Sunday, July 27, 2014

Accentuating the Positive

As a follow-up to recent posts about issues of casting and representation regarding Asian and Asian-American characters, thought it might be good to look back on a couple of good-case scenarios that transpired in the past.

Chinese Detective (1981-82)

BBC police drama created by Ian Kennedy Martin, who had previously devised another notable British police drama, The Sweeney (1975-78). The show starred Anglo-Chinese actor David Yip (currently appearing as the Chinese President in 24: Live Another Day)  as Detective Sergeant John Ho, a maverick officer dealing with prejudice from co-workers and perpetrators in the course of his investigations. The Sweeney was recently remade as a feature film in the UK. Why not do the same with Chinese Detective?

Ohara (1987-88)

Short-lived police drama that aired on ABC for two seasons starring Pat Morita at the height of his post-Karate Kid fame. Morita co-created this show about Ohara, an LA-based Japanese American police lieutenant who uses spirituality and martial arts instead of a gun to solve crimes. The show didn't last, but it still remains one of the few to have had an Asian American in the lead.

Vanishing Son (1994-1995)
In 1994, Universal Studios produced a block of TV movies and series called the Action Pack that were syndicated to local stations (WGN Channel 9 in Chicago). The venture gave birth to the TV series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, and for a very brief period launched Eurasian actor Russell Wong (also known as the abusive husband in movie version of The Joy Luck Club) to stardom with the kung-fu adventure series Vanishing Son. The show was created by producer/director Rob Cohen, who first dipped his toes into the realm of martial arts and Chinese culture as the man behind Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story. Wong played a musician on the run from the People's Republic of China in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, who escapes to the US and ends traveling from place-to-place fighting injustice with his kung-fu skills.  The show started as four TV movies, and then a thirteen-episode regular series. Wong got a lot of attention for a short period, even being named one of the "Fifty Most Beautiful People" of 1995 by People Magazine. Unfortunately, the show was not renewed for another season.

Hansel & Gretel (1982)
Here's a real oddity that is worth mentioning here. In the early 1980s, director Tim Burton was a young unknown animator, storyboard artist and concept artist employed at Walt Disney, working on films like The Fox and The Hound, The Black Cauldron and TRON. During this time, he was able to crank out a couple of small projects that presaged his distinctive combination of quirk and the macabre. One of these was this Japanese-themed short based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale which aired just once on the Disney Channel on October 31, 1983 at 10:30pm. The film features an entirely Asian American cast, and set and costume design heavily influenced by Burton's then-obsession with Godzilla movies and other Japanese pop culture. Pleasingly, although Burton's decision to give everything an Asian flavor, none of the actors were required to perform with faux foreign accents.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Not Real Asian / Real Asian

Let's play a game . . .

Left: Mario Van Peebles as a samurai in Highlander: Final Dimension (1994)

Left: Ricardo Montalban playing the kabuki actor Nakamura in Sayonara (1957)
Right: Real-life Japanese kabuki actor Matsumoto Koshiro IX

Left: Henry Silva as a North Korean agent in The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Right: South Korean actor Gong Yoo as a North Korean agent in The Suspect (2013)

Left: Joel Grey as Korean martial arts master Chiun in Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins (1985)
Right: Real-life Korean Hapkido master Bong Soo Han in The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977)

Left: Keith Carradine as half-white/half-Chinese Shaolin disciple Kwai Chai Caine in Kung-Fu (1972)
Right: Half-white/half-Chinese actor Brandon Lee (son of Bruce) in Rapid Fire (1992)
Bottom center: Half-white/half-Chinese actor Russell Wong in Vanishing Son (1995)

Left: Tony Randall as a Chinese wizard in the 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)
Right: Victor Wong as the Chinese wizard Egg Shen in Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Left: Yul Brynner (Russian) as King Mongkut of Siam in The King and I (1956)
Right: The real King Mongkut of Siam (1851-1868)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Changing the Game by Staking a Claim

(Apologies to all readers. The following post is neither as well-written or coherent as I would have liked. I'm still adjusting to life with my newborn son, so sorry if my thoughts seem to tangent or get a bit ranty.)

