Ke Huy Quan

George Wu

In recent years, Asian representation in Hollywood has been gaining more attention, with a particular emphasis on rejecting and deconstructing traditional Hollywood stereotypes surrounding Asians. Feature films and high-budget television shows featuring predominantly Asian casts and production teams are increasing in popularity and seeing both critical and commercial success, such as 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, 2021’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and 2022’s particularly successful Everything Everywhere All at Once. Receiving immense critical acclaim, Everything Everywhere All at Once won an extensive seven Academy Awards in 2023, including Best Picture. The movie has also re-propelled a familiar Asian face to the forefront of Hollywood — in his first Hollywood role in nearly two decades, Ke Huy Quan has been lauded by many critics as a highlight of the film. 

Figure 1. To the pleasure or dismay of various individuals, Ke Huy Quan is publicly perceived as cute.

Notably, Quan seems to have captured the hearts of audiences as well. A search of his name yields countless social media posts featuring Ke Huy Quan tearfully delivering his Golden Globe speech or cheerfully posing with his fellow Academy Award winners, with captions ranging from “Ke huy quan is so cute”[1] and “Ke Huy Quan is the most adorable bean ever”[2] to “ke huy quan is so precious. must protect him at all costs” (see Figure 1).[3] However, not everyone views such reception positively. Filipina American writer Christine Liwag Dixon has publicly expressed her discomfort with the use of words like “cute,” “adorable,” or “precious” to describe a successful Asian actor, arguing that if he were white, he would be regarded as a traditionally masculine sex symbol rather than be infantilized with such language.[4] The discourse around Ke Huy Quan and his filmic character, Waymond Wang, are entangled with and reflective of the historically, culturally, and politically rich relationship between cuteness and the portrayal of Asian men in Western media. This article will examine the historical stereotyping of Asian men in Hollywood as effeminate and “castrated” and extend this notion to Quan’s early Hollywood roles in the 1980s as a child actor to explore how his portrayals align with perceived Asian cuteness and politics surrounding Asian Americans in the U.S. Lastly, this article will explore how Quan’s most recent role as Waymond Wang in Everything Everywhere All at Once rejects or perpetuates Asian stereotypes while maintaining the cuteness of the character and the actor’s overall image.

Historically, American popular media has put forth images of feminized Asian men while attaching numerous other stereotypes onto them that stray from traditional Western standards of masculinity. American media has long portrayed Asian men as weak or effeminately nurturing yet exotically violent at best. Early portrayals of Asian male immigrants emphasized their “‘oblique almond eyes’ and ‘catgut voice’ along with their short and slim figures [that] were characterized… as feminine by whites.”[5] Asian men were not only feminized but also infantilized, as evident in a song sheet cover of the period in which an Asian man is “dressed in a feminine gown and with hands demurely clasped… bowing in a submissive posture. His slanty eyes are set in a chubby childish face....”[6] Through these still-image portrayals alone, Asian men exhibit “cute” qualities. 

In “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” Sianne Ngai highlights how cute objects are “deeply associated with the infantile and feminine… and marked as culturally or nationally other.”[7] Beyond external appearances, the mannerisms of Asian characters in early Western films perpetuate a certain cuteness that emphasizes malleability and passivity, traits associated with cuteness given the cute object’s inability to retaliate against a controlling abuser.[8] One prominent example of this Asianized cuteness is the “Charlie Chan” stereotype: despite having mysterious, exotic powers, this character would be “deferential to whites, non-threatening… and unassertive.”[9] With supposedly feminine, manipulable qualities, Asian men in these roles were effectively castrated and “could never be completely [men],” especially in comparison to dominant notions of white masculinity.[10]

Aligning with these emasculating stereotypes, Asian actors have been forced to play cute racial caricatures, which “resurrect the ‘Yellow Peril’ stereotype in a new, seemingly innocuous form.”[11] As Hollywood apparently became more progressive and inclusive in the 1980s to the early 2000s, the performance of cuteness in roles for Asian men evolved to permit Asian characters to be assertive and domineering while maintaining a subtle effeminate quality to preserve cuteness. With films such as Dragon and Rush Hour, Asian actors like Jason Scott Lee and Jackie Chan were presented with traditionally masculine physiques and roles as fighters and secret agents, although displays of their “masculine aggression” were limited to choreographed, exotic martial arts routines and maintained a distinct aura of the “Other.”[12] Coupled with their quiet, nurturing personalities, these characters nonetheless demonstrate a more feminine nature, effectively reducing their masculinity and increasing their cuteness.[13]

Figure 2. Quan’s roles as a child actor incorporate his cuteness as a tool to aid white characters.

