By Guest Contributor: Celeste Pewter (@celeste_pewter)
The first time I told my parents I wanted to be an actor, I was seven.
I was at an age where I was mildly obsessed with Audrey Hepburn. My classics movie-loving dad had given me VHS tapes of My Fair Lady for my birthday, and after consuming all one hundred and seventy minutes of the film in all its Technicolor glory, I could think of nothing better than a career that would let me perform and dress up in fabulous costumes daily, just like Audrey herself.
I had more than a few childish daydreams: I would first wow film crew on set, as Hepburn had likely wowed the Fair Lady crew in her transformative performance as Eliza Doolittle. Once my film(s) were released, I would charm my way through the awards season before finally taking to the stage at the Academy Awards and graciously accepting the holy grail of acting: the Best Actress Oscar. In my young heart, this was obviously a future that was meant to be.
But when I confidently announced my future vocation plans to my parents, they laughed knowingly, before sitting me down to have a conversation on the ways of the world.
“Honey, people who look like us don’t make it in Hollywood,” I can remember my dad saying, as he gently patted me on the knee. “Only actors with special skills like Jackie Chan can get their attention.” Chan, who had recently broken into the American mainstream with 1995’s Rumble in the Bronx, had become something of an icon in our household. He was not only talented, wealthy, and humble, but Chan was also one of the few Asian actors my dad could bring up to non-Asian friends without them asking: “Who?”
My mom — who loved classic films almost as much as my dad – added sagely: “Hollywood just doesn’t know how to write our stories. Haven’t you noticed? Asian women are always the trophy wife, the immigrant, or the token minority that needs to be rescued by the laowai (or, western foreigner). Is that really what you want to do for the rest of your life?”
At the time, it was clear. Despite their obvious love of classic cinema, my parents also saw Hollywood as a place that inherently didn’t understand Asian stories. In the films they watched and shared with me, Asian characters were always the token devices who existed only to move someone else’s journey along. As two immigrants who had conquered poverty, language barriers, and discrimination to make a life for themselves in the United States, my parents plainly thought I should aspire for more.
Which is probably why, when I came back to them at the age of 17 with an interest in attending USC or NYU to study screenwriting or directing, they were far less understanding.
Despite notable cinematic milestones like Taiwanese film director Ang Lee breaking barriers with 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Chinese American director Dayyan Eng setting festival records in 2001 with his short film Bus 44, there still wasn’t enough Asian representation in Hollywood for my parents to see entertainment as a viable career choice. To them, my continued interest in a film career had now evolved from childhood curiosity into something they believed would actively prevent me from making any sort of a long-term career for myself.
“Face it: Hollywood only like films like The Joy Luck Club,” my mom declared, as she shoved University of California college applications at me. “And that’s already been written. Even Ang Lee had to stay at home for six years, before finally breaking into film. Better find yourself a stable career rather than risk being poor all your life.”
Now if this had been a movie, I would have thrown off the parental yoke of disapproval, hightailed it to film school, and hustled, before finally catching my big break.
But in reality, I simply didn’t have the courage to go against either my family or what I thought was expected from our community. All of my classmates who looked like me or came from families like mine were busy applying to appropriate colleges to study appropriate majors — all to prepare for equally appropriate careers. The men and women who looked like me who had made it in entertainment – the Ming-Na Wen’s, Wong Kar-Wei’s and Ang Lee’s – were so rare and far between, it was easier to give into my self-doubt and accept that my parents were probably right: the odds were stacked against me.
So, I too did the appropriate thing and pursued an academic career in English and international relations before embarking on a career in politics.
But every so often, I’ve wondered just what would have happened if there had been a few more Asian faces in entertainment as I was making my college and career choices. Would I have felt more confident in pursuing my goals? Could better Asian representation have also changed the minds of my parents into actually considering film as being a viable profession? I’ll likely never know.
But what I do know, is that as director Jon M. Chu’s film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians opens this week, we’re now on the cusp of a moment of genuine change. As cast members like Constance Wu, Henry Golding and Gemma Chan give interviews on their acting journeys, as co-screenwriter Adele Lim discusses how her childhood helped inform her writing, and actresses like Jessica Henwick buy out theaters so key Asian communities can see Chu’s film, I can’t help but marvel at the ripple effects that will come from not only the film, but also all of these actions that have been inspired by it.
Even if Jon, Constance, Henry, Adele and Jessica may not realize it yet, they’re showing that there is now a firm path in Hollywood for our Asian stories and careers; and, it’s no longer an isolated one, where one actor or director becomes the one sole touchstone for all the Asian voices out there. It’s now a growing community of creative Asian minds who are proving they will support each other, encourage each other and boost each other, all in the collective effort to elevate our respective journeys to the rest of the world.
Of course, Crazy Rich Asians isn’t perfect. The film has already been criticized for relegating Singapore’s native Malay and Indian populations to background characters, and for focusing on a consumer-driven world, that many – myself included – don’t necessarily recognize. But as Naomi Ishisaka recently wrote for The Seattle Times and Stephanie Foo shared with Vox, there is still a certain catharsis that comes with seeing the film’s cast on screen. It’s not only a firm reminder of how we now have a mainstream vehicle showcasing a whole spectrum of Asian identities (even if some are somewhat stereotyped), but it’s also a reminder of how we, as Ishisaka reiterates in her piece, can create our own gateways for representation.
These are the types of gateways that will inspire future generations of young Asian Americans who might have dreams similar to those of my childhood self. Future Asian Americans will be motivated to realize that they can pursue entertainment as a career. We will see that there is already a large, vibrant community – not dissimilar to the family and friends of Henry Golding’s Nick in Crazy Rich Asians – ready and waiting, to bring them into the fold. It matters.
As for me: if I sound regretful of my career in politics – I’m definitely not. While I may not have won my acting Oscar, I’ve been challenged in my chosen career in ways that have helped me develop a presence, including help better supporting lateral Asian voices in entertainment and other fields. But I’m definitely excited to see what future Asian generations with more choices, more opportunities and more representation will bring.
Celeste Pewter tweets at @Celeste_pewter. Until recently, Celeste was the head of constituent affairs for a Northern California politician, and also worked on local, state and federal political campaigns. Celeste is now a full-time student at Johns Hopkins, and a contributor to Teen Vogue.
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