‘The Golden Screen’ shines the spotlight on Asians in Hollywood

A stack of copies of Jeff Yang’s "The Golden Screen"

Jeff Yang’s ‘The Golden Screen.” photo by Akira Olivia Kumamoto

LOS ANGELES — The Japanese American National Museum held a launch on Nov. 2 for New York Times bestseller Jeff Yang’s “The Golden Screen: The Movies that Made Asian America.” Yang also co-authored “RISE: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now” and co-wrote the autobiography “I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action.”

“The Golden Screen” entails the history of actors, writers, directors and other creators of Asian descent in the American film industry and what it took for Asian Americans to take center stage in films like “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Everything Everywhere All At Once.” It highlights and dissects classic, groundbreaking films like “The Joy Luck Club” (1993) to show that the Asian American Hollywood canon is filled with important gems and historical context.

The book includes a foreword by Academy Award-winning actress Michelle Yeoh, an afterword by “Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu, and commentary from stars like Simu Liu, Lulu Wang and Daniel Dae Kim. It also includes reflections on films that were personally and professionally meaningful to important faces in Hollywood, such as editor Zander Kim (Hachette Book Group’s Black Dog & Leventhal), Gold House co-founder Jeremy Tran, filmmakers Bao Nguyen and Sujata Day, culture critics Phil Yu and filmmaker Renee Tajima Peña.

During the launch, Yang hosted a conversation about the publication and invited multiple guests who were featured in the book to speak during panels, including commentary about inspiration from favorite films featuring Asian Americans. He opened the evening with a montage of movies throughout the last century that defined and carved out space for Asian Americans in the media. The montage showed how movies have moved from portraying Asians and Asian Americans with negative stereotypes to now celebrating them in blockbuster feature films and beautifully made independent projects.

One of the highlights of the night was when Yang spoke with actor Parry Shen about how centering Asian Americans in cinema mattered to Asian American viewers. Shen is known for playing an overachieving teenager living a double life in the 2002 movie “Better Luck Tomorrow.” The film was one of the first of its kind in Hollywood to center Asian American teenage life. In 2018 The Atlantic said the movie “(complicates) the question of Asian American representation in Hollywood in ways that still resonate deeply today.”

“When I was acting for the first six years before the movie, you know, I was just always on-screen for an ‘Asian reason,’” said Shen about his acting roles prior to “Better Luck Tomorrow.” He felt his role in the movie meant a lot to the Asian American audiences who watched. “It was (like we were) an Asian boy band, you know?”

Another highlight of the night was when actor Kelvin Han Yee explained how films like his opened the door for different kinds of Asian Americans on screen. Yee starred in the movie “A Great Wall” (1986) about a Chinese American family visiting China and discovering how culturally different their lives are in the U.S. Yee’s role was groundbreaking, in that he portrayed an attractive young man who gets the girl, which was a rare representation for Asian American men in the media at the time. Roger Ebert gave the film a thumbs up and said, “The chief pleasure of ‘A Great Wall’ is its observation of the different attitudes toward the daily process of living in China and the United States.”

“‘A Great Wall’ defined what an Asian American was,” said Yee with an emphasis on the American aspect of the characters. “It kind of defines how American they are. I played a Chinese kid, an all-American kid.”

Yang expressed that Asian American representation in film is important because it allows Asian Americans to exist without needing to prove their worth to the rest of the world. “This right to just be normal, to not have to be exceptional or extraordinary and still be interesting or valuable,” said Yang.

“The Golden Screen: The Movies that Made Asian America” has received positive accolades from the likes of Kirkus Review Library Journal, and even actor Randall Park, who praised it as “beautifully executed.”

The book is now on sale through multiple book retailers, including Barnes & Noble (https://tinyurl.com/3dy9z6fe), Target (https://tinyurl.com/u7p6fara) and Amazon (https://tinyurl.com/3ku9avc3), as well as at the Japanese American National Museum (https://tinyurl.com/3aww998w).

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