By JOEY T. FURUTANI
(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on October 7, 2010.)
It is safe to say that many of us have seen the Dos Equis beer commercial that features the “most interesting man in the world,” a distinguished older gentleman who has embarked on remarkable, adventurous, and heroic journeys throughout his life. His illustrious, yet absurd, background captures the attention of viewers from all walks of life, increasing the exposure of a foreign product in the American market. The man who “once had an awkward moment, just to see how it feels” is positioned as the face of Dos Equis. It is easy to make the assumption that this character is of Latin decent based on the product’s origin. Unbeknown to many, this poster “gentleman” whose business card simply says “I’ll call you” is a Jewish New Yorker who dropped out of college to pursue an acting career suggested by his psychiatrist.
This modern-day, ethnic misrepresentation is prevalent throughout the history of entertainment. For the Asian American community, a notable ethnic misrepresentation is found in the “Kung Fu” television series in the 1970s and 1990s. David Carradine played the lead role of Kwai Chang Caine, a half-American, half-Chinese orphan who masters the art of kung fu and later teaches the martial art as a wise master. At first glance, Carradine has the look of a part-Asian man who increasingly looked more Asian as he aged. Looks can be misleading as the kung fu master is not of Asian decent. Not until Carradine passed away last year did I find out that he wasn’t Happa. I felt deceived.
Why was the entertainment world not upholding the principle of representative accuracy? Entertainment is a powerful communications tool that educates our society. If a person in North Dakota is watching reruns of the “Kung Fu” series, shouldn’t he have the right to be accurately informed about race and ethnicity? Do viewers realistically have the time (and will) to conduct investigative research during commercial breaks to determine the authenticity of each character? Simply put… no.
A historic example of ethnic misrepresentation in the motion picture industry was the character of “Charlie Chan” in the 1930s. Warner Oland, a Swedish American actor, played the role of an “Oriental” detective who investigated crimes and murders throughout the world. He also portrayed an evil doctor seeking vengeance for the death of his family as Dr. Fu Manchu.
Throughout history, ethnic characters have been played by actors and actresses that are not of the specified ethnicity. Understandably so, actors are usually chosen based on their stage presence, rapport, and pertinent acting skills. But where do you draw the line between performance and content accuracy? As more Asian Americans infuse the performing arts workforce, a more precise portrayal of Asian America is present and, more importantly, necessary.
Let’s revisit the “most interesting man in the world” concept. Imagine an Asian American version of this commercial, replacing Dos Equis with Kirin. Who would be the ideal candidate to fill the roll of the distinguished journeyman?
My nomination for the “most interesting (Asian American) man in the world” would be actor Ken Jeong. The comedian/actor/physician has captured the attention of many, even beyond the Asian American community. Born in Detroit, Ken graduated from Duke University and attained his medical degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Uniquely, this practicing physician was practicing more than just medicine. Ken exploded onto the entertainment scene with his role as the uptight doctor in the movie entitled, “Knocked Up.” Catapulting to a pinnacle level of popularity, “Dr. Ken” played two infamous, antagonistic roles in the “Hangover” and “Role Models,” as well as having a regular role on the hit series “Community.” Although his characters sometimes made me cringe (specifically the “Leslie Chow” character in the “Hangover”), my admiration of his hard work and unconventional journey trumps the feeling of embarrassment stemmed from the sound of his character’s high-pitch, accented laugh.
In the spirit of “the most interesting man in the world,” here is an example of what the Asian American version of this distinguished journeyman would have been known for—At the end of dinner at a restaurant with his extended family, they unhesitatingly pass the check to him.
Stay proud my friends.
Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.