“There’s a quote that, ‘You cannot be what you cannot see,’ and we think there’s a lot of truth in that,” says Peter Ash Lee, the New York-based editor behind the Asian-American arts and culture magazine Burdock. “Growing up, we didn’t see many reflections of ourselves in media, and when we did, they were often portrayals lacking any depth.”
The feelings of being “unseen” and a desire for multi-dimensional Asian-American experiences were what inspired Lee and his sister, Hannah, to create Burdock, which launched in April at New York’s Apex for Youth Gala (an event where Gemma Chan and Olivia Munn were recognized, among others, for their contributions to underserved Asian and immigrant youth in the city).
“We’ve often been painted with a monolithic brush, but the Asian community contains so many multitudes and no two stories are identical — there are thousands of unique experiences and stories to tell,” Lee says.
For Ian Chen, who stars as Evan on ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” (the first network television show to feature a predominantly Asian cast since Margaret Cho’s “All American Girl” ran for one season in 1994) it’s been both a privilege and responsibility to be part of this growing narrative. “It’s very cool to see such an influential show be running for as long as ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ has, and there’s definitely pressure and encouragement to keep the show going,” he says.
The show, Chen acknowledges, is a “trailblazer“ for diversity on television, and “definitely the stepping stone that we needed.” And while Chen’s “Fresh Off the Boat” co-star Constance Wu made headlines earlier this month for expressing disappointment in the show’s renewal, Chen says there are no hard feelings. “I understand why Constance would have these certain feelings, but I don’t think she intentionally was being selfish,” he says. “Constance is a really talented actress and it’s great working with her.”
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, a celebration first introduced in 1977 before the observance was officially passed into law by congress in 1992. To mark the occasion, we spoke to nine Asian actors about their experiences in Hollywood, the continued struggle for representation, and the Asian-driven books, shows and films that have inspired them along the way.
What is it like being an Asian actor in Hollywood right now?
Janel Parrish, “To All the Boys I Loved Before,” “Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists”
Growing up in the industry, if you didn’t look like the “girl next door” or the “All-American girl” it was very difficult to get jobs. You would audition and then hear feedback like, “She was great, but we don’t know how to place her; she doesn’t fit into a family.”
Arden Cho, “Teen Wolf”
I used to be told, “If you want to be the lead, go act in Korea or an Asian country,” but that never made sense to me because I am American. My mom and dad are from South Korea and I speak Korean, but I was born in the States.
Tati Gabrielle, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”
My challenges have been around both of my races actually (Gabrielle is Korean and African-American). Because I am half-Asian, in some cases, I don’t look “Black” enough, and because I’m half-Black, I don’t look “Asian” enough. In either case, no matter what, there doesn’t seem to be very many roles created specifically to tell the “Blasian” story, which is disappointing because there are so many of us out there that have had a very unique upbringing and interesting stories to share.
Aaron Yoo, “The Tomorrow People,” “21”
A thing that I’ve always understood, without being told, is there can only be ONE Asian actor in a cast, of any gender. So we’re all scrapping for one role, if that role even exists (many projects have no Asian characters). [Even] if there’s an Asian female specified in the script, and I’ve got an audition for another character of supposedly “open” ethnicity, I know that my getting cast is highly unlikely, if not completely impossible.
Jeannie Mai, “The Real”
I hear or experience racial stereotypes everyday no matter where I am, so I don’t believe it has to do with being in Hollywood, or being female. When it comes to casting though, I definitely have been encouraged to say or do specific things to foster the image of being an “exotic submissive Asian.”
Shioli Kutsuna, “Deadpool 2,” “Murder Mystery”
I worked in Japan for ten years before deciding to focus on working in the States. I went from working year-round to working sporadically, and to be honest, this took a while to get used to. Then again, I imagine this struggle is the same for any actor trying to break into Hollywood, regardless of their ethnicity.
Why do you think it has been difficult for Asians to land larger roles and opportunities?
Kutsuna: I think that history might play a big part. Having been brought up on American films, even I don’t expect to see Asian actors in leading roles. I guess this shows how difficult it is to change cultural expectations.
Cho: I think a lot of large films want a “star,” but for a long time, there were very few Asian-American stars. You have to be in a big film to be a star, but if you’re never given that opportunity, then you’ll never become a star.
Yoo: There’s an old myth that Asian faces don’t translate into TV ratings or box office dollars. It’s like one of the Apocrypha of the “Hollywood Bible.” But in what fictional past was this truism proven? When were Asians even given the opportunity to headline films and TV shows? Through the 1970s, we weren’t even allowed to play ourselves!
Mai: I feel at times like race is a trend in Hollywood. When I was growing up, “White was right” and that was the predominant color you’d see in every role or commercial. As we begin to have a more interactive discussion (thanks to social media, for example), we’re beginning to see more representation, but nowhere near where we should be.
People have been citing the popularity of “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Killing Eve” (stream here) and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” as examples of successful Asian-driven projects. Do you think we are moving the needle in terms of representation?
