The views and opinions expressed on this site and blog posts (excluding comments on blog posts left by others) are entirely my own and do not represent those of any employer or organization with whom I am currently or previously have been associated.
Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
By now, you’ve heard of the controversy surrounding how all the acting nominees at the 2016 Academy Awards were entirely White, with no actor of color nominated. And you probably saw host Chris Rock’s take on the situation throughout the Oscars awards ceremony. And hopefully you saw the skit in which three Asian American children were used as props for a rather weak and ultimately offensive skit.
Lots of people and many Asian Americans have rightfully called out Chris Rock’s skit as downright racist. One of the best critiques (in my biased opinion) comes from fellow Asian American professor, UMass Amherst colleague, and my wife Miliann Kang in her piece at Contexts magazine, titled “An Asian American Mother’s Question to Chris Rock and the Academy.” An excerpt:
Out walked three Asian American children, wearing tuxes and thick glasses. Chris Rock introduced them as accountants from the prestigious firm of Pricewaterhouse Coopers—Ming Zu, Bao Ling, and…David Moskowitz? Then anticipating the pushback, he added that if anyone was upset they should “just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.”
I looked over at my sixteen year-old daughter who looked stunned. Was this really happening? She loves Chris Rock. She loves movies. We were right there with him, so what happened? . . .
These are the oldest tricks in the racial playbook -— kick the next person down on the rung. Divide and conquer. Shame and blame. Dump the pain on someone else. I know Chris Rock did not create these problems, and he has done much to try to address them. And whether or not Chris Rock made racist jokes about Asians, Hollywood would still have a race problem. But on this night, he also added to them. . . .
I thought we were further along than this. I thought my child would not have to endure the same inane, stupid racist jokes that I grew up with, not on the playground, not in the movies, not on a night that was supposed to highlight the importance of diversity in the movies.
Again, I am obviously biased since the author happens to be my wife, but I think her valuable contribution to the discussion of this incident is to both put it in the larger institutional context of the U.S. racial landscape while also personalizing its effect on our family as well.
Many of you have probably seen The Hangover Part 2, the sequel to the surprise hit of 2009. I recently watched the first Hangover film and mostly enjoyed it, although it was not quite as uproariously hilarious as many of my friends hyped it up to be. I have yet to see Hangover 2 and now my motivation has declined even further, after reading my friend Jeff Yang’s recent article about it in his column for the San Francisco Chronicle. Some excerpts:
“H2” made an absurd $103 million over the three-day weekend — an all-time record for a live-action comedy, despite near-universal excoriation by critics, who called it “uninspired and unoriginal,” “unclean and mostly unfunny,” and “rancid and predictable.” What few pointed out was that, in seeking to top the already over-the-top comic sensibilities of the original, the filmmakers chose the sleaziest, easiest possible solution, unleashing a relentless bastinado of abuse at the expense of Asians, a group that they presumably felt could be targeted with minimal concern about potential backlash.
If you’re an Asian who swallowed hard upon hearing that the sequel would be set in Bangkok, you’ll need to swallow harder just to keep down your gorge at what they’ve produced. The film’s depiction of Thailand transforms the “Land of Smiles” into a bizarro realm of brute violence, grim depravity and unfettered libido, populated entirely by broad racial stereotypes: Thuggish gangsters. Wizened monks. Lascivious ladyboys. Not to mention whiz-kid pre-meds, infinitely forgiving lotus-blossom brides and the Father of All Tiger Dads. . . .
As an Asian American who enjoyed the first film, I found the sequel bluntly and inexplicably offensive — with the fact that the movie opened in the waning days of May [Asian Pacific American Heritage Month] being soy sauce in the wound.
Jeff Yang could have ranted on about the various ways in which he found Hangover 2 offensive but most of his article actually focuses on what Asian Americans can actually do about this ongoing problem of Asians and Asian Americans consistently being portrayed using racist stereotypes in mainstream Hollywood films. Specifically, he offers some thoughts about the possibility of not only creating an alternative set of filmmakers who would portray Asian Americans more accurately, but also creating an alternative audience that would be able to sustain such independent efforts. But along the way, Jeff raises some important challenges that still need to be addressed:
For an indie filmmaker, you simply can’t make money with theatrical distribution. But if you’re talking a target not of theatrical distribution but direct-to-DVD, a film with a guerrilla $250,000 budget can make back its costs and return a healthy profit if it sells 20,000 units at $20 a pop. . . .
