The STAR TREK franchise has prided itself for being ahead of its time when it comes to creating diverse characters and weaving them into a future where humanity is multicultural and racial and gender prejudice does not exist. That’s always been the vision of Gene Roddenberry, and that’s a directive to aspire to, especially in a mainstream pop culture property like TREK, which has inspired countless people to seek careers in science and technology.
From TOS to ENTERPRISE and the feature film franchises, TREK casts have been multicultural and have also broken barriers in said casting — the first interracial kiss on national TV (Kirk and Uhura), the first African American Starfleet captain and lead for a Trek series (DS9), the first female captain to lead another series (VOYAGER), and so on.
Being multicultural, the series in all its 50 years in existence has provided opportunities for People of Color to be cast in the shows, especially Asian Americans, where TV roles back then (and still today) are hard to come by. Every TREK series has had regular Asian characters, with three of them having them as regular cast members.
Therefore, in honor of that, I’d like to recognize my Top 5 Asians who have been in STAR TREK:
5. Ensign Harry Kim (VOYAGER): Harry Kim was wet-behind-the-ears and newly matriculated from Starfleet Academy when he joined the U.S.S. Voyager’s crew. In a way, he is the prototypical Asian American overachiever, who has overbearing parents, he excelled in all subjects, he plays a classical instrument, and he was personally requested by Captain Katherine Janeway to join her crew.
Harry Kim could’ve turned out to be a total overprotected bore with no life experience, but Garrett Wang’s performance made him the “heart of the show,” one can argue. On one end, he was a by-the-book, no rules broken hall monitor of a Starfleet officer, but he also performed above and beyond the call of duty and deeply cared for his shipmates. Wang made him noble and a little too earnest, but not to the extreme of say, Wesley Crusher, who would endanger the Enterprise every other episode because of some stupid science experiment.
One of the best Harry Kim episodes is “Timeless,” which tells the story of an older Chakotay and Kim who were able to make it back to Earth from the Delta Quadrant using the slipstream tech that Kim developed. However, this led to the apparent destruction of the Enterprise, until they find the ship frozen in space ice. But, we also find out that they’re fugitives and they’re being pursued by a federation starship led by Captain Geordi LaForge!
4. Keiko O’Brien (TNG and DS9): Rosalind Chao infused a warmth and feistiness to her character of Keiko, who would end up marrying Chief Miles O’Brien and soon transfer over to Deep Space Nine, where they raised a young girl, Molly. I think Keiko was a botanist of some sort, so she was never really privy to wonky Federation chatter. But, she was also the primary school teacher on DS9 and was also apparently a fashionista who kept up with current trends in 24th century fashion, as unspooled in the DS9 episode, “Paradise.” Like Harry Kim, she was also a gifted in playing a musical instrument, but unlike him, she was part of a woodwind quartet on the Enterprise. Oh, and Lt. Commander Data was the best man at her wedding.
She also seemed like a super cool mom to young Molly, and would also never take shit from Miles (she seemed to never put out when he was with her and wanting some loving after a long day). Rosalind Chao brought a charismatic and spunky presence to what could have been a filler role as the wife of a Starfleet officer.
3. Lt. Hoshi Sato (ENTERPRISE): As the resident linguist of the NX-01 class Enterprise, she was an amalgam of Uhura and Harry Kim, because she too was a newbie to Starfleet, who was first characterized as a nervous scaredy cat who would freak out at every small tremor to the ship while it’s, you know, hurtling into space at the speed of light.
But unlike Kim, we discover early on that she’s had a controversial past. In the fourth season episode “Observer Effect,” it’s revealed that Sato was once dishonorably discharged from Starfleet for running a floating poker game and breaking the arm of a Starfleet instructor who tried to break it up. She was subsequently allowed to rejoin Starfleet because of her exceptional linguistic skills.
In addition, since ENTERPRISE is a prequel set during the early days of the Federation, we learn that Sato ended up serving almost a decade as the Enterprise’s communication officer, married a Japanese man, and was instrumental in the development of the Universal translator.
2. Khan Noonien Singh (TOS & THE WRATH OF KHAN): Although Khan is a eugenics super soldier from South Asia, he was played by Latino actor Ricardo Montalban, who totally owned this role (unlike Benedict Cumberbatch’s cranked up to 11 Euro villain in INTO DARKNESS). He was the leader of a cult, was merciless, brilliant and conniving. He used ceti eels to control people’s minds to the brink of madness, bamboozled Kirk and the Enterprise crew, and constantly espoused quotes from MOBY DICK and Klingon proverbs.
He was also super buff, with impressive pectoral muscles (“you lift, bro?”) and again, he was played by Montalban who totally owned the role. Sadly, I think J.J. Abrams and crew missed the opportunity to actually hire a South Asian actor to play the rebooted role, but then again, they should’ve never rehashed WRATH OF KHAN anyway. He is, to this day, the ultimate Trek villain and a worthy adversary to James Tiberius Kirk.
1. Hikaru Sulu (TOS, STAR TREK TOS & Reboot films): Hikaru Sulu is the ultimate Asian character in TREK. He’s so important that he’s been played by two actors, George Takei in TOS and currently, John Cho. Aside from him being a groundbreaking character for Asians as a regular cast member in TOS, Takei really shined in THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, when Sulu finally earned a Captain rank and commanded his own ship, the U.S.S. Excelsior. He was also instrumental in saving Kirk and McCoy from the Klingon prison planet.
When the role was recast with John Cho taking over the mantle in the Trek reboot series, Cho brought a drive to the character, making him a total badass but also very apparent for his desire for the Captain’s chair. Oh, and he also was swashbuckling, like Takei’s Sulu in “The Naked Time,” but instead of terrorizing other crew members shirtless and infected by an alien virus, Cho’s Sulu killed some evil Romulans on a drilling platform thousands of feet in the air. All in all, there’s very little room to argue against Sulu being number one on this list.