A Japanese Man Was Hollywood’s First Sex Symbol So Stop Emasculating Our Asian Leading Men
Hollywood’s first-ever sex symbol had Charlie Chaplin levels of popularity and women willing to throw fur coats over puddles for him with just a grimace. So how is it possible that most of us don’t know about the legendary Sessue Hayakawa?
As someone who would gladly die smothered in Daniel Dae Kim’s beefy mommy milkers, the desexualisation of Asian men completely truly befuddles me. Onscreen, Asian men are whittled down to little more than asexual tapeworms via neutered stereotypes: the weirdo foreigner (Silicon Valley’s Jian-Yang), the techy nerd (The Big Bang Theory’s Raj), or the ambitious Yappie (that one gay Asian guy in the Sex and The City movie). These types of characters are always in service of the protagonist (99.9% of the time a white man), either as a supportive sidekick or as a cartoonish antagonist, and they are never written to be titillating heartthrobs. Growing up, I had a completely different experience consuming Asian cinema, but what do these representations mean for other people who haven’t seen In The Mood For Love? Who weren’t secretly opening up PornHub to look up the sex scenes in Lust, Caution, caught between fear and arousal? It’s not surprising that the belief of an Asian man’s inherent undesirability has become a part of our psyche: OkCupid founder Christian Rudder wrote in his book Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking) that from 2009 to 2014, Asian men were considered the least desirable racial group for women in the US, according to company data.
After growing up surrounded by these portrayals of Asian men (I actively avoided Western media for its lack of representation), I was shocked to learn that Hollywood’s very first sex symbol — sex! symbol! — was Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa. But if the first sex symbol was a brooding Japanese man during the silent film era of the 1910s and 1920s, how on Earth is it possible that Asian Americans have never had representation like that again to the same degree, and that actors like Simu Liu, star of Marvel/Disney’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, still have to prove themselves as movie star-quality leading men one hundred years later?
Born in 1886 in the Chiba Prefecture as Kintaro Hayakawa, Big Daddy Sessue Hayakawa rose to fame in the 1910s and 1920s during the silent film era for his roles in The Cheat, His Birthright, and The Typhoon. His family had initially dreamt that he would enter the Japanese Imperial Navy, but after an accident left him with ruptured eardrums, Hayakawa failed the Navy physical. This estranged Hayakawa from his father, who was ashamed of Hayakawa’s failure, and eventually led to Hayakawa attempting his samurai family’s tradition of seppuku. Fortunately, the family dog’s barking alerted the family that something was wrong on the night of Hayakawa’s attempt and his father broke down the door of the locked shed with an axe to stop his son. After recovering, Hayakawa went to the United States, and once he was discovered by production agencies, he became in high demand. After his breakout role in The Cheat in 1915, Hayakawa found incredible popularity and success for his portrayals of dangerous, sadistic, and alluring Asian antagonists. MFA, PhD, and associate professor of Cinema and Television Arts at Columbia College Chicago Karla Rae Fuller writes in her book Hollywood Goes Oriental: CaucAsian Performance in American Film, Hayakawa’s star personality straddled the line between “civility and culture” and “latent brutality.” For white women, he was a potent aphrodisiac of taboo fantasies. Even prior to the 1930 Production Code that outright banned the representation of interracial couples and interracial sex, Hayakawa could not rely on any explicit physicality to sell his masculine magnetism. Scenes of him “kissing” his white co-stars were all blocked and shot in such a way that suggested physical interaction, but no liplocks were actually shown on screen. "The idea of the rape fantasy, forbidden fruit, all those taboos of race and sex — it made him a movie star,” Stephen Gong, the executive director for San Francisco’s Center of Asian American Media, tells NJ.com.
At the time, the prevailing perception of Asian Americans was filtered through the Yellow Peril myth, the belief that the “yellow” Other (aka Asians) have an agenda to rape and conquer white Christendom, culminating in racially corrupted offspring. Fears of the Asian sexual appetite sprung from a variety of factors — one of which being that some Asian cultures, at the time, were polygamist — and that followers of false Eastern cults were bestowed powers of irresistible seduction (akin to Vladimir Nabokov’s description of nymphets, in his famous novel Lolita). White supremacists feared the threat of racially mixed offspring, while the government tolerated inhumane racial violence, including the Rock Springs Massacre, the Tacoma Riot of 1885, the Seattle Riot of 1886, and the Bellingham Riot of 1906 in addition to the Page Act and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. When we take a step back and actually look at how Asian Americans were treated at the time, Hayakawa’s astronomical success in Hollywood only a few years later wasn’t just surprising — it was completely unprecedented.
