“Fresh Off the Boat” could be the tipping point on TV for Asian Americans

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There’s a new ABC sitcom being aired starting in February that I can hardly wait to see. I’m hoping “Fresh Off the Boat” will finally be a show where I can see people like me acting the way my family acts, with funny American situations but filtered through an Asian cultural perspective. I expect it’ll be a moment of critical mass for Asians on the U.S. pop consciousness.

It’s about time.

As a baby boomer, I grew up with very few Asian Americans on television. Few enough that everyone stood out. Even until recent years, my wife and I would point to the TV everytime we saw a minor character on TV played by an Asian, or an Asian face on a TV commercial, and yell, “Asian spotting!”

Among the first notable Asian Americans to be spotted on the small screen was Hawaii-born Filipino musician and comic Poncie Ponce, who was cast as the wise-cracking, ukulele-playing cab driver Kazuo “Kim” Quizado on the detective drama “Hawaiian Eye” which aired from 1959-1963.

My earliest memories of seeing an Asian on TV were of Hop Sing, the Chinese cook on “Bonanza,” a Western that also debuted in 1959 but ran until 1973. Hop Sing, played by U.S.-born actor Victor Sen Yung, wore a long queue hanging from under his cap, and diligently fed the Cartwright family for the run of the series, though I don’t recall that he ever cooked up Chinese food, or Chinese American dishes like chop suey, for Hoss and the others. He did face racism in a few episodes, though.

Then there was “Fuji” (whose name was given in the show as both Fuji Kobiaji and Fujiwara Takeo), the hapless prisoner of war from “McHale’s Navy,” a sitcom about a crew of a PT boat during WWII, played by Tokyo-born actor Yoshio James Yoda (who later went on to become an American citizen and serve a stint as a vice president for Toyota in Hawaii). The show aired from 1962-‘66 and like Hop Sing, Fuji was a good-natured houseboy and cook for the crew of the PT-73.

Later in the 1960s came the first Asian I could be proud of, the butt-kicking martial arts-fighting driver Kato in the superhero series “Green Hornet,” played by Bruce Lee, who would go on to become an icon in his 1970s kung fu movies. “Star Trek” brought us George Takei as Sulu in “Star Trek,” a revolutionary show for its time for its deliberate diversity.

There were TV shows in the 1970s with Asian Americans, but they were still supporting roles, not the star. Around the turn of the decade was Miyoshi Umeki, an actress well-known in her native Japan (and a co-star of the 1961 musical, “Flower Drum Song”), as Mrs. Livingston, the stereotypically meek but sweet and wise housekeeper in “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” The original “Hawaii Five-0” featured several Asian actors, though not the leads. The current version of Five-0’s AAPI stars have much more important roles. A few years later in the mid-’70s Japanese Canadian actor Robert Ito played the assistant to Jack Klugman’s medical examiner in “Quincy, M.E.” (which was ironic since the character was partly based on Los Angeles’ JA celebrity medical examiner at the time, Thomas Noguchi). Jack Soo, who was Japanese American (his full name was Goro Suzuki), played a laid-back detective on the sitcom “Barney Miller.”

The 1980s was the decade when African Americans came of age in pop culture with Bill Cosby’s all-American black family, the Huxtables.

In 1994 a young Korean American comedian, Margaret Cho, was cast in “All American Girl,” the first Asian American family sitcom — our version of the Huxtables. It may have been well-intended, but its non-Asian producers played up Asian stereotypes and eventually criticized Cho for her weight and told her she wasn’t Asian enough. They even forced her to work with a coach to be “more Asian.” The series only lasted one season, and by the end the entire Asian American cast had been fired except for Cho and Amy Hill, who played the outlandish grandmother.

I’ve watched the DVD set of that season, and you could almost sense the producers flailing about, trying to tweak the show’s formula to find an identity. Maybe it was too early to just let Cho be herself and have the Asian and American culture and identity play out unabashedly, but after a promising start with Asian culture treated as an exotic backdrop to the trite sitcom setups, Asian identity became irrelevant as the shows developed, or were presented as familiar stereotypes. The plots were just typical sitcom fare.

It’s been 20 years since that debacle, and Asian Americans (and Asian Canadians) are finally plentiful onscreen, in bigger parts than before, even including a couple of starring roles.

John Cho has hit the bigtime on the big screen (the Harold and Kumar and Star Trek franchises help) and a recurring role (unless he’s really dead now) on “Sleepy Hollow,” but has also had featured roles on a couple of TV shows, the recently-pulled “Selfie” and “Go On.”

