Movies

How ‘Big Trouble In Little China’ Opened Doors For Asian-American Actors In Hollywood

In his review of the 1986 film Big Trouble in Little China, Roger Ebert wrote that this movie is “straight out of the era of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu, with no apologies and all of the usual stereotypes.” He compared it to 1985’s Year of the Dragon, which featured Mickey Rourke taking on a seriously violent Chinese Triads leader and sparked outrage and even protests at the time of its release. Ebert ultimately wondered how Asian-Americans would respond to this film, citing it as “one more example of the way every American ethnic group has been fodder for Hollywood’s mill.”

The response, as it turns out, was not positive.

A week after the film debuted in theaters and began its underwhelming box office run, the Los Angeles Times detailed the offenses that some Chinese-American groups had taken with Big Trouble in Little China. Groups like Chinese for Affirmative Action and Chinese Progressive Association were upset that San Francisco’s Chinatown needed to be saved by “a macho, smart-aleck white truck driver,” and they were agitated over 20th Century Fox never giving them an opportunity to review the film’s script. (Perhaps that’s because there were already too many other problems with the script.)

But the film’s marketing coordinator, Daniel Kwan, told the newspaper at the time that he met with protesters from both groups, and while he wouldn’t share the film’s script with them, they still found a copy but failed to present him with “any specifics of what they wanted changed.” In response, one spokesperson cited the “overall impression of the movie” as the problem, and how Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton “still comes off as the hero at the end,” despite Kwan’s and the studio’s insistence that he’s only a “hero” by dumb luck. Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi and Victor Wong’s Egg Shen are the real heroes of the movie — even if Egg says otherwise is the opening scene — and actor Peter Kwong, who played Rain, told the Times that it was “unfair” and “misleading” to call Dun’s character Jack’s “yes man.”

Thirty years later, Kwong remains steadfast in his belief that the outrage was much ado about nothing. “They didn’t read the script, they didn’t consider anything, they didn’t look at anything,” he tells us. “It was just subject matter — Chinatown, gangs — ‘Let’s go get them.’ They didn’t care it was a comedy, so that’s why we added the myth, and the substance, and added the fine-tuning of the martial artists, because there were a lot of things I brought to the table.”

Kwong is highly complimentary of John Carpenter’s work ethic, not just as a director who had a vision for something grand and magical, but because he gave everyone involved with the film the opportunity to contribute and bring things to the table so that Big Trouble in Little China would be more authentic and inoffensive. It may have been a comedy, but it was a special opportunity for Kwong and the other Asian-American actors who contributed to this film. Even if Kwong didn’t even know it was a comedy when he landed the role of Rain.

John Carpenter’s Bag Of Tricks

When Kwong arrived for his audition, there were more than 100 Asian-American actors on hand, trying to land roles. “It was a huge cattle call of martial artists,” he recalls, and all he knew from word of mouth was that they were looking for authentic martial artists who looked the part and backed it up. The casting call was for extra roles, mostly, as they needed to find the gang members for the airport kidnapping scene, as well as the women for the warehouse fight and members of both the Wing Kong and Chang Sing for the street fight. So, when it came time for him to prove himself to Carpenter, Kwong showed off his martial arts skills and collection of actual weapons. That definitely caught the director’s eye.

“They contacted my agent and said, ‘We don’t want him as a martial artist. We want him in as an actor and to be part of the Storms,’” he says. “The Three Storms, we had Rain, Thunder, and Lightning. Besides our natural superpower godly talents, we also had specialty weapons. I had the extending claws, Thunder had the sickles with the daggers, and Lightning had the spinning swords in his hands, the blades. Everyone had their own specialties. I was fortunate to be able to be one of the Three Storms.”

Even when he accepted the role of Rain, Kwong didn’t have a script. His first day of filming Big Trouble in Little China involved a crucial scene – his one-on-one battle with Wang Chi at Lo Pan’s wedding. He recalls the filming process in great detail, pulling back the curtain to reveal how Carpenter used his own magic to make this battle seem so over-the-top and spectacular. When Rain and Wang are leaping through the air and battling with swords, Kwong and Dun were actually standing still. There were no wires. Instead, Carpenter used some camera trickery to make the background move behind his actors, while the stunt team hopped around and flipped through the air on trampolines. But the greatest trick the director used was not letting his bad guy in on the joke.

