Go Asians: A History of AAPI Representation in ‘Star Wars’

The month of May holds a special place in the hearts of Asian American and Pacific Islander Star Wars fans. For starters, May has been AAPI Heritage Month since 1990, though it originally began as “Asian Pacific Heritage Week” when it was proposed in Congress by Representatives Frank Horton and Norman Y. Mineta in 1977. That’s right, 1977. You know what else debuted in May 1977?

Before the last three Star Wars movies — Episodes VII and VIII, plus Rogue One — became staples of the Holiday Movie Season, every other film in the Saga was a May release. (This year, Lucasfilm finally returns to tradition when Solo: A Star Wars Story debuts in theaters on May 25). Also, “Star Wars Day” falls every May the Fourth, so naturally, May is Star Wars Month by default. So what better way to honor both AAPI Heritage Month and Star Wars then by going through the history of AAPI representation in the Galaxy Far, Far Away1?

The Original Trilogy

The Hidden Fortress (1958)

It’s no secret that the filmography of Akira Kurosawa had a huge influence on George Lucas’ space opera. Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress is perhaps the most obvious. Beyond the narrative echoes between the two stories, Lucas had intended to rhyme Star Wars and Hidden Fortress even more by casting the legendary Toshiro Mifune, one of Kurosawa’s frequent collaborators and the star of Hidden Fortress, as either Darth Vader or Obi-Wan Kenobi. Sadly, Mifune turned down the role, and it would be more than two decades before an Asian face would be seen in Star Wars — not counting Nien Nunb or Lieutenant Telsij (the first Asian actor to speak a line of dialogue in any Star Wars movie), of course.

Twenty years later, in the Special Edition of Return of the Jedi, Dalyn Chew became the first actor of Asian descent to have any significant screen time in a Star Wars movie. In an extended musical number inserted into Jedi, Chew plays Lyn Me, one of the backup dancers at Jabba’s Palace. Sure, she doesn’t really have any lines, but she did get more than four seconds of screen time and an action figure!

Dalyn Chew as Lyn Me in Return of the Jedi: Special Edition (1997)

The Prequel Trilogy

When Lucas returned to the franchise in the late ’90s to tell the backstory of Darth Vader, he also forgot to cast AAPI actors in any significant roles. Aside from Dhruv Chanchani as Ani’s friend Kitsterthe only other Asian-coded characters in The Phantom Menace are the Neimoidians and Queen Amidala’s wardrobe. Speaking of Padme’s fetish for Oriental wear, perhaps the filmmakers were trying to make amends for the original queen’s fashion by casting actual Asian and Pacific Islander actresses like Ayesha Dharker and Keisha Castle-Hughes for subsequent Queens of Naboo?

Ayesha Dharker as Jamilia in Attack of the Clones (2002) & Keisha Castle-Hughes as Apailana in Revenge of the Sith (2005)

The prequel Attack of the Clones in 2002 was also responsible for the most significant AAPI casting decision to date. In addition to several blink-and-you’ll-miss-them AAPI Jedis, veteran Maori actor Temuera Morrison was chosen to play Jango Fett. Not only was Jango the most heavily marketed character of the prequel sequel, casting Morrison had ripple effects in terms of representation throughout the Saga.

Because Jango was the source for all of the Clone Troopers, that meant beloved characters like Captain Rex from the animated Clone Wars were also coded as Pacific Islander. More significantly, Daniel Logan was cast as the pre-pubescent Boba Fett, meaning the man underneath that iconic helmet from the Original Trilogy was also Maori. A point made even more clearly when Lucas had Morrison redub all of Boba Fett’s lines for all future digital and blu-ray releases of the trilogies and allowed Logan to reprise the role on Clone Wars.

Temuera Morrison as Jango Fett & Daniel Logan as Boba Fett in Attack of the Clones (2002)

The Force Awakens & Rogue One

In 2012, the Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm and the rights to Star Wars from George Lucas for just over $4 billion. This acquisition signaled a new era in the Star Wars franchise, promising a continuation of the Saga stories but also an interconnected universe of movies, television, comics, and everything in between. Production on the sequel trilogy — the long-promised Episodes VII through IX — began soon after when J.J. Abrams, the man who reinvigorated the moribund Star Trek movie franchise, was brought on to direct the first new Star Wars movie in a decade.

In the run-up to The Force Awakens, Abrams and the Lucasfilm brain trust were asked about Asian representation in the future of Star Wars during a Hall H panel at San Diego Comic-Con, to which the director famously responded, “Go Asians!”

When The Force Awakens finally premiered, the promise of more AAPI characters in Star Wars was realized… sort of. While TFA featured more AAPI actors than all previous six films combined, none of them could be considered major characters.

For instance, the buzz surrounding the announcement that stars from The Raid, the cult martial arts classic from Indonesia, were going to be in the film as the fearsome Kanjiklub was soon met with indifference once audiences figured out their screen time would be severely limited. Other actors like Ken Leung (as Admiral Statura) and Jessica Henwick (as Resistance pilot Jess Pava) wouldn’t fare much better since their scenes are also glorified cameos.