Sandra Oh was one of the leads on the now sans-Sandra medical drama “Gray’s Anatomy.” I loved “Glee” for most of its run in part because of several its ensemble actor/dancer/singers, Darren Criss, Harry Shum Jr. and Jenna Ushkowitz, as well as a couple of cameos by Tamlyn Tomita. Maggie Q’s action series “Nikita” aired for four seasons before wrapping up, and it was fun to follow even though its plot suffered from “Alias” syndrome and got weirder and more tangled as the months went by.

Those show are no longer on the air, but current shows with prominent Asian Americans include Maggie Q in a new police drama, “Stalker,” “The Walking Dead” (Steven Yeun), “Hawaii Five-0” version 2.0 (Grace Park, Daniel Dae Kim, Masi Oka and others), and “Bones” (Michaela Conlin).

Speaking of Masi Oka in “Hawaii Five-0,” who can forget the role of Hiro Nakamura in “Heroes,” played by Oka, whose proclamation of “Yatta!!” when he teleports to Times Square was a signature of the show’s promos. Although Oka now plays a coroner on “Five-0,” he’s signed on to reprise Hiro in the series reboot, “Heroes Reborn.”

I’m also a fan of a new action/adventure series “Scorpion” about a team of geniuses fighting bad guys (with Jadyn Wong as — wait for it, a brainiac but also a master mechanic who can make, or break, anything), and another new series, “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” (Ming-Na Wen and Chloe Bennet) though it took a while for me to embrace its scattershot plotline.

Elementary” is in its second season and Lucy Liu‘s role as Joan Watson has grown considerably more independent. I’m waiting for the next season of “Murder in the First” (Ian Anthony Dale) and though it’s not exactly a heavyweight, “Beauty and the Beast” (Kristin Kreuk) has its moments.

The Mindy Project”’s mastermind Mindy Kaling continues to be provocative, interesting and hilarious while hardly ever leveraging her ethnicity, and on “Modern Family, the youngest AAPI star at 7 years of age, Aubrey Anderson-Emmons, as Lily, the adopted Vietnamese daughter of Mitchell and Cameron is just plain adorable as well as sassy and funny as hell.

In recent months, Christopher Sean has received the media spotlight for his role on a daytime soap opera. A mixed-race (half-Japanese) actor who plays a baseball player on “Days of Our Lives,” Sean’s character came out on the show with a gripping scene where he speaks in Japanese to his grandfather about his sexual orientation.

That’s a lot of prominent Asian faces in prominent roles, without cheap stereotypes, without Asian accents or (outside of some kick-ass fight scenes) predictable martial arts moves.

And, more significantly, we’re getting another shot at an Asian American family sitcom.

Fresh Off the Boat” has a lot of people, including me, excited, because this time the team behind the show is multicultural, with Asian American input.

“Fresh Off the Boat” is based on the memoir of the same title, written by Eddie Huang, a celebrity New York City chef. The series is about his Taiwanese family’s experiences when they move from Washington DC’s Chinatown to a white Orlando, Florida suburb in 1994, when Eddie was 11. The show will debut on Wednesday Feb. 4 with two new episodes (before and after “Modern Family”), and then settle into its weekly schedule on Tuesdays starting Feb. 10.

There’s been some pushback on the title, because “fresh off the boat” or “FOB” has been used as a derogatory term for immigrants, especially Asian immigrants. But there are blogs that use the term, like “Absolutely Fobulous,” as a term of endearment for our collective Asian roots. Huang has defended the use of the phrase for his memoir, a series of TV shows he was involved in, and this series, as a way of reclaiming what had been a pejorative as a badge of honor.

The trailers that have been released (see below) are funny, and reflect the fact that a lot has changed in Hollywood since “All American Girl.” The executives behind “FOTB” are racially diverse, and Asian Americans are part of the writing team. Eddie Huang is a producer. And Hudson Yang, the 10-year-old star who plays the young Eddie Huang, is the son of Wall Street Journal columnist and Asian American media pioneer Jeff Yang, who’s been writing about his son’s adventure for the past year. I trust that this show will be something that AAPIs can be proud of, and that will help educate the rest of America to our experiences and issues, good and bad.

