not some delusional creation without a basis in reality. As someone from the South Asia, I can confirm that many of us have accents, and our parents are very much involved in our love — er, married — lives (gross, I know). And I can also confirm that we are bad at talking to women (here, the "we" is, of course, nerds). But Raj is more than that. Raj is a hero. When the gang went to a bar, he was the only one that got with a woman. When Sheldon’s ridiculously hot sister visited, he was the one she was interested in. His Slumdog Millionaire pickup line has gotten him more attention from women than any of the other guys on the show. Funny thing is, he’s not even a slumdog millionaire. His dad’s a gynecologist. Who drives a Bentley.

2. Russell Wong as Kai in 'Romeo Must Die'

A movie about rival Black and Chinese gangs? We've got ourselves a minority bloodbath. Grab the popcorn, racists! Or not. There's a crucial difference between Romeo Must Die and similar exploitation films: the presence of the very cool and suave Kai, portrayed by Russell Wong. This guy is not a martial artist with weird, accented yelps. This guy does not become awkward around women the way his fellow Asian character (the lead, portrayed by Jet Li) does. This guy is not some accountant crunching numbers for the gang. He is the coolest Armani-wearing, sunglasses-at-night donning, lady-killing machine. If this is how cool it is to be in a gang, I'd take gang membership over being a martial artist any day.   

3. Splinter and Shredder in 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles'

While Disney was busy spewing ethnocentric rhetoric in Mulan, this awesome series always made sure that kids got to see two awesome characters of Asian origin. Splinter — a man turned into a mutagenic rat — is the "yin" character, a responsible and caring father who has subtle sense of humor and is more than willing to let his sons indulge in stupidity. Splinter even takes part in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' zany antics, something Asian parents are rarely allowed to do on screen. (I mean, our parents have tortured us all these years and they really hate us, right, liberating Hollywood?). Then there’s the "yang," Shredder, who is an alien or a mutant or a human in different versions of the story, but always an all-around nasty person. So why is he an awesome character? Because he’s cool, another thing Asian characters aren’t allowed to be! When he puts on his samurai armor and slices up our heroes he looks so awesome doing it that we root for him, instead.

4. Archie Panjabi as Kalinda Sharma on 'The Good Wife'

While it’s not necessarily the most enlightened show in terms of its approach to other races and ethnicities, The Good Wife still has an awesome character in private investigator Kalinda Sharma. She takes on dangers that you would never associate with her job as an attorney, and is her firm’s go-to person for really nailing perps and saving harmless citizens. Yes, when it comes to Sharma, the show does tend to play up a sort of exotic appeal (as I said, it isn't the most enlightened show) but the series also gives her complex stories, subjectivity, and a desire to succeed that characters from "the other side" aren’t always allowed to have (looking at you, Harriet Beecher Stowe).

5. Every Single Character in 'Finishing the Game'

An awesome (if relatively obscure) movie, this film from the man behind the Fast and the Furious series is a touching look at how many actors of Asian origin were (and still are) mistreated by Hollywood. You're Asian? Play a delivery boy. Don’t like being a delivery boy? Pretend to be Bruce Lee — I don't care if you're not Chinese. Even though they're confronting bias, the many Asian actors in the film never give up hope. They keep fighting, trying to secure a role that they know has no meaning so that, someday, audiences will actually take them seriously, and recognize that they shouldn't be judged as Asian actors, but as actors who have something to say.

6. Bee Vang and Ahney Hur as Sue and Thao in 'Gran Torino'

In some ways, this feels like a classic tale of a white guy swooping in to save poor, helpless immigrant children. But the story is more than that. It demonstrates how the nicest, kindest, and most diligent kids on the street are the two kids that our protagonist (an amazing Clint Eastwood) never paid much attention to. And when he did, his attention wasn’t all that positive. But as Eastwood's character eventually admits, "I got more in common with these g**ks than I do with my own spoiled-rotten family." Keats would have been proud.

