Doors Open for Asian American Entertainers

By Jasmin Sun

Within five minutes of the opening credits, TV’s newest “Nikita” has infiltrated a mob boss’ private party, snapped his neck, and escaped the premises clad in a barely there red swimsuit.  Asian American actress Maggie Q’s latest iteration of the rogue female assassin is certainly full of bone-crunch, gun-blaze and simmering gazes, but there are plenty of brains behind her too, as she plots to take revenge on the covert government agency that created her.

And just as Maggie Q puzzles her way through Nikita’s weekly cliffhangers, entertainers of Asian heritage suddenly appear to be turning back long-held clichés (the numbers-crunching nerd or the martial arts master who dispatches foes with supernatural ease and broken English) that have traditionally discouraged the talented from pursuing careers in non-classical music, television and film.

“I cannot remember any other time,” said Oliver Wang, an assistant professor of Sociology at California State University, Long Beach, when “the visibility of Asian Americans within various different pop culture forms has been this prevalent, and almost to a certain point, commonplace.”

For example, witness the meteoric rise of Asian Americans on the pop-music scene of late. Both solo artist Bruno Mars and the hip-hop group Far East Movement have dominated Billboard’s Hot 100 charts with their respective hits “Just the Way You Are” and “Like a G6” since the summer of 2010. Mars has had an especially good year—he’s approaching Grammy season with seven nominations—all for songs he either wrote or co-wrote.

But don’t think for a second that this newfound diversity has eluded primetime television. Last fall’s line-up saw Korean-American actors Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park don tans and beach-worthy garb as police officers in CBS’ popular remake of “Hawaii Five-0.” And in taking on the lead role for CW’s “Nikita,” Maggie Q—whose mother is a Vietnamese immigrant—represents a refreshing change for a character  pioneered for TV by Canadian Peta Wilson in the late 90s and, on the big screen, by French actress Anne Parillaud and Hollywood’s Bridget Fonda.

It’s been a long time coming. Asian faces have struggled to break into the mainstream spotlight since at least the mid-20th century, when a Korean singing trio, the Kim Sisters, appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in the 50s and 60s as little more than a Korean War nostalgia act.  In the 70s, Pat Morita played a drive-in owner moonlighting as a martial arts instructor on “Happy Days” and Bruce Lee became a cinematic kung fu legend.

Yet Asian actors in Hollywood have remained few and far between, mostly playing roles written specially for their race. Even in the early 2000s, America’s most well-known Asian actors were arguably Jackie Chan and Jet Li, men who were almost exclusively cast as bad-guy-clobbering martial arts masters.

Why the sudden turnabout? There are as yet few definitive answers but plenty of fact-based speculation to go on. First, now that post-immigrant generations have come of age, more Asian Americans are eager to try their hand at careers in entertainment.  Meanwhile, the rise of Internet venues like YouTube has freed aspiring entertainers from the limitations of being “discovered.”

These factors, coupled with Asian Americans’ increased involvement in behind-the-lens production, directorial positions, and on primetime reality television shows has slowly worn away the perceived risk associated with investing in Far Eastern faces.

Long stereotyped as the “model minority,” Asians were until recently typically seen as academic overachievers set on pursuing careers in math or science, and indeed many Asians did shy away from the nontraditional performing arts.

According to Oliver Wang, a former pop music and culture critic for NPR, The Los Angeles Times and Vibe, once Asian cable TV programs began broadcasting in the States, “young Asian Americans could access the literal image of people with Asian faces” in entertainment roles. The result has been a shift, said Wang, in a telephone interview, in which “the children of Asian immigrants grew up thinking that the concept of becoming a performer or entertainer wasn’t crazy.”

In the 70s and 80s, Wang explained, becoming a performer required you to “break barriers not just within pop culture, but within your family [and] within your local communities because it just wasn’t as common.”

Today, dozens, if not hundreds of Asian Americans have found a popular audience on YouTube.  Japanese American Ryan Higa, for example, produces the most subscribed channel of all time—with upwards of 2.5 million registered viewers—under the username “nigahiga.”

The growing number of Asian faces might also be explained by greater strength in, well, growing numbers.

“I think it’s because there are more [Asian Americans] in Hollywood, in the music industry,” Wang said, “who are pushing to be heard, to be seen,” meaning “more of us are likely to succeed because there are more of us in the mix.”

People magazine’s assistant managing editor Julie Dam agreed. “Unless it’s the pop divas,” she explained, “music can be somewhat faceless…The casual fan is less concerned about the ethnicity of the people than they are about the music.”

Improved exposure for Asian Americans in today’s popular culture demonstrates America’s evolution as a society, said John Dioso, deputy managing editor at Rolling Stone.  “The idea of the Asian person being ‘the other’ isn’t really there anymore.” Television and film producers want to provide a more accurate picture of America’s social development, said Dioso, and that “reflects an acceptance of reality… The fact is, Asians are and for a long time have been a vital part of American society, and it’s about time pop culture started reflecting that reality.”

Historically, Asian Americans haven’t been able to prove to “corporate bean counters” that they were capable of turning “a dollar in into two dollars out,” said The San Francisco Chronicle’s  “Asian Pop” columnist Jeff Yang. Now, however, their mounting commercial successes have minimized Asians’ perceived economic risk.

“At the end of the day,”  Yang said, “studios and record companies are businesses, and the only color they care about is green.” Today’s entertainment environment plays to Asian Americans’ strengths, as a star’s potential success is now measured by how well she can leverage an online following.

But no matter how much talk goes into figuring out the dollars and cents behind a casting choice, the American audience knows what it wants.  “Not everyone can succeed in entertainment,” explained People magazine managing editor Larry Hackett, “and this applies to all races.  The American audience will like who they like” regardless of race, so if a production company casts an Asian American purely because they think an actor of that race help bring in viewers, then they’ve missed the mark.

It’s too early to say for sure when an almond-eyed George Clooney will snag the romantic lead in a Hollywood hit, but there is no denying the recent progress in making Asian Americans more visible on TV and the silver screen. And when that movie does come along, you can bet that this American will be the first in line to buy a ticket for opening night.

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