Now, there are currently more than a million Asian Americans enrolled in college — two-thirds of whom are concentrated in eight states. It would only take two percent of them collectively purchasing a book or DVD or CD to make it solidly profitable — supporting the work of a creative artist, and enabling that creator to continue doing what he or she does, with full freedom to make art that’s appealing and authentic and true to an Asian American experience.
This is the gist of something that, in our conversations, cultural critic and academic Oliver Wang has dubbed The Two Percent Project. Here’s how it might work: Get together a group of smart, influential tastemakers — journalists, critics, student leaders, bloggers. Have them select five indie Asian American creators — writers, filmmakers, musicians — from an open call that includes anyone with a brand-new, brashly different and commercially viable product.
Send these creators on a collective national barnstorming tour of the college campuses with the biggest Asian American student representation — reading, performing, speaking, and showing their work and their potential. The costs of the tour would be covered by student organization funds and corporate sponsors.
Here’s the kicker: Although attendance at these events would be free, every attendee would have to purchase one of the five products these artists are promoting on the spot, while enrolling in an online community that gives the artists long-term engagement with their consumers. The goal? Constructing an independent audience. Reinventing the Asian American brand. And creating recorded proof that Asian American artists are marketable and that a market exists to sustain them.
Jeff’s idea sounds plausible to me, especially if Asian Americans, young and old, keep railing against movies rife with racial stereotypes like Hangover 2. Jeff’s idea doesn’t even take into consideration the growing numbers of Asian American professionals who are making good money and actually have the financial means to support such independent efforts even more than college students. If there is a plan that can incorporate them into this movement, it would certainly produce positive results.
Either way, I applaud Jeff Yang, Oliver Wang, and others who are doing more than just complaining about injustices against Asian Americans — they’re proposing potential plans of action and solutions to the problem. Their specific ideas may or may not bear fruit immediately but at the least, they get the conversation started, get ideas rolling, and will hopefully lead to some innovative thinking and action to get something done.
Even if it’s a small step, at least it’s a step in the right direction.
As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I highlight new sociological books about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them. A book’s inclusion is for informational purposes only and does not necessarily mean a full endorsement of its contents.
In addition to mentioning new book releases, I will periodically include links to recent news articles from around the internet that relate to the books’ topic as well, to give readers a wider exposure to the different dynamics involved. This time around, I highlight books and internet links that focus on art and entertainment involving Asians and Asian Americans.
From cuisine and martial arts to sex and self-esteem, East Eats West shines new light on the bridges and crossroads where two hemispheres meld into one worldwide immigrant nation. In this new nation, with its amalgamation of divergent ideas, tastes, and styles, today s bold fusion becomes tomorrow s classic. But while the space between East and West continues to shrink in this age of globalization, some cultural gaps remain.
In this collection of twenty-one personal essays, Andrew Lam, the award-winning author of Perfume Dreams, continues to explore the Vietnamese diaspora, this time concentrating not only on how the East and West have changed, but how they are changing each other. Lively and engaging, East Eats West searches for meaning in nebulous territory charted by very few. Part memoir, part meditations, and part cultural anthropology, East Eats West is about thriving in the West with one foot still in the East.
Yellow Future examines the emergence and popularity of techno-oriental representations in Hollywood cinema since the 1980s, focusing on the ways East Asian peoples and places have become linked with technology to produce a collective fantasy of East Asia as the future. Jane Chi Hyun Park demonstrates how this fantasy is sustained through imagery, iconography, and performance that conflate East Asia with technology, constituting what Park calls “oriental style.”
Park provides a genealogy of oriental style through contextualized readings of popular films-from the multicultural city in Blade Runner and the Japanese American mentor in The Karate Kid to the Afro-Asian reworking of the buddy genre in Rush Hour and the mixed-race hero in The Matrix. Throughout these analyses Park shows how references to the Orient have marked important changes in American popular attitudes toward East Asia in the past thirty years, from abjection to celebration, invisibility to hypervisibility.
