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Secret Asian Men

Garrett Wang
To Boldly Go Where Few Asian American Actors Have Ever Gone: Garrett Wang of 'Star Trek: Voyager' is one of only a handful of Asian American performers with a prominent continuing role on a TV program.

Steve Park's angry 'mission statement' pricks television's conscience

By Zack Stentz

JUST WHEN I thought no good could come of the film Jerry Maguire, Korean-American actor Steve Park managed to turn that particular cinematic sow's ear into a silk purse by taking a cue from Tom Cruise's conscience-struck sports agent.

"In the spirit of Jerry Maguire, I submit this mission statement to the Hollywood community," wrote Park in a widely circulated manifesto originally intended for the L.A. Times' op-ed page. In the piece, Park turned his personal experience on the set of Friends into a broadside against the lack of opportunities for Asian American actors in Hollywood.

Despite being passed up for publication by the Times--which is something of a company-town paper for Hollywood--the mission statement appeared in numerous Asian and acting-oriented publications and was reported on the Internet--where, at last count, it had generated more than 3,000 responses.

"It was a brave thing of Steve to do," comments Eddie Wong, executive director of the San Francisco­based National Asian-American Telecommunications Association. "But the things he's talking about aren't exactly brand-new. Racism on television is an age-old issue."

Park had appeared in a brief role on Friends' May 12 episode. (The episode is notorious for its completely useless cameos by Robin Williams and Billy Crystal, whose film Father's Day--produced by the same studio, Warner Bros., that makes Friends--was coincidentally opening the next day.) While working on the show, Park witnessed what he described as racism toward another Asian American actor as well as a general environment of free-floating hostility on the set.

"The first A.D. [assistant director]," Park wrote, "in a short tirade, called an Asian American actor to the set over a walkie-talkie with the words 'I don't have time for this! Where's Hoshi, Toshi or whatever the fuck his name is--get the Oriental guy!"

The "Oriental guy" in question was James Hong, a veteran character actor of 40 years' experience in films such as Chinatown, Blade Runner, Tank Girl and TV shows such as Kung Fu, The Rockford Files and The X-Files.

It's not as if the aforementioned A.D. had a huge pool of Asian actors with which to confuse Hong--which was the precise point of Park's mission statement.


When Harry Met Sulu: Garrett Wang (Star Trek: Voyager) and George Takei (Sulu from the original Star Trek) discuss life, love and ethnicity.

Yolk: An electronic magazine about Asian-American pop culture, experience and influence.

Channel A: A site delivering Asian-related information, products and services to western consumers.

NAATA: National Asian American Telecommunication Association is also online.


THE SITUATION in Hollywood, and in particular on television, is pretty dire for Asian Americans. An attempt to count on your fingers the number of Asian American men, past or current, in major, recurring television roles ends quickly and leaves you with a free hand to stick in your pocket.

There's Garrett Wang's Harry Kim on Star Trek: Voyager; Russell Wong from the canceled action series Vanishing Son; the late Jack Soo of Barney Miller; Robert Ito's faithful coroner's assistant on Quincy, M.E.; and of course George Takei's Sulu on the original Star Trek.

(Interestingly, the Sulu character was a source of controversy to NBC's Cold War­conscious executives, who specified that the Asian character be "not Chinese." Perhaps they were afraid the audience might subliminally link the Starship Enterprise's helmsman with China's Great Helmsman, Mao Zedong. Controversy aside, Gene Roddenberry and the other Star Trek creators have always consciously portrayed the future as a hospitable place for all races, and Sulu's creative descendant, Harry Kim, is that rarest of all television creatures--an Asian man with an active love life. Wang even made this year's People magazine 50 Most Beautiful People list.)

It's pathetic. Even Magnum, P.I.'s two sidekicks in the Hawaii-based detective show were white and African American, in a state with a majority Asian population. The situation is such that some Asian American actors have largely abandoned television for the stage.

Park is currently in San Francisco starring in the play Gravity Falls From Trees (he declined to be interviewed for this article), while East Bay actor/monologist Lane Nishikawa travels the country performing his one-man shows, I'm on a Mission From Buddha and Mifune and Me, and acting in other plays.

"I've pretty much stopped going to television auditions," Nishikawa says. "There's just a lot more interesting work for me to do on stage. It's weird. Most Asian actors in the U.S. are Asian American, but most of the roles I was reading for were Asia Asians. I'm much more interested in exploring the Asian experience in America than playing a Japanese banker in Rising Sun."

