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'Tre' Represents New Direction for Hapas in Film

Nichi Bei Times, Commentary, Ben Hamamoto Posted: May 31, 2008

Multiracial Asian Pacific Islanders have had a long, tumultuous relationship with Hollywood. For the most part, hapas have not been able to see accurate images of themselves onscreen and hapa entertainers have had to present an image of themselves that accommodates Hollywood's, and mainstream America's, concept of race.

"Tre" the latest film by hapa director Eric Byler, is something of a landmark. The film's writers Byler and Kimberly-Rose Wolter, are both multiracial Asians, as are the stars, Wolter and Daniel Cariaga, and the characters they play, Kakela and Tre.

Tree For hapas growing up in the United States, there have been very few Asian Pacific Islander characters, let alone hapas on TV and film to relate to.

"I don't really remember seeing multiracial characters [in the media] as a kid," Cariaga, explains. "I always had to seek out African Americans, Asians on TV, and call them my champions."

The actor says that instead, he focused on the more universal, human elements of the characters, and at that time didn't think of it as an issue. Director Byler also says he hadn't given it much thought until college, when he says he saw a film by Kip Fulbeck, one of the premiere artists who explores hapa identity.

"That was really the first time I remember feeling connected to a character on screen as a hapa," Byler says. "But I do remember my mom getting excited any time there was an Asian American character on TV.

During the Olympics, there was even some conflict in my mind whether to root for the team that looked like me or the team that represented the country I lived in."

For Fulbeck, the first character he related to as a hapa wasn't even part Asian, but instead, part extraterrestrial. "[The character Spock on Star Trek was] the first character who insisted that he was half something, half something else," Fulbeck told the Nichi Bei Times. "Obviously not hapa in the conventional sense, but as a kid I certainly empathized with his portrayal and the metaphor of not being 'fully' one or the other."

To Wolter, the other lead in 'Tre,' the idea of seeing hapa characters on-screen did not even occur to her as a child.

"I'm from Hawai'i; I come from a place where hapa people dominate;" Wolter says. "My closest friends at school were mostly hapa... but somehow, I looked at it as kind of like the Hobbit village, I thought, 'hapas exist here,' but I didn't realize conceive of hapas being out in the world."

The few images of hapas that did exist in the media are hardly cause for celebration, according to Wei-Ming Dariotis, assistant professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University.

"There is a prominent stereotype of the tragic Eurasian [in entertainment]," she explains. "This is pretty much that Eurasians are the product of a union between an Asian hooker and a horny American soldier.

"In these portrayals, being mixed is presented as a problem: they are near white, but they can't achieve the coveted whiteness, a pain that is so unbearable that is would be easier just to be non-white altogether. It completely defines their character and is the main conflict in their lives."

In "Tre," the characters' multiraciality is important to the story but not central.

"[In 'Tre'] the main characters both being hapas is important to the story," Byler explains, "but it isn't the main thing that defines them, and the film would still work without it. Many people might not even realize that the characters are hapa... because they don't talk about being hapa in a way that they wouldn't [if they were real people and not movie characters]."

It's also significant that both the actors and the characters who play them are hapa in 'Tre,' something that has not always been the case in Hollywood. Hapa characters, such as Kwai Chang Caine in the series "Kung Fu," were played by Caucasian actors.

Multiracial actors, like Keanu Reeves, Russell Wong, Rob Schneider, and Bruce Lee, on the other hand, were forced to fit into America's binary system of racial stratification.

"There's an issue for hapas in the entertainment industry which is whether you can pass [for white or Asian]," Dariotis says. "You have to be identified as one thing clearly. If you are ambiguous they can't figure out how to market you."

Wolter says this reflects her own experience as well. When she decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in writing and acting she was warned being hapa [mixed race] would be a barrier. "Three people in my family [who had been in show business] said 'you'll have a hard time, cause they won't be able to cast you,'" she explains.

Despite the mainstream America's historical surface rejection of multiraciality in celebrities, many say a subconscious acknowledgment of it has played a key part in Asian American's acceptance in the media.

In Arthur Dong's documentary "Hollywood Chinese," Lisa Lu and Tsai Chen both speculate that Nancy Kwan, a sex symbol in the 1960's, often credited as playing pivotal role in the acceptance of actors of Asian descent in Hollywood films, may have been accepted partially because of her Caucasian ancestry.

"Beauty is so subliminal it's a hard call," Dong tells the Nichi Bei Times. "But it's interesting that the first breakout [Chinese American] major motion picture star [was multiracial]."

Dariotis notes a similar phenomenon could have been at work in Russell Wong's career.

Attempts by hapas to assert their multiraciality have often been met with resistance. Hapa actor Matt Westmore and Justin, the character he played in Byler's "Charlotte Sometimes," was viewed as white by a segment of the Asian American populace, leading to a boycott of the film, which they perceived to be a story about "the white guy getting an Asian girl."

When Tiger Woods told Oprah Winfrey that he wanted to be recognized as multiracial, it set off what Time magazine called a "mini racial firestorm."

In the years since, Woods has often been cited in the debate over whether hapa celebrities have an obligation to champion the cause of multiracial people in America.

"[Film critic] Roger Ebert made an interesting point [in a clip in 'Hollywood Chinese'] about the obligation of any actor or entertainer to speak for their community," Dong says. "He says 'it's a burden that no one would ever think to place on [heterosexual white actors].'

"I think it's really more about equity at the end of the day," the documentary filmmaker continues. "If there were really an equal number of opportunities for Asians and hapas in entertainment, the responsibility [wouldn't really be placed on individuals] in that way."

"I think for the situation to improve, we really just to have more Asian American and hapa writers," Wolter adds. "When you have someone else trying to write about our experience out of obligation, then I think it can come across as inauthentic. When the writers have that experience, it will just happen naturally."

"I didn't set out to make 'Tre' with any sort of [racial] agenda," Byler concedes. "It all happened pretty naturally. Although at the same time, I'm glad it is what it is... and I imagine hapas who watch [entertainment] the way my mom watched TV will be happy with the film."

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