An opera production of
Yellowfacing The Mikado

The issue of Asian representation in arts and entertainment has flared up once again thanks to a recent production of Gilbert & Sullivan's classic but inherently problematic operetta The Mikado. For those concerned, the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society's mounting commits multiple sins: reviving the piece itself (a musical romp set in a made-up and highly inaccurate depiction of feudal Japan), presenting the piece as it was originally conceived in the late 19th century (with exaggerated faux-Japanese hair, make-up and dress), and perhaps most damningly, casting only white actors. The Asian American community has been pretty swift in its condemnation. The critical response has included comments by writer Jeff Yang on CNN, a satirical take by the folks at YouOffendMeYouOffendMyFamily, and an embarrassing radio conversation between a cast member of the show and an Asian American journalist who penned a pointed editorial. The situation is also a very tiresome retread for those in the Asian American community who dealt with the 2012 "Yellowface" casting controversy during the staging of The Nightingale at La Jolla Playhouse and the frustrations of their UK counterparts during the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of The Orphan of Zhao. Heck, we might as well go all the way back to the Ms. Saigon casting controversy in 1990.

It's at times like this I really wish there was some way for Asian American writers, directors and producers to seize control of all the existing Western-created representations of Asians (and Asian Americans) on stage and screen. That, in addition to creating new and original works genuinely illustrative of themselves, their families and their communities, they could get a shot at reworking some of those outmoded (and offensive) characters and stories with an added layer of cultural authenticity born of their own life experience (Not to mention providing racially appropriate casting). Not just hoary theatrical works like The Mikado. Maybe a new TV series or movie reimagining Chinese detective Charlie Chan, created by white author Earl Derr Biggers in 1919 and popularized in a series of 1930s/40s films played by white actors Warner OlandSidney Toler and Roland Winters.

Close up of a man with short hair, slicked back, and a moustache. He wears a bow tie and looks into the camers.Sidney Toler.jpg
Charlie Chan, as portrayed by by Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters

What if a prestigious Asian American director like Ang Lee or Cary Fukunaga crafted a respectable, well-written noir mystery thriller take on the character, or at least what if Justin Lin was allowed to deliver a solid action-adventure version? (BTW, in my head a kick-ass version of the portly Chan is portrayed by plus-sized Hong Kong action star Sammo Hung.)
Sammo Hung on the CBS series "Martial Law" (1998)

It should also be noted that Charlie Chan was inspired by two real-life Chinese detectives on the Honolulu police force: Chang Apana (鄭阿平) and Lee Fook. If a new Charlie Chan film went back to the source, seems to me that pre-WWII Hawaii with its stew of ethnicities, international trade and colonial politics would make a great setting for mystery and adventure.

I also wouldn't mind a redo of fictional Japanese secret agent Mr. Moto. Like Charlie Chan, Moto's creator was not Asian (John Phillips Marquand), but surprisingly he was a hero and a positive character running counter to much of the Yellow Peril stereotypes of the period in which he was created (the 1930s). Urbane, well-educated and equally well-dressed, Moto is a multi-talented gentlemen whose polite appearance disguises a capacity for ruthlessness and violent action (Sound at all similar to a certain British secret agent?). Despite being a pulp hero largely forgotten by modern audiences, the character had a prolific run in six novels, an eight movie series (1937-39), a radio series and a standalone 1965 film. However, like Charlie Chan, Moto was always portrayed by non-Asians: James Monks on the radio, German expat actor Peter Lorre in the 30s film series, and by Henry Silva in the 1965 film.

Peter Lorre (left) and Henry Silva (right) as Mr. Moto

What I find really fascinating about Mr. Moto (besides the terrible accents employed by the actors who played him), is that his character was written as an agent of the Japanese Empire, which was already at odds with the U.S. at the time. However, despite his official status, Moto personally disagrees with the expansionist aims of his country. Thus, it really wouldn't take much story-wise to revive the character for modern film audiences (and not offend the all-important Chinese and Korean markets to boot). I actually think that in addition to actually casting an Asian in the role (preferably of Japanese descent), maintaining the original 30s setting would be a plus. You could get all the period intrigue and romance of an Indiana Jones movie, with the added dramatic urgency of dealing with the racial prejudices of the time. Who knows, maybe even the internment could figure into the script?
For your consideration, should a Mr. Moto remake ever be made. 
(Me performing in my friend Shreeyash Palshikar's magic show. Duds borrowed from Theatre-Hikes)