“We’re fighting, fighting, fighting and all the sudden we land and Dennis Dun raises his eyebrows,” Kwong says. “I’m looking at him up and down going, ‘What the hell?’ This is a serious drama that’s going on. This is a serious fight. What I didn’t realize, because I didn’t have access to the script at that time, was that it’s a comedy. I had to be the total straight man. So, what’s the best way to be the total straight man? Don’t let them in on it! John Carpenter, that was his little trick. All these little tricks were being pulled, unbeknownst to us.”

But Kwong and his castmates were hardly in the dark in other respects. In fact, he says Carpenter was extremely inclusive from the beginning, because he cared about making sure that his film wasn’t offensive. Even in an era without the internet, the response to Year of the Dragon was still on everyone’s minds, Carpenter included, and Kwong believes that the anger over that film was simply a matter of “enough is enough.”

“I really appreciate John Carpenter’s input in this, in that when we were doing this the timing of it was right after the release of Year of the Dragon with Mickey Rourke,” Kwong explains. “Year of the Dragon was a film that came out about New York street gangs, Chinatown street gangs, and it was protested heavily with the Asian Pacific community because it held the Chinese in such negative light. Not like The Godfather, because The Godfather was all about culture, family — it showed colors, it showed dimension of human feelings, as opposed to stereotypes that all Chinese are involved in gangs and being controlled by gangs. Although certain parts of that are real, a lot of it’s based on fiction and stereotypes. And we don’t need more stereotypes about negative, evil, Chinese people. It’s already bad.”

Turning A Problem Into Potential

Kwong’s on-screen rival, Dun, was familiar with the outrage over Year of the Dragon, as he made his big screen debut in that film. After Fox shot down the idea of casting Jackie Chan as Wang, Carpenter chose Dun because of his previous role. But Dun’s wife told him not to take Big Trouble in Little China. Instead, she urged him to accept a role in another project that was more positive for Asian-Americans.

“My wife read it and didn’t really like it,” Dun tells us. “I had an offer to do a TV movie [Blood and Orchid] about a true story in Hawaii, playing a lawyer. My agent wanted me to do that and my wife wasn’t sure because I had just done Year of the Dragon, that was my first film. So, this was only my second film. I didn’t protest it. There were some questions about the script and I saw a lot of possibilities. I was a W.D. Richter fan. I saw Buckaroo Bonzai and liked the way he kind of mixes all these genres and cultures and put them together. Kind of multi-cultural, futuristic. I saw the humor in Big Trouble, it felt like the right thing. It was like a childhood fantasy come true: You get to be a hero, you get be funny and kind of goofy and silly, which I am in real life. It was just fun.”

As Kwong recalls, the outrage over Big Trouble in Little China began as soon as the plot details leaked. The protesting organizations sent letters to Carpenter and 20th Century Fox officials to express their concerns over what they believed to be offensive portrayals of Chinese characters. Once Dun accepted the role of Wang, Carpenter shared one of the letters with him so that he’d be aware of the real troubles facing the film’s production. Dun refers to that period as “an interesting time,” because if not for these controversial roles, he would have never become an actor.

“In the mid-’80s, China was just opening up at the end of the cultural revolution of the late ’70s, and there were these things about China [Americans] were curious about,” Dun says. “That’s why I started getting work. Actually, I was going to quit acting. I was doing theater for nothing in San Francisco for about seven or eight years. I had to make a living so I was going to quit and then I got cast in Dragon. Even then I saw there were a lot of things people were going to protest but I thought, ‘I don’t really know anything about this business. I guess I’ll just go back to retail.’ That’s what I was going to do for work. I was doing marketing.”

