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Wei Shen: A Step in the Right Direction

I’m embarrassed to say I’m still working through my holiday backlog of video games and the list is becoming increasingly longer. [Insert shaking fist at deciding to become a graduate student here]. However, I’m not embarrassed to say that I cannot put down Sleeping Dogs. I was hesitant to play it at first because the last thing I was interested in was another open-world crime setting, but I’m finding myself completing as many side missions  as possible and gathering every collectible in Hong Kong. The reason isn’t just because it’s a game that controls well, has an intriguing narrative, or offers a unique twist on the same-old crime stories, but because Wei Shen is a fantastic character. He is also a fantastic Asian character.

To say Asians are underrepresented in media is not new. Throughout film and television history they’ve mostly played roles limiting them to the Kung Fu masters, the nerds, the villains, the geishas, or the exotic fantasies. The women are hypersexualized and obedient and the men are desexualized and undesirable. This was even recently a problem in adult entertainment, where The Walking Dead XXX Parody starred a white male in “Yellowface” rather than promoting the fact that yes – Asian male porn stars indeed exist. In video games, it’s difficult to think of many commercially successful games starring Asian characters that aren’t from JRPGs or fighting games. This is where my love for Sleeping Dogs swells. Wei Shen breaks the mold of the “typical Asian dude” found in a lot of media, and I wanted to explore aspects of his character that are hopefully making developers start to think twice about the next Asian character they create.

Wei Shen doesn’t participate in the trend of an Asian character being just a static “body.” He is well trained in martial arts which is unfortunately a tired stereotype, but the player learns the moves with him from the school he used to attend as a kid. This is important because it’s not assumed that since Wei Shen is Asian he is biologically gifted with Kung Fu skills. As he completes favours for Sifu Kwok, advanced moves are taught to him and are thoroughly practiced and thus Wei gets stronger. It’s a minor detail that still exists on a stereotype, but it’s at least a welcoming shift to note how he had to start somewhere to gain the skills he has now. Traditionally in media, the typical static body also desexualizes Asian men and makes them undesirable to the opposite sex. It’s not very often that the hero in Kung Fu movies gets the girl. By employing the martial arts image, the Asian male body transforms into a weapon to be used as a threat and erases any eroticism. This is reversed in Sleeping Dogs. Wei is sexy without being degraded or looking goofy, and easily earns the attention of a few women. His sexual prowess is empowering and active, transgressing the “silent hero” stereotype that Asian men more often than not fall into.

It’s more than sexuality and body-forming, though. Wei is resourceful, clever, and conducts day-to-day endeavours as an undercover cop like a complete boss. Every character I’ve met so far in this game proves to me that just by comparison, Wei is the dominant alpha-male. Of course this is natural territory for most protagonists in games, but when it comes to a racial character that added dominance exacerbates his power to further drive the point home. Is it also a coincidence that the strongest character is one of the few that has a Chinese name? Maybe, but I think it’s a detail that shouldn’t be ignored. While other lesser or unpopular characters have their American names, Wei Shen isn’t treated with a nickname like Tequila Yuen of Stranglehold or an Americanized name like Faith of Mirror’s Edge. He is Chinese-American and retaining his Chinese name is a consistent reminder of that fact. I know there are other famous Asian characters in games that have traditional names, but keep in mind I’m focusing on Sleeping Dogs because it was an international success (whereas the Yakuza series wasn't as successful) and not a JRPG or a fighting game, where Asian names are to be expected.

It's about time to break away from stereotypes especially when it comes to race in video games. This is why Wei Shen is a step in the right direction. There are still stereotypes and tropes existent in Sleeping Dogs and I won't deny that, but Wei is a character we haven't had before and I'd like to see more games try to break the molds we've been dealing with for far too long. I still haven't beaten the game but with every hour added to my save file I'm really enjoying the ride, and I hope this emerging trend of righting racialized wrongs continues.

Did you play Sleeping Dogs? What are your thoughts on Wei Shen?

