Though representation of Asians in film and television may seem scarce, there have been a handful of trailblazing actors that have paved the way for representation in media and you may even recognize some, but have never known who they actually are. Here are the top 10 Asian actors you’ve seen in movies, but never got to learn about. 

Illustration by James Chan

1. Lou Diamond Philips 

Lou Diamond Philips was born in the Subic Bay Naval Station in the Philippines in 1962 to his Filipino mother and Scottish-Irish and partially Native American father. He spent most of his adolescence in Texas and graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington with a degree in drama which led him to become an actor. Philips has been in many television shows and movies since 1984, but made his breakthrough in “La Bamba,” the autobiographical film about the famous singer/songwriter Richie Valens. Since “La Bamba,” he went on to star in the Academy Award nominated film “Stand and Deliver” directed by Ramon Menedez. Philips was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award and won an Independent Spirit Award for his performance in “Stand and Deliver.” Philips has also guest starred in various television shows such as “Hawaii 5-0,” “Criminal Minds,” “NCIS: New Orleans,” “Brooklyn 99” and many more. 

2. Tsai Chin

Tsai Chin is an Chinese-English actress born in Tianjin, China, in 1933. Her most notable role that you may recognize her in was as Auntie Lindo in the seminal film based on Amy Tan’s novel “The Joy Luck Club.” Before her role in “The Joy Luck Club,” however, she was the first Asian Bond girl, starring in “You Only Live Twice” and “Casino Royale.” Tsai Chin’s career spans through more than 60 years; she has been performing more than half of her life. She went on to star in various television shows, films, plays and musicals. She also made her Broadway debut starring as the lead in “The World of Suzie Wong.” 

3. Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong was one of the first Chinese-American Hollywood actresses. She was born in Los Angeles, California, on January 3, 1905. Anna May Wong grew up always curious about movies that were being made in her neighborhood and often skipped school to watch movies in the cinema. At the early age of 9, she would beg filmmakers to put her in their films and at the age of 11 she came up with her stage name: “Anna May Wong,” which was a combination of her English name and family name. Though her father disapproved of her interest in films, she pursued her dreams to become an actress and eventually dropped out of high school to start acting. 

Anna May Wong landed her first major role in the film “The Toll of the Sea” and received a positive reaction from Variety magazine that praised her for her performance. Though rising in fame, she was always subject to play supporting roles and, despite her praise, Anna struggled to gain more roles because of anti-miscegenation laws that prevented Hollywood from giving her more leading roles that she was more than deserving of. Wong continued to star in many more classic Hollywood films as either a “butterfly” or “dragon lady” which were two of the particularly stereotypical roles for female Asian characters. One of the most significant disappointments Anna May Wong endured was when MGM refused to cast her as the leading role for the film adaptation of “The Good Earth” and instead had Luise Rainer take the role in yellowface. Constantly being disappointed with the limitations of opportunities in Hollywood, Anna moved to Europe and continued her career there, where she starred in various British films and stage plays.  

4. Michelle Krusiec

Michele Krusiec is a Taiwanese-American actress who has starred in various television shows and movies. Krusiec’s most notable role was in the 2004 lesbian rom-com film “Saving Face” where she played Wilhelmina Peng: a Chinese-American surgeon and closeted lesbian. She has also guest starred in shows like “Community,” “Hawaii 5-0,” “Weeds,” “Dirty Sexy Money” and “Fringe.” Her most recent role was portraying Anna May Wong on Ryan Murphy’s limited series “Hollywood.” 

5. Karan Soni

Karan Soni is an Indian-American actor born in New Delhi, India. Soni moved to the United States at 18 to study business at the University of Southern California. Karan Soni is known for his comedic role in the movie “Deadpool,” playing the character Dopinder and later reprised his role in “Deadpool 2.” Before his role in “Deadpool,” Soni made his feature film debut in “Safety Not Guaranteed” alongside Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake Johnson and Kristen Bell. Since then, Soni has starred in other movies like “Detective Pikachu,” “Always Be My Maybe,” “Corporate Animals” and “Unicorn Store.” 

6. Mark Dacascos 

Mark Dacascos is an actor and martial artist of Filipino, Japanese and Irish descent. Dacascos was born in Oahu, Hawaii, and later attended Portland State University in Portland, Oregon, to study Chinese and drama. He also spent time studying various martial arts styles. He starred in the 1993 martial arts film “Only The Strong” where he played Louis: a capoeira master.  Dacascos was also known for his role as The Chairman in “Iron Chef.” While Dacascos was featured in many action films, he shined greatly in his role in “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” as the main antagonist. 

7. Steve Park

Steve Park is a Korean-American actor and comedian, and he began his entertainment career doing stand up. Although he is best known for his role on “In Living Color,” a sketch comedy television series, Park has starred in many well known films. Park starred in “Do The Right Thing” (1989) dir. Spike Lee, “Fargo” (1996) dir. The Coen Brothers, “Rocket Science” (2007) dir. Jeffrey Blitz and “Snowpiercer” (2013) dir. Bong Joon-Ho. Park is also set to star in the upcoming Wes Anderson film, “The French Dispatch.” Steve Park is also an advocate for standing up against racism that Asian Americans face in Hollywood, and he wrote a mission statement in 1997 calling for change in the way Asians are depicted in the media, stating that Asian characters are always subject to tokenism, indignity and violence. 

8. Irrfan Khan

Irrfan Khan (January 7, 1967-April 29, 2020) was an Indian actor known for working on Hindi films as well as American and British films. He starred in many films throughout his lifetime and you may have even recognized him in a few. Khan was best known for his roles in “Slumdog Millionaire,” “The Namesake,” “Life of Pi,” “The Lunch Box,” “Jurassic World” and many more. Irrfan Khan was an incredibly accomplished and talented actor and was described as “an enormously valuable bridge between South Asian and Hollywood cinema,” according to Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian.

9. James Hong

James Hong is a Chinese-American actor and voice actor who has worked on many American television shows and movies since the 1950s playing a wide variety of East Asian roles. His most significant roles were in movies such as “Chinatown,” “Blade Runner,” “Big Trouble in Little China,” “Balls of Fury,” “Wayne’s World,” “Mulan” and the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise. He also starred in shows such as “MacGyver,” “The West Wing,” “Jackie Chan Adventures,” “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and many more.

10. Mako Iwamatsu

Mako Iwamatsu (December 10, 1933-July 21, 2006) was a Japanese-American actor who starred in movies, television shows and musicals. One of his most significant roles was in the 1966 film “The Sand Pebbles,” where he was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance. He also starred in other movies such as “The Hawaiians,” “Conan the Barbarian,” “An Eye for an Eye,” “Pearl Harbor” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.” While also starring in many television shows, Mako’s most significant roles were as Aku in “Samurai Jack” and as Uncle Iroh in “Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

Written by Cara Delos Reyes

Edited by Susan Kuroda

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