Unlike other investigations of racial imagery in Hollywood, Yellow Future centers on how the Asiatic is transformed into and performed as style in the backdrop of these movies and discusses the significance of this conditional visibility for representations of racial difference.
No Safe Spaces looks at one of the most radical and enduring changes introduced during the Civil Rights era — multiracial and cross-racial casting practices in American theater. The move to cast Latino/a, African-American, and Asian-American actors in classic stage works written by and about white Europeans and Americans is viewed as both a social and political gesture and an artistic innovation. Non-traditionally cast productions are shown to have participated in the national dialogue about race relations and ethnic identity and served as a source of renewed creativity for the staging of the canonical repertory.
The book opens with a historical overview of multiracial casting, considering the artistic, political, and pragmatic dimensions of nontraditional approaches to casting. Two subsequent chapters examine non-traditional casting in terms of the relationship between reality and stage representation being assumed by various theatrical genres and in the context of the process of racial formation in the United States. The remaining chapters focus on case studies from the dominant genres of twentieth-century American theater: classical tragedy and drama, modern domestic drama, anti-realist drama, and the Broadway musical.
Since Japanese horror sensations The Ring and Audition first terrified Western audiences at the turn of the millennium, there’s been a growing appreciation of Asia as the hotbed of the world’s best horror movies. Over the last decade, Japan, South Korea, Thailand, and Hong Kong have all produced a steady stream of stylish supernatural thrillers and psychological chillers that have set new benchmarks for cinematic scares.
Hollywood soon followed suit, producing high-profile remakes of films such as The Ring, Dark Water, The Grudge, and The Eye. With scores of Asian horror films now available to Western audiences, this guide helps viewers navigate the eclectic mix of vengeful spooks, yakuza zombies, feuding warlocks, and devilish dumplings, discussing the grand themes of Asian horror cinema and the distinctive national histories that give the films their special resonance.
Tracing the long and noble tradition of horror stories in eastern cultures, it also delves into some of the folktales that have influenced this latest wave of shockers, paying tribute to classic Asian ghost films throughout the ages.
A Chinese-made production of the story of “Mulan” competes with the Disney version to capture attention, history, and revenue. As the article also notes, “While the Disney film wove comedy into a Disney-esque plot about a young girl breaking out of the confines of tradition to pursue her own destiny, the new Mulan focuses on patriotism, filial piety, romance and the difficulties of war. The formula is part of an evolving mainland genre that has seen filmmakers incorporating more nuanced, entertaining storytelling into patriotic plots.”
The Alma Mater Society of Queens University in Kingston, Canada declares that sumo costumes are offensive and that organizations should stop using them as part of their activities:
“Sumo suits, the plastic novelties that can transform a skinny sports fan into a comically unstable sphere for the delight of a stadium audience, are racist and dehumanizing instruments of oppression, according to the student government of Queen’s University. They “appropriate an aspect of Japanese culture,” turn a racial identity into a “costume,” and “devalue an ancient and respected Japanese sport, which is rich in history and cultural tradition.” They also “fail to capture the deeply embedded histories of violent and subversive oppression that a group has faced.”
Likewise, the owners of the two suits have never imagined they could be considered offensive. “It’s the first time we’ve heard of [the racist aspects],” Mike Grobe, a spokesman for Queen’s Athletics, which uses the suits at football and basketball games for half-time shows, when people run obstacle courses in them. “They’re just big puffy suits. They’re pink… No one’s complained.”
Comprised of four Filipino Americans from San Francisco, Legaci has recently gained fame by performing in support of Justin Bieber. But does their success reinforce the notion that Asian American pop music performers can’t be successful as lead acts?
“Even if most people just know us as Justin Bieber’s Asian backup singers,” [Legaci co-founder] Micah Tolentino said, “we’re proud to be out there, to show the world that Asian-Americans are talented.” While the pop charts are a familiar home to African-Americans and Latino-Americans, they’ve been less hospitable to Asian-Americans in the United States.
