Not gonna lie: As an Asian American, growing up I always, always gravitated towards the Asian characters in any show, no matter how poorly represented or stereotypical, or even how small their role actually was in any given show. This is a trend that has continued — and dare I say strengthened — with every passing year. (My girlfriend laments my fiery passion for Top Chef’s Melissa King who continues to have a mediocre showing on most challenges but who I will defend to the ends of the Earth because we need to continue the trend Kristen Kish started with queer Asian women dominating. I’m just saying.)
…In any case, here are my top ten favorite Asian American characters from my childhood, in Western media only. (Note: Yes, there are more women than men because I was and continue to be starved for their presence in my life. Also, majority are East Asian as those are the characters I most identified with as a Japanese American. Ironically, most of the people on this list are Chinese or Korean.)
10. Phoebe Heyerdahl in Hey Arnold (Half-Japanese, half-white)
I know, I know. With her squeaky voice, humongous glasses, and academic perfectionism, — to say nothing of her servitude to “best friend” and bully, Helga Pataki — Phoebe is a raging Asian stereotype. I know. But I adored her all the same.
My parents were generally not overly strict except in one aspect: Television. We did not have cable in our household until I was in eighth grade. Nickelodeon was a revelation and Phoebe was the first Asian character I encountered in a cartoon outside The Magic School Bus’s Wanda Li and the Yellow Power Ranger (more on her later, I assure you.) Phoebe may have been a stereotype but I related deeply with her maniacal need to be the best at everything — and the crushing defeat of never reaching your own lofty expectations. The episode where she cheats on a poetry contest has always stayed with me. If the Hey Arnold characters ever aged, I guarantee Phoebe’s arc would have paralleled my own high school mental breakdown.
That got dark pretty quickly and we’re only on number ten.
9. Chun Li in Street Fighter (Chinese)
I know zilch about Chun Li’s storyline in the Street Fighter video game series except that she was the only female character — and an Asian to boot! — among the limited options available. My brother alternated between Ryu and Ken and Guile, but I was always Chun Li. We don’t need to discuss how badly I played then (or now). Chun Li’s mere existence was awesome.
A lady that kicked ass against a whole roster of dudes was infinitely cool to elementary-school me. Hell, she still is. I appreciate that she is consistently pictured with skull-crushing thighs and her physique — sans fan-service bust, maybe — is clearly designed for extreme martial arts.
Also: I know this is not American-made or anything but then I would have to discuss the 1994 Street Fighter film and I’m not ready to revisit that wreck, even for Ming-Na Wen, who should have a rightful place on this list as Chun Li.
8. Ken Wu in D2: The Mighty Ducks (Chinese)
Okay, some more stereotyping here: A petite former figure skater and assist (as opposed to lead) during hockey games, target to bullies everywhere. I was just ecstatic to see an Asian on the Ducks’ team.
The Ducks, like the Power Rangers, have some pretty clear problems with their POC characters (Goldberg is a laughing stock, Mendoza is a speedy hockey player that can’t stop –which, what??? — and every black character is there to be a wise-ass trash-talker) so Wu isn’t alone in standing far behind the more complex, golden boy main characters (Adam and Charlie). It’s okay, Kenny Wu. At least you made it to the lackluster third movie.
7. Data in The Goonies (Vietnamese)
It has been contested that I should have put Ke Huy Quan’s role as Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom instead but: No.
How can I explain how important Data is to me? The boy is a genius, but we can let the stereotype slide because the kid thinks of himself as 007 — he’s Bond and Q in one! His inventions succeed as often as they fail, his lines and presence are memorable, and we even get a glimpse at his background when he speaks Vietnamese with his parents when they are all reunited (with the reveal of Papa Data’s equal penchant for inventing.) Data is the one of the first Asian characters I can remember that actually mattered to the heart and action of an American movie. His accent may have Othered him, but it was never made fun of by the other characters in the movie. Neither was his intelligence conflated by the others to define Data as the stereotypical Asian Genius. He had his quirks, but he was well-rounded and engaging.
6. Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid series (Japanese-Okinawan!!!)
I didn’t see the original Karate Kid until maybe junior year of high school, but as a kid I was really into The Next Karate Kid, the oft-forgotten fourth movie in the series, starring a young Hillary Swank. Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi was less of a driving force in that movie, but I still remember being deeply enamored of his presence.
Mr. Miyagi is often cited as the Wise Kung-Fu Master stereotype on the Asian spectrum — which, yes, I definitely agree — but I think we should focus on his character background provided in the original film. Explicitly from Okinawa, Miyagi talks about fighting for the U.S. Army in WWII and the upheaval of being an Asian immigrant on American soil. We see some of the consequences of his immigration status as we are introduced to him working as a maintenance man in Ralph Macchio’s building. Miyagi’s Japanese roots are consistently emphasized throughout the movie: bonsai trees, the architecture of his house, the sake and Japanese kanpai, and his talk of Manzanar and his wife.
It was radical for me, even as a teenager, to see a first-generation Japanese man talking about his experience coming to America and living through WWII. Both of these aspects were simultaneously hidden and overly discussed in my own family and to see it all laid out there in a highly popular American movie was incredible.
