Top 10 Asian Characters of my Youth

Media representation matters. Recently there has been a lot of discussion about black media representation, and there have been a lot of recent films that have been commended for making black stories their main narrative. Movies like Hidden Figures, Moonlight, Get Out and Black Panther (and the soon to be released A Wrinkle in Time) are showing that yes, in fact we can make films about black people that don’t reinforce stereotypes, that tell good stories and appeal to everyone. It got me to thinking about why there hasn’t yet been any similar surge in Asian-American narratives and stories.

Asian (and Asian-American) representation in media has been an important issue for me ever since I became politically inclined. While it’s no secret that I am disappointed with how Asians have been portrayed in film and TV over the years, it is fair to say that we are far past Mickey Rooney in yellowface or Asian buffoon characters like Long Duck Dong. The fact that we now have Glen Rhee or Harold and Kumar is a step in the right direction, but in both cases, these roles should not be considered groundbreaking, yet they are. They are groundbreaking for being different from the norm (or at least what the norm was). And what was that norm? Stereotypes. Characters that weren’t created to show us who they were as people, but what perceived racial traits they possessed. That’s how it was when I was growing up. If there was an Asian character in a story I was watching, they were either the villain, a token part of an ensemble, the resident nerd or martial artist or dragon lady, and they generally served to advance the narrative of the (usually white) protagonist.

But wasn’t there anything good among the slogs of awful? That’s what this post is all about. It is an exercise both to flex my nostalgic nerdy muscle, and to illustrate a point, that making a top 10 list of good Asian roles isn’t easy to do. If it were, then maybe there wouldn’t be so much discussion about the lack of good media representation.

While there are certainly other (more popular) blogs like that keep tabs on Asian-American representation, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a top 10 list, so I’ll try to take a stab at it. Before we get to the main list though, I’m going to give you examples of some characters that get disqualified, to kind of illustrate what we are doing here.

10. Glen Rhee (Walking Dead) – Disqualified for being too recent. This is about my youth. We’re going to draw the line at the year 2000.

9. The girl from Captain Planet (Gi) or that guy from M.A.S.K. (Bruce Sato) – Disqualified because they are animated characters voiced by non-Asian voice actors doing accents.

8. Puyi (The Last Emperor) – Disqualified for being a historical figure. I am somewhat on the fence in this regard, but I think I’ll limit it to fictional characters.

7. Ranma Saotome (Ranma 1/2) or Son Goku (Dragon Ball Z) (and every other character in anime)- Disqualified because we’re not talking about Asian characters in Asian media. This also unfortunately means that Trini, Adam and every subsequent Asian Power Ranger are also disqualified because the show is the whitewashed version of a show of Asian origin that actually wasn’t originally made for a western audience.  (Though I can certainly appreciate that there were lots of Asian-American girls who looked up to the first American Yellow Ranger.)

6. Master Splinter (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) – Disqualified for being a rat, not a human.

5. Kato (Green Hornet) and Oddjob (Goldfinger) – Disqualified for being a sidekick or henchman.

4. Mr. Miyagi (Karate Kid) – Disqualified for being the wise mentor to guide the white protagonist. Also for reinforcing the Asians are martial arts experts stereotype.

3. Dr. Julius No (Dr. No) – Disqualified for reinforcing the Asians are smart stereotype. Also for personifying yellow peril…. Also for yellowface.

2. Lo Pan (Big Trouble in Little China) – Disqualified for being a villainous amalgamation of orientalist stereotypes.

1. Long Duk Dong (Sixteen Candles) – Disqualified because fuck you!

And since this is a personal list:

0. That character I didn’t put on this list that you really like (that film or show you remember) – Disqualified because I either didn’t see it or it didn’t have enough of an impact on me so I don’t remember it. This list is a blog post, not an academic study.

Just for giggles, I’m going to name each entry by what I call these characters in conversation, when I don’t have the time to look their names up. It also shows there’s a problem when most people can’t remember the character names. We remember Marty McFly. We remember Sarah Connor. Do you recall the name of James Bond’s CIA contact in a View to a Kill? Of course you don’t.