It's unlikely anything like the above would happen, given all the issues of rights, ownership and authorship that would be involved, plus the whole problem of Asian American-led projects getting funded in Hollywood's risk-averse atmosphere. But wouldn't it be something? Maybe even an Asian American-helmed reboot of The Last Airbender, properly cast and given back its full original title of Avatar: The Last Airbender (confusion with James Cameron be damned). Or something to replace that awful Seth Rogen version of The Green Hornet. For me, where that film figures in this discussion is that, in addition to its overall mediocrity, despite the fact they did cast an Asian to play Kato (Taiwanese actor Jay Chou), it felt like the filmmakers were unaware that the Green Hornet's lasting place in pop culture is entirely attributable to Bruce Lee's portrayal of Kato in the old 60s series version. In fact, in Hong Kong, the show was retitled The Kato Show, and Lee's portrayal has been so influential Chinese kung-fu stars Jet Li and Donnie Yen both borrowed the image of Kato for their films Black Mask and Fist of Legend: The Return of Chen Zhen respectively. I wasn't expecting the new film to feature a Kato that exactly recreated Bruce Lee. That would have been unreasonable. But it seems like the producers and director thought all Kato needed to be was Chinese and do kung-fu, without realizing they were dealing with an icon. A very specific Chinese icon requiring a certain energy and characterization that were completely absent in their version.

Clockwise from top left: Bruce Lee as Kato (1966-67), Jet Li as Black Mask (1996) 
and Donnie Yen as Chen Zhen (2010).

While we're at it, I'd even love it if an Asian American director took on remaking Breakfast at Tiffany's just to supplant Mickey Rooney's Godawful portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi. Besides the fact, I'm actually quite fond of the novel, to which Blake Edward's movie is not very faithful anyway. There's no reason there couldn't be a Japanese photographer living next to Holly Golightly who isn't a mind-bogglingly hideous buck-toothed stereotyped. Maybe someone based on real-life photographer Toyo Miyatake.
Left: Mickey Rooney as photographer Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)
Right: Real-life Japanese American photographer Toyo Miyatake

I genuinely believe that undertakings like those imagined above would be good ideas in and of themselves, not just indulgent experiments in a kind of Asian American revisionism. Incorporating cultural authenticity and details to performed works, even those of the most popular and perhaps maligned nature, opens up all sorts of possibilities for new and deeper storytelling. Plus audiences get a chance to be introduced to new cultures, attitudes and perspectives. Back in the 70s, director Francis Ford Coppola fought with Paramount Pictures to make their mafia epic The Godfather just as much a story of the Italian American immigrant experience as a violent crime blockbuster, bringing in details about traditional family relationships, food, music and customs. Though the film has its critics among Italian Americans for perpetuating a stereotypical mobster image, it also has its fans for presenting rich and complex characters informed by their specific history and culture. It could have been a lurid big-budget exploitation film like many earlier gangster films. Instead, it ended up being a critically acclaimed and award-winning cinema classic; a winner with audiences and the launchpad for Al Pacino's career (It should be noted that the studio didn't want the authentically Italian-American Pacino to play the role that brought him recognition. If Coppola hadn't stood up to the brass, WASPS Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford or Ryan O'Neal would have gotten the part.).

Unfortunately, we're still not in the world of my imagination, so  Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society gets to do their all-white Mikado, the Union Theatre in London gets to present Pacific Overtures with nary an Asian in sight, and so on and so forth.

Think I'll sign off now and take in the blockbuster movie in my mind. In this movie, during the 1930s the U.S. government recruits a super squad of Asian operatives made up of Kato, Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto to combat alleged mad scientist Dr. Fu Manchu. However, it turns out that Fu Manchu is actually a Chinese patriot who is being framed by Western interests attempting to maintain their spheres of influence in Asia. The truth of the situation is revealed to them by 100-year-old ex-Shaolin monk Kwai Chang Caine . . .

Thursday, July 17, 2014


Watching the news. Thinking of my mother. When I was a child she told me about the Korean War. She knows what it's like to have school cancelled or hide under the stairs at home because bombs are dropping out of the sky. She knows what it's like to have classmates killed by stray ordinance. She knows what it's like to lose your home, be forced to move, have your family life disrupted. I don't know any of that. I hope I never know. I hope my son never knows. And I wish everyone else in the world could be spared  that knowledge as well.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

All Hail the New Normal

Enjoying our second full day with baby Jack at home. Sunday morning we received the welcome news that his bilirubin count had finally gone down and he would be discharged. It was a big relief to Czerina and I. My earlier post notwithstanding, the nurses and doctors at St. Joseph's overall were a terrific bunch. And I have to say, since the majority of them were Asian (mainly Filipina), we really felt like we had a lot of new aunties helping us out every step of the way. There was even one Korean nurse who, true to form, chastised me for my inability to speak my language and wanted to speak to my mother.