Ken Leung as Admiral Statura with Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa in The Force Awakens (2015)
Jessica Henwick as Jess “Testor” Pava in The Force Awakens (2015)

But to that point, it felt like a bounty of riches for AAPI Star Wars fans! We were lucky to get any representation, the idea that there would also be Asian and Pacific Islander heroes still felt out of reach. Then Rogue One happened.

Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook in Rogue One (2016)

For the first time, there was a Star Wars movie in which the majority of the cast was made up of people of color. Even better? There were three Asians in lead roles! Riz Ahmed played Bodhi Rook while Chinese superstars Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen played Space Dads Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus, respectively. Not only did the Asian characters get significant screen time and actual storylines, each of them in their own way subverted negative stereotypes of Asian male characters, even allowing fans to speculate about Baze and Chirrut’s obvious affection for one another.

Jiang Wen as Baze Malbus & Donnie Yen as Chirrut Imwe in Rogue One (2016)

While Rogue One was a major step up in terms of representation for Asian men, there was still a dearth of Asian women (or any women of color, really) in the Star Wars film universe. (Which, let’s be honest, is part of the reason we cape so hard for Ming-Na Wen to join the Star Wars family). To find Asian women, you had to go to the ancillary materials like television and video games.

Rebels & Battlefront II

In 2014, Disney XD followed up Cartoon Network’s popular animated Clone Wars with its own computer animated series by Dave Filoni called Star Wars: Rebels. Having just wrapped up after four seasons, Rebels had some of my favorite Star Wars stories from throughout the Saga. In addition to the most diverse main cast thus far in any Star Wars property — which would make for a dope live action adaptation, btw — the series also introduced the world to Sabine Wren, a Mandalorian with an affinity for explosives and graffiti. And despite what some fans and cosplayers might insist, a character that was definitely coded as Asian — from character to design to casting as Sabine was voiced by Tiya Sircar.

Tiya Sircar as Sabine Wren in Star Wars: Rebels (2014-2018)

As Bria LaVorgna said in a Tosche Station piece we cross-posted:

Thank you to everyone involved with creating this show and creating a character like Sabine and then casting an actress of color to voice her. Thank you Rebels for giving us an Asian human female hero who not only can hold her own but has more to her character than being action girl. Thank you for finally bringing a character like this to the forefront for hundreds and hundreds of young girls to look up to.

In another example of the ancillary Star Wars properties being ahead of the game, EA made Janina Gavankar the face of its Battlefront franchise when it was revealed the hotly anticipated video game Star Wars: Battlefront II would be all about the character of Iden Versio. Gavankar would also go on a multimedia blitz promoting the game, like an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live and heavy involvement in the prequel novel Inferno Squad, including narrating the audiobook.

Oh, and since we mentioned Bria earlier, you need to check out this video of Bria explaining why Iden is such an important character, and meeting Janina for the first time.

But as great as it was to have Asian women at the forefront of a Star Wars television show or video game, the franchise’s foundation will always be the movies. This is why Kelly Marie Tran is a big deal.

The Last Jedi

In April 2016, in the midst of Hollywood reaching peak whitewashing, Lucasfilm announced Tran was to be the new female lead of Episode VIII. A year later, Kelly was sharing the stage with Mark Hamill and John Boyega at Star Wars Celebration and unveiling Rose Tico to the world. For the first time in any of the Star Wars movies, an Asian American woman got to be one of the driving forces of the story. Moreover, Rose would have a sister named Paige, played by Vietnamese actress Veronica Ngo, with their own action figures and middle grade novels to boot.

Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico & Veronica Ngo as Paige Tico in The Last Jedi (2017)

The best part is that Rose wasn’t a glorified cameo, but a primary player in the movie’s actions. She teams up with Boyega’s Finn throughout the film (YMMV regarding the scenes on Canto Bight — personally, I’m a fan) and even gets to deliver one of the movie’s most memorable lines:

Suffice it to say, Rose Tico is the culmination of 40 years of Asian American Star Wars fandom. You could even say she represents a new hope for AAPIs throughout the galaxy.

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  1. For what it’s worth, this “definitive” history is just in reference to actors’ portrayals of Star Wars characters. As Bria mentioned on twitter, there are examples of AAPI representation in the books and comics — like Doctor Aphra — that we neglect to mention here! 

2 thoughts on “Go Asians: A History of AAPI Representation in ‘Star Wars’

  1. This was a thrilling read, and it’s wonderful to finally see Asian Americans and Asians take the lead in the “Star Wars” stories that are constantly coming out.

    You might be interested to heard that Christopher Sean will be in the cast for “Star Wars Resistance” that’s coming out this fall; making him the first Hapa in a lead role in the “Star Wars” franchise: https://www.yomyomf.com/anime-inspired-star-wars-resistance-coming-this-fall/.

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