“Asian-Americans are locked out,” said Phil Yu, who runs the pop-culture blog angryasianman.com. “There are definitely elements of racism, but it’s also that audiences are not used to seeing Asian faces on the pop charts or on music videos, and record labels won’t take a chance on that.” Legaci can list its fellow travelers on one hand. There’s the Pussycat Doll Nicole Scherzinger (her father is Filipino), the fledgling Filipino pop star Charice (who sings a duet with Iyaz on her first United States single, “Pyramid”) and most famously, Allan Pineda, a k a Apl.de.ap, of the Black Eyed Peas.
Christine Balance, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Irvine, points out that while Latin and black music have longstanding currency in the industry, there’s nothing comparable for Asian-Americans. “How do you market an Asian-American star?” she said. “African-Americans are foundational to U.S. popular culture, and for Latinos there’s the adjective ‘Latin’ music that’s used to describe a variety of musical forms. But Asians are still seen as foreign or alien to mainstream America.”
As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I highlight new sociological books about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them. A book’s inclusion is for informational purposes only and does not necessarily mean a full endorsement of its complete contents.
This time around, I highlight several recently-released books that focus on different elements and examples of Asian American popular culture:
Racial Stigma on the Hollywood Screen from World War II to the Present charts how the dominant white and black binary of American racial discourse influences Hollywood’s representation of the Asian. The Orientalist buddy film draws a scenario in which two buddies, one white and one black, transcend an initial hatred for one another by joining forces against a foreign Asian menace. Alongside an analysis of multiple genres of film, Brian Locke argues that this triangulated rendering of race ameliorates the longstanding historical contradiction between U.S. democratic ideals and white America’s persistent domination over blacks.
Bollywood Weddings examines how middle to upper class second-generation Indian-American Hindus negotiate wedding rituals, including the dating and engagement processes. Many of these couples are (in Ramdya’s neologism) “occasional Hindus” who display their Hindu religious background only on important occasions such as the rite of passage that is marriage.
These couples (and their extended families) negotiate two vastly different cultures and sets of values inside a community that has itself largely predetermined how to mix American and Indian/Hindu elements into this ritual. As a rule, the first generation organizes the wedding, which is largely Hindu, and their children coordinate the American-style reception. Instead of choosing either India or America, or arriving at a compromise in between the two, this community takes a “both/and” approach, embracing both cultures simultaneously.
For more than a century, sporting spectacles, media coverage, and popular audiences have staged athletics in black and white. Commercial, media, and academic accounts have routinely erased, excluded, ignored, and otherwise made absent the Asian American presence in sport. Asian Americans in Sport and Society seeks to redress this pattern of neglect. This volume presents a comprehensive perspective on the history and significance of Asian American athletes, coaches, and teams in North America.
The contributors interrogate the sociocultural contexts in which Asian Americans lived and played, detailing the articulations of power and possibility, difference and identity, representation and remembrance that have shaped the means and meanings of Asian Americans playing sport in North America. This volume will be of interest to students and scholars of the Asian American experience, ethnic relations, and the history of sport.
For South Asians, food regularly plays a role in how issues of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and national identity are imagined as well as how notions of belonging are affirmed or resisted. “Culinary Fictions” provides food for thought as it considers the metaphors literature, film, and TV shows use to describe Indians abroad. When an immigrant mother in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake”, combines Rice Krispies, Planters peanuts, onions, salt, lemon juice, and green chili peppers to create a dish similar to one found on Calcutta sidewalks, it not only evokes the character’s Americanization, but also her nostalgia for India.
Food, Anita Mannur writes, is a central part of the cultural imagination of diasporic populations, and “Culinary Fictions” maps how it figures in various expressive forms. Mannur examines the cultural production from the Anglo-American reaches of the South Asian diaspora. Using texts from novels – Chitra Divakaruni’s “Mistress of Spices”, and Shani Mootoo’s “Cereus Blooms at Night” – to cookbooks such as Madhur Jaffrey’s “Invitation to Indian Cooking” and Padma Lakshmi’s “Easy Exotic”, she illustrates how national identities are consolidated in culinary terms.
