Deep Dive Into Star Wars With Michael Buening
An Asian Pacific American Heritage Month 2023 Celebration
Discover your newest binge and get to know our staff a little better with the Asia Society Texas team's favorite ways to stay entertained! With our Deep Dives, we take you on a journey into the obsessions of individual staff members for an in-depth look at a specific art form or cultural production.
When he’s not obsessing over Star Wars listicles, Michael Buening is the Director of Performing Arts and Culture at Asia Society Texas, where he loves showcasing all of the incredible artistic talent that Houston has to offer.
Why I'm focusing on Star Wars
May the Fourth be with you! On this May 4, I salute Star Wars, a multimedia universe that took much of its inspiration from samurai films including Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress and from broad conceptions of East Asian spiritual traditions.
Though historically the Star Wars creators could have done a better job of honoring their cultural source materials, there have been positive representational strides in the most recent films and Disney+ shows, both on-camera and behind the scenes. As an example, two-time Academy Award winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is set to become the first woman, first person of color, and first South Asian to direct a Star Wars movie!
In celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I'm taking a look at different ways Asians and Asian Americans have shown up in the Star Wars universe and what various Star Wars creators got right — and not so right — all written with love.
Top Star Wars characters where Asian and Asian American actors represent
Though Star Wars got off to a slow start with characters played by Asian characters (see the next list to learn when the first Asian-descent actor with a speaking part appeared in a film), there have since been plenty of awesome characters as the universe has expanded with the anthology films, animated series, and live-action shows. Here are some of my favorites.
5. Bodhi Rook・portrayed by Riz Ahmed
The underappreciated Rogue One film was a groundbreaker for positive Asian representation in the Star Wars universe. One crucial player is Riz Ahmed as Imperial Starfighter Bodhi Rook, a pilot who switches sides to steal the Death Star’s blueprints for the Rebel Alliance and participate in the film's eponymous, fateful mission that sets the scene for A New Hope.
4. Fennec Shand・portrayed by Ming-Na Wen
I couldn’t have been happier to see certified Disney Legend Ming-Na Wen show up as cocky master assassin and gray-zone mercenary Fennec Shand in The Mandalorian series. Fennec is currently working with Boba Fett as budding crime lords-with-a-heart on Tatooine in The Book of Boba Fett show.
3. Chirrut Imwe and Baze Malbus・portrayed by Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen
Super friends Chirrut and Baze — played by Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen and the very cool actor/director Jiang Wen (check out his work in Black Snow!) — hold down the fort against an army of stormtroopers in Rogue One with super weaponry, martial arts, and an abiding belief in the Force. Get these two a prequel series!
2. Jango Fett and Boba Fett・portrayed by Temuera Morrison
Bounty hunter Boba Fett is probably the coolest character in the Star Wars universe. Maori actor Temuera Morrison played Boba’s father Jango in Episode II – Attack of the Clones (...it’s complicated), then went on to deepen Boba Fett’s character in the Mandalorian and Book of Boba Fett series.
1. Rose Tico・portrayed by Kelly Marie Tran
Mechanic, pilot, social justice warrior, and Finn love interest Rose Tico shines hard in The Last Jedi, the hands-down best film of the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Unfairly sidelined in The Rise of Skywalker due to uncalled-for criticism by online trolls, hopefully Rose will get the star treatment she deserves in the forthcoming Rey movies — after all, we’ll win not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love…
Top deep-cut characters played by AAPI performers
Besides the highlights (and oh, what could have been if Toshiro Mifune accepted George Lucas’ offer to play Obi-Wan Kenobi), there are plenty of other-lesser known characters and don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss them appearances by AAPI performers in the Star Wars universe.
3. Sabine Wren
All around badass Sabine Wren is a Mandalorian warrior, graffiti tagger, and bomb-making expert who figures prominently in the animated Star Wars Rebel series. Voiced by Tiya Sircar, Wren will be played by Natasha Liu Bordizzo in the forthcoming live-action Ahsoka Disney+ series.
2. Admiral Ushos O. Statura
A senior officer for the Resistance in The Force Awakens, Admiral Ushos O. Statura is played by ace character actor Ken Leung (Miles from Lost). He's also a contender for the most underused AAPI actor in the Star Wars universe.
