I could be mistaken, but it feels like Asian Americans have finally taken off the “invisibility cloak” that kept us out of the spotlight across the spectrum of American popular culture. We can thank the hit rom-com “Crazy Rich Asians,” which opened in August and has so far brought in more than $230 million worldwide, $172 million in the U.S., to establish the credibility of Asians in Hollywood.
If you haven’t seen the movie yet, you should. It’s not a universal Asian American story — it’s about ultrawealthy Chinese in Singapore and the Chinese American woman from New York who goes to attend a wedding in Singapore with her boyfriend, who she learns is part of that crazy rich elite. But it’s worth seeing if you’re Asian American of any background because its success is already opening doors for future projects that can tell more of our untold tales.
“CRA” is the first major studio feature movie since 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club” to have a mostly-Asian cast. And like the pioneering film, which was directed by Wayne Wang, “CRA” was directed by an Asian American, John Chu. Both movies are based on best-selling books, by Amy Tan for “Joy Luck” and Kevin Kwan for “CRA.” Kwan’s book was the first in a trilogy, and his second novel has reportedly been green-lighted for a sequel.
The film has been criticized for its focus on the Chinese Singaporean population, and it’s certainly true that of the large South Asian community in Singapore, only a few South Asians are onscreen and only as servants or security guards. South Asians have a right to feel like I did after watching Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” and wondered, “Where the hell are the Asians? Prewar Hawaii wasn’t just haoles!”
But for me, the movie shows a side of Singapore that is fabulously beautiful and privileged and foreign to the likes of me. I accept it as a story about a specific group — one that I’ll never be part of.
I’ve seen the movie twice and am proud to have contributed to “CRA’s” boxoffice success. I’ll buy the disc right away when it’s released, too.
Because of “CRA’s” success, a sequel is already being negotiated. And the sequel won’t be the only new project featuring AAPI actors and AAPI stories. It’s now proven that Hollywood can produce a film starring all Asian faces and have a mix of people — but most especially Asians — come out to see it.
News media reported how this movie brought out curious Asian immigrants who had never seen an American film before and how Asian Americans went to see it with their families and friends (we took my in-laws).
It will take a couple of years before we begin to see the blooms from the seeds down by “CRA.” But even now, there’s a feeling in the air that we’re finally being noticed — and included. Here’s a rundown in no particular order of some TV shows and movies that have showcased the talents of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in front of the camera. (Behind-the-camera AAPI talent is a whole other story!)
- “Kim’s Convenience” is a wonderful sitcom from Canadian Broadcasting Corp., about a Korean Canadian family that runs a convenience store in Toronto. It’s a hoot because it tackles heavy subjects from racism and stereotypes to fractured family relationships and assimilation in a clever, hilarious way. Its first two seasons, which are available on Netflix, are definitely binge-worthy!
- “Ocean’s 8,” the latest take of the franchise featuring con men and women getting away with clever and outrageous nonviolent crimes, is the womenomics version of the series of movies. And this one co-stars both Mindy Kaling and Awkwafina, one of the funnier stars of “CRA,” in funny and smart roles.
- John Cho, the actor who’s been in support roles from “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” to the “Star Trek” films, was the subject of a terrific hashtag meme, “#StarringJohnCho,” where his face was edited over famous white men’s roles in movie posters. This year, he was finally the lead of the cyber-thriller “Searching.”
- For years, Sandra Oh was one of the shining lights for AAPIs on the small screen, having appeared in several seasons of ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy.” I stopped watching the series after she left. This year, she hit the jackpot with a perfect role in the BBC series “Killing Eve,” as an American intelligence officer working in England who starts to track a woman serial killer. She was so good that she was nominated for an Emmy as lead actress, a first for an Asian American woman. She didn’t win, but she deserved to.
- Kelly Marie Tran, the newcomer who had a featured role in the latest “Star Wars” movie, was a delight because the franchise had stubbornly avoided AAPIs except as weirdly stereotyped alien bad guys and the occasional doomed starfighter pilot, and here she was as a fully-formed character with a feisty personality and a future in the final episode.
- Awkwafina, who was a blast of fresh air in “CRA” as well as “Ocean’s 8,” was recently a host on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” the first AAPI woman host for the show since Lucy Liu headlined it in 2000. In fact, Liu, who still holds her own as Watson on CBS’ “Elementary,” was the role model that inspired young Awkwafina to go into showbiz.
- Tamlyn Tomita is the timeless and dependable AAPI star who’s been in a slew of TV shows and movies (including “The Joy Luck Club” 25 years ago). She’s been terrific as a hospital administrator in Daniel Dae Kim’s powerful ABC medical drama “The Good Doctor,” which just started its second season.
- And finally, I’m in the middle of binge-watching “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” which showcases the talents of two fine actors, Ming-Na Wen and Chloe Bennett, in butt-kicking roles fighting evil-doers. With five seasons already available to stream on Netflix, and a mind-numbing 22 episodes per season, that’s a whole lot of bingeing!
Like I said at the start, I could be mistaken, but I sure hope I’m not. We might be looking at a golden era for AAPIs in mainstream pop culture!
Gil Asakawa is former P.C. Editorial Board Chair and author of “Being Japanese American” (Second Edition Stone Bridge Press, 2015). He blogs at www.nikkeiview.com.