Settling into life at home has gone fairly smoothly. And while certainly the rhythms of life are quite different now - governed by Jack's cycle of feeding, sleeping and pooping - the pace is considerably slower. With Czerina now home from work on maternity leave, and both my aikido and acting curtailed at the moment, this is the least rushed and hectic I have felt in quite some time. I wouldn't want things to be this way forever (especially the late-night feeding sessions), but I'm minding it a lot less than I had expected.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Counting Blessings

A new life. I look at my newborn son, and like most parents, marvel that a brand-new person has been brought into the world. A person no one else has ever met or seen before. And everything is new for him too. Every sight, every sound, every sensation is occurring to him for the first time. And even though at 41 I am already jaded and familiar with so many things, I feel like a little reset button has been pressed, and I'm going to get to experience some things anew through his eyes (In particular, I am quite excited to introduce him to Hawaii, the Beatles and the original Star Wars trilogy).

At the same time, beneath the joy of watching life renew itself, I am reminded of its fragility and finiteness. At 41, I am starting my family about ten years later than my parents, who had me in their early 30s, which was a decade later than the generation before them. Two days ago, my mother and mother-in-law were visiting us in the hospital, and my mother remarked to my mother-in-law, "We won't live to see him graduate college. We won't see him get married." Now, given that my maternal grandmother is alive and well and in her 90s in South Korea, I'd like to think that there's pretty good odds mom will achieve great-grandmotherhood in her lifetime. But I do remember that both of my paternal grandparents passed away in their 80s, and my parents are now in their early 70s, so suddenly life's inevitable conclusion feels less far off than it used to.

My wife Czerina also remarked that (all things being equal) we would not be there for him his entire life. Just as we are welcoming him to the world, one day he'll have to say goodbye to us, whether due to sickness, accident or old age. Now, we're not depressed by the thought, it's all part of nature's plan after all. But I know that I wasn't expecting the realization to feel so tangible and concrete so soon.

But we certainly feel blessed and lucky as well. Since Jack is receiving his UV treatment in the neonatal intensive ward, he's sharing a room with all of the sick and premature babies. One baby, a child apparently of Arab descent, is particularly sickly, and every time we go to visit or feed Jack, we see her hooked up to various machines, an IV line to provide nourishment, and get-well cards pinned all about. While we're laughing and bouncing Jack about during feedings, we've never seen this child be held by his parents, and sometimes hear her weak and painful cries. During one visit, what appeared to be an imam or similar holy man appeared accompanied by two women in hijab, and one of the women held her arms still over the baby for an extended period, as if in prayer or calling forth a blessing. It's heart-breaking to watch. I don't exactly know what the child's condition is (and it's none of my business to ask), so perhaps she'll get better and live a full and satisfying life. But still, I can't help but think that some of the babies who arrive in this room never go home. For some of them, life might be measured in mere weeks or days, and agonizing ones at that. Whenever the frustration over our prolonged stay in the hospital starts to eat at me, I remind myself that our son is not actually sick; that he's receiving the benefit of preemptive treatment that was unavailable in years past and is still unavailable for many.

I am not a particularly religious person, but today I do find myself thanking God, and not at all ashamed to admit it.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

(Early morning conversation regarding baby nutrition)

Nurse: So, do you eat a traditional Chinese diet?

Me: We're not Chinese.

(And with that, our son has his first encounter with profiling.)


I posted the above words on my Facebook page as well, and it generated some really interesting comments, so I thought I'd share here.

  • Tamon Mark Uttech I like this story. It shows that profiling isn't always done on purpose.
  • Dwight Egan Sora Yes, I'm more amused than annoyed. There was a very brief pause before the nurse rephrased her question with *Asian* diet.
  • Hawk Durham You could have just been honest and said "Yes...but only on Thursdays, when they run that special at Uncle Lou's Cantonese..."
  • Dwight Egan Sora or "No, but I've played one onstage."
  • Bradley Baker I notice major characteristics of people, but I can't pinpoint their ancestral origin nor would I try. Where was she going with the questioning? 'Traditional' has become subjective, and her area covering the diet is too large, what is a 'traditional Asian diet'? She failed.
  • Chip Payos Hahaha ! She did fail. Call the registered dietician
  • Eric Castillo Should of just told her a Diet of Rice & Beans.