The character bios are also from my memory, in most cases without any research. So on to the top 10 after the jump!

 

10. “Chika Monkey Hey”

Actual name: Lyn Me

Portrayed by: Dalyn Chew

Appeared in: Return of the Jedi (Special Edition 1997)

Character Bio: She’s the Asian Twi’lek background singer in the Max Rebo Band. I call her “Chika Monkey Hey” because she appears to sing those lyrics into the camera during the performance at Jabba’s palace, and her name wasn’t said in the film at all.

Writeup: The fact that this character makes my top 10 list illustrates the problem we have here. She’s a character that you could totally remove from the film and it loses almost nothing. In fact, the versions of the film without her are even better some would argue. I prefer the special edition of Return of the Jedi… except for the part she is in. All the CG during that scene is terrible, and I feel bad for the guy who had to animate the spittle of the hairy singing guy.  That said, when they added her, I noticed. I think it was the first time I recall seeing an Asian space alien. There was that Asian Vulcan in Star Trek III too, but I can’t remember if I saw that one (on video) before or after I saw “Chika Monkey Hey” be the last woman to  hit on Boba Fett before he found a new definition of pain and suffering, as he was slowly digested over a thousand years inside the belly of the  Sarlaac. Also I am a huge Star Wars fan, so this is going to be the Asian space alien I include on my list.

(Note: I’ve read the lyrics to the song… which is unfortunately named “Jedi Rocks” and realize the correct lyric is “chee-ka-nang kee hey”. Too bad, I’m still calling her by what I heard. Did you know the genre of music is apparently “Jizz Music?” Is it sad that I actually didn’t have to research that?)

 

 

9. “There’s too many of them”

Actual name: There’s too many of them. Most sources call this guy Telsij, but his first action figure (released in 1999) was called Arvel Crynyd. In addition the same actor may have played Ekelarc Yong, the guy who said “I’m hit!” later in the same movie, although both characters were voiced over by the same voice actor.  I actually didn’t know those were supposed to be two different guys until researching this guy’s name. We’ll go with Telsij for this review.

Portrayed By: Eiji Kusuhara

Appeared in: Return of the Jedi (1983)

Character Bio: Telsij is the first Asian character to have a speaking line in a Star Wars film. He was one of the pilots during the battle of Endor. After Admiral Akbar tells us famously that “It’s a Trap!” the imperial navy engages the rebel fleet, launching zillions of tie fighters. Telsij tells us that “There’s too many of them!” He may or may not have been hit and may or may not have subsequently crashed into a star destroyer. (Depending on if the actors in both scenes are the same, and if they were indeed intended to be the same character.)

Writeup: It’s sad that this guy, who didn’t even have a name at the time the film was created, and who we can’t conclusively confirm is one or two separate characters still makes my list. Is it sinking in here that I didn’t have many Asian role models in film and TV to look up to as a kid? You may be asking why I am including such a bit part in this list, after all he has even less screen time than “Chika Monkey Hey” did. This role is significant because it was the first real sign that Asian humans were a part of the galaxy far far away. I also felt bad when it appeared that he died (though like I said, it’s not clear if this is the same guy or not). In more recent watchings, I realized there was another Asian dude in Cloud City in Empire Strikes Back, but he didn’t say anything. In the prequels there may have been an Asian Jedi and there was that guy outside the nightclub in Attack of the Clones. I’m gonna give the spot to Telsij because he was a rebel pilot. More recent entries in the Star Wars universe (like Rogue One and Episode 8) have yielded better Asian characters that are more than bit parts, but prior to Y2K this is all we got.

 

8. Powahhhh!

Actual Name: Chester “Whitey” Nogura

Portrayed By: Jason Scott Lee

Appeared in: Back to the Future II (1990)

Character Bio: He’s a member of Griff Tannen’s gang in 2015. When Marty McFly (disguised as Marty Jr.) tries to get away from the gang by taking his hoverboard over the artificial lake in Hill Valley Square, one of Griff’s crew calls Marty a “Bojo” and tells him “those boards don’t work on water!” Chester chimes in “Unless you’ve got POWER!!!” followed by the most ridiculous laugh ever.

