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.”