As a profoundly white male, I watched the trailer for “American Masters: Hollywood Chinese” and listened to the actors on the panels discuss their respective careers, I couldn’t help but cringe at the treatment that the Chinese have received on television and in the movies.

Look at James Hong, for instance. The man has been a working actor since the 1950s, but when you check out his resume, the number of cliched and stereotypical roles is highly disconcerting. He played Charlie Chan’s son on TV, turned up as Hop-Sing’s cousin on “Bonanza,” has portrayed more waiters than you can imagine, and although it’s not technically a bad thing to play a wise old Asian, it’s a rarity for those sorts of roles to be particularly meaty.

Memorable, yes. But definitely not meaty. Hong worked on the pilot for “Kung Fu,” and he recalled the mindset of the industry at the time, which necessitated that a white guy – David Carradine, of course – play the Chinese lead character.

“As I recall, back in those days and even now, the producers would say the Chinese leads are not marketable, so that is the key sentence,” said Hong. “That means that there would not be enough audience watching the TV that will tune in on a Chinese playing the lead. They were just not accustomed to that. In a sense, they said, ‘Well, what should we do?’ I think what they did, and correct me if I’m wrong, they made the role sort of like a Euro-Asian person so that would bring David in to play the role. In that sense, I find it very pathetic that the producers were shortsighted not to cast one of the Asians to play that role because, like you saw, it is an Asian lead. That is only back during those periods, but it’s still being carried nowadays, because you don’t find many Chinese or Asian Americans playing any leads in TV series, a few in movies and so forth, but very far and few between, just a handful. I find that, after 55 years in this business, this still exists.”

Nancy Kwan, best known for her roles in “Flower Drum Song” and “The World of Suzie Wong,” had her own “Kung Fu” story, though it was in connection with the actor who was originally considering a role on the series.

“Bruce (Lee) and I were in Hong Kong at the time,” she said, “and we were having lunch, and Bruce said, ‘Nancy, I want to do this series called ‘Kung Fu.’” I said, ‘You are?’ He said, ‘Yeah. Yeah. I’m waiting to hear.’ I said, ‘I don’t know, Bruce. I don’t know the timing.’ David was actually a friend of mine at the time. We had worked together on another film. He said, ‘No. No. I’m going to do this.’ So I looked at him and I said, ‘Bet.’ He said, ‘Okay. How much?’ I said, ’10 bucks.’ All right. And I had to collect my 10 bucks.”

Kwan acknowledged her own issues with the stereotypical casting of Chinese actors, though she’s given her agent specific instructions on the kind of parts she’s looking for. “My conversation with my agent is always, ‘Look, you see Asian doctors, agency lawyers, Asian this, Asian that. So just put me up for interesting roles.’ I mean, at this time in my life, I really…I mean, I would like to at least concentrate on something I can do with the role, you know? So I said, ‘Don’t send me up for something I can’t make something out of. If you find something interesting, send me up for it. If they say, ‘No, no. It’s for a Caucasian,’ fine, but at least present me and send me up for it. And it doesn’t matter what nationality.’ That’s what I say to him.”

B.W. Wong, meanwhile, has had to endure being part of two different minorities, given that he’s both Asian-American and gay. As such, it took him a long time to find his path in life.

“Growing up gay and growing up Asian American were very similar in that I have felt similarly about myself because of those two parts of myself and that, for a fair amount of time in my childhood, I wished to be neither. And that did a real number on me when I entered the period of time in my life in which I thought I wanted to become an actor because both of those two things were not conducive to becoming an actor. And so it was a longer road for me to become at peace with myself for those two things than it would be even for your average person, not to mention the relationship with my parents about becoming an actor, which they were intellectually aware was going to be challenged by at least one of those two things.”

Wong visibly bristled…not that you can blame him…when someone asked the panel how they felt about Chinese-Americans being asked to play Japanese in World War II movies or, indeed, playing any other nationality.

“Nobody ever asks Meryl Streep this question,” he said, “and not to be so bitter about it, but, you know, we became actors or I became an actor to play people of all different cultures and different nationalities. And, certainly, if I relegated myself to playing Chinese characters, I would have less of a career than I already do. And so I celebrate the opportunity to play cross-nationally. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity. I think there are times when it’s probably — I would admit that it behooves a director or producer to cast someone of the nationality that they are playing for that particular role, but it’s a very subjective and case-by-case thing. It just depends. I would say sometimes we are — we could — I guess what I’m saying is that without that particular limitation, there could be a lot more great work being done, I guess.”

Certainly, Hong would not argue with that, based on his tale of growing up in Minnesota, struggling to find his niche as an actor there, only to find approximately the same issue when he finally made the move to Hollywood.

“There were no opportunities to perform whatsoever,” Hong said of Minnesota. “Even in the school play, my high school play, they said, ‘What should we do with James Hong? He doesn’t fit into this British class play we’re doing.” I was ousted. In University of Minnesota, the same thing: they only wanted to put me in radio. I got very frustrated, so I became a stand-up comic and doing impersonations and such and loving it because it was a way of expression. So when I came out to Hollywood, I was looking for job as a comic with my partner, Don Parker. We were called Hong and Parker. But, again, we were in the wrong time in the wrong place, because they said, ‘What is it? An Asian guy and this other white guy? What kind of comedy team is this?’ So nobody bought that, so we were out again.”

Fortunately, however, the stand-up did lead Hong to team up with his longtime agent, Betsy Lu, who helped him break into acting.

“It gave me the opportunity to keep performing, to work your craft,” he said. “I play comedy roles and a lot of Chinamen roles such as the railroad workers for Clint Eastwood. There was always the White hero, Richard Boone, who would rescue this little chinky Chinaman with his queue from certain situation. Walt Disney put me in the same kind of parts. Though there were a lot of calls to play those kind of roles, so I played them because they were the only roles being offered, so that just kept going. In those early days, as you know, they just kept making one quest one right after the other. There were probably a couple hundred of those roles which I played. Even up until now, I mean, I did a good job on “Seinfeld,” but it’s still a waiter. It’s still a head waiter. So I still play the comedy thing. It’s still, you know, I hate to say it, somewhat cliche. I would like to play other roles that are executives, the owner of a tech industry or something, something that reflects the true life of the American Chinese in this country or all over the world and not just play the waiter.”

“American Masters: Hollywood Chinese” airs on PBS on May 27th.