Sending up the stereotypes

By Dennis Eng

In the 1961 cinema classic Breakfast at Tiffany's, Mickey Rooney adopts the stereotyped slanted eyes and buck-tooth characteristics of a Japanese man.

"The difference is that he's doing it as an end. If we do something like that it's usually in the context of of something larger. It plays a role in trying to say something about what that image means," actor Hayato Yoshida explained.

What it means in the context of the American media is that Asian males are usually portrayed as geek, gook, gangbanger, guru, or gung fu, or the five G's, as fellow actor Michael Chih Ming Hornbuckle describes it.

Limited by stereotypes but undaunted by the difficulties inherent in mainstream American theatre, the members of the San Francisco-based 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, who will perform Chunky Groovy Clay Pot Squid Added, are a mixed bag when it comes to poking fun at the many issues concerning Asian-Americans.

"We're trying to examine and maybe even help identify what the next step is. What is 'Asian-American' going to mean in the late '90s and the 21st century?" Michael Premsrirat asked.

The answer to that is what keeps the creative wheels in motion for the 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors.

"I think a group like ours would not exist if there was no racism. There would be no reason. If people were colour-blind and dind't care where you came from we would have no reason to exist. We've seen racism in the media and we felt the need to bad together and promote our own agenda," Hornbuckle said.

As the members write their own material, they can afford to define the context within which the stereotype is being scrutinised. Harold Byun found that, as an Asian-American he was able to turn his ethnicity into artistic freedom.

"When you go to audition for movies the first thing they ask you is to read it with an accent. Not all people in America who are Asian have accents. It's a very closed-minded view of who Asian-Americans really are," he said.

At every performance, for example, members of the audience, some of them Asian-Americans themselves, still leave with saying: "Oh wow, I've never seen Asians doing comedy before."

"I still think there's that stand-offishness. Maybe the limitation there is that people don't know what to expect," Greg Watanabe said.

"We're presenting stereotypes in a way where we're trying to break them down."

[ From the Friday, January 19, 1996 issue of Hong Kong Standard ]