As Jeff Yang wrote in a May WSJ blog post with his Dad hat on, not his journalist’s skeptic hat: “The show is like nothing you will have ever seen before on television. If it makes it to air, it will blow minds, raise eyebrows and, to quote a line that my son says as Little Eddie, ‘change the game.’ I would honestly say the same if I weren’t the lead actor’s father. It’s that different. And provocative. And, yes, gut-bustingly funny.”

I can hardly wait. We should all tune in and give this series the chance it deserves.


Here are some of the trailers for “Fresh Off the Boat”:


UPDATES

(Dec. 27, 2014)
OK, so I knew I’d forget to include some AAPIs on TV. I guess that’s a good sign of the number of Asians who are on the small screen these days!

Popular film comedian Ken Jeong has been one of the principals of “Community” which is in its final season.

The Mentalist,” another series that’s ending its run has featured a stoic cop played by Tim Kang.

Olivia Munn and Dev Patel played great roles as journalists in “The Newsroom,” which just ended its four-season run.

The sci-fi series “Falling Skies” co-stars Moon Bloodgood. Speaking of “Falling Skies,” its star, Noah Wylie, has an ongoing side-project of “The Librarian” TV movies that he’s turned into a weekly series that he occasionally guests stars in, “The Librarians.” One of the four “librarians” on the spinoff series who use magic to save the world is Australian actor John Kim.

Korean American actor and musician Christopher Larkin is one of the stars of the CW series “The 100.”

I keep forgetting that Kunal Nayyar is one of the cast members of the geeky sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.”

British Canadian actress Karen David, who was born in India and is describes herself as South Asian, Chinese and Jewish, is one of the stars of the musical comedy mini-series “Galavant.”

As commenter Caroline points out below, Arden Cho plays the badass Kira Yukimura on MTV’s “Teen Wolf” series.

Can’t believe I forgot about the late Pat Morita, who was a regular character on the hit ’70s TV show as Mitsumo “Arnold” Takahashi, the owner of the diner frequented by the cast of “Happy Days!” He also starred in a sitcom called “Mr. T and Tina.” It was a spinoff of the classroom comefy “Welcome Back, Kotter” and only lasted five episodes.

And, I also overlooked South Carolina-born Aziz Ansari, a popular comic who plays Tom Haverford on the hit comedy “Parks and Recreation.” The character changed his name from Darwish Sabir Ismael Gani to help him in politics.

It’s nice to see one of my favorite actors, Tamlyn Tomita, playing a judge in Shonda Rhimes’ crime thriller “How to Get Away with Murder.” Tomita’s had recurring roles in a plethora of TV series including “24,” “Heroes” and “Glee.”

Kenneth Choi has a nice role now on a spy drama, “Allegiance,” but viewers may recognize him from a bunch of other shows and movies, among them “Sons of Anarchy,” “Glee,” “The Newsroom,” and “Agent Carter,” in which he briefly reprised his Howling Commandoes role from the movie “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

Malese Jow is now (Feb. 22, 2015) a recurring character on the CW superhero drama “The Flash,” playing Kinda Park, a driven newspaper editor who is a romantic target for the lead character.

CSI Cyber,” the newest series in the CSI franchise, features Hayley Kiyoko as hacker-gone-good Raven Ramirez.

I’ll add them as I realize my omissions, so please email me or add them in comments below. Thanks!

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8 Responses to “Fresh Off the Boat” could be the tipping point on TV for Asian Americans

  1. Caroline says:

    you forgot arden – a series regular on Teenwolf (now filming season 5) she plays the most badass female character smh

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks, Caroline! I haven’t seen that show, so my bad!

  3. Ann Doria says:

    Here’s a video that humorously yet truthfully captures what Asian American actors face today: http://youtu.be/qOwBGPkY0ZU

  4. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks for sharing this video — Grace speaks the truth!

  5. Lori Gama says:

    Gil: great article! What did you think of the show, now that it’s been on a couple of months since you wrote this? I love it. I think it’s hilarious and so well-written. With “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Modern Family,” I don’t need to watch anything else. They are my favorite TV shows (oh, and also: “The Walking Dead”).

  6. Gil Asakawa says:

    Hi Lori, thanks for the comment! I love the show, and am working up to a post about it.

  7. Lisa says:

    Pat Morita also very briefly had his own TV show called “Mr. T and Tina” which prominently featured a cast of Japanese American actors (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074027/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm#cast)- I barely remember watching this show, but I was old enough at the time to know that seeing a family of Asian Americans on TV was a rare occurrence.

  8. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks Lisa! I keep coming across mentions of this show and keep forgetting to add it. I never watched it at the time…

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