The first Asian characters on television were not widely seen or well-represented. Many of the early Asian characters were stereotypical and perpetuated harmful stereotypes about Asian cultures and people. These characters were often played by white actors in yellowface or by Asian actors who were typecast into stereotypical roles.
One of the first Asian characters on television was Charlie Chan, a detective character who was originally created in a series of novels by Earl Derr Biggers in the 1920s. Charlie Chan was played by several actors, including Warner Oland and Sidney Toler, both of whom were white actors in yellowface. The character was portrayed as intelligent and wise, but also subservient and deferential to white authority. Charlie Chan was a popular character in films and on television in the 1930s and 1940s, but his portrayal was seen as offensive and demeaning to Asian Americans.
Another early Asian character on television was Mr. Yunioshi, a character in the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Mr. Yunioshi was played by Mickey Rooney, a white actor who wore heavy makeup and exaggerated prosthetics to appear Asian. The character was portrayed as a comical and stereotypical Asian man, with exaggerated facial features and a thick accent. Mr. Yunioshi’s portrayal was widely criticized as offensive and racist.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Asian characters began to be featured more prominently on television. One of the first Asian characters to be featured as a regular on a television show was Mr. Osato, a Japanese businessman on the show “Mission: Impossible.” Mr. Osato was played by actor Vic Tayback, who was of Syrian and Armenian descent. While the character was not necessarily stereotypical, he was still a supporting character and did not have much depth or complexity.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Asian characters began to be featured more prominently on television, with Asian actors being cast in a wider variety of roles. One of the first Asian actors to gain widespread recognition for their work on television was George Takei, who played Mr. Sulu on “Star Trek.” Mr. Sulu was a well-rounded character who was an integral part of the main cast and was not defined solely by his Asian heritage.
Other notable Asian characters on television in the 1980s and 1990s included Ming Na Wen as Dr. Jing-Mei “Deb” Chen on “ER,” Lucy Liu as Ling Woo on “Ally McBeal,” and Tamlyn Tomita as Kumiko Albertson on “The Day After Tomorrow.” These characters were complex and well-developed, and their Asian heritage was just one aspect of their identities.
In more recent years, Asian representation on television has continued to improve. Shows like “Fresh Off the Boat,” “Kim’s Convenience,” and “Master of None” have featured predominantly Asian casts and have received critical acclaim for their portrayal of Asian characters and cultures. However, there is still a long way to go in terms of representation and diversity on television, and it is important for creators and casting directors to continue to strive for more diverse and nuanced portrayals of Asian characters on television.