Asian Americans are much more visible on TV than even a few years ago

I don’t know about you, but seeing the darling kid Kylie on her series of TV commercials for Windows 7 makes me smile. Big smile. To me, she’s one example of a tectonic shift in American pop culture, which is shaking up mainstream media with more and more Asian Americans.

Tim Kang of "The Mentalist" Note that I said Asian Americans, not Asians. The great thing about Kylie and the new faces of Asian American Pacific Islanders on the small screen is that they have my face, and my voice — which is to say, they don’t have accents and clearly aren’t foreigners.

I should add here that I have nothing against recent immigrants and first-generation Asian Americans. They are the rich soil in which our identity is deeply rooted, and whether you’re Japanese American, Korean American, Chinese American, Vietnamese American, Cambodian, Indian, Thai, Laotian, Hmong, whatever, we owe the immigrants who endured hardships to leave their country to start new lives in the U.S. a salute of thanks for making it possible for us to be who we are today. We’re the sum total of our ethnic cultural values and the freedom and experience of growing up in America.

Anyway, my point: My fellow AAPI bloggers have been pointing out how many Asian Americans are showing up in TV shows in roles where they don’t have to act as foreigners, but are allowed to be Americans of Asian heritage. And those heritages don’t even have to be part of the plot.

Sure, there are still roles that cast Asian Americans as foreigners.

Lost” features Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim as Jin-Soo and Sun Hwa Kwon, Koreans who began the show cast as the most foreign of the castaways. Masi Oka‘s Hiro Nakamura character in “Heroes” is Japanese and he has an accent, but he’s still a leading character, and so is Korean American actor James Kyson Lee (whose phonetic pronunciation of Japanese still amazes me) and his character, Ando Masahashi. So their Asian culture is very much part of their narrative.

But look at the list of Asian American actors you can dial in to see this season, whose roles could have been filled by someone of any ethnicity:

We’re on ads these days too — when it used to be rare to see Asian faces on TV commercials. There’s Kylie on the Windows commercials; the Southwest Airlines commercial starring comic Amy Anderson, who won’t allow a guy to press his floor in an elevator because she doesn’t stops (had to throw that one in there even through it’s a couple of years old); a new commercial for Hall’s throat lozenges that has a slightly creepy (as Angry Asian Man correctly notes) subtext of a young Asian American kid making a sexual connection with a friend’s mom; and a new Target commercial that features an Asian mom who does regular American mom-like stuff, and makes no issue of her ethnicity. Very nicely done.

Having all these Asian Americans popping out of the small screen makes me very happy, and also made me marvel at how quickly this multicultural explosion has occured on television.

Back in 1998, I wrote a column for the original, non-blog version of Nikkei View, after watching the finale of the very-white comedy, “Seinfeld,” titled “Why Can’t I Be on TV,” in which I recounted the history of Asian faces on television:

As a Japanese-American kid enchanted by American popular culture of the 1960s, it never occurred to me growing up that there were very few people like me on the shows I watched for hours on end.

The first Asian face I can remember on TV was the camp cook on “Bonanza,” Hop Sing, played by Victor Sen Yung. The show premiered in 1959 but lasted into the ’70s, and I remember being fascinated by Hop Sing’s pigtail, but I didn’t identify with him because he was Chinese, and I knew the distinction even if many of my friends didn’t. Still, I often played Hop Sing when we played cowboys and Indians.

Other Asians on TV did include Japanese — Fuji, the POW on “McHale’s Navy” played by Yoshio Yoda, was in retrospect an obnoxious stereotype of the easygoing, accommodating Japanese (the “good” American stereotype — the other was of course the “inscrutable” and “sneaky” Jap that bombed Pearl Harbor). Yet, as a kid, I accepted “Fuj,” as he was called by the PT-boat cutups in the cast which included Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway, and even went around happily being called “Fuj” through high school by some of my buddies.

About the same time, for just a couple of seasons, the first strong Asian character appeared on TV, but not on a sitcom. “The Green Hornet” injected a lot of humor into the superhero genre, but it was essentially a drama, and Bruce Lee, the young martial arts champion hired to play the part of the limo driver/sidekick Kato, was a great role model in many ways. I’m sure he got many kids — of all races — first interested in martial arts. I admit I went around painfully chopping my hand down on everything in sight for a while. But Kato was never allowed to stretch as a character, or even talk much like Robin in the “Batman” series. He was fated to always be subservient to his boss, the Green Hornet.

The ’60s gave us one more Japanese character — and a good one — in navigator Mr. Sulu from “Star Trek,” played by George Takei, who’s very active today in Japanese-American issues. The entire cast of the show was pretty progressively integrated (having a black woman playing the communications officer Uhuru in the late ’60s was a strong statement on a couple of levels), so Takei’s role was no coincidence.

The ’70s resurrected the good-natured Japanese fellow in the form of Arnold, the diner owner from “Happy Days,” played by character actor Pat Morita. I rather preferred Morita’s corny but at least more significant role as the mysterious martial arts master in “The Karate Kid” movies. The decade also resurrected the reliable Asian sidekick, in Robert Ito’s easygoing assistant Sam Fujiyama to Jack Klugman’s over-dramatic L.A. coroner in “Quincy.”

In recent years, when Asians should have become more common on TV, they’ve become less so.

