Nov 23, 2012

What Happened to the Asian Beefcake?

On American tv, black beefcake is in short supply -- African-American actors with superb physiques are regularly censored, covered up.  But Asian beefcake is even scarcer.

During the 1960s, there were only five male performers of East or Southeast Asian ancestry in regular or recurring role on tv: the cook Hop Sing (Victor Sen Yung) on Bonanza, the valet Kato (Bruce Lee) on The Green Hornet, Sulu (George Takei) on Star Trekand two assisting detectives on Hawaii Five-O.  Mostly servants and sidekicks.  Only Sulu was ever displayed shirtless, and that was to signify that he had become mentally unstable.

In spite of Bruce Lee's influence in popularizing Asian muscle, the 1970s were even worse: Keone Young (right) as a science-nerd teenager on Room 222, the dissolute, hard-gambling dtective Yemana (Jack Soo) on Barney Miller, teen hangout proprietor Arnold (Pat Morita) on Happy Days, and Sam (Robert Ito), lab assistant on Quincy, M.E.  Hawaiian singer Don Ho had a brief daytime tv show.







There weren't even any Asians in commercials.  I remember one: in 1974, a laundry guy (Calvin Jung, left) claims that he gets clothes clean with an "ancient Chinese secret."  But the joke is: he and his wife both speak colloquial American English ("My husband, some hotshot!"), and he actually uses Calgon detergent.  According to Jung, just speaking with an American accent was a breakthrough.

There were some hunks among the sidekicks and servants, but again, not a button out of place.





A breakthrough of sorts came in the late 1980s.  On 21 Jump Street (1987-91), Ioki (Dustin Nguyen) was one of the detectives assigned to go undercover in a high school.  He didn't get quite the on-screen exposure of his white costars (Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise), but lots of shirtless shots and artistic nudes appeared, and he bared it all in Playgirl. 












Dean Cain, Clark Kent in the Superman update Lois and Clark (1993-97), was a veritable sex symbol, shirtless or underwear-clad in nearly every episode, his massive pecs and shoulders a mainstay of teen magazines.











In the 2000s,  Daniel Dae Kim (left) and Ken Leung lent their sculpted physiques to Lost.  

But they were exceptions.  Today, Asian representation on tv is almost as bad as gay representation: less than 2% of regular or recurring roles, lots of servants and sidekicks, lots of humorously asexual nerds, without so much as a flexed bicep.