    And maybe a Taco on Taco Tuesdays !
  • Aaron Todd Douglas Wow. Wait, you're not Chinese?
  • Christopher Walsh I wonder what constitutes a "traditional Asian diet"? Could there be a more vague phrase, food-wise?
  • Dwight Egan Sora Well, after my early morning Zen meditation, I like to work up an appetite by practicing 100 sword cuts while my wife does Tai Chi. It is when she is preparing the tea that I enter into the woods to slay a wild boar with my bow and arrow, and the local peasants bring in rice from the fields . . .
  • Alice Singleton I remember when we began Marissa on solids, and I would feed her Satay & peanut sauce, which she loved. On one pediatrician visit, when I gave the nurse and overview of her diet, she exclaimed her alarm, "why on earth are you feeding her (that)? Whoeve...See More
  • Braddah Bill Aren't all East Asians Chinese?
  • Sean Sinitski "I wonder what constitutes a "traditional Asian diet"? Could there be a more vague phrase, food-wise?" - I think, and I've seen it mentioned by dieticians the main part of the diet centers on rice, fresh vegetables, and fish. Which is a diet high in fiber and good shit.
    23 hrs · Like
  • Roy Yamamoto Better check what they're going to put on his birth certificate!
    23 hrs · Like · 2
  • Bradley Baker But Asia is huge with large portions of the continent not near fish, or even an environment conducive for growing rice...though now that you say that I had a chiropractor who suggested a similar diet, but he just said a diet rich in fish (low in mercury) and vegetables and if I needed grains, whole grains, brown rice was suggested.
    23 hrs · Like
  • Joshua Hansell General Tso's everyday, right?
    23 hrs · Like
  • Mia Chanmi Park aaaaahhhh ssssoooo, me so hunglee!
    23 hrs · Like · 1
  • Dom Tor Fleming Dwight, why are you Chinese people so touchy about race? You're always inscrutable otherwise.
    22 hrs · Unlike · 1
  • Linus Sora I think it shows the fall of the Japanese in the world's eyes..
    21 hrs · Unlike · 1
  • Cheryl Emiko Sora It's funny how people on the mainland think you're Chinese if you're Asian. I'm so glad it's not like that in Hawaii...
    21 hrs · Unlike · 1
  • Arvin A. Jalandoon That is wonderful. When I was born they asked my mom if our staple was banana leaves and do " we use utensils, ... like forks and spoons instead of our hands in Manila ... "
    21 hrs · Unlike · 1
  • Jill Thiel And... scene.
    20 hrs · Unlike · 1
  • Aaron Todd Douglas What an assbackwards country we live in.
    20 hrs · Unlike · 1
  • Joaquín McCoy Maybe it was Sheldon logic, since most things are actulaly made in China.
    20 hrs · Like
  • Dwight Egan Sora I'd like to add that according to one of Czerina's visiting cousins, we were mistakenly listed under "Gomez" at one point.
    20 hrs · Like
  • Debbi Brown von Nida I was once asked if my feet were small, because in China feet are bound. No feet are small, because I'm short. Shortly after I was told how bad my country was for drowning baby girls. I replied the U.S.A. has not sanctioned the drowning of any children. My country prefers to keep them ill educated and ignorant of other cultures.
    20 hrs · Like · 1
  • Michael Heneghan You sir are more patient with stupid than I
    19 hrs · Like
  • Carol Ruth Kimmel There are nurses from Korea and other countries at the St Joseph neo-natal intensive care unit--how odd that the person you spoke to made such a mistake.
    18 hrs · Like
  • Ty Perry If I may quote the late great James Brown."Living in America"
    17 hrs · Like
  • David Chack I cut off part of my finger while doing housework and rushed to the emergency room. The person at the admittance desk saw my Jewish star around my neck and after hearing that part of my finger was cut off she said, "Yes. You people do that while slicing bagels."
    11 hrs · Like
  • Dwight Egan Sora David - What the friggin' what? Really?
    1 hr · Like