Writeup: Why did I even bother making a top 10 list? Maybe a top 5 or a top 3 list would have been better. Either I really really missed out on all the good Asian characters in my youth, or there simply weren’t that many. I tend to believe it’s the latter. Anyway why does “Whitey,” not a villain, but the lackey of a villain (and a minor one at that) make it higher than Telsij, a hero that may or may not have given his life for a just cause?  Well, because in the 2015 presented in BTTF2, even the teenage bullies are diverse. Chester is one of the “cool kids.” In that world, it appears that Japan’s 1980’s bubble economy continued well into the 2010s and as a result, and aspects of Japanese culture and soft power became integrated into US mainstream culture to a much higher degree than our own 2015. It’s thus quite possible that Japanese Americans (and possibly all Asian-Americans) were seen as “foreign other” to a much lesser extent. It’s also very possible that this 2015 has had lots of great Asian representation since 1985, and maybe all of society in the US is a less hostile place for Asian-Americans. Maybe race actually isn’t a thing anymore in this 2015. We don’t conclusively know this from what is shown in the movie, of course… but hey, I’ll take what I can get.

Later on, Jason Scott Lee would play Bruce Lee in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. That role was a great one, which he is probably best known for. I should probably have put that on the list, but I’m kind of on the fence about historical roles.

 

7. Zack Morris

Actual Name: Zack Morris

Portrayed by: Mark Paul Gosselaar

Appeared in: Good Morning Miss Bliss (1987), Saved By the Bell (1989)

Character Bio: He’s the good-looking mischievous blonde-haired kid in Bayside High who has the power to stop time to monologue to the audience. Self described over subliminal message tapes as a “blonde Tom Cruise,” we follow his adventures of navigating teenage life, love, and hijinks with his clique of 5 friends.

Writeup: <Record Scratch>

Enough is enough! How can we consider the whitest white boy in the school (even by some accounts whiter than his pal Screech, a good representation for Asians? In fact his other pal Slater (Mario Lopez) is probably better representation for Asians, despite also not being Asian (because hey, it is possible that he might be mistaken for one). You’ve got a LOT of explaining to do here.

I hear you, I hear you. The reason he makes the list is because Mark Paul Gosselaar is Asian. To be more exact, he’s a multiracial Asian of Indonesian descent.

Oh… *sigh *eyeroll

Hear me out. I am of the belief that multiracial Asians are an important part of what people would call the Asian-American community (or communities). It’s also important that we are represented, and it is even better when we are played by multiracial Asian actors. While it isn’t clear that Zack Morris is a multiracial Asian, we can’t say conclusively that he isn’t.

You’re stretching! Besides we’ve seen Zack’s white parents on that show before!

Zack’s white parents may also have been on screen before, but again, we can’t conclusively say that both parents are his biological parents.

Oh come on! You’re totally stretching!

Alright… In truth, it’s extremely likely that Zack Morris was intended to be a white character, and audiences probably read him that way. But we need to acknowledge that multiracial Asians are an important part of what we are talking about. Of course this means that if I am counting multiracial Asians for my list, surely their characters are more developed than the bit parts I’ve listed prior to now. I should have populated the earlier entires of this list with the likes of Eric Draven from the Crow, (Brandon Lee) Clark Kent/Superman from Lois and Clark (Dean Cain) Ted from Bill and Ted (Keanu Reeves), Neo from the Matrix (Reeves again), and.. basically anyone played by Keanu Reeves prior to the year 2000. I decided against that though, since in my memory (which is what this list is based on) prior to 2000 most multiracial Asian actors were either playing monoracial white people, or they were playing monoracial Asian people who are disqualified from appearing on this list (Sorry, Vanishing Son).

