Fresh Off the Boat: First Asian-American Sitcom in 20 years

When this blog started, it was meant to be just a grad project, but now I decided to post a new update after three years. So here’s a thoughtful analysis on the first Asian-American sitcom to air in American television since ABC’s “All-American Girl,” again on ABC.

For you trivia junkies, the father in the show, played by Randall Park, is also the man who played Kim Jong Un in the James Franco and Seth Rogan film, “The Interview.”

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Tying It All Together

When I put together this blog, it was meant to raise awareness for media I felt has squandered a lot of potential. I feel many of the world’s problems have to do with perception. The United States is acclaimed to be the representation of one-world coming together. We see much diversity as far as content is concerned, but not enough diverse faces to represent them.

I agree with Jeff Adachi that it will take time to have people of influence in positions so that we can see more Asians in everyday roles and that we have to carve our own slice of the creative pie so that others can see Asians as normal as Caucasians have placed themselves in Hollywood.

African Americans and Latino Americans have exerted themselves more as rising media influences as they have marketable stars and media strength. African American actors like Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry became household names in the marketing of films. Tyler Perry starred, wrote and directed his own several films to cater to African American audiences. Latino Americans have national broadcast affiliate strength with networks in Univision and Telemundo. Asians have some media control in the U.S., but it’s relegated more to larger media markets like New York or Los Angeles areas. More cable and satellite outlets have made imported Asian programming available to homes all over the country.

Asian Americans make up of 4.8 percent of the population as per 2010 U.S. census figures and 5.6 percent are multiracial Asians. African Americans make up 13.6 percent and Latino Americans make up 16.3 percent of the population.

In my previous post, I mostly denounced the significant Caucasian presence in prominent roles over Asian-created projects, but I also complemented how Hollywood’s creativity has inspired its own adaptations of said stories.

One facet I’ve ignored is the value of having dominant media figures to promote culture. There have been numerous stories, fiction and non-fiction, that involve unfamiliar surroundings and struggles while there is an initial clash of cultures, both of which eventually see common ground. It’s the kind of story that helps bridge East and West cultures.

A 2011 film, The Flowers of War is a Chinese historical drama starring Christian Bale who plays John Miller, an American mortician who arrives in Nanjing during the Japanese invasion in 1937. Miller is reluctant to help the refugees trapped in the church, but poses as the resident priest in order for them to help evade Japanese forces. It’s a Chinese-produced film directed by Zhang Yimou, filmed in Mandarin, English and Japanese. Most of the cast is Asian, but the film heavily promotes Bale in the trailer and the posters.

The Last Samurai is a 2003 film starring Tom Cruise as Civil War officer Nathan Algren who helps train the Japanese army during the Meiji Restoration in Japan. Much of the story involves Algren immersing himself into Japanese culture studying the way of the samurai under his former enemy, Katsumoto, played by Ken Watanabe. Algren finds peace in time within himself, after spending much of his post-American-war days as a drunk, and purpose in helping to fight for Katsumoto’s cause. Watanabe was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role and helped gain a crossover American audience. Watanabe has been involved with a number of American projects including Inception (2010), Shanghai (2010), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), and Batman Begins (2005).

The star value of Bale and Cruise were used in selling both Asian-centric films. Asians have not seen a sustainable viable all-round star since the days of Sessue Hayakawa and James Shigeta. Jackie Chan is one example of what could have been. He’s been acting since the 1970s as a stuntman in Bruce Lee films before attempting to strike out on his own in the U.S. market achieving limited success including a notable role in the Cannonball Run films. Like Lee, he took his talents to Hong Kong where he achieved his biggest success. U.S. audiences started taking notice of him again after his 1997 action film, Rumble in the Bronx enjoyed international crossover success.

Most Americans know him only as a renowned action star with unique comedic talent. He’s much more than that in the overseas Asian markets. He’s also a well-rounded actor and talented singer. The 2010 remake of the Karate Kid allowed Chan for the first time in almost 30 years to perform a more serious dramatic role in a U.S. production after being typecast in action and buddy comedy roles.

