Daniel Wu, Margaret Cho Talk Asian American Diversity in Hollywood

Daniel Wu, apparently also suffering from that pesky "shirt amnesia" that plagues other gorgeous APIA men, like Daniel Dae Kim and Rain.

With the depressing dearth of Asian American characters in movies and television, Asian American actors carry a heavy weight because every role they accept contributes to the stereotyping, or not, of Asian Americans. There are only a handful of prominent Asian American roles in Hollywood, so each role appears to have greater significance in shaping the image of Asians in American pop culture.

Too often, it feels as if Asian American actors are stuck at a crossroads, having to choose between poverty and obscurity, or playing the stereotypical, degrading Asian American caricature. And, unfortunately, there are Asian American actors who seem willing and eager to play those roles.

But then, you stumble upon the Asian American actor who is surprisingly race conscious. That’s what happened to me when I read this Canadian interview with Daniel Wu, a Chinese American actor who has been dubbed the “young Andy Lau” for his film success in Asian cinema. Here’s a wonderful excerpt from the article, highlighting Wu’s awareness of identity politics:

Having achieved success in Hong Kong, Wu now hopes he can break into Hollywood as a positive example for a new generation of Asians.

“I would like there to be some kind of Asian-American role model for the kids out there today,” Wu told The Associated Press on Sunday as he promoted his new action thriller, “Triple Tap.”

As a youngster in Orinda, California, Wu said there were few Asian faces on the big screen he could look up to. Instead, there was Long Duk Dong — the awkward foreign exchange student parodied in the 1984 high-school comedy “Sixteen Candles.” So Wu found inspiration in a Chinatown video rental shop, devouring the movies of Chan, Bruce Lee and Jet Li, aspiring to “be in a Jackie Chan movie and be kicked down a flight of stairs.”

His fascination with Hong Kong cinema led to a trip to the former British colony in 1997 to witness its handover to China. Out of funds, he tried modeling and was spotted by a Hong Kong director in a fashion ad.

Thirteen years later, he has 50 movies under his belt and is one of the Chinese-language industry’s biggest stars. Childhood idol Chan has become a frequent screen partner, most recently in the Tokyo-set drama “Shinjuku Incident.” With a summer blockbuster due out on Thursday and clothing, watch and skin care endorsements, it’s hard to miss Wu’s picture in this wealthy shopping-crazed city of 7 million people.

Now Wu is hoping to leverage his reputation in the land of his ancestors to correct the cinematic prejudices of his home country. He recently signed with the Hollywood talent broker Creative Artists Agency.

“It’s amazing that 30 years later, there still aren’t (positive Asian-American role models). And I would like to help change that,” he said.

In the interview, Wu talks about turning down roles that he feels only perpetuate Asian and Asian American stereotypes in the minds of non-Asian audiences. I suppose that the struggling Asian American actor in Hollywood might argue that Wu, having made his name in Asia, has the kind of fame and personal wealth to be able to be choosy about roles — and it’s a fair point. That being said, I do think that Wu should be commended for having the kind of integrity to not play the Asian American buffoon.  

Meanwhile, Margaret Cho — no stranger to the world of identity politics activism — also spent some time talking about Asian American diversity on television. In Drop Dead Diva, she plays Teri who struggles in a recent episode with the news that her cousin will be deported. 

Margaret Cho on "Drop Dead Diva"

In a recent interview, Cho talked about using her show to address racialized political issues in today’s America, both in front of, and behind, the camera:

Cho, who plays Teri, told Zap2It that she approved of a recent storyline in which her character’s cousin faced deportation.

“When I was just a kid, when I was just born, my father was deported,” she explained. “So it was something that I experienced with my family. It was interesting they did that story.”

Cho continued: “It seems to me to be very true to the immigrant experience and it is timely. We’re kind of coming up around the issues of what is American. Does American actually always mean white? I think it’s a great conversation to have. So I’m proud of the episode. I’m really glad that we got to do it.”

She added that working with other Asian-American actors was a “rare opportunity”.

“In shows, it’s usually just one of us,” she explained. “It’s very rare to have more than one Asian-American actor on anything ever. So it was this special, really rare, cool thing for us to hang out.”

Love her or hate her, you can always count on Margaret Cho to at least stimulate discussions of race and identity in Hollywood. And I, for one, am glad she’s willing to do it.