  • Tony M. 4 years, 11 months ago

    Hey Soha, I really like your articles and the way you think about video games. Very inspiring. I also liked Wei Shen as a character. In a story that was full of cliches, he was surprisingly different from the stereotypical asian character that you see in other games.

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  • Absolutely Daft 4 years, 11 months ago

    "...trained in martial arts which is unfortunately a tired stereotype"


    but seriously I do see your point. Im a little defensive because my favorite philosophers are asian and practice martial arts; like Mas Oyama (Kyokushin Karate founder), Miyamoto Musashi (I love the book of five rings, I'm learning Kendo with it) and even the dragon himself, Bruce Lee (You already know). I can definetly see asains knowing martial arts being a negative stereotype, but I never really saw it as being negative ya know. Bruce Lee did help in breaking more crude and older stereotypes of asian males with having buck teeth, wearing Rayden hats (Which I love to call them that), and playing the idiotically stereotypical clangy asian music.

    At least it was better done than in Sleeping Dogs than in a game like Tao Feng: Fist of the Lotus (Scrublords Fighterpedia). Because of course the asian woman who knows martial arts must immediately be named the Jade Dragon.

    By the way I may consider getting Sleeping Dogs and that DLC that was supposed to be all like Enter the Dragon and what not. Because goddamn I love martial arts in creative media.

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  • ShadowSyko 4 years, 11 months ago

    I'll be honest, I'm more inclined to support a game, or at least give it my attention, if it deviates from the average white male protagonist model that somehow seems even more common in this generation than before. I think giving us characters like this is not only healthy for the videogame industry from a creative standpoint, it's required for us to keep the creative aspect of the industry from growing stagnant.

    There are still countless perspectives and cultures unrepresented in videogames, whose inclusion would give us new ideas to draw inspiration from. It was only in 2012, after all, that we got our first real original black female protagonist in a videogame. We still have yet to play a game that truly explores the American ghettos, a game I'd personally want more than anything as someone who comes from that culture and would like to see it represented in the industry. And Sleeping Dogs is the first game to give us a decent look at Hong Kong and its culture, from the eyes of a protagonist who is as much a guide into that world as he is a part of it himself. Give me those types of games over your Nathan Drakes of the industry any day.

    Besides, as a fan of Hong Kong action movies and kung-fu flicks, Sleeping Dogs feels like a videogame version of that, and the game is fucking awesome on that merit alone.

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  • pioshfd 4 years, 11 months ago

    Normally when I play video games I'm not very overly conscious of characters' races. But it was interesting to see an Asian American returning to Hong Kong as opposed to a series like Yakuza where Kazuma had grown up in Japan and never really left. Also, it was nice hearing some Mandarin throughout. :)

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  • Frank Hartnett 4 years, 11 months ago

    At the very least, it's nice to see more non-white protagonists that are well rounded. Lee from TWD would be another great example I feel who fits into the criteria presented in the article (dunno about the physical attraction though being a straight guy :P ).

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  • WubWub 4 years, 11 months ago

    The articles seem to praise anything other than a sexy looking white man. You say wei shen breaks the mold of a typical asian dude. But it doesn't. Hes just seems like the typical american. Change this guys skin color to anything you like and hes just your average american lead from any game, who is over the top mr badass. He could be purple and it wouldnt make any difference. Do we need a person from every race and every gender to have their own video game to play this stereotypical american macho man role just to make them seem equal? No. I want to see games break the 'merica fuk yeah bad ass' role. Games like yakuza, tomb raider and GTA IV seem to break the mold by giving the main protagonists a non american background. Giving them their own unique roots and attitudes instead of the same played out character. Gender and race do not matter. Just make characters play some different roles.

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    • theottomatic91 4 years, 11 months ago

      Agree with you completely.

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  • The_Wandering_King 4 years, 11 months ago

    I just thought he was a generic action character.

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  • theottomatic91 4 years, 11 months ago

    Wei shen was essentially just a typical American character who was born to Asian parents for me.

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  • Samir Huzejrovic 4 years, 11 months ago

    I'm agreeing with WubWub. Wei was just a really generic dude.

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  • rabbeseking 4 years, 11 months ago

    p boring character

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