The point of this list is to focus on the characters that are identifiably Asian that were good representations. So logically they should all be disqualified. But since I KNEW these actors were Asian they served as positive representations for me personally, which is also what this list is about. The definition of Asian is a very divisive topic in the Asian-American activist community and I want absolutely say that mixed Asians can contribute to Asian-American activism (if they want to, of course) and we absolutely can LEAD Asian-activist movements (again, if we choose to). With that said, cramming all these characters together in the 7 spot could be seen as unfair treatment, but leaving them all out entirely would definitely be unfair. Populating the entire list with them would not fit with the spirit of what I am trying to accomplish here. It’s one thing if I know they are Asian, but since most viewers don’t, the representation they provide is nullified. So this is a compromise. Rob Schneider tho.. you aren’t on this list for any of your roles. Surf Ninjas? What were you thinking?!?!??!

 

6. Cassandra

Actual Name: Cassandra Wong

Portrayed by: Tia Carrere

Appeared in: Wayne’s World (1992) Wayne’s World 2 (1993)

Character Bio: She is the object of Wayne’s affection. Wayne falls in love with her at first sight when he sees her rock the house as the guitarist and lead singer of her band at the nightclub.

Writeup: She’s on the list because of her occupation. In 1992 we hadn’t quite seen any band led by an Asian person in any kind of mainstream media. While I am uncertain if Tia Carrere can actually rock, the movie at least made her look like she could, and she kicked some serious ass. It wasn’t even out of place or jarring. She played that part of the role exactly as it needed to be played and it was a natural fit. Even though I find this film highly entertaining and consider it one of the best films of my early teenhood, Cassandra’s role in the film is problematic. Many Asian-American activists have panned the role and the film for advancing the normalcy of yellow fever, and I have to agree. The most cringeworthy moment is when Wayne is trying to work up the courage to ask her out, and she hasn’t been noticing his advances, so he decides he’ll learn Cantonese by listening to cassette tapes, then tell her he loves her in “her language.” When the moment comes, he breaks the ice by asking where she learned English. Then he tells her she is pretty in Cantonese. This is what seals the deal. (sigh) It’s obvious that the writers didn’t ask many Asian women how they feel when white dudes use phrases in Asian languages to hit on them. Also in the “Cantonese” scene, it’s quite clear that neither Mike Meyers nor Tia Carrere actually speak Cantonese, and they aren’t saying what’s being shown in the subtitles. To some that could be seen as mockery. The punchline is that they have to speak as fast or slow as the subtitles, sometimes with long pauses so that the viewer can read them all. That in itself is kind of funny, but the whole reason they are speaking “Cantonese” to begin with is just super creepy. Haha?

 

5. Short Round (Shorty)

Actual Name: Wan Li (Had to look that one up)

Portrayed by: Ke Huy Quan

Appeared in: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Character Bio: Shorty is Indy’s pre-teen street urchin sidekick that he met on the streets of Shanghai in the 1930s. He drives Dr. Jones and that showgirl from the nightclub to the airport and then follows Indy on his next adventure.

Writeup:

Hey I thought you said no sidekicks.

Well, I’m making an exception for Shorty because he’s not really Indy’s always-there sidekick. He’s not Robin to Indy’s Batman, nor Kato to Indy’s Green Hornet. I feel more like he’s just a kid Indy was concerned about after they met, who happens to tag along for the ride. Even so, there are a few issues with this role. The first being his thick accent. These were the types of roles being offered to Asian-Americans at the time. You have to do it with an accent. You have to be more ethnic. My detractors may scoff saying the accent makes sense for the role. While it makes absolute sense that a somehow-English-speaking orphan on the streets of Shanghai would speak English with an accent, casting at the time almost always required one, regardless of the role. When Ke Huy Quan was playing an Asian-American  (as Data in Goonies) he STILL had to have the accent (and be the nerdy whiz kid with all the technological gadgets.)

(Edit: I acknowledge that it is quite possible that Quan himself may have had an accent at the time of filming.)

Flaws aside, Short Round did in fact save the day in this film, twice. He was able to use the power of fire to free the Maharaja and Indy from the control of the urm… evil Indian witch doctor. Okay this movie had major issues. What is with that lunch? Eyeball soup? Giant snakes with little snakes inside? Chilled monkey brains? What is with all that voodoo magic? Why does that town need a white savior to save their children? Why didn’t all the people in the town either: A) confront the witch doctor themselves or B) alert the military, which came by to help Indy’s crew anyway?