There was Margaret Cho‘s pioneering “All American Girl” in the mid-1990s, which was so mis-conceived and mis-managed by its (non-Asian) producers that Cho could have sued for mental abuse.

But that was about it. In 2003, I gave a speech titled, “Asian Portrayals in the Mainstream Media” at Colorado College for the school’s Asian student group, and things hadn’t changed much since my 1998 column.

The main development was the start of an AAPI identity starting to form in Hollywood. That year, Justin Lin’s “Better Luck Tomorrow” had been released. Russell Wong starred in a TV series that year, playing a martial arts shifu, but it didn’t last long. Jet Li and Jackie Chan were at the height of their careers… proving that Asians who fit the martial arts stereotype could always find gigs in Hollywood. “Grey’s Anatomy” with Sandra Oh wouldn’t start its run until 2005.

But in 2007, Hyphen was still bemoaning the lack of Asians on TV.

So, I’m elated at the turn of events even in just two short years. Maybe it really is a fundamental shift in America — maybe it’s related to the election of an African American as President of the United States. He campaigned for change and people voted for change. Maybe the appearance of Asian Americans on TV is one of the ripple effects of a generational, cultural and ethnic change that we’re in the midst of.

Give us a few more years and we can look back with perspective, and know for sure that Kylie was the harbinger of a tsunami of Asian faces in pop culture.

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8 Responses to Asian Americans are much more visible on TV than even a few years ago

  1. Cynthia says:

    Great column! I do recall in the 80s being excited to see Brian Tochi on “Renegades” (I think 1983?) and then Dustin Nguyen on “21 Jump Street.” Those were the faces I got excited about and, clearly, still remember to this day. I guess that shows you the importance of diversity on TV.

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for the comment, Cynthia! I don’t remember “Renegades” and never watched “21 Jump Street”… I left out some notable AAPIs, including Hapas like Kristin Kreuk who played Lana Lang in “Smallville,” and oh yeah, in the ’80s, Joan Chen was one of the characters in the mysterious David Lynch TV series, “Twin Peaks.” Both were examples of Asian Americans who didn’t play “foreigner” roles.

  3. hyashinsu says:

    Great article Gil!

  4. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks Jen! How’s “Lumina” doing?

  5. Kalani says:

    Hey Gil,
    Dunno if you have already written about this, but Harry Potter’s crush in the last few movies, Cho Chang, is of Asian descent (if they live in England does it make them Asian-English? Pardon my ignorance) In the books, her ethnicity is implied by her name but never is a plot point. I know it’s on the big screen, not the small screen, but it’s another example that springs to mind.

  6. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks, Kalani! Good point — although I wish Cho would have a more prominent role in the narrative….

    Katie Leung plays Cho and she’s Chinese Scottish. Her parents operate a Chinese restaurant in Glasgow. I’d include her in the list of notable Asians in current movies because the harry Potter films are definitely Hollywood.

    But if you include the UK, I also love “Bend It Like Beckham” as a movie about the cultural difference between the immigrant generation and their Western-born kids (albeit an indie film instead of a big Hollywood production). Plus, there isn’t enough attention paid to South Asians in Hollywood. Parminder Nagra, the star of “Beckham,” went on to be a cast member of “ER” for six years, and I bet we’ll see her again soon enough!

  7. Lxy says:

    To me, just because there are more Asian Americans in the media is a limited cause of celebration at best.

    It’s like begging for a few scraps of recognition. When America tosses out a few bones, Asian Americans jump in glee.

    Beyond the tokenistic inclusion of Asian Americans in the media, there is a more important point that is lost however: institutional power.

    Just because Hollywood or the American media throws out a few sops to doesn’t mean that Asian Americans have autonomy to decide what programs are made, how AA actors will be used, or better yet, represent Asian American community perspectives.

    The US media is more than happy to include Asian Americans — but as stereotypes. See Ken Jeong’s or William Hung’s oevre for example.

    Bottom line: the goal should be community-based POWER–not just visibility or inclusion.

    “So, I’m elated at the turn of events even in just two short years. Maybe it really is a fundamental shift in America — maybe it’s related to the election of an African American as President of the United States. He campaigned for change and people voted for change. Maybe the appearance of Asian Americans on TV is one of the ripple effects of a generational, cultural and ethnic change that we’re in the midst of.”

    There is only problem with this idea: Barack Obama does not represent change. He represents cosmetic political change at best–or more likely, a new sinister “friendly mask” for the same old policies of the past.

    See Obama’s trillion-dollar Wall Street bailout or his expansion of the American militarism against Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example.

    Given this, maybe the inclusion of Asian Americans in the media is related to Obama’s rise–though not quite in the celebratory vein that some here believe.

  8. Gil Asakawa says:

    Good points, Lxy, although I still feel optimistic about Obama’s administration and his ability to affect change. As for the value of the new Asian faces in pop culture, I think it’s a bigger change than you think. I still remember when African Americans became staples of the TV lineups — in the ’70s the back images on TV were stereotypical (maybe “Roots” the miniseries was the tipping point). It still took almost a decade before “The Cosby Show” “normalized” the idea of a middle-class black family with issues that all of America could identify with. Then it took another decade for the current state of African Americans on many series and in roles that have little to do with their race.

    So, I feel like we’re in the early stages of an evolutionary process. I’m optimistic.

    Thanks for writing!

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