Dun was no stranger to racism in the ‘80s, sharing one particular incident that took place around the same time that he was filming Big Trouble in Little China. “Someone would say, ‘Go back to Vietnam,’ and I’m Chinese-American. So I’d say, ‘Well, go back to Chicago!’” he laughs. “There was a big transition starting in the ’80s. People knew there were the Four Asian Tigers, but they didn’t really come on that strong yet. It was a transition for everybody, just awareness of Asia in the presence of America and the world. The ’80s was a time when it was just starting to happen. Japan had come as an economic miracle and I just remember them destroying Japanese cars in Detroit and all that stuff.”

“All the Asian communities were ready to attack, anything down the line,” Kwong says. “Big Trouble in Little China was next, even though it was a comedy, even though it was tongue-in-cheek. They said, ‘No more negative stereotypes,’ and so they were developing on the outside a huge Asian Pacific coalition against Big Trouble in Little China. This was a very politically heavy time, so Big Trouble in Little China was a very pivotal political message besides it becoming a cult film. How did John Carpenter handle this? He had meetings with the cast and crew and he asked us for a lot of input. It affected the script in that now people wanted the real deal. He said, ‘I want you guys to bring what you can to the table,’ and he gave certain people a different title. From stunt coordinator, now he’s an associate producer. Then, us as a group met with the community and we talked things out and watched the community uprise. It wasn’t that Big Trouble in Little China or 20th Century Fox was ignoring the community, we chose to engage them and brought them onto the set. It was diffused because we, as the cast and crew, said, ‘Look, this is our project, we’re making this happen. So, what’s the problem here?’”

From ‘Big Trouble’ To A ‘Golden’ Opportunity

As far as the doors that Big Trouble in Little China opened for Kwong, Dun, and many of their castmates, the progress was evident almost immediately with the release of The Golden Child in December 1986. One of the problems that dogged Carpenter during the production of Big Trouble in Little China was Fox rushing it to beat The Golden Child to theaters. Carpenter tells us that it was a little odd that two movies that focused on Chinese mysticism were in production at the same time, but the silver lining of his film being fast-tracked was that some of his actors were also cast in the Eddie Murphy vehicle.

“Half our people went from Big Trouble in Little China to The Golden Child,” Kwong recalls. “James Hong, Victor Wong, I was on Golden Child — a lot of people that were from our camp were cast. Again, I had to do the martial arts stuff, so in the audition I’m there with the director and of course, what do I do? I bring my whole bag of weapons. I walk in there and I’m ready for this audition, this verbal part of the audition and they say, ‘What’s that?’ And I throw the bag down and it goes clunk and crash, and I look at them and point them in the face and say, ‘That’s in case I don’t get the job.’”

Unfortunately for fans, the cast, and Carpenter, Big Trouble in Little China being a bomb meant there was no chance there’d ever be a sequel. Even Larry Gordon, the head of motion pictures for 20th Century Fox in 1985, was gone before the film was released. Just as Carpenter remembers, Kwong points the blame for the lack of success squarely on the marketing department, while pondering what could have been.

“I wish there was a sequel,” he says. “I wish that at the beginning that John Carpenter got the kudos he deserved. Because time has proven that it’s a great film. And unfortunately it took all that time to become a great thing. And if they would have marketed it better, history might have been changed, because it was really interesting to follow that. That year was really good for me because I think I did three or four feature films in one year, right after that, almost back to back.”

Box office returns aside, Dun still remembers a different kind of response, perhaps far more important to him than money was to the studio. “When it came out I talked to some people in Hong Kong I had met and they really hated the film. With Richter and Carpenter and actors and everything it became something else. I wonder if they would like it now. I know even some Asian-Americans didn’t like it and they saw it recently and thought, yeah, I like it a lot better now. But I think back then the consciousness is very different and even Asians are very ambivalent about how they thought about themselves because we’re usually gangsters, sex trafficking white women in Asia, or gamblers, pimps, drug dealers. I mean, there is that element in any culture so I think that’s pretty much what the portrayal was before, we were just mysterious people. So the whole ’80s with the films like Big Trouble was a transition of just the world. A continuum of a civilization,” he laughs. “People evolving and learning about themselves. I know it sounds so intellectual but I think that’s really what it is.”

