The Asian-American community celebrated a memorable night on Saturday at the 16th Annual Unforgettable Gala in Los Angeles.
The event celebrates prominent members of the Asian-American community whose work has helped advance their culture in Hollywood and beyond. This year, the celebration honored actors Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park with the BMW Ultimate Drive award, actress and rapper Awkwafina with the female breakout award, and Ross Butler with the male breakout award. Actor Justin Chon and Dr. Mike Hong were honored, as well as snowboarder Chloe Kim and agency and marketing executive Ted Chung. Leonardo Nam and Maggie Q were named actor and actress of the year.
On the red carpet, Butler said that Asian-Americans in Hollywood are on the “edge of something great as far as representation.”
“We have Asian-Americans playing non-stereotypical roles and roles that were not written for Asians, and this has just been happening in the past two or three years,” Butler said. “We need to stick to who we are and not compromise and play something that we’re not based on who the culture thinks we are. The next few years is going to define that and everything is going to change.”
The upcoming “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” film and last year’s “Rogue One” were noted for featuring Asian-Americans cast in prominent roles. Awkwafina recognized how important it is to see a “face that looks like you in such a far-reaching series like ‘Star Wars,’” while Nam said it “feels normal,” voicing the night’s overarching sentiment that Asians in the media should not be considered out of the ordinary.
The night took an unexpectedly raucous turn after Chung spoke about how the film “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story” impacted him. He had never seen “a strong Asian male having sex on screen and…[that film had] real sensuality and real sexuality represented for the first time when I was in high school and that was really impactful for me.”
Awkwafina kept the irreverent energy going when she spoke about how she was fired from her job after making a music video for her song “My Vag.” The song went on to became a viral hit because “no one had ever seen anyone like me and Asian-American women had never seen anyone like them. I don’t think that progress is necessarily sprinkling in Asian people to create the illusion of diversity, I think that progress is giving them the ability to tell our own stories.”
The night’s special performances ranged in energy from Judith Hill’s elegantly powerful singing and piano playing to the fast-paced dance moves of Kinjaz. South Korean hip-hop group Epik High made a splash when they swore during their songs and sprayed the crowd with water bottles, despite being asked to refrain by the organizers. “Tonight is about celebrating doing what you’re told not to do.”
During Maggie Q’s speech, she relayed a story about how she was offered a role as “the chink” and spoke about defying people’s expectations and valuing one’s own worth. When Kim took the stage, he joked about the progress Hollywood has made with films that had infamously cast white actors in Asian roles, like “Ghost In the Shell,” “The Great Wall,” “Doctor Strange,” and “Aloha.”
“Inclusion and diversity are popular buzzwords, but what I challenge everyone in this room to do is to move beyond these notions of simply being included — to lead…If you’re a leader, you never have to beg for a place at the table because you’re the one hosting the dinner.”