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Pet Sins January 2000

New York Undercover

After hearing ColorQ bash a whole list of films with Asian bad guys, you may be wondering if it is even possible for a movie/show to have a villain of color without being called racist. Oh well, one can't please everybody, and no matter what you do, someone's bound to be pissed. Anyway, it is not our intention to insist that no movies with bad guys of color ever be made. It won't be fair either if all the bad guys are white. In our humble opinion, one episode of New York Undercover has successfully incorporated an Asian bad guy without resorting to 2-dimensional stereotypes, and here is the scope:

In the Don't Blink episode of New York Undercover, Billy Chang plays a Chinese assassin working for Chinatown storeowners. He is a martial artist and efficient serial murderer. Police woman Lauren Velez is assigned to his case. Sounds typical enough.

When white people make movies/cartoons/comics with Asian male characters, they often stick with flat stereotypes (meaning you don't usually get to meet guys remotely like that in real life). Some examples:

  1. near-psychotic martial artists/warriors out of touch with humanity and obsessed with an anal sense of "honor" (Walker, Texas Ranger, The Hunted, Lethal Weapon 4)
  2. Violently sadistic criminals (Showdown in Little Tokyo, The Hunted, Lethal Weapon 4, X-Files)
  3. Sexist or oppressive patriarchs/bureaucrats (Joy Luck Club, Mulan, Red Corner)
  4. Geeky bookish types, often physically handicapped. (Action Man and New Mutants comics both had wheelchair-bound Asian technical wizards)
  5. Karate-chopping sidekick to a white hero (Green Hornet, Showdown in Little Tokyo, Indiana Jones, Temple of Doom)
  6. Wise old sage imparting Eastern wisdom to whites (Karate Kid, Kungfu, Walker, Texas Ranger)
  7. Sexual Perverts/Rapists (Showdown in Little Tokyo, Joy Luck Club)
  8. Pimps (Miss Saigon)

In Don't Blink (NYU), Billy Chang's character Chen Lu either negates these roles or infuses them with a depth and complexity that defies stereotypes.

Synopsis:
The story opens with Chen Lu, a Chinese hitman, shooting 2 African American gangsters in a restaurant on orders from a Chinese shopkeeper tired of paying protection money. A Chinese cop runs in. As he bends down to touch the dead Afro-Am gangster, Lu kills him too. This short scene disarms any potential racist undertones and saves the episode from looking like a simplistic Chinese-against-blacks gang war. Since all the characters in this scene are male and strangers, heterosexual politics do not come into play. A lot of white-male-oriented movies neglect such small, human touches that lift a movie/TV show beyond oppressive stereotyping.

Chen Lu is a martial artist with serious anger-management problems. He is also young, boyish, fairly good-looking and not a sissy. Compare this to Gary Tagawa in Showdown in Little Tokyo -- a perverted-looking dried-up old guy, or John Lone in The Hunted -- just a sadistic killer with no redeeming qualities. Chen Lu is a professional, not a sadist. He kills for the money and finishes up clean and fast. At this point, we know for sure he does not correspond to stereotypes 2, 5, 6, and 8 above. Both Lu and the other Asian characters have no accent. This again is a refreshing break with prevailing stereotypes.

Puerto Rican American cop Nina goes undercover to track down the hitman. (This happens at a point of time when she is having communication difficulties with her Puerto Rican boyfriend) When she first approaches Lu as a waitress offering him more coffee, he glances at her obliquely, hardly making eye contact when thanking her, before quickly returning to his book. (a behavior not uncommon among East Asians) I don't consider this ethnic stereotyping because I don't believe I've ever seen a white-male-oriented movie represent this cultural trait in such an understated and yet accurate way. They either go overboard with the stereotype of the shy, repressed, asexual Asian, or they go all out to make him a sexual pervert, a profiteer in the sex industry, a sexist domineering jerk or a violent chopsaki thug.

Again, that simple scene in the diner gives Lu more complexity in 2 minutes than "Showdown in Little Tokyo" gave Brandon Lee in 2 hours. This combination of a shy, passive personality and a violent temper defies Hollywood stereotypes of Asian men. Lu is an East Asian who could sit with a book without looking like a geek, and the next moment shoot guns, kick and punch without being a perverted sadist or an obsessed warrior. Lu is, of course, a serial killer, but his assasinations do not have the senseless and sadistic quality that white-male-targeted movies like Showdown in Little Tokyo and Lethal Weapon 4 attribute to their male Asian characters.

Nina eventually breaks the ice and goes on a date with Lu. In the park, 2 white men insult her crudely. Lu instantaneously switches from shy boy mode to violent mode. He beats up the 2 white men single-handedly. (this flies in the face of stereotype 4 listed above) While the scene is disturbing to watch for its violence, in a way, it empowers people of color. 3 things are happening in this scene:

  1. People of color resist being victims or sex objects.
  2. Men of color are capable of defending women of color.
  3. White people cannot insult them and get away with it.
(Compare this to Tomorrow Never Dies, where the Asian woman, despite her many accomplishments, still agrees to the white man's sexual desires in the final scene)

Nina and Lu go on a second date. She goes to his apartment and steals 2 bullets which incriminate him in the first killing. He starts to tell her about his painful childhood. He talks about starting over and leaving the past behind (This emotional depth and vulnerability takes care of stereotype 1 listed above) .

They kiss but he says he would not to sleep with her -- he did not want to "ruin" what was happening or "cheapen the moment" (This busts stereotype 7 above). I have never seen any movie in which a white man handles a relationship with a woman of color with the same sort of self-respect and dignity. This Asian murderer has a moral state higher than the white man's penis-driven consciousness so often portrayed in movies. (compare to The Hunted's white man's dream scene with a strategically-exposed Joan Chen in a badly-designed sequin costume, or Joan Chen in the translucent outfit in Taipan)

Later, as the cops close in on Lu, he realizes that Nina is an officer. He takes her hostage while she was walking to the diner. He shouts about his betrayal and rage: Why? He was about to quit and start over. Was the kiss an act too? She said it was not totally an act. "What do you mean?" he yells. Too late for answers. Two gangsters arrive and start shooting at them. Lu and Nina each take one of them out and then they turn on each other. Nina shoots him in the chest. He drops dead. She picks up his gold chain (a memento from his childhood) which had fallen to the ground and closes his hand around it. Then as other cops arrive, she starts to cry. If I am not mistaken, this screen kiss between Billy Chang (an East Asian man) and Lauren Velez (an Afro-Latina woman) is the first such interracial screen kiss. In US-made movies/TV, the East Asian boy usually does not get the girl, or if he does, it is an East Asian or white girl. (reflects the racism of the larger society)

Billy Chang in Don't Blink is kick-butt and cool, a combination of confidence and vulnerability, shyness and initiative, rage and sadness, violence and sensitivity. New York Undercover's Chinese character, although a vicious criminal, has more depth and complexity than I've seen in most Asian characters in American media (including the latest Mulan) -- and that's not bad for the short time frame of 1 episode.

Kudos to the writers and producers of NYU for incorporating a negative Asian character without resorting to lame clich├ęs or cardboard villains. Credits as well to the cast for their realistic and empowering portrayals of people of color.

Asian martial artist
1999