As someone who grew up in a traditional Chinese household and who used to stare at pictures of K-pop mega group TVXQ, murmuring that age was only a number, I understood Hollywood’s Asian representation was limiting and it frustrated me. It led me to seek out Asian cinema to see portrayals I actually recognised, related to, and lusted over. The melancholy crook of Tony Leung’s shoulders as cigarette smoke swirled hazily over his head in In The Mood For Love gave me butterflies. Hyun Bin’s roguish but brittle smile and the boyish tilt of his head made me ache for his doomed attraction in Late Autumn. Takeru Satoh made me want to physically fight him in pretty much all of the Rurounin Kenshin movies for having the sheer audacity to hurt me with his gorgeous face and his character’s complex emotions. These Asian leading men could swing from intensity to fragility, from strength to vulnerability, their performances all the more alluring and fascinating for that duality. These men took my breath away because they were being portrayed without the presence of a white industry looming over their shoulders. I only saw these incredible in-depth roles in Asian films, directed by Asian filmmakers, and written by Asian writers. It never failed to gall me how Hollywood never seemed to see Asian men the way Asian men saw themselves, and instead focused on the internalised racism that posited cruel stereotypes as reality. Similarly, Hayakawa became dissatisfied with being typecast as a forbidden and villainous lover. And even though white audiences — white women in particular — ate his roles up with gusto (clearly, they were women of taste), Japanese audiences complained that his roles portrayed Japanese men as sadistic and predatory.
In 1922, Hayakawa left Hollywood for a combination of reasons (including rising anti-Japanese sentiment), before returning to the silver screen post-World War II. He opened his own production company, Haworth Pictures Productions, in hopes of playing the kind of roles he’d dreamed of playing. Some of Hayakawa’s most popular films, like His Birthright, The Temple of Dusk, and The Dragon Painter, were produced by Haworth Pictures Corporation, before it closed down in 1922. And though he still had clout in his later years and was still able to land strong roles until his retirement in 1966, Hayakawa lamented in 1949 that his one ambition was to play “a hero” — a hero who could successfully connect both his Western and Japanese audiences and bridge the gap between two different cultures with common ground. Perhaps he didn’t know it then, but Hayakawa wanted to play a character that told the story of the Asian American as a member of two distinct cultures. As an Asian American, it pains me to think about how his legacy has gone unfulfilled for decades.
Hayakawa’s influence on film — as a leading man, a trailblazer, a hero of his own story — has almost been erased. Much of Hayakawa's early work hasn’t been conscientiously preserved, showing Hollywood’s complicity in ignoring his place in the film canon. “[Hayakawa] is virtually ignored in film history as well as star studies,” Rae Fuller writes. “The fact that he reached such a rare level of success whereby he could form and run his own production company makes his omission from the narrative of Hollywood history even more egregious.”
Post-Hayakawa, Hollywood has yet to allow an Asian man to reach such levels of masculine stardom. According to LAAUNCH’s STATUS Index Data, 42% of Americans polled could’t name a prominent Asian American, despite the fact that we literally have an Asian American woman as the Vice President of the United States. The most common answers after “don’t know” were Jackie Chan (11%) and Bruce Lee (9%), two actors whose peak popularity and prolificacy were decades ago. Numbers, unfortunately, don’t lie — Asian men are barely even a blip on the radar of the American consciousness, beyond foreign martial artists. The precedent Hayakawa set with his incredible career seemed to have died with Hayakawa himself in 1973.
But I’m cautiously optimistic that times are changing. Henry Golding played the Asian Prince Charming in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, and Steven Yeun showed how Asian men can also be providers and protectors through The Walking Dead’s Glenn Rhee and Minari’s Jacob. Andrew Koji’s portrayal of Ah Sahm in Warrior is multifaceted, dangerous, and sexy, and I want him to backfist me straight to horny jail. Taylor Takahashi played the protagonist of Boogie with a cool swagger that had me flushed and wanting to hold his pecs. Now, Liu, with that could-hit-it-then-ghost smile of his, will fulfil Hayakawa’s dreams as the very first Asian American superhero in Marvel’s Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings. These performances do more than leave an audience hot, bothered, and entertained; they send the message to young Asian Americans that we deserve to take up space on everyone’s screens — and in their wet dreams. We deserve to tell stories and create art that expresses our complexities and nuances. We deserve to make films that celebrate us, because being Asian American means being Asian AND American and that our experience is beautiful. There’s no limit to how many seats are at the table, and we’re just claiming our own space, one broad-shouldered, deeply complex, bone-structure-of-a-god, literally-has-me-in-a-choke-hold-between-his-thighs, beefcake of a hero at a time.