February 2015 will go down in history as a great month for Asian Americans in entertainment. For the first time in 20 years, U.S. network television has a sitcom led by an Asian American cast as ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat premiered to strong ratings and good reviews. Days later, news came that George Takei’s Allegiance musical about Japanese American interment during World War II is making it to Broadway; it will become the first Asian-led Broadway musical in over a decade. And for a proverbial cherry on top, ABC also greenlit a pilot for Dr. Ken – starring Ken Jeong from The Hangover movies and sitcom Community. After years of waiting for greater representation of Asian performers, I hope this wave launches a new era: when Asian Americans can step out of the supporting shadows and into the spotlight as stars.
Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, I rarely saw Asian faces on television or in movies – unless they were in Kung Fu Theater martial arts films or in the annual Miss Universe pageant telecasts. That reinforced my keen awareness – as part of a Vietnamese immigrant family in the United States – that I was different. When I looked on screen, I did not find faces that reflected my life experience or inspired me as Asian American role models.
That’s why I remember being so excited when Margaret Cho’s All American Girl sitcom arrived (coincidentally also on ABC, the network behind Fresh Off The Boat). It was 1994; I was in law school and I was knee-deep in pondering my chances for career success once I entered the legal world (a profession which even today still struggles with racial diversity challenges). Margaret Cho’s sitcom debuted, and I remember thinking “This is it! This is the moment Asians are finally making it big in America!” Sadly, the series was cancelled after only one season – leaving me and other Asian Americans feeling like our moment arrived and evaporated in an instant.
Since then, we have periodically seen Asian American actors in motion picture and television roles. But except for the occasional Joy Luck Club, Asian faces and storylines have usually been supporting players rather than project leads. Take, for example, The WB network’s Charmed – the supernatural series about a trio of witch sisters. I was a big fan of the 1998-2006 series (and still love the re-runs). But I was always baffled about how a show set in San Francisco of all cities, lasting 8 seasons, had no regular Asian American cast member even in any supporting role. Occasionally, Asian American actors appeared for episodes with some Asian theme to the storyline (the Charmed Ones help the Zen Master protect the Dragon Blade!) – but that was it.
Of course, this is not a problem unique to Asian Americans. For all racial minority groups, entertainment projects can still showcase more diversity of actors and storylines. (And of course Hollywood awards shows can still do a better job of recognizing racial minority talent, as we see with this year’s #OscarsSoWhite outcry). But Asian Americans have historically received even shorter shrift when it comes to starring roles.
There are certainly signs of improvement – Lucy Liu portrays the key second character in Elementary, Ming-Na Wen is a main cast member in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Mindy Kaling delights as star of The Mindy Project. Significantly, John Cho broke barriers in the short-lived comedy series Selfie because he portrayed the mythical unicorn in Western entertainment: an Asian American man as the romantic lead. Here’s a news alert: Asian men can in fact be hip, charming and sexy!
As more Asian faces star in American entertainment projects, they communicate an important message to everyone watching: Asian Americans are capable of playing any role – not just on camera, but also in life.
We are not just the martial artist, the concubine, or the nefarious villain.
We are not just the foreign exchange student, the nail salon worker, or the quiet math genius.
Asian Americans can be funny and dramatic.
We can be charismatic and romantic.
We are inspirers and leaders.
We are athletes and artists.
We work as lawyers, teachers, law enforcement officers, business owners, and in every other profession you can imagine.
While it may be just for entertainment, Asian American stars will inspire young people to believe that any career, any opportunity and any life is possible for them. And their storylines help break down racial stereotypes by teaching people – of all races – that Asian Americans have a full range of human experiences just like everyone else.
That’s why I am rooting for Fresh Off the Boat and Allegiance to achieve long and profitable runs. Their success can pave the way for more Asian Americans – on screen, on stage and in life – to shine as stars.
Photos: Fresh Off The Boat series – ABC; Allegiance musical artwork from its Facebook page.