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Hollywood Keeps Hiring White Men to Do an Asian's Job

The trailer for 'The Great Wall,' starring Matt Damon, set off a firestorm of criticism about Hollywood's whitewashing problem. We spoke to writer J. Y. Yang, who's writing a novel inspired by the backlash.

av Chin Lu
2016 08 03, 5:00am

Last week, Legendary Pictures released the trailer for The Great Wall, a new film about the Great Wall of China... starring Matt Damon. The plot appears to revolve around Damon's character, a white male protagonist, saving the Chinese people from the mythical doom that lurks beyond the wall.

It shouldn't be shocking that yet another "white man saves foreigners" Hollywood story is pissing people off. We've been through this before (Gran Torino, City of Joy, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), not to mention all the examples of white people starring in films about Asian culture (Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, Emma Stone in Aloha, Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, and on and on). Just scroll through Twitter, and you'll find hundreds of people expressing their frustration—including Taiwanese American actress Constance Wu, who wrote: "We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world... When you consistently make movies like this, you ARE saying that."

While The Great Wall has secured Chinese director Zhang Yimou and the majority of the actors are Chinese, the six credited writers are all white American men. And in the trailer, even though there are plenty of Asian faces in the background, the only voice we hear is Damon's. It's not just about representation—it's about white people writing, starring in, and claiming stories about Asian culture.

In the wake of The Great Wall, Chinese Singaporean writer J. Y. Yang is hoping to flip the script. Yang is writing an alt-history novel centering on a Chinese Joan of Arc–type heroine saving white people—which she says is directly in response to the whitewashing of Asian culture in films like The Great Wall.I talked with Yang about her novel, representations of Asian culture in popular media, and why it's so important to let Asian people star in their own stories.

Matt Damon in 'The Great Wall' trailer

VICE: Tell me a little bit about your background.
J. Y. Yang: I'm a Chinese Singaporean currently doing my master's in creative writing. I've been writing fiction professionally since 2014, and I just sold two novellas for the first time earlier this year. I write mostly sci-fi and fantasy.

How did you come up with the idea of writing a book with a storyline that's the opposite of The Great Wall?
I found out about the upcoming Matt Damon film through a friend who's Malaysian Chinese, and I assumed at first that he was a sidekick, which already made me sad. The Great Wall is one of China's great achievements! Then I watched the trailer, and it felt like a cloud of anger rolled over me, and I wanted to do something about this. Then it hit me: I should write a historical fiction out of spite.

What about the trailer made you the most upset?
I think a lot of people were really excited about the prospect of a monster film about the Great Wall of China; then they found out about the casting, the screenwriters, and the plot summary. It's such an old story trope: A white person demonstrating superiority over Asians. I've been annoyed by this centering of white narratives for many years, and there's the context of Hollywood being a racist industry with whitewashing as well.

What would you say to those who argue, "Hey, this is not a documentary—it's a fantasy film."
Yes, I know this story is not real. But the context here is the history of Western imperialism in Asia, and how white narratives are always centered even in stories set in Asia. This status quo devalues Asian cultures. Part of the reason I want to write fiction about a Chinese woman saving Europeans was to mess with one of the "sacred cows" of Western history and culture, Joan of Arc, because I know people will react with: "That is disrespectful! You can't do this!" Yet it seems like Western heroes are valued, while apparently Asian cultures can be something randomly picked and chosen from like Memoirs of a Geisha. The industry doesn't seem to care about the authenticity of Asian cultures represented yet when it comes to Western cultures; it's all about preservation. For instance, Hollywood movies about World War I make sure to be historically accurate.

"It's such an old story trope: A white person demonstrating superiority over Asians." — J. Y. Yang

What about the fact that Zhang Yimou is the director? Does that change anything?
I read in an interview with Zhang that he's trying to use this film to bring Chinese culture to America through this blockbuster, but [we saw that] done years ago with his House of Flying Daggers and with Crouching Dragon, Hidden Dragon—both of which were cast with all Chinese actors and written with all Chinese characters, and did well at the box office.

This is not a new thing. This has been going on for years along. There was that movie [The Impossible in 2012 with Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor] about a real tsunami that happened in South Asia, yet the story was centered on the white people vacationing there. Recently, we've had so much whitewashing, too: Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange. There were so many that I cannot remember all of them right now.

I looked into how the local Chinese press was covering the Great Wall film, and I found this interview where lead producer Peter Loehr was asked how the idea for the film came about: He said the chairman of Legendary Pictures, Thomas Tull, was on a plane, looked outside the window, and saw the Great Wall of China. And he thought it was such an impressive structure that it should be turned into a film, so Tull contacted screenwriter Max Brooks to write a rough storyline. This seems troubling to me—as if Loehr had never considered the Great Wall's existence before—and his first instinct was not to contact a Chinese or Chinese American screenwriter.
Right. And again, it's not just about white actors taking Asian roles. It's also about the centering of white narratives. The appeal for me to start writing my own historical fiction is to base it on actual history, and I'm so excited to do all the research about 15th-century European history for Joan of Arc and the Ming Dynasty. This is part of my Chinese heritage, and this would be a new way for me to connect to my heritage.

For those who are upset but are not writers or filmmakers themselves, do you have any advice on how to channel their frustrations constructively?
Buy my book when it comes out! I'm only kidding. Please support writers and filmmakers who are marginalized. Talk and debate about the importance of diversity. I think one of the best ways to influence is with your money is to let Hollywood know that we don't accept this, that we want genuine stories from authentic perspectives.

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