See, we’re more than halfway done with this list, and we’ve got some bit parts, characters played by actors that most people don’t even know are Asian, the object of white male gaze who reaffirms yellow fever, and a loveable ethnic kid sidekick in a deeply deeply troubling movie that promotes nasty stereotypes that suggest nonwhite culture is uncivilized and that colonialism was good. Come on childhood, is THIS what we had to work with? Is this ALL?

Still though, as a kid, this role was important. They wanted to appeal to kids by giving Indy a kid sidekick. They could have just put a white kid in the story but whoever casted the film wanted Ke Huy, and the whole opening scene in China is to simply justify him being there. But we are STILL making moral compromises to include developed characters on this list. Let’s hope this gets better.

 

4.  3. The Korean-American guy in Best of the Best

Actual Name: Tommy Lee

Portrayed by: Phillip Rhee

Appeared in: Best of the Best (1989), Best of the Best II (1993), Best of the Best 3: No Turning Back (1996), Best of the Best 4: Without Warning (1998) I have not seen any of the sequels, so this entry is about Tommy in the 1989 film.

Character Bio: I have not seen this film in a while, but as far as I remember, Tommy Lee’s brother was a member of the USA Taekwondo team. When Tommy was a kid, his brother was killed in a match against Dae Han, a dude with an eyepatch from the Korean team. Years later, Tommy is now a man and has been recruited to the USA team himself. They’ve got a huge match coming up against Team Korea and Tommy is scheduled to fight the man who killed his brother.

Writeup:

Who from what? I’ve at least heard of the films or shows you listed in 10-5, but I have no idea WTF you’re talking about now.

Heh.. well Best of the Best is actually a guilty pleasure of mine. It’s awful! I’m surprised they were able to get James Earl Jones to be in it. But anyway this is a straight up B-grade martial arts flick, probably trying to emulate films like Bloodsport, Kickboxer and the Karate Kid.

I thought you said you weren’t going to allow any martial artists on your list. Here you go again breaking the rules!

I’ve got a good reason as usual. Tommy in this film is very much an Asian-American. He’s not a stereotypical master of martial arts that teaches the white characters and then fades away so that they can save the day. He’s not in the film as a plot device. He’s not there for what he does, he’s there for who he is. In fact, even though the marketing for this film focuses on one of the other characters, the main arc of the film is on Tommy. He wants revenge, and when he has it in his grasp, he decides not to kill Dae Han and this results in Team USA losing the match. Then the reaction from Dae Han hits you in the feels. Tommy has built him up all this time to be a monster, but Dae Han himself has been living with the hurt of accidentally killing a guy, taking him away from those who loved him. He offers himself as Tommy’s brother.  I cried. I honestly almost cried just thinking about this scene.

What? Are you serious? Crying over a martial arts movie? Bwahahahaha!

No man, you don’t get it. Nevermind all the ridiculousness in this film. Nevermind that there would never be a situation in the sport of Taekwondo where deciding not to kill someone would lose you a match. Nevermind that it treats the match like this HUGE international event with the whole world watching, when likely this wouldn’t even have been shown on ESPN2 late at night. Nevermind that it is silly that the Korean team decided to give their gold medals to the US Team because Tommy decided not to kill. (Those guys would be holding on to their golds so they could get out of military service!) This scene makes the whole film worth watching. Most people don’t get it but it is a real struggle for Korean-Americans come to terms with acceptance among Koreans from Korea… and Tommy is now gaining a brother out of the guy who killed his brother… who ISN’T a monster. He has feelings too, just like you and me.

