"Rush Hour," Jackie Chan's big English-language Hollywood debut, may have met with overwhelming approval at the box office last weekend, but it got a mixed reaction from Asian Americans, some of whom were rankled by what they saw as insulting racial jokes and stereotypical Asian portrayals.
Last week, even before the film was released, Asian American groups began criticizing the film on the basis of preview screenings and the movie's trailer.
"I walked away feeling entertained on the one hand but also having a knot in my stomach," says Juju Lien, executive director of Chicago's Asian American Institute. "It is a shame that Hollywood could not stay away from the cheap racial humor. . . . it would still be entertaining without doing that sort of thing, without perpetuating the stereotypes.
"It's just one more time a major movie with an appeal to young people presents these stereotypes very subtly disguised in humor. Most Asians might not even know it, but the damage is there just underneath the surface."
But George Toshio Johnston, the editor of Yolk Magazine, an Asian American pop-culture quarterly, thinks that compared with what other minorities endure, Asians don't fare too badly in this action film that pairs Chan with black comedian Chris Tucker as detectives solving a kidnapping.
"With regard to any stereotyping, I think these things are going to improve in incremental steps. . . . Hollywood has a history of portraying all minorities in less than positive ways," he says. "It is definitely a step forward having two minorities in the lead even though there were some cliches."
But at the same time, he says he thinks it is far more damaging to African Americans to have Chris Tucker going into a pool hall, as he does in the movie, and use the n-word.
Filmgoers exiting a Chicago theater Tuesday didn't seem bothered by racial jokes that include Chan being called the "Chung King cop."
"He is the Chung King cop," says Anna Fernandez. "I mean, he is from China. I don't think it was offensive."
And, as for the use of the n-word by Chan, Toyia Parker of Chicago's South Side says, "If he said that in real life, he would get beat up. But it's just a movie, it's just comedy. There's no reason to get mad over something like that."
Asian-American Film Festival organizer Ben Kim agrees that "Rush Hour" was ultimately more amusing than offensive.
"I've never hesitated to speak out against media stereotypes of Asian Americans," Kim says. "But we have to choose our battles carefully, and Rush Hour' isn't worth a fight. Sure, a gong rings when Jackie first sets foot in the U.S., and Chris Tucker wisecracks about Rice-a-Roni and Cup-o-Noodles. But for a formula movie, the writing is pretty smart, and the clash-of-cultures stuff is funnier than you'd expect."
Fon Lin Nyeu, the assistant to the publisher at A. magazine, saw an early cut of the film and found it upsetting -- as an Asian and a woman.
"One of the things I found most offensive was at the end of the film when Chris Tucker says to Jackie that he wants to be introduced to some of those Chinese girls because he wants a massage," she says.
Still, Nancy Tom, founder of the Center for Asian Arts and Media at Columbia College, thinks these kinds of comedies are not that damaging, and would be less so if Asians had the same kind of diversity of portrayals as the black community.
"They each were a stereotype, no doubt, but it was in such a light comedy way that I did not find it offensive at all," she said. "But what we need is more exposure in other areas, even if it is just a fourth of an inch. Blacks have these types of movies but they also have movies like Soul Food' and Love Jones.' We have not had anything since the Joy Luck Club' (which starred her daughter Lauren)."
Others, such as Johnston,, see the film's box-office receipts as a positive sign, showing that two minorities can carry a movie. "I'm happy that this kind of movie could make $31 million its opening weekend," he says.
Peter Ong, director of the New York Asian-American Writers Workshop, disagrees.
"I'm sure when the Fu Man Chu films or Charlie Chan films first came out they were popular, but that doesn't mean that it is positive," he counters. "I'm sure if they put out a film tomorrow by Aunt Jemima and it became No. 1, people would be outraged. I'm not even African American and I had problems with the stereotypical behavior of Chris Tucker's part."
For a community that, for years, quietly tolerated roles as servants while white actors played the leads in the Charlie Chan films and the "Kung-Fu" series, this kind of vocal objection is a relatively new phenomenon.
"It goes hand in hand with the political maturing of the community," says Kim. Johnston takes a longer view of the situation that he feels will change as Asians gain more power in Hollywood.
"Ultimately for Jackie Chan it means a step forward. He will now get a green light to make another movie," Johnston says. "And as a result, he is going to have more clout to correct anything he may have seen as a racial flaw in future movies. So taken from that perspective, it's a step forward."