1. Lieutenant Gureni Telsij・portrayed by Eiji Kusuhara
Gureni Telsij is a Rebel Alliance Y-wing pilot who fought in the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi — and the first character played by an Asian-heritage actor to speak a line in a Star Wars movie ("There's too many of them!"), before being blown to smithereens.
Top questionable cultural appropriations in the Star Wars universe
As with many other legacy series in sci-fi, Star Wars has more than a few representational skeletons in its closet. Here are just a few:
5. Nien Nunb
An arms dealer and smuggler who eventually appears as Lando Calrissian's copilot in The Return of the Jedi, Nien Nunb illustrates an unfortunate tendency for Star Wars character designers to mash together racial, ethnic, and cultural characteristics with spare animal parts to create new alien species (see also: Watto, the Gungans). At the same time, I don’t want to hate too hard on Nien Nunb since he seems like a stand-up guy: serious and on-point during a Rebel Alliance all-staff strategy session, and also not above a hearty chuckle after blowing up the Death Star.
4. John Williams’ score
The music John Williams composed for the Star Wars films are some of the most iconic film scores ever. But music can be a subtle tool for reinforcing stereotypes we might not notice, and over the course of the movies' staggered releases, the soundtrack has relied on tropes familiar from classic Hollywood movies that the films evoke. Time and again, the musical themes representing the Dark Side incorporate elements from West, South, and East Asian music — such as Tuvan throat singing for Emperor Palpatine's motif — while the heroic themes of the Rebel Alliance are redolent of European composers in the style of Richard Wagner.
3. Ming Po
This meek and demure community in the animated Clone Wars series is blatantly and lazily drawn with a variety of East Asian signifiers. “Ming Po” — really, now?
2. The desert planets
It’s not a Star Wars movie without a visit to a planet covered in sand. And from Tatooine to Geonosis to Jakku, the people indigenous to those planets are awash in West Asian and North African tropes: portrayed as a mysterious and inscrutable "other," barbaric and primitive tribes prone to violence, and with names often clumsily appropriated from Arabic and other languages of the MENA region, including "Jabba the Hutt."
1. The entirety of Episode I – The Phantom Menace
Once you get past the Phantom Menace's screeching cringe factory that is Jar Jar Binks, 1999’s much-anticipated return to the Star Wars universe has so much more questionable content to offer. Start with the Orientalizing fetishism of Padmé Amidala's geisha-inspired costuming, then dig deeper with the Neimoidians being deliberately based on “yellow peril” stereotypes from the Flash Gordon series, and finally bask in the overall tendency to depict the Dark Side as "vaguely Asian." Have you noticed that the choir for Darth Maul’s “Duel of the Fates” musical theme sings in Sanskrit?
About APAH Month at Asia Society Texas
Beginning in 2021, Asia Society Texas has celebrated Asian Pacific American Heritage Month with the Houston community and beyond through a curated calendar for 31 ways to celebrate over the 31 days of May. Spotlighting the traditions, talents, and contributions of Asians and Asian Americans, the calendar highlights the month's key Asia Society programming, providing a platform to showcase local artists, performers, educators, and leaders who contribute to the vibrant, multicultural tapestry of Houston while also featuring staff recommendations for our favorite music, books, movies, and more by Asian and Asian American creatives.
At Asia Society Texas, APAH Month is an opportunity to celebrate and honor Asians and Asian Americans and to uplift their stories to a broader audience as part of our goal to inspire our larger community to better understand one another through culture, conversation, and connection. For information about sponsoring APAH Month and other projects like this one, please contact Saleena Jafry at SJafry@asiasociety.org or 713.496.9939.
Sponsors of APAH Month at Asia Society Texas
Asian American Bar Association of Houston
The Heimbinder Family Foundation
Past APAH Month Calendars
About Asia Society Texas
Asia Society Texas believes in the strength and beauty of diverse perspectives and people. As an educational institution, we advance cultural exchange by celebrating the vibrant diversity of Asia, inspiring empathy, and fostering a better understanding of our interconnected world. Spanning the fields of arts, business, culture, education, and policy, our programming is rooted in the educational and cultural development of our community — trusting in the power of art, dialogue, and ideas to combat bias and build a more inclusive society.