While the main purpose of this project was to compare and contrast major stereotypes in the U.S. throughout the times, I feel we covered the major ones. We’ve discussed–the early media depictions of Asians through their initial immigration, the Yellow Peril, the media sensation of Jeremy Lin, the predominant Hollywood stereotypes of Asian men and women, Arab stereotypes in Hollywood, and replacing Asian roles with white faces.

Stereotypes will not go away, but it is worth noting that as long as Asians have some form of control of their own media image, we can break those conventions and help keep it within context.

Being visible is the key.

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Yellowface and Whitewashing – Replacing Asian Roles with White Faces

A common practice Hollywood is casting Caucasian actors in ethnic roles. They either use makeup to turn the white actor Asian or they just cast white actor in the identified Asian role in the process of “Americanizing” the source content. As we expand as a generation and we become more tolerant as a culture, it is important to reinforce the visual idea that people can see themselves in everyday leading roles especially when it comes to young impressionable minds.

A January article in CNN discussed the controversy behind Caucasians playing Asian roles. It traces to Hollywood’s beginnings back to the days of Swedish actor Warner Orland as Charlie Chan to recent reports of Tom Cruise, who has no Asian ancestry according to his IMDB page, in talks to play the lead role in the Warner Bros. adaptation of Japanese novel All You Need is Kill replacing the Japanese main character.

A live action adaptation of the Japanese graphic novel Akira was long in development since the success of the 1988 animated feature. An open casting call was made for diverse ethnic roles for characters with Caucasians in the featured parts. Production has since ceased as of early January.

Some American adaptations of Asian stories earned critical acclaim as standalone projects. The settings and character names were changed, but the spirit of the story remained. Arguably the two most successful examples are the 1960’s western, The Magnificent Seven and the 2006 film, The Departed.

The Magnificent Seven was based on the successful 1954 Akira Kurosawa film, Seven Samurai. The Departed, a film that won numerous Academy Awards, was based on the popular Infernal Affairs trilogy.

While The Magnificent Seven took the story from Japan to the American Old West, The Departed moved the story from Hong Kong to Boston.

While we don’t necessarily see the days of Mickey Rooney, Rita Moreno and Katherine Hepburn as yellowface caricatures, we still see Caucasians playing Asian roles just without the makeup. Hollywood productions opted to just cast Caucasian actors in principal roles within the settings of the original story in films like Dragon Ball: Evolution (2009), Speed Racer (2008), and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010).

What does it say to Asians who want role models to identify with when they see Canadian actor Justin Chatwin or American actor Jake Gyllenhaal in roles that are supposed to promote ethnic heroes in American films? If we are to believe a role is just a role, why aren’t we seeing Chow Yun-Fat or Ken Watanabe in race neutral, leading dramatic roles that we could see normally Russell Crowe or Tom Cruise in? Whites have more than transcended every type of role imaginable from playing themselves to other ethnic groups since the days of Birth of a Nation. If we can see African American actor Samuel L. Jackson in the role of Nick Fury who in most adaptations is Caucasian, in the Avengers, why can’t we see a Jet Li as the next Batman?

When it comes to Asians and the roles they take, you can say, “we’re here and we are playing the parts there for us.” That’s fine to take that position especially if you don’t have people in positions of influence, but at some point, Asians shouldn’t have to settle. Casting agencies and executives should be more open to have more ethnic stars in general leading roles when it comes to projects that don’t call for race-specific roles.

When you have Asian stories being told in its original form featuring Asian characters and you have a person of a different ethnicity playing the main character, what does it say other than “we can’t lead in our own stories created by our own people.”

It’s one thing to adapt a story then to make it your own, it’s another to just repackage the original story in the way it is convenient to market because you don’t see the characters as they are as presentable.

Sadly as this sounds, it might still ring as true as Bruce Lee said back in 1971 when talking about his experience in dealing with Hollywood executives, “[when considering their position]when you’re the man with the money, I might think twice before I put my money into a foreigner.”