You know what? This movie isn’t awful…(yes it is) It’s actually a hidden masterpiece (no, it isn’t). I don’t think I realized it was actually this good until now (I just watched it again and it’s ridiculous). Even without Tommy’s amazing character arc, I probably would have placed him in this spot anyway, because of one line. When one of Tommy’s teammates challenges him to a fight, and he refuses, the guy asks if he’s yellow. Tommy looks him in the eye and says “obviously.” The rest of the team laughs and this totally defuses the situation. Looking at the rest of the characters on my list, it’s now coming to my attention that Tommy is the only Asian-American character on my list that actually deals with Asian-American issues in his story. I guess that’s what you get when you have an Asian-American actually writing him as well. Yep, the film was co-written by the actor that played Tommy, Phillip Rhee (who actually did represent the US in Taekwondo vs Korea.) I honestly want to move him higher on the list at this point, but I can’t because this film wasn’t very popular. Tommy is certainly a great example of good representation, but nobody but me remembers him.

 

3.  4. Mr. Sulu

Actual Name: Hikaru Sulu

Portrayed By: George Takei

Appeared in: Star Trek (1966), Star Trek 1-6 (1979 – 1991), Star Trek Voyager (1996, one episode)

Character Bio: He’s the helmsman of Kirk’s Enterprise who eventually gets his own command. Don’t call him Tiny.

Writeup: You know what? Sulu was a great character, but I am having a lot of trouble remembering anything he did. I didn’t watch much of the original series, so all I really remember from that is Sulu shirtless and fencing. In the movies he didn’t really do much until the 6th film. When you talk about Wrath of Khan, you talk about Chekov more than Sulu. Geez, maybe I need to rethink this placement. I guess he deserves such a high spot for what he represents, a visible Asian face on TV in a non-stereotypical role in the 1960s. But this is my list about me, so I am retroactively going to put Sulu in 4th and Tommy Lee in 3rd.

 

2. Ensign Harry Kim

Actual Name: Harry Kim

Portrayed by: Garrett Wang

Appeared in: Star Trek Voyager (1995)

Character Bio: Graduating at the top of his class at the academy, Kim gets stranded in the Delta Quadrant with the rest of Voyager’s crew on his FIRST mission. He is always eager to please Captain Janeway. He’s also selfless and will put the needs of Voyager’s crew above his own.

Writeup: Okay look. Kim got a raw deal in more ways than one. The man died twice, was replaced by a temporal duplicate, was assimilated by the Borg, sacrificed whole timelines where he made it home and the rest of the crew didn’t (and this also happened more than once) was a pioneer in developing slipstream technology, saved the ship numerous times and THE MAN NEVER GOT A PROMOTION! Even the criminal terrorists (the Maquis) they were chasing who became part of Voyager’s crew were given ranks higher than his. Kim did all the work for most of the series and when Voyager crossed the finish line, Kim was still an Ensign. Janeway even erased a timeline where Kim eventually became a captain just to bring Voyager home earlier, probably undoing several promotions she may have given him, and lots of valuable experience. The transparent aluminum ceiling is real even in the future, folks.

So why is he so high on the list?

Because. He wasn’t Keiko or Nurse Ogawa. He wasn’t just part of some other character’s narrative. He was a fully formed character and led several episodes himself. He was one of the better characters on the show. Harry’s encounter with the glass ceiling has more to do with the powers that be at Paramount in the 1990s than any bias from Captain Janeway herself. The whole time I was watching that series when it was new, that was something I and my friends always kept tabs on, we had a betting pool after the third season for how long it would take for Harry to get a promotion. I said season 5. I was wrong, but then again so was everyone else. Other than not being promoted, Harry was a good non-stereotypical character.

 

Before we get to #1, let’s take a moment for an honorable mention

 

Honorable Mention. Milf Guy

Actual Name: Milf Guy #2 in the first film, John in subsequent appearances

Portrayed By: John Cho

Appeared in: American Pie (1999), American Pie 2 (2001), American Wedding (2003), American Reunion (2012)

Character Bio: At a house party, he and his pal are looking at a picture of Stiffler’s mom. John is drunk and says she’s a MILF. The other guy asks what a MILF is. John explains what the acronym means.