The Real Legacy Feels Kind Of Invincible

Both Dun and Kwong mention a feeling of family when looking back at the production of Big Trouble in Little China, citing the film’s star, Kurt Russell, as someone who made them all feel like they mattered, like they were equals.

“John Carpenter had that kind of vision because he understood that we were Americans,” Dun says. “I think there was an openness to find out who we were. That really played into the sensibility of what I saw in the script and what he even saw in the script. But you never really talked about it, you could just feel it. And the openness of all the people working together, and even Kurt Russell was amazing. We just loved working together.”

“To be working with Kurt Russell was a treat and why it was a treat, always, was because of his personality,” Kwong adds. “Really nice guy. Really down to Earth. But when you walk onto a set and it carries a really warm, friendly — by this time because of politics — mutual effort, let’s come together to make this film together. Because that’s what made it more of a family. We knew that we had to overcome certain obstacles, the negativity and then making it all, as opposed to just a film for 20th Century Fox. It now became our own personal input, our own personal creation, and it became ours.”

Kwong ran into Russell at the Oscars a few years back, thinking that the huge star wouldn’t remember one of the bad guys from some box office flop. Instead, that moment confirmed what he’d learned about the man who played Jack Burton decades earlier. “The last time I saw Kurt Russell was at the Oscars. I saw him and Goldie [Hawn], and I came up to him and said, ‘I had to say hello, I don’t know if you remember me,’ and he said, ‘Of course I remember you, how have you been?’ It had been 25 years, bless his heart. Even though we’ve aged, we haven’t changed that much. Our bodies, we haven’t gotten fat and lazy. Still looking like he looked back then. Maybe a few years’ difference, but who’s counting?”

Some of the cast of Big Trouble in Little China reunited for the 25th anniversary in 2011, and they met at another event in 2015 to specifically discuss the role that the film played in helping Asian-Americans in Hollywood. One of the film’s original writers, Gary Goldman, joined them to celebrate the impact of the film, despite his contentious past with the studio over writing credits for him and his partner, David Z. Weinstein. To Goldman, the revelation that this film meant so much to the cast helped him appreciate what his original idea has evolved into after 30 years.

“I hadn’t realized what an impact it had had on the actors,” Goldman tells us. “That was actually kind of new to me and made me feel great.” Weinstein agrees, saying that he’s “extremely happy” about this particular aspect of the movie, invoking the recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy as a reminder that there is still progress to be made in “making films reflect more what America actually looks like.”

“There’s always room for improvement but you can see the transition for all people of color, it’s changed quite a bit,” Dun offers. “Some aren’t perfect from when you’re looking at it as a minority, but you can see it’s an amazing thing that’s happened in the 30 years. The whole world’s changed so much. It’s amazing. The presence of Latinos in media, people of color in general, has gotten a lot better. For older Asian characters, we’re still foreign, but that will keep evolving over time. But you see your Hawaii Five-0 and you see they’re part of the mainstream. They’re part of America and not making a big deal out of them being part of being Asian.”

Interestingly, it’s diversity that Dun cites when he talks about why he might be okay with the possible remake of Big Trouble in Little China. Like Carpenter, Dun isn’t even sure that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s remake will ever happen, as he points out that there have been rumors of a remake for 20 years. However, if it is remade, he says, he’d first and foremost like to play the Egg Shen character this time around as a tribute to Victor Wong, who was his mentor (“The Egg Shen to me in real life”) during their time together on Year of the Dragon, Big Trouble in Little China, and The Last Emperor. As for Johnson playing Jack Burton, Dun sees that as a tribute to the inclusiveness that this film promoted 30 years ago.

“Kurt Russell is all-American as can be and he’s great, but you’ve got The Rock now, who’s American, but he’s a person of color who’s half-black, half-Samoan,” Dun says. “It’s kind of a new vision of America that we are part of this culture. That concept excites me because that would never happen 30 years ago. It had to be a white, American, Caucasian actor. So, that itself is a statement that a person like The Rock has become such an international American icon. He’s very entertaining, so I’d be interested to see what he does.”

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