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A Look at Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People and Further Analysis

Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People was a 2006 documentary produced by Sut Jhally and produced by Media Education Foundation. The film is an extension of the book by Dr. Jack Shaheen of the same title. The film discussed how Hollywood misrepresents Arabs from the days of the silent era to contemporary Hollywood blockbusters.

While many Hollywood films depicting Arab terrorists, two of the most prominent TV shows in 24 and Lost featuring Arab characters ended their long natural runs in 2010. Both have made an attempt to display balanced portrayals of Arab characters.
24 TV show logo
The Fox TV show 24 is centered around a fictional counter-terrorist government agency called CTU. The premiere of the show was held almost two months after the attacks of September 11, 2001. The show periodically featured Arab and Muslim characters primarily in antagonist and victimized roles.

Despite portraying Muslims on both sides, the show has received complaints from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) about “contributing to an atmosphere that it’s OK to harm and discriminate against Muslim. This could actually hurt real-life people.”

Despite a public service announcement shot by the show’s star Kiefer Sutherland stating, “the American Muslim community stands firmly beside their fellow Americans in denouncing and resisting all forms of terrorism. So in watching ’24.’ please bear that in mind,” CAIR was persistent in its criticism. Fox reiterated that its show featured terrorists from numerous countries and ethnic groups.

During an interview in Mother Jones, Howard Gordon, who was a producer for 24 from seasons 5 – 8, described a billboard advertising of his show about the Muslim family featured in season 4 with a caption that reads, “They could be next door.” Thought the writers were not behind the ad, they were quick to put it down realizing the potential impact of the show. Gordon currently produces the Showtime cable show, Homeland that deals in similar themes. Homeland is about a POW who was captured by Al Qaeda. The main character believes the POW was turned by the enemy and now threatens the United States.

Another popular TV show that ended its run was Lost. Lost featured an ensemble cast of multiethnic survivors who find themselves marooned on a tropical island. One of the major characters on the show, Sayid Jarrah (Naveen Andrews), a former Iraqi Republic Guard tries to come to drips with his hardened past. Throughout the show, he tortures and brutalizes others stemming from his days interrogating prisoners during the first Gulf War. He also became an unwitting infiltrator in a Muslim terror cell. He eventually becomes a respected leader within the survivors. Despite the negative stereotype of the “brutal Arab soldier,” Andrews turned Sayid into an endearing character. He not only did what he had to, but maintained his humanity in the process. Despite show’s pacing and over reliance on flashbacks to tell each character’s back story, Sayid became a sympathetic positive character.

While Arab Americans and Muslims haven’t had much in terms of influence over how they’re portrayed in Hollywood, a number of filmmakers are trying to present them in a normal light.

While we had these contemporary examples to draw from, it is important that as the documentary, Reed Bad Arabs pointed out–Arab men are often portrayed as “indulgent,” “greedy,” and “savage bandits” while Arab women are “shallow belly dancers serving evil,” “naive,” and “greedy Arab sheiks.” The most prominent stereotype Shaheen explained was Arabs and Muslims as terrorists. He cited the case of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. He stated in the film in initial reports, Arabs were blamed as it fit their pattern of attack. When McVeigh was captured, no mention was made of his religious affiliation. Shaheen in hindsight pondered what kind of fervor McVeigh had if he were a Muslim given the reactions following the attacks attacks of 9/11.

Despite having Arabs as victims and non-Arabs as terrorists, the TV show 24 was still dealing with a sensitive geopolitical atmosphere where Islamophobia remained prevalent given the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You may understand the position CAIR had in despite the show’s best intentions, it’s still reinforcing the less than tolerant elements American society had against Muslims and Arabs. If you see characters like Sayid Jarrah who had to endure said stereotypes and develop him into an enduring character, it can go a long way into helping to better shape people’s perceptions.

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Searching for the Asian Julia Roberts–Asian women in Hollywood

The Lady(2011) starring Michelle Yeoh is a rarity in Hollywood, an Asian female in a leading dramatic role.