Unheard Victims of the Gulf Coast Oil Spill

Signs selling shrimp in the Gulf Coast region are in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

The Gulf Coast region is home to thousands of Vietnamese-Americans, many of whom rely on the Gulf Coast for their livelihood. They are fishermen, who have made a new life for themselves and their families in Louisiana and New Orleans. For many of them, the BP oil spill, which has spilled millions of gallons of crude oil into the waters of the Gulf has been devastating. Yet, these Vietnamese-American fishermen — who make one-third of all Gulf Coast fishermen — have been virtually unheard in the media coverage of the oil spill.

Today, CNN did a cover story on their plight. Here’s an excerpt, covering some of the unique challenges facing Gulf Coast Vietnamese-Americans:

In the rectory of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, the Rev. Vien Nguyen sits in front of an altar to his ancestors and his Catholic faith. Religious texts in English and his native tongue fill the high shelves around him, as do books bearing titles like “Freshwater Crayfish Aquaculture,” “The Evolution of Cajun & Creole Cuisine” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”

Here, he introduces some of the Kafkaesque oil-disaster trials facing his own people.

He talks about their distrust of lawyers — “sharks,” he calls them — who’ve come in from out of state, circling them with promises and confusing papers. He mentions the mental health concerns — depression, lack of sleep, tensions in homes — that need to be addressed, a task made difficult by an absence of Vietnamese-speaking therapists in a community that still stigmatizes admissions of emotional trouble. He worries about the lack of job training and opportunities for a people who’ve worked in an industry that may suffer for God knows how long.

“These are proud, active people who contribute to their own livelihood, and now they have to be in lines,” asking for handouts, he says. “It is a devastating blow.”

Read the full article here (ignoring the cliched headline): Vietnamese fishermen in Gulf fight to not get lost in translation.

I am saddened by the story of these fishermen, yet am glad to see their narratives finally being told. Is anyone aware of non-profit organizations or charities that are involved in helping Vietnamese-American communities in the Gulf Coast through the oil spill disaster?

David Mineta Joins Obama Administration

David Mineta

Long-time Bay Area Democratic activist David Mineta was confirmed by the Senate this week in the position of Deputy Director of Demand Reduction for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Mineta is currently the Deputy Director of Asian American Recovery Services, one of the nation’s largest non-profit organizations specifically geared towards addressing mental health issues in the Asian American community.

Mineta was nominated to the Office of National Drug Control Policy back in March: this link contains a fairly detailed biography of the various organizations Mineta has been involved with. In his new position, overseeing the Office of Demand Reduction, Mineta will be helping to develop and promote federal programs to reduce drug abuse and addiction, as well as to improve addiction treatment.

I’m pretty excited to see another prominent Asian American activist find a home in the Obama Administration. In my book, President Obama has made great strides in rectifying the chronic underrepresentation of Asian Americans in public service and politics. President Obama isn’t just nominating Asian faces; he is nominating Asian American folks who have impressive resumes — both in general terms, and in regards to the work they’ve done for the Asian American community.

Kal Penn Leaves White House

This is sort of old news by now, but — as of June 1st — Kal Penn (of Harold and Kumar, House M.D.,  and The Namesake) has officially resigned his position at the White House as Associate Director in the Office of Public Engagement and liaison to the Asian American community. Penn accepted the position when Obama took office knowing that he was committed to filming the next installment of Harold and Kumar later this year.

The Asian American community is losing a passionate voice in the White House with Penn’s departure, but I’m glad that Penn took time from Hollywood to perform this public service. I look forward to finding out who will replace Penn in the Obama Administration.

Incidentally, CNN’s political ticker article highlighting Penn’s resignation really rubbed me the wrong way. It seems like it was written and researched based on Penn’s Wikipedia article. There isn’t a single mention of the phrase “Asian American” in the article, yet an entire (albeit short) paragraph is dedicated to Penn being mugged earlier this year.

Talk about lazy reporting.

Karate Kid Remake a Mixed Bag of Stereotypes

My latest post over at Change.org:

Karate Kid Remake a Mixed Bag of Stereotypes

The 1984 film Karate Kid was a classic. If you were born in the 80s, you can probably remember spending hours practicing crane kicks and “wax on-wax off” technique as a child — all while fantasizing about beating up the evil Cobra Kai. So it’s no wonder that the Karate Kid films are being remade for a new generation of moviegoers to appreciate.

Unfortunately, this year’s updated Karate Kid (which made $19 million on its opening night) comes complete with a mixed bag of stereotypes that are raising eyebrows in the Asian-American community.

Okay, it’s not like the original Karate Kid films were without their fair share of stereotypes. While growing up, I had to remind kids that — unlike Mr. Miyagi — I did not possess the magical ability to heal people with a single clap of my hands. I could not catch flies with my chopsticks. I do, in fact, speak English fluently.

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