Parrish: “To All the Boys” was a huge step for Hollywood and I’m thrilled to say we just finished filming the second film. To have Asian-American girls come up to me and say how happy they were to see Asian leads in their favorite film made my heart so happy.
Gabrielle: I believe we have the potential to move in a more positive direction, but I think that we are riding a very fine line. We have made a start, yes, but I often find myself asking the question, “Is this truly a move towards a greater future? Or are the higher-ups simply meeting quotas to appease the masses [and] simply doing just enough to get by?” Adding a token Asian here and there is just covering the bases. However, I do understand that this is the Golden Age for diversity, this is the best it has ever been, and I am proud of the industry for that. I
Yoo: How can we not see this as progress? Still, there’s a real dearth of Asian stories in mainstream Hollywood. I read about several shows written by and about Asian-Americans that didn’t make it out of this past development season. They sounded as interesting and original as the majority of scripts I read in pilot season. Of course it’s unfair to generalize — there are reasons of budget and scheduling and taste working against each of those shows — but certainly they had to swim upstream in an environment where other shows did not. But is all of this still, “moving in the right direction?” Absolutely. This wasn’t even a discussion a decade ago.
Dichen Lachman, “Altered Carbon,” “Animal Kingdom”
We can celebrate the progress that has happened while knowing that it doesn’t stop there. I’ve met some incredible writers and executives who naturally saw past ticking a box, and proceeded based on what they believed I could bring to the role. Science fiction has also always been a wonderful playground for pushing boundaries. Hopefully it goes beyond that genre.
What should Hollywood execs know about telling Asian-American stories?
Gabrielle: Speak to an Asian person. As opposed to simply doing research or going off of assumed knowledge, they should be sure to always have an active Asian-American consultant on staff during the production process that can be a factual liaison to all outstanding questions or concerns.
Cho: We still need more shows and films with Asian-American actors, and we need more stories where the actor being ethnic has nothing to do with the story being told. I want to see diverse actors just being [regular] people, not the “token” diverse character.
Parrish: Representation matters. Everyone wants to feel they have equal opportunity to tell their stories and share their talents.
Miyavi, “Unbroken,” “Kong: Skull Island”
Executives should know that inclusiveness leads to unity and that diversity is a way of life, not a rarity. The arts are enriched when we share the best of our cultures with one another.
Chen: It’s simple: treat ”Asian-American” stories as regular stories.
What are some Asian-driven books, shows or films that have inspired you over the years?
Cho: When “Crazy Rich Asians” came out (stream here), I cried while watching it, because I had never imagined getting to see a rom-com in theaters that had Asian-American leads telling the story. I’m dying to watch “Always Be My Maybe,” starring Ali Wong and Randall Park (on Netflix May 31). I’m also a huge fan of shows that include minorities, like “Kim’s Convenience,” “Selfie” (stream with free trial to Hulu), “Deadly Class” (stream here) and “Single Parents” (stream here).
Gabrielle: When I was in high school, I really loved “Fresh Off the Boat” (stream here) because while it was comical, it was still very accurate to me as far as the first-generation Asian-American experience. My mother (who is Korean) took much joy in it as well. I was also really inspired by the recent film “Burning,” starring Steven Yeun (stream here), which I think everyone should watch when they get a chance.
Chen: Aside from “Fresh Off the Boat,” there are a ton of new TV shows that people should check out. One of my favorites is “Kim’s Convenience” (stream here).
Lachman: Many stories inspired me over the years but most of the Asian stories were anecdotal, passed down from family. In Kathmandu (where Lachman was born and raised) we didn’t have access to many contemporary books or shows, but when I moved to Australia, one of the films I watched over and over again was “The Joy Luck Club” (stream here).
Mai: I like listening to “The Read” podcast for pop culture and perspective. I’m also excited for Roy Choi’s series, “Broken Bread” (watch with free trial to Tastemade).
Miyavi: Recently, I was inspired by the documentary, “Free Solo” (stream here) which shows that you never know what great heights you can achieve until you try. The directors, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai, are Asian [and] it’s great to see them being recognized for their work.
Parrish: Growing up, my dream role was always Kim in “Miss Saigon” (stream original London cast recording here). Lea Salonga was my role model. I would think, “She is such a strong, beautiful and successful Asian woman,” and this what I strove to be.
Yoo: Movies I’m thinking about right now or always: Wong Kar Wai’s “In the Mood for Love” (stream here), Jong-Bin Yoon’s “Nameless Gangster” (stream here), Zhangke Jia’s “Ash Is Purest White,” Hirokazu Koreeda’s “After Life” (get the DVD here) and Justin Chon’s “Gook” (stream here).
While I’m hopeful for Marvel’s upcoming “Shang-Chi,” if you’re looking for an Asian-American superhero, for my money you can’t beat Gene Luen Yang’s “Shadow Hero” (read it here). If you love “Game of Thrones” but you wish there were Asians somewhere in Essos, check out Ken Liu’s “The Grace of Kings” (read it here).
Kutsuna: If you haven’t seen any of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, you need to go and watch them all right now (stream them all here).
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