The issues keeping Asian males from being viable sustainable stars in film are also what are keeping Asian females from being the same. Most prominent roles for Asian women have been relegated to action-oriented roles, but hardly the main romantic lead. While film is still a revolving door for women, television showed more promise in featuring and sustaining more Asian female faces.

Currently, Maggie Q is the only Asian actor to be the prominent star in a major network TV show, the CW’s Nikita.

The San Diego Asian Film Foundation held a panel October 2011 discussing various issues affecting Asian women in Hollywood. The panel was moderated by Leeva Chung(Professor of Communication Studies at the University of San Diego) and featured Elaine H. Kim (Professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkley and director/writer of Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded), actors Lynn Chen and Sheetal Sheth.

They initially talked about the documentary tackling Asian women stereotypes in Hollywood called Slaying the Dragon: Asian Women in U.S. Television and Film (1988) and it’s sequel Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded (2011) breaking down the elements of each film.

Two of the prominent stereotypes discussed in the film are the “dragon lady” villainous stereotype and domesticated servant, newswoman(i.e.:Connie Chung), etc. While the 1988 60-minute film focuses on the earlier portrayals, the 2011 30-minute followup focuses on depictions from 1984 to 2009. The films were produced by Asian Women United. It serves as a comprehensive complementary piece to Jeff Adachi’s Slanted Screen about Asian male portrayals.

Other topics of discussion included were–the growing number Asian filmmakers, the emergence of new media (i.e.: Youtube), the complexities of choosing roles, and life as an actor. The panel was interesting because I felt Steth and Chen’s points about creating your own stories and reinforcing the community are keys for sustainability. Chen brought up a point when CBS’ Hawaii Five-O cast member Daniel Dae Kim was trying to help bring more Asians to the show to be more reflective on the Asian population in Hawaii.

One trend the panel agreed on is how open producers are with featuring Asians in ensemble casts. Asian actors like Sandra Oh, Yun Jim Kim, and Grace Park have been prominently featured in TV shows–Grey’s Anatomy, Lost and Hawaii Five-O.

Oh won a Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actress in a Series for her role in Grey’s Anatomy in 2006. Oh’s also had a number of film roles including critically-acclaimed films Sideways and Hard Candy. She first gained notice in the HBO cable series Alri$$.

While there is no shortage of Asian actresses on TV, there isn’t much steady work for them to be the sustainable marketable force behind films. Many actresses who have had starring roles in film, either find themselves doing more TV work or going back to the international markets that made them famous in the first place.

Ming-Na has had a few of starring roles in film, albeit her best known are animated features in Disney’s Mulan and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Most of her work have been in bit parts in TV shows with a few runs as a supporting cast member in ER and Stargate Universe.

Ziyi Zhang has had limited success in the U.S. since making her U.S. debut in Rush Hour 2 and her most critically-acclaimed film to date, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Most of her film work remains in China while she’s made the occasional appearance in American films like The Horseman, TMNT, and Memoirs of a Geisha.

Another actress who’s gone back and forth for a stable film career is Li Gong. Her most recent film was in 2011, the Chinese romantic comedy What Women Want. Prior to that four of her last five films according to IMDB, were U.S. projects including Shanghai, Hannibal Rising, Miami Vice, and Memoirs of a Geisha.

Many Asian actresses in Hollywood films are often typecast and best known as action stars/femme fatales.

In Maggie Q’s IMDB’s page, the four most prominent projects she is known for are action-oriented Live Free or Die Hard, Mission: Impossible III, Nikita, and Priest.

It’s similar with Lucy Liu, who first gained prominence on her role in the Fox TV show Ally McBeal. She is best known for Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Lucky Number Slevin, Charlie’s Angels, and Kung Fu Panda.

Liu has dramatic and comedic roles to her credit. She has the distinction of being the first Asian female to host the comedy variety program, NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Jackie Chan was the first Asian to host.

Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong

Comedienne Margaret Cho was not the first Asian actor to be featured in an American TV show nor was she the first Asian American sitcom star. Anna May Wong, the silent film actress, was star of the television series, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong in 1951. Pat Morita starred in the first American sitcom centered on a person of Asian descent called Mr. T and Tina in 1976. Both shows did not last the year they debuted.

Cho has been an outspoken critic since her time in the 1994 sitcom, All American Girl, speaking about racism in Hollywood and the lack of leading ladies to serve as role models.

While more Asian actresses are emerging as viable stars, you’re still not seeing them up to the caliber of a Halle Berry, Salma Hayek or Katherine Heigl. Even still, it’s rare you see someone like Kristin Kreuk in a pivotal role in the TV show Smallville as a romantic lead. Asian girls and women would be more empowered as much as their male counterparts if they got to see themselves in more balanced leading roles. Chen said in the panel that she is seeing more roles without a definitive race. If that is the case, where is the Asian everywoman who can sell any film on her own namesake? Where is the Asian “Julia Roberts?”

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Asians in Comedy – Redefining the Asian Comedian

The current visibility of Asians in the media has mixed results. While most of the serious roles are action-oriented, we are seeing more emerge in dramatic roles. We’re also seeing more Asians emerge in comedic roles.

Two of NBC’s most popular sitcoms Community and Parks and Recreation feature emerging stars in Ken Jeong and Aziz Ansari, respectively. Another comedian, Aasif Mandvi, is a regular correspondent on the satire news show, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show.

Ken Jeong

Ken Jeong
Photo by Gage Skidmore

Jeong plays Ben Chang, a former Spanish teacher who has to get his degree to be certified in Community. Born of South Korean immigrants, Jeong gained his medical degree at University of North Carolina and developed his stand-up routine while completing his medical residency. Though Jeong’s acting career spanned 15 years, he first gained serious notice as Dr. Kuni in 2007 film, Knocked Up. His big break came two years later, playing drug lord, Leslie Chow in The Hangoverfilms (2009 and 2011). He’s made numerous feature film and TV appearances, but his signature roles are often egomaniacal, over-the-top, flamboyant and abrasive characters.

Aziz Ansari

Ansari plays Tom Haverford, a sarcastic underachieving government official, in Parks and Recreation. Born of Indian immigrants, Ansari got his break from the MTV sketch comedy show, Human Giant. Ansari’s stand-up draws from personal experiences rather than ethnic humor. His success had led him to numerous film roles including Funny People, I Love You, Man, Get Him to the Greek, and most recently his first starring role in an ensemble cast in 2011’s 30 Minutes or Less.

Aasif Mandvi

Aasif Mandvi
Photo: Comedy Central/Martin Crook

Mandvi was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India to a Muslim family. He emigrated with his family to Tampa, FL when he was 16. After graduating from University of South Florida with a degree in theatre, he worked as a performer at Disney World before moving to New York City to pursue off-Broadway productions. Most of Mandvi’s work was in supporting roles in film and a few TV appearances before prominently featured in The Daily Show. He auditioned and was immediately hired in 2006 in the same day before becoming a regular correspondent in 2007. His titles often include “Senior Asian Correspondent,” “Senior Middle East Correspondent” and “Senior Muslim Correspondent” while appearing and commenting in numerous news segments.

Two of the most prominent late night sketch comedy shows featured Asian American cast members. Fred Armisen and Nasim Pedrad are current cast members of NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Armisen, whose father is of German and Japanese descent, is the second Asian cast member in SNL’s history joining them in 2002. Iranian-born Pedrad joined the cast in 2009. Bobby Lee was a prominent cast member of Fox’s MADtv joining them in 2001 until the show’s cancellation in 2009. Many of Lee’s characters are Asian caricatures that play off of pop culture and stereotypes. Ironically enough, the character of Ms. Swan (played by Caucasian actress Alex Borstein) also played up Asian female stereotypes.

