(H/T K. Ramakrishnan)
Yesterday, California Governor Jerry Brown took a stance against the ethnic disaggregation of state-collected Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) data, and in so doing positioned himself against California’s AAPI, Black, and Latino communities, and against the recommendations of many of the institutions directly affected.
In a brief letter, Gov. Brown announced he would be vetoing Assembly Bill AB-176, which called for new state-wide guidelines for the collection of AAPI demographic data requiring at least the inclusion of categories for Bangladeshi, Hmong, Indonesian, Malaysian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Taiwanese, Thai, Fijian and Tongan people; currently, California collects disaggregated data for some “major” Asian groups (e.g. Chinese, Japanese, Indian) but folds the remainder into a category labelled “Other Asian”, rendering these populations largely invisible in demographic analyses. Yet, these populations make up to as much as 15% of the national AAPI population.
Grace Lee Boggs — revered civil rights activist and scholar and Asian American feminist hero — passed away this morning. She was 100.
Founder of the Boggs Center and co-founder of Detroit Summer, Boggs lived a life dedicated to activism and social justice, with her efforts focused in particular on inner city Detroit. However, her work extended far beyond Detroit’s city limits in terms of influence: she has inspired (among others) several generations of Asian American activists and feminists — including myself.
This evening, the Asian American community ventures into uncharted territory. With tonight’s premiere of Ken Jeong’s newest venture — the ABC sitcom Dr. Ken — two family sitcoms featuring Asian American characters will for the first time be on television’s primetime broadcast schedule in the same fall season. Dr. Ken joins ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat, last year’s mid-season replacement of Selfie which starred John Cho and which was cancelled after just seven episodes. Fresh Off The Boat is itself only the second Asian American family sitcom, debuting nearly twenty years after Margaret Cho broke ground with All-American Girl.
Yet, I have to confess: I don’t consider myself a fan of Ken Jeong’s body of work. I find Jeong’s most notable role — the sardonic, antipathy-fueled Leslie Chen of the Hangover films — racially unsettling for its flirtation with stereotype. I was deeply concerned when Jeong appeared in inexplicable Blackface for an episode of Community, a show that featured the comedian as a series regular. I also take issue with Jeong’s overall comedy persona; often, Jeong creates humour through racial dissonance by appearing as an Asian American while acting against expectation. Yet, he occasionally builds that dissonance through unchecked use of hip hop culture and slang; in a recent review of Dr. Ken, Christopher T. Fan recounts how Jeong entertained the writer and other visitors to the set over lunch by describing “his shit” as “on fleek”. Too often, I find myself so preoccupied trying to parse the racial play of Jeong’s comedic style to find the work funny. Thus, while Ken Jeong’s brand of humour is wildly popular and successful among mainstream audiences, it just really hasn’t been “my thing”; consequently, I had planned to pass on watching (and reviewing) Dr. Ken.
I was drawn back into reconsidering my feelings towards Jeong’s work, recently, by his largely unannounced cameo appearance in the independent Asian American feminist and science-fiction film, Advantageous. Jeong’s brief performance was subtle, heartfelt, mature and nuanced, and helped me to see the actor beyond the exaggerated parodies of social maladjustment that he is best known for.
Then, when Fan (who apparently shares my unease over Jeong’s comedic work) wrote in his review of Dr. Ken that he unexpectedly found himself “laughing out loud”, I was intrigued enough to sit down and preview the first two episodes of Dr. Ken for myself.
The trailer feels like Girls meets This Is Where I Leave You. In She Lights Up Well, Sophie (played by the film’s writer and director, Joyce Wu) is a struggling Asian American actress living in New York City, and whose last big break was for an undocumented massage parlour worker and who is forced by mounting bills to move back home and into her parents’ house in Detroit. “This is just temporary,” Sophie insists to anyone who will listen, “I’m just saving up enough money to move back to New York.”
There, Sophie finds herself drawn into directing the local community theatre’s production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado”, after the company’s original director unexpectedly quits. Compelled to save the production and protect the theatre from closure by city council, and smitten when she reunites with an old high school crush (Zach, played by Sean Kleier), Sophie finds herself on a journey of renewal and self-discovery (trailer after the jump).
Negative, oftentimes racist, portrayals of Asian Americans have persisted in Western media for over a century. When we are not entirely absent from media representation, we appear mostly in exaggerated and stereotyped form: rodent-like subhumans; alien threats; hypersexualized objects of desire; buffoonish clowns; socially maladjusted nerds; martial artists; criminal gangsters. Too often, these performances are coupled with the absence of even an Asian American face: instead, non-Asian actors adopt these and other stereotypes to enact Asian-ess through yellowface.
A new website — Kulture — now seeks to act as a watchdog for Asian American representation in popular media by inviting crowd-sourced submission of stereotypical depictions for inclusion in their database.