Sunday, July 14, 2013

east meets west and it goes bang (東 が 西に)

It's no secret that I love old television, specifically programs from my youth. Thanks to networks like MeTV and Antenna TV*, I can relive the glory days of life with the Cleaver family and the daily grind of Officers Reed and Malloy. I love watching the simple premises upon which each episode is based. Situations that the scriptwriters felt they could stretch out to a full half-hour (with commercials), like Mary Stone having two dates to the big dance on The Donna Reed Show or Dennis breaking Mr. Wilson's window (again) with an errant football on Dennis the Menace. These are examples of typical intrigue on late-twentieth century television.

There is one particular plot device that has popped up on nearly every drama and situation comedy in the 50s, 60s and right into the 70s — Asians. There was something about the Far East that fascinated television writers enough that every show had at least one "Asian-centric" episode.

I was born in 1961. I grew up in a predominantly Caucasian (99.9%) neighborhood. I went to a predominantly Caucasian (98%), predominantly Jewish (85%) elementary school. There was one family from Korea on my block. You had to remove your shoes before you went into their house (which smelled like ginger). They had two boys — John (the older one) and Dong Wook (the younger one). John and Dong Wook (later known as "Donny", despite some of the narrow-minded, sons-of-bigots neighborhood kids insisting upon calling him "Dung Gu") were friendly and easy-going. They rode bikes. They played baseball. They wore the same clothes everybody else wore. They were just like us.

But on television, Asians were depicted as mystical, magical, eerie, ethereal and mysterious. On shows written by guys named "McGreevy," "Kalish," and "Tibbles," Asians were treated as a novelty. There was always one episode that showed the main characters crossing paths with a family of Asians with "ways different from our own." The characters were pretty cookie-cutter, too. There was the young, Americanized boy or girl who is befriended by the show's main character's child. They would introduce a parent who was trying to assimilate into American society while still maintaining ties to the Old World ways. And then we'd meet the stoic, wizened grandparent - quiet, stubborn and unwilling to adapt to this "frivolous American behavior." I remember My Three SonsDonna Reed, Family Affair and That Girl all having their obligatory "Asian" episode. They would cast American-born Asian actors (regardless of their specific heritage) for any number of Japanese, Chinese or generic Asian roles. Character actors like Benson FongBeulah QuoFrances Fong and Richard Loo, whose careers spanned several decades, were cast over and over, often appearing in guest roles on different shows at the same time. Even more familiar actors like James Hong and George Takei took the demeaning parts of houseboys or waiters early in their careers. But they were all subjected to the same quaint, subordinate depiction of Asians. Most often, they would deliver their lines in a self-mocking, exaggerated accent, substituting "L"s for "R"s in their dialog. Or, if they were playing an Asian-American character, their speech was peppered with "groovy" and "far out" and other cool, contemporary lingo. It was commonplace in the 60s, but now it's painful to watch.

Sometimes, if an actual Asian actor wasn't available, a heavily made-up American was cast instead. I saw Marlo Thomas in a kimono play a mail-order Asian bride in a particularly embarrassing episode of Bonanza. And who could forget David Carradine playing Chinese Kwai Chang Caine for three seasons of Kung Fu

In these ultra-aware, politically-correct times, Hollywood wouldn't dream of doing anything so offensive — so blatantly racist — towards any ethnic group. Except for Native Americans.

Isn't that right, Johnny Depp?

*Although TV Land infrequently broadcasts The Andy Griffith Show, I cannot consider The Golden Girls and King of Queens part of classic television.

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