7. Jimmy Tsai as Christopher "C-Dub" Wang in "Ping Pong Playa"

C-Dub's mom and dad own a ping-pong shop. His brother, a doctor, always plays in the Chinatown games, and gets to ride with Ms. Chinatown, an award that usually goes to the most non-Chinese Chinese person in town. Yet C-Dub is the hero of the story, even though he's a high school dropout that rides around on a mini-bike. Why? Because C-Dub assumes responsibility for defending his family’s honor, taking charge of the local ping-pong recreation center, and competing in the game (against an arrogant Englishman, no less). He shows how, amidst his doctor brother, entrepreneur parents, and PhD candidate neighbor, he is more than just a simple "statistical anomaly." C-Dub takes charge. As he so eloquently put it, "we ain’t building railroads for free no more."

8. Aasif Mandvi on 'The Daily Show with Jon Stewart'

It’s difficult to find a segment on The Daily Show that Mandvi hasn’t made utterly hilarious. He completely owns Jon Stewart on the subject of cultural sensitivity and proper conduct at an Indian restaurant (hint: you don’t dip your samosa in your mango lassi). When speaking about a proposed bill that would require people on government aid to get tested for drugs, he actually asks a lawmaker to pee into a cup (hey, they’re getting paid by taxpayers, too). And when he confronts an Islamaphobic comic book artist who created pig characters to defeat the bane of Muslims, Mandvi simply says, "I am Muslim, and we can’t eat ham, but I’m pretty sure we can kick its ass." I’m pretty sure, too.

9. Mindy Kaling as Kelly Rajnigandha Kapoor on 'The Office '

She’s dumb and she’s funny. In short, The Office's Kelly Kapoor is everything that the stereotypical brown woman on television is not. If Michael Scott had any hopes of exploiting her people’s incredible work ethic and super-nerd tendencies, they were all dashed the day he heard her sing, “This day is bananas, B-A-N-A-N-A-S. This day is bananas.” Mindy Kaling, who played Kapoor and was a producer on the show, left The Office in its eighth season to take on yet another awesome character, in her own project. You simply don’t get bigger than that. That’s what she said.

10. Aziz Ansari as Tom Haverford on 'Parks and Recreation'

Sometimes, Aziz Ansari’s story feels a little bit sad. He always plays the most stereotype-defining characters on television. His most famous role, the amazing Tom Haverford, is a womanizing dude that has 26 dating profiles, the best suits on the market, and the ability to survive at his workplace without doing anything. In short, he's living the American dream. Yet, as we saw on the Comedy Central Roast of James Franco, in making fun of Ansari, his fellow comedians only came up with jokes about Indian people not using soap. Hardy har har. Aziz responded best, saying, "I think it's so cool that some of you guys were able to travel back in time to 1995 for some of those Indian jokes you did. That's so cool!" In a later interview, he added, "it was kind of jarring to hear those kinds of jokes and it's like, 'Really, you're really going to go there with this? You think that stuff is relevant anymore?'" It’s not, Aziz. They're either bigots or idiots. Or, as usual, both.

11. Rajiv Surendra as Kevin Gnapoor in 'Mean Girls'

Math enthusiast. Badass MC. Only dates women of color. As Kevin Gnapoor, Surendra managed to steal the show from considerably bigger stars in this modern classic. If there is one thing that captures his personality perfectly, it is his amazing rap: "Yo, yo, yo! All you sucka MCs ain't got nothin' on me! From my grades to my lines, you can't touch Kevin G! I'm a mathlete, so nerd is inferred, but forget what you heard, I'm like James Bond the third, sh-sh-sh-shaken not stirred. I'm Kevin Gnapoor! The G's silent when I sneak through your door, and make love to your woman on the bathroom floor. I don't play it like Shaggy. You'll know it was me. Cause the next time you see her she'll be like, 'Ooh! Kevin G!'" In short, screw the haters.

12. John Cho and Kal Penn as Harold and Kumar

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle was revolutionary. Yes, the movie contains stereotypes: the parents have accents, there are nerdy Asians who are doctors and accountants, etc. But if you dig deeper, you'll find the film is one of the most poignant stoner comedies ever made (a very high bar, no doubt). Neither Harold nor Kumar fit stereotypes, though, other than being smart. They aren’t respectful. They don’t care about the law. Racism is the least of their troubles. They are just two dudes who want to enjoy life by smoking weed, eating at White Castle, and going to Amsterdam. Smells like freedom to me.

Who are your favorite Asian characters? Are you upset that we still have lists based on ethnicity and race? Are you angry that I, like anyone else with taste, didn’t include Community? Be sure to share in the comments below.