As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I highlight new sociological books about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them. As always, please remember that I highlight them for informational purposes only and do not necessarily endorse their entire content or arguments.
In Christianity, as with most religions, attaining holiness and a higher spirituality while simultaneously pursuing worldly ideals such as fame and fortune is nearly impossible. So, how do people pursuing careers in Hollywood’s entertainment industry maintain their religious devotion without sacrificing their career goals?
For some, the answer lies just two miles south of the historic center of Hollywood, California, at the Oasis Christian Center. In “Hollywood Faith”, Gerardo Marti shows how a multiracial evangelical congregation of 2,000 people accommodates itself to the entertainment industry and draws in many striving to succeed in this harsh and irreverent business. Oasis strategically sanctifies ambition and negotiates social change by promoting a new religious identity as “champion of life” – an identity that provides people who face difficult career choices and failed opportunities a sense of empowerment and endurance.
The first book to provide an in-depth look at religion among the “creative class.” “Hollywood Faith” will fascinate those interested in the modern evangelical movement and anyone who wants to understand how religion adapts to social change.
The third installment of the Fast and the Furious series of movies is out (Tokyo Drift), sporting a few changes from its first two predecesors. The most obvious is that it is set in Japan and features a large Asian and Asian American cast. Part of the reason may be due to its new director, Taiwanese American Justin Lin, of Better Luck Tomorrow fame. Here’s MTV’s take on the film and on Justin Lin’s career up to this point:
The result is — as you’d expect — an eardrum-assailing, lightning-paced, adrenaline-pumping thrill ride that might send your bag of popcorn flying through the air. The real shock, however, is that it’s the first “Furious” movie with a brain under the hood.
“It’s a self-discovery movie,” Lin insisted, equating the story of street racer Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) to his own experiences as an Asian filmmaker navigating Hollywood. “This is really, at the end of the day, about this kid who is outside and comes into town. . . .
“It’s still funny sometimes,” Lin added, saying that as passionately as he felt about exposing American audiences to his world, he realized on day one of the “Drift” shoot that he was still working in theirs.
“The first day of my big movie, I drive on the set and the security won’t let me in. They thought I was a P.A. [production assistant]! It happens all the time. Every time I go to a meeting, they’re like, ‘So, what are you delivering?’ “It constantly slaps me in the face, that I’m still perceived as a bit of an outsider,” Lin lamented.
I haven’t seen the movie yet, but will try to soon. It’s nice to see Justin Lin moving up in the Hollywood hierarchy, from unknown independent filmmaker to director of feature-list mainstream studio movies. It’s also good to hear that he had enough power to demand — and get — major changes in the storyline and plot to make it more realistic and professional, and not just a retread of the first two movies and of tired stereotypes of Asian culture.
At the same time, it’s frustrating to hear about Justin’s experiences of still being treated as an outsider in the moviemaking industry. Unfortunately it just goes to show that although Asian Americans have made nice strides in penetrating the silver screen (or is that white?), there is apparently a long way to go until we are seen as regular, legitimate players in the industry.
AsianWeek Magazine has a feature article about Hollywood’s 25 Worst Portrayals of Asian Americans. You should definitely read the article yourself to learn the details about each portrayal, but their top ten of the most notorious portrayals are:
10. The movie Year of the Dragon 9. Charlie Chan 8. Fu Manchu 7. William Hung 6. The sitcom All American Girl starring Margaret Cho 5. The movie The Good Earth 4. Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles 3. Injustices suffered by cinematographer James Wong Howe 2. Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s 1. Deaths on the set of The Twilight Zone
Not all is doom and gloom — the article also describes the 10 Most Memorable Moments for Asian Americans:
10. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) 9. Better Luck Tomorrow (2003) 8. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) 7. Flower Drum Song (1961) 6. Charlie’s Angels (2000) 5. Enter the Dragon (1973) 4. The Killing Fields (1984) 3. Shanghai Express (1932) 2. Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (1993) 1. Chan is Missing (1982)
In terms of most memorable moments, I would have taken out Charlie’s Angels myself and instead, would have included Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but for the most part, their lists make sense.