Building upon existing portrayals of Asian masculinity, Quan’s roles in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies as Short Round and Data shed light on another Asian caricature trope, the bookish and awkward “nerd” (see Figure 2).[14] Some audiences embrace these roles with a nostalgia-driven fondness intensified by the young Quan’s cuteness. As a child actor, Quan occupied a similar space in popular culture as icons like Shirley Temple, who have evoked a “desire to care for, cherish, and protect” in audiences that has been exploited and commercialized.[15] Others have been harshly critical of Quan’s childhood roles. In her article on the racist undertones of the 1984 film Gremlins, Wendy Allison Lee incorporates a brief analysis of characters portrayed by the young Quan, arguing that the portrayals “solidified the image of Asian American youth as cute, small, tech-savvy, and helpful,” echoing the “supposedly positive stereotypes of Asian Americans as the model minority.”[16]  Asian cuteness enables the white hero to “save the day” while the Asian character is dehumanized with names like “Short Round” or “Data” that reflect his role as a grateful and intelligent but otherwise unexciting Asian sidekick. Furthermore, Quan’s cuteness amplifies his racial “Otherness.” As Lori Merish writes, “[C]uteness domesticates Otherness in a double move through which that Otherness is at once affirmed and denied.”[17] Walter Chaw echoes this in a recent opinion piece detailing his resentment of Ke Huy Quan and Quan’s portrayals of these characters, stating that he was “horrified by [Quan’s] Short Round character” that perpetuates stereotypes of Asians’ poor English, sexlessness, and obedience.[18] While Quan’s early characters were supposedly meant to increase diversity, they only amplified his “Otherness.” 

After growing out of his status as a child actor, Quan struggled to find roles, which he previously attributed to not being “tall enough” or “good-looking enough” based on Western ideals of white masculinity.[19] Eventually, he gave up acting altogether to work behind the camera. However, nearly twenty years after his last role, Quan's most recent role as Waymond Wang in Everything Everywhere All at Once marked a “reversal of fate” in the actor’s career.[20] Chaw’s perspective began to shift as he recognized a more well-rounded, emotionally complex character in Quan that could deliver more than “a high kick and a quip delivered in obsequious pidgin.”[21]

Based on Ngai and Hiroshi Nittono’s definitions of cuteness and Japanese cuteness, or kawaii, Waymond is arguably a cute character by design: he speaks with a high-pitched voice (Quan deliberately lowers the pitch of his voice when playing the more masculine and aggressive “alpha” variant of his character), dons a boyish haircut that covers his forehead, has a short, slim stature, and often exhibits childlike mannerisms such as secretly gluing googly eyes onto inanimate objects, all while presenting a highly optimistic worldview and nurturing, effeminate personality (see Figure 3). All these qualities are intensified by his wife, Evelyn, who serves as a foil to his character as she expresses her nihilistic perspective on life and criticizes those around her. Recalling the social media post describing Quan as an “adorable bean” who “must [be protected] at all costs,” it is clear that Waymond, and Quan by extension, are seen as cute/kawaii, as they evoke affectionate,[22] tender, and maternal feelings in audiences.[23] Interestingly, the film was originally written for male lead Jackie Chan, implying that Chan would have embodied a more aggressive, pessimistic, and violent character, and Waymond’s cute, nurturing, and pacifist qualities would have been imposed onto his wife.[24] Therefore, the writers’ decision to swap the characters’ genders may be acknowledged as an attempt to reconceive the Asian male lead in an action movie and offer a female action lead characterized by stubborn strength and a relatable sense of existential dread. While subverting the stereotypes of Asian women as submissive and docile, the film avoids mimicking the roles of white Hollywood actors with Asian men, a possibly questionable, half-baked attempt at authentic representation. 

Figure 3. Waymond’s mannerisms and appearances throughout the film are childlike and therefore cute.

However, Waymond’s character proves to be an antithesis to traditional Western masculinity and ultimately surprises his fellow characters and the audience when his cute qualities do not leave him weak and defenseless and instead act as a positive force that resolves the film’s existential conflict. As a result, cuteness transforms from a cheap aesthetic associated with the feminine and infantile into a multiverse-transcending superpower. Yet, its aura of innocence and sweetness is not compromised; the film recontextualizes Waymond’s apparent naivete and emasculation (by Western standards) and reveals how his kind and pacifistic qualities, driven by unwavering emotional strength, are products of his own battle with nihilism and uncertainty. Waymond shows that Asian masculine representation can go beyond merely plastering an Asian face onto a traditionally masculine role, reclaiming the effeminate cuteness typically associated with Asians to show that there is masculine power in sweetness and compassion just as it exists in violence and aggression. Chris Karnadi presents this idea appropriately, stating, “Asian Marvel heroes and flawless romantic leads are tropes that still follow myopic understandings of masculinity… [but] Quan’s performance doesn’t buy into the common binaries to combat Hollywood’s representation problem.”[25]