Writeup: This is probably when the word milf truly entered our lexicon (or at least mine, because I hadn’t heard it prior.) I didn’t add this role to the list because I can’t really say it is a great portrayal, but I guess it isn’t horrible either. John Cho is just a guy playing a drunk teen, and drunk teens say crude things like that, so sure. John Cho has however done some amazing roles that could populate this whole list if we were allowed to include his entire career. I’ll be damned if this is the role of his that makes a list of positive Asian-American representation, that would be just downright disrespectful. But at the same time, he had to start somewhere, and I think this role was probably a springboard that eventually led to him being in important films like Better Luck Tomorrow and Harold and Kumar go to Whitecastle,

And now to reveal our #1 Best Asian role of my youth…. drumroll….

 

1. Rufio

Actual Name: Roofus (If this prequel is canon)

Portrayed By: Dante Basco

Appeeared in: Hook (1991)

Character Bio: Sometime in the 1980s, Rufio became a Lost Boy, ascending in their ranks to become their leader at some date before 1991. When Peter Pan returns to Neverland as an adult with kids, he finds Rufio in charge. Needing their help to rescue his kids from Captain Hook, Pan must first prove to the Lost Boys who he is, reclaim the Pan sword from Rufio and lead them into battle. Rufio is resistant to this idea, because he thinks Peter is old and fat and a shadow of the legendary figure he once was, and therefore undeserving of any help. He also secretly feels his reign as top dog threatened by Peter’s return and initially wants to undermine Peter’s efforts because of it.

Writeup: Rufio… Rufio.. Rufi-OOOOOOOOOO! This is the absolute best.. BEST.. BEST Asian role of my youth. Why? Every other entry on this list seemed to be a justification of how there’s nothing (or at least not much) wrong with the portrayal. Sure it’s true that there’s nothing wrong with Dante Basco’s masterful performance here, but let’s go beyond that and say that everything is RIGHT with this portrayal. Rufio is COOL and everyone looks up to him (especially the kids in the theater watching Hook.)

I have expressed my fondness for Rufio among Asian-American activists before, but there were a few who disagreed with me saying this portrayal was not good, because Rufio died. I can see the logic in that. It probably would have been better if he had lived. Also his death merely served as a plot device to A) make the audience aware of the gravity of the situation. B) make Captain Hook seem like a real threat rather than a bumbling idiot, and C) set up the touching scene where Peter has to choose the next leader of the Lost Boys. Also, none of the Lost Boys seem to grieve Rufio’s death (that scene must have been cut).

Some took this criticism a bit further saying his dying words, “I wish I had a father, just like you.” meant that he longed to be white like Peter Pan. I personally never read it this way, but when I can see why it is easy to jump to that conclusion when there is so much wrong with how the media is portraying us.  It seems to me though that the role was written without ethnicity in mind and they just happened to pick Dante, so there’s probably no racial undertone to what he’s saying here.

Criticisms aside, if there’s one guy I want to hang out with who was in that movie, it’s not Robin Williams or Dustin Hoffman (or Bob Hoskins or Julia Roberts) it’s Dante Basco. I don’t know if he’s even aware how important this role was to kids like me, so thank you Dante for getting this role and for KILLING it.

Rufio’s character is groundbreaking, even moreso when you consider we first saw him in 1991. When you see the other entries on this list, it is clear that out of necessity I’ve actually created a 10 most tolerable Asian characters list. If I wanted to make it out of good, absolutely non-problematic characters I should have made a Top 1 list. Every other entry makes compromises or excuses, because I have to. There simply weren’t any good Asian characters around when I was growing up. Rufio is actually the ONLY 100% perfect Asian-American role of my youth. Rufio can fight.. but he’s not a martial artist steeped in the ways of the mysterious Orient. Rufio is a leader, but not because of any sort of Tiger-mommed Asian tenacity. Rufio is smart, but he’s not a nerd. Rufio has rad fashion sense, but doesn’t have Chinese character-themed clothes or Rising Sun attire. Rufio wields a legendary sword, but it’s not a mystical katana handed down by ninja masters over 1000-years. Rufio is jealous of Peter because he views him as a potential usurper, not because he (or the writers) thinks he is inferior to the white protagonist.  Rufio is cool, but not just to Asian kids… he’s cool to everyone watching.

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