The situation for Asian American women is slightly better. Nearly all of the talented young women from Wayne Wang's The Joy Luck Club seem to have gotten TV gigs, albeit as the wives or girlfriends of dweeby, unattractive white men (Ming Na-Wen on The Single Guy, Lauren Tom on Friends, Rosalind Chao on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine).

"And in general, things are getting a little better," Wong says. "They're doing a remake of the Hawaii Five-0 series this fall, and they originally weren't going to have an Asian American main character. Can you believe that? In Hawaii? But there were some complaints and discussions with Cannell [the production company], and now they've cast Russell Wong as one of the leads."

Progress? Maybe. But one has to wonder at a Hollywood that seems to actively avoid casting nonwhite actors, even on shows that take place in states and cities with huge minority populations. Friends seems to exist in a parallel-universe Big Apple after some unnamed disaster has ethnically cleansed the city of its nonwhite population. Closer to home, Suddenly Susan is allegedly set in San Francisco, but evidence of that city's 38 percent Asian population is hard to find, unless Judd Nelson has a random Tatar ancestor hiding in the family tree.

OF COURSE, there was another show two years back, also set in San Francisco, that was supposed to herald a breakthrough for Asian American actors on TV. Anyone remember All-American Girl?

The comedic showcase for the scorchingly funny standup comedienne Margaret Cho featured a mostly Asian cast, but the writing was purposely deracinated to make the show palatable to as large an audience as possible. But by removing the cultural specificity that makes so much of Cho's standup material hilarious, the show failed as both illumination of the Asian American experience and as generic sitcom.

"The problem with that show is that it just wasn't well written," Nishikawa says. "From what I heard, there was a lot of conflict between the cast, the writers and the executives over how ethnic the show was supposed to be."

It's sad to think that TV executives might have interpreted All-American Girl's failure as a signal that Asian-oriented shows not featuring martial arts won't play in middle America, when they wouldn't interpret Ink's rejection as meaning middle-aged white guys are out.

Strangely, some of the best televised depictions of Asian Americans come from the ink of the networks' animated series. On the perennially brilliant The Simpsons, we have Indian Quick-E-Mart proprietor Apu Nahasapeemapetilon as a key supporting character. Despite being voiced by the distinctly non-Indian Hank Azaria and displaying some stereotypical traits (an exaggerated accent and a suicidal work ethic), Apu over the years has emerged as one of the show's most sympathetic, three-dimensional players.

Unlike the generic, sexually neutered Asian cast members of old, Apu comes from a specific culture--Bengali, in honor of his namesake from Satyajit Ray's World of Apu films, which Simpsons creator Matt Groening adores. ("Actually, Nahasapeemapetilon sounds more like a Dravidian name," one subcontinentally savvy Internet fan complained.) Apu also has a personal and sexual life outside of his work--the episode in which he cavorts with a blonde lover cleverly refers to Stephen Frears and Hani Kureishi's film about racial and sexual politics in England, My Beautiful Laundrette.

And immediately following The Simpsons is King of the Hill, which recently shook up the all-white neighborhood by moving the Laotian Souphanousinphone family next door: gruff father Kahn and mother and daughter Min and Kahn Jr. (the last two voiced by Lauren Tom). The episode in which Peggy fumed over Min's superior apple-brown-betty baking skills while Hank suspected Kahn of barbecuing the neighborhood's canines proved to be one of television's defter explorations of racial stereotyping seen in recent years.

Ultimately, though, the force that propels more Asian Americans onto television may be simple demographics. With the television market fragmenting into more and more channels, a smaller audience can keep a show on the air, especially if that program reaches a defined demographic group that advertisers wish to attract. (This trend explains UPN's and WB's efforts to court the African American audience scorned by ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox.)

"As the channel space becomes available and the audience continues to fragment, I think room will start opening up for more Asian-oriented programming," says Eddie Wong, whose own organization sponsors and nurtures Asian American­themed programming for public television.

"We're already seeing it at NAATA, where we have more and more people coming to us with project proposals."

And as America's fastest-growing population group (and one especially well represented in the large urban markets coveted by advertisers), Asians will increasingly be targeted by the broadcast industry as a pool of desired consumers.

"It's already happening," Wong concludes. "I mean, it's very telling that there is one place on television where you see a lot of Asian faces: in commercials."

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From the June 19-25, 1997 issue of Metro.

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