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.