Asian American representation in Hollywood has had a long history that directly reflects the racism Asians have faced in the U.S. With portrayals of Asian men emphasizing their supposed femininity and submissiveness, early Western media often attempted to paint Asian men as effeminate and cute, an antithesis to traditional Western notions of masculinity. Although Hollywood seems to be including more Asian characters, such tropes have persisted more covertly and continue to perpetuate stereotypes of weakness and obedience, turning Asian actors into cute characters to be used as tools rather than explored as complex, dimensional characters. Throughout his career, Ke Huy Quan has embodied the cuteness associated with Asian youth. However, upon returning to Hollywood after a decades-long hiatus, he has evidently been able to retain his status as a “cute” icon while redefining the power of cuteness as an embodiment of strength. This portrayal of cuteness begins to touch upon the relationship between cuteness and masculinity in general, moving beyond Asian representation in American film to representations of healthy masculinity as a whole. With characters like Waymond Wang, masculinity becomes more than aggression, physical strength, and stoicism, creating room for cute qualities like sweetness and sensitivity to define masculinity. These definitions will likely continue to expand as individuals within the Asian community and other marginalized identities are given opportunities to present their experiences with masculinity and tell stories from their perspectives.

Published: 6/30/2023


[1] Ari IS GOING 2 앙콘 (@chaehyunhaechan), “Ke huy quan is so cute IM SOOOOO HAPPY FOR HIM LIKE ACTUALLY,” Twitter post, March 13, 2023,

[2] Swarna (@kidofmisfortune), “Ke Huy Quan is the most adorable bean ever,” Twitter post, March 13, 2023,

[3] rat lover (@spiderhalloween), “ke huy quan is so precious. must protect him at all costs. im sobbing,” Twitter post, March 12, 2023,

[4] Christine Liwag Dixon (@cmliwagdixon), “I've seen a lot of people using words like ‘cute’ and ‘adorable’ and ‘precious’ to describe Ke Huy Quan,” Twitter post, March 20, 2023,

[5] Chiung Hwang Chen, “Feminization of Asian (American) Men in the U.S. Mass Media: An Analysis of The Ballad of Little Jo,” Journal of Communication Inquiry 20, no. 2 (1996): 58.

[6] Chen, “Feminization of Asian (American) Men,” 59.

[7] Sianne Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” Critical Inquiry 31, no. 4 (Summer 2005): 814.

[8] Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” 828.

[9] Hemant Shah, “‘Asian culture’ and Asian American identities the television and film industries of the United States,” Simile 3, no. 3 (August 2003): 5.

[10] David L. Eng, Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian American (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001), 3.

[11] Leslie Bow, “Racist Cute: Caricature, Kawaii-Style, and the Asian Thing,” American Quarterly 71, no. 1 (2019): 55.

[12] Allen Walzem, “Asian Masculinity and Contemporary Hollywood Film,” Asian Journal of Literature, Culture and Society (October 2007): 10.

[13] Walzem, “Asian Masculinity,” 12.

[14] Kenneth Huynh and Benjamin Woo, “‘Asian fail’: Chinese Canadian men talk about race, masculinity, and the nerd stereotype,” Social Identities 20, no. 4–5 (2014): 363.

[15] Lori Merish, “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics: Tom Thumb and Shirley Temple,” in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 188.

[16] Wendy Allison Lee, “Cute. Dangerous. Asian American. ‘Gremlins’ @35,” Public Books, July 5, 2019,

[17] Merish, “Cuteness and Commodity Aesthetics,” 200.

[18] Walter Chaw, “It Took Me Nearly 40 Years to Stop Resenting Ke Huy Quan,” Decider, March 11, 2023,

[19] Jake Coyle, “‘It’s fate.’ 40 years later, Ke Huy Quan is a star, again,” Associated Press, December 8, 2022,

[20] Coyle, “‘It’s fate.’”

[21] Chaw, “It Took Me Nearly 40 Years.”

[22] Hiroshi Nittono, “The two-layer model of ‘kawaii’: A behavioural science framework for understanding kawaii and cuteness,” East Asian Journal of Popular Culture 2, no. 1 (April 2016): 81.

[23] Ngai, “The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde,” 816.

[24] Samantha Bergeson, “Michelle Yeoh’s Role in ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ Was Originally Written for Jackie Chan,” IndieWire, March 15, 2022,

[25] Chris Karnadi, “Asian Men Needed a Movie Like Everything Everywhere All at Once,” Slate, April 8, 2022,