5. Trini Kwan/Yellow Ranger in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (Chinese, although the actress was Vietnamese and I’m not sure the show ever specified her background?)
Where to begin with this glorious hot mess. The weird racism inherent in MMPG’s ranger color assignment and character focus has been discussed to death, so let’s highlight Trini’s greatness instead.
I was fairly young when MMPG overtook my entire life, so I remember pretty much zero storylines and 100% of all the feels. I cried ugly tears for days when there was no Yellow Power Ranger costume for Halloween. (Mom made me go as Blue, which remains a deep and unforgiveable offense to this day.) The Yellow Ranger was my first encounter with an Asian character in non-Asian media (i.e. Japanese anime or dramas), and I think it is safe to say that she was my first fictional love and idol.
I am not sure I knew Asians could even be in American media up until that point, but there was Trini: calm and logical and compassionate, but able to kick ass with the best of them. She wasn’t the geek of the group — that was Billy — so she remained in a happy middle ground that allowed her to avoid some stereotypes. She even had her own love story arc. Life-changing, man. I’m telling you.
4. Fa Mulan in Mulan (Chinese)
Disney does not have the best track record with accurate representations of POC, especially women of color. While they take considerable liberties with their portrayal of Hua Mulan (and after reading the original source poem, I can’t blame them for expanding so radically), let’s try to remember that prior to this movie, there were ZERO Asian characters in the pantheon of princesses. Mulan still isn’t considered a canonical princess, but that may be for the best: She is a Disney heroine.
I think the hardest concept for Disney to portray for their WOC is the difference between conflict and an inherently “unfair” culture: Jasmine’s inability to marry who she chooses, Pocahontas’s defense of John Smith, and the expectations placed on Mulan by her family. I’m not sure I recognized this when it first came out: I was more attracted to the story of a girl trying to find her own way, standing up for herself, and taking action while knowing the consequences. (For the queer me hidden away, the shifts in gender were equally lovely and freeing.)
3. Shelby Woo in The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo (Chinese? But her grandfather is played by a Japanese man?)
My overflowing love for Trini Kwan flowed seamlessly into an even deeper and more passionate love affair with Nickelodeon’s The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo. It’s OK, I know you don’t remember it — no one does. What matters is that I will hold it in my heart forever. I lay e.e. cummings’ poems down on its sad, shallow grave.
But seriously, this Canadian-American series was everything. Shelby Woo is a teenage detective a la Nancy Drew, interning at a police department where she covertly solves cases ON HER OWN, kind of. Her best friends help, including Cindy, played by Preslaysa Edwards, equally awesome. Also did I mention Pat Morita, AKA Mr. Miyagi, plays her exasperated grandfather? Shelby was curious, sharp, and unafraid to make mistakes. Her representation on TV — Nickelodeon no less — meant everything to me and still does.
2. Wilhemina Pang in Saving Face (Chinese)
This was technically a high school revelation, but this character has remained so important to me that she had to be somewhere on this list, so I’ve taken some liberties. I was still a child in high school. It counts.
(A trailer because the three leads are WOC: Michelle Krusiec as Wil, Lynn Chen as Vivian Shing, and Joan Chen as Hwei-lang.)
This was the first — and remains the best — representation of Asian American lesbians I know of. Yes, there are some stereotypes: strict parents, closeted daughter, talk of honor and expectation; oh and also Wil is a doctor — BUT each character is complex and charming and the plot is deft enough to overcome these shortcomings. (Also, one day let’s talk about the mention of racism towards black Americans in the Asian American community mentioned in an early scene with Wil, her mother, and Wil’s black neighbor friend.)
Wil’s struggles between being a good daughter, a better girlfriend, and an honest person spoke to closeted high school me, even more so because her culture and upbringing meant so much to the overall storyline. Everyone, watch it. Go, now. I’ll wait.
1. Cassandra Cain as Batgirl in The Batman Universe (Half-Chinese)
How do I begin to describe Cass Cain? The daughter of two world-class assassins, she is an expert martial artist and the first Batgirl to star in her own ongoing comics (though she later adopted the name Black Bat). Cass is not only part Asian, she also represents the disabilities community: For a large part of her initial storyline she is both mute and illiterate.
By now you may have noticed a trend in my love for women who are ready and willing to kick ass. The whole kung-fu/karate/martial arts thing is overly emphasized everywhere along the way but I get the need to incorporate unique aspects of culture into these character’s backgrounds. While this stereotype is egregious, I find the wilting flower-delicate porcelain-kneeling geisha stereotype even more damaging to Asian women everywhere. This may be where my enamorment of the kick-ass-and-take-names attitude comes in.
Cassandra Cain embodies both the weak and the strong. I was first introduced to her in the No Man’s Land comics and my awe of her has yet to diminish. An Asian American mute girl taking up the mantle of the Dark Knight himself is monumental and, while there have been numerous missteps in her arc along the way, she continues to be a phenomenal presence in the Bat canon.
So, there you have it. My bleeding, happy heart all over the page. So, what about you readers? What POC characters meant a lot to you as a kid (or even now, as whatever age you are)? Leave us a comment!