When writer Mary Park enthusiastically took the microphone to address the unprecedented gathering of Asian American writers in New York on Monday, she couldn’t help but point out the discouragement surrounding the lack of Asian American representation in the 2020 Oscar nominations, coincidentally released on the same day.
The gathering was the inaugural New York edition of the Asian American Writers Network Dinner, a meeting of scribes that began in Los Angeles in 2019. Organizers were inspired to start an East Coast event after reading about the L.A. one in Variety last August.
Despite the Oscar snubs of “The Farewell,” which earned a Golden Globe for actress Awkwafina but no Academy Award nominations, the AAPI creative community isn’t backing down and is dedicated to their call for more representation in the entertainment industry and beyond.
“The most recent census is 2017, and they determined that there’s over 18 million Asians in America. That’s over 5% of America, but when you see entertainment, they’re not represented. It goes beyond the hashtags of #BAFTASoWhite and #OscarsSoWhite and ‘Where’s Awkwafina in the Oscars?’ We need to change that and we need to change that now,” Park told the crowd at the dinner, held at the Writers Guild of America East headquarters in downtown Manhattan. “Asians get things done.”
One of the ways that Asian Americans are getting things done? By pushing Governor Andrew Cuomo to pass the recent Television Diversity Tax Credit Bill, which incentivizes the hiring of minority television writers and directors. When Derek Nguyen, the event’s producer and co-founder of The Population, joined WGAE council member, co-chair of Committee of Inclusion and Equity, co-founder of the Asian American Salon, television writer and consulting producer at “Law & Order: SVU” Lisa Takeuchi Cullen onstage, Cullen took the time to praise the signing, saying it took years for the WGA to convince senators and assembly members to sign the bill in December.
“We finally got Cuomo to sign this s—,” said Cullen.
The crowd that turned out on Monday hit capacity, which coordinators had to cap at 50, and attendees enjoyed a dinner provided by local vendors. The conversation ranged from the importance of representation in the entertainment industry to sharing work experiences such as grappling with having to pitch themselves to prospective employers despite the cultural traditions that frown on too much self promotion. Ultimately, the dinner was a chance for Asian Americans to network and build community in the Big Apple.
Jennifer Hsu, the co-founder of Asian American Writers Brunch, writer and physician who started these events in Los Angeles, said she hosted eight in 2019 and has eight more planned for 2020, with 25 RSVPs turning into over 125 over the course of last year. Park said she Facebook-stalked Hsu and reached out to her after reading Audrey Cleo Yap’s coverage of one of the brunches, saying she wanted to collaborate and host a similar event in New York. Hsu reached out to key collaborator Michelle Sugihara, executive director of the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE), to coordinate.
In the past, Hsu said one attendee was able to get her dream job after networking at an event. Another writer was able to secure a manager. This time around, the dinner saw mostly young writers, filmmakers, actors, industry executives, playwrights and comedians, and the event was co-ed instead of the past brunches, which were geared toward female creatives.
Park told Variety that for the dinner, producer Toni Wang booked the catering, featuring all Asian American, local vendors to supply the goodies. Lisa Li of “The Qi” wellness lifestyle brand provided three kinds of flower-based teas made from rose, chrysanthemum and lotus blooms, which included edible petals. The attendees dined on Asian-fusion food provided by chef Bao Bao of Baoburg restaurant, including cashew chicken, shrimp and chicken dumplings and pork belly baos. Local baker Jean Teo of “Simply Jeanius” made cakes and cupcakes that incorporated designs of flowers like chrysanthemum, which is typically given in Chinese funerals and is the Imperial seal of Japan. Attendees gathered to network and build community with other creatives, leaving the room loud with chatter and laughs.
Amazon co-hosted the event, gifting attendees with Amazon Echo devices.
“And you get an Echo, and you get an Echo,” some of the attendees said laughing, referring to Oprah Winfrey’s famous segment that had her giving her audience members cars.
When Diana Son, writer on “Dirty John,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” “Blue Bloods” and “13 Reasons Why,” which she also produced, took the stage to give a talk and Q&A, she detailed her life as a Korean American born to Korean immigrant parents living in Delaware and how a female-led production of “Hamlet” inspired her to apply to New York University’s College of Arts and Sciences to study dramatic literature, and ended up also becoming a playwright herself, writing the plays “Stop Kiss” and “Satellites.”
Now, she is developing a show with HBO called “Slanted” where she has developed an Asian American lead character — inspired by her friend, Wen Zhou, president and CEO of fashion label Phillip Lim 3.1, also in attendance — for the first time in her 20-year career.
When asked by an attendee if she had any advice for young writers, she said when going in for a general meeting, try to sell yourself.
“When you go in for a meeting, whether it’s a general meeting or a showrunner meeting, go in prepared and go in and have a story and present yourself as somebody who has something to give,” said Son. “Just present yourself as somebody who has something to offer. Not ‘Hi, I’m so happy to be here, what do you want to know from me?'”
Cullen, who moderated the conversation, jumped in by saying that this tendency to back away from the spotlight is culturally significant.
“That’s something that I think that maybe speaks to us culturally because a lot of us are raised not to do that, not to be that person in the room who makes the most noise or tells the loudest story,” she said.
Sophia Chang, a high-profile attendee who others at the event referred to as the “first Asian woman in hip-hop,” has managed the likes of Wu-Tang Clan, D’Angelo, Q-Tip, A Tribe Called Quest, and Raphael Saadiq and expressed the same sentiment of breaking the “model minority myth” which stereotypes Asians as “docile, submissive and politically malleable.”
She has a new memoir entitled “The Baddest B—h In The Room” released on Audible Sept. 26, 2019 and in print Sept. 8, 2020. When asked what it was like to get her book out there, she said publishers weren’t as receptive as they could have been, describing them as “blindingly white.” She said she is grateful for how the doors have started to open, but it’s been a long time coming, and there’s still a ways to go. Under the guise of imperialism, white supremacy and misogyny, she said that she attended the dinner to encourage others to tell their stories.
“I did it in a very literal fashion. I wrote a memoir, maybe you’re a sculptor, maybe you’re a litigator. Maybe you’re an amazing teacher. There are so many ways that we can tell and share our stories and I think that’s so important. This is a literal way of doing it,” Chang said. “I haven’t ever been invited to a room like this. I do love being in Asian spaces. It’s really empowering and has exactly the intended effect.”
Pictured: Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, Diana Son