While the discussion of their stereotypes is nothing new, what responsibilities do Asian comedians have to help shape their audience perceptions? Are they to embrace the stereotypes and play it up for laughs or do we trust that they can deal with the issues based on how they see fit? Does it make it okay if Asians are in on the joke or does it make it worse in regards to acceptance into society?

It might be a matter of perspective. While a comedian like Lee can introduce characters on MADtv, we view his own personal take on confronting those stereotypes. NBC’s Last Comic Standing first season winner, Vietnamese comedian Dat Phan, focuses primarily on everyday life, self-depreciation and racial stereotypes.

Outside of sketch TV shows, the pinnacle of Asian comedy success was achieved by Margaret Cho, whose ABC 1994 sitcom All American Girl was based on her comedy. Unfortunately, that success was short-lived and tumultuous.

Cho’s one-woman show and book, I’m the One that I Want described problems that plagued the show, namely producers complaining about her weight, looking too round and not “acting Asian enough.” An Asian consultant was hired to help her be more Asian. Then when producers re-casted the show replacing the Asians with white friends, she was then told, she was too Asian.

There might be a more definitive line when it comes to laughing at Asians in comedy. It’s one thing to laugh because of a clash of cultures; it’s also a matter on how the characters deal with how others perceive them. If Jack Soo can can be witty on a show like Barney Miller, then why is Matthew Moy of Two Broke Girls reduced to be a walking stereotype?

Humor might be relative, it might matter that much more when a group is underrepresented like Asian Americans are. Long Duk Dong might be a funny character, but if that’s all what we see as the proto-typical Asian in comedy, that’s what sticks. If non-Asian executives believe that’s what sticks, then Asian actors might be at their mercy as Cho found out herself.

Will we see another opportunity? In 2011, another Korean-American comedian in Henry Cho, who’s been in standup since 1989, has a show called The Henry Cho Show on Great American Country. It features a variety of standup comedians and sketches.

Asians in comedy have come a long way from being portrayed as lesser buffoons to a yellowfaced Charlie Chan to the annoyed Japanese yellow-faced tenant in Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Despite the negative stereotypes in Hollywood’s past, there were figures like Soo and Burt Kwouk who made you laugh with their comedy.

As Jeff Adachi pointed out, we might be 15 years away from being a serious force in movies, but I think maybe we might be a little closer when it comes to comedy.

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Asians in Comedy–Harold & Kumar Make a Successful Film Franchise

John Cho

John Cho
Photo: Charlie Nguyen

The release of A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas on November 4, 2011 marked a rarity among American cinema–the third movie of a trilogy featuring two leading Asians in a successful comedy franchise. The films star John Cho and Kal Penn as the title characters. Cho was born in South Korea, but moved to Los Angeles as a child. Penn was born and raised in New Jersey. His parents were Indian immigrants who moved to America.

The Harold & Kumar series is one of the most successful stoner comedies since the popular films of Cheech and Chong. The films embark heavily on social commentary about social situations and current events while trying to achieve their primary objective. The comedy is typical of stoner films, but it also touches upon prevalent stereotypes, social injustice, interracial relationships, and provides positive everyday multi-ethnic characters that were severely lacking in feature films.

Kal Penn

Kal Penn

In the films, Harold Lee, a Korean American, works as an investment banker. He is hard working and best friends with free spirit Kumar Patel, an Indian American. When Harold is stressed from his daily activities whether if it’s from school or work, he smokes marijuana with Kumar. Kumar is Harold’s lazy roommate, but has the delicate hands of a surgeon.

The film series combined to gross $102 million worldwide. Trying to gauge the cultural impact is currently inconclusive and not immediately known in terms of improving visibility of Asian leads, but it raised the viability of its featured stars. Perhaps, we may see more Asians in leading comedic roles.

Cho’s most notable recent roles was in the TV show, FlashFoward in the featured cast and the rebooted Star Trek film franchise playing Hikaru Sulu (a role made famous by Japanese-American actor George Takei).

Penn has had featured appearances in popular TV shows like 24, How I Met Your Mother, and House M.D..

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