From The Joy Luck Club to Better Luck Tomorrow to Avatar: The Last Airbender, there have been a slew of iconic works over the years that have highlighted or redefined the Asian American experience in impactful ways and have remained a large part of the pop culture lexicon.
In celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we asked some of today's top Asian American entertainers to answer the following question: What is a film, TV show or book that opened your eyes to the Asian experience or conveyed what was possible? A tough task, to be sure, but they were up for the challenge.
Here are the movies, TV shows and books that 11 Asian American stars, from To All the Boys I've Loved Before's Lana Condorto Gilmore Girls' Keiko Agena to The Half of It director Alice Wu, recommend you add to your queues and reading lists.
She's a friend of mine and she's written a lot recently, Sarah Kuhn. She just wrote I Love You So Mochi, which, Shin, my husband who's Japanese, [helped with a little]. She had some questions about that whole experience and he was able to help her a little bit just from his knowledge. If people want to look her up, there’s a ton of things she's working on right now.
JON M. CHU
Director, Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights
Better Luck Tomorrow made me see the light. I was a sophomore in college and went to the Sundance Film Festival where Justin Lin and his crew were at premiering the movie. I stood in line for hours to get in and witnessed the infamous debate that happened in the Q&A afterwards between a random audience member questioning the intention of the piece and Roger Ebert who was defending it. It had a profound effect on conversations that a movie had the power to start. Everyone should see this movie and experience the bold confidence of it’s portrait of these Asian Americans, which I think shook a lot of people’s ideas of what we are/supposed to be.
Actress, Good Trouble
My homegirl recently influenced me to dive deeper into my Asian roots, aka watch Avatar: The Last Airbender. I can't get enough! It's cute, mystical, action-packed, deep AF and most importantly, it has characters that look like me. Listen, I'm familiar with Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, etc., but I can't believe it took me 30 years to fully realize how dope anime is. I also watched Spirited Away, which was incredible. Anime breaks all the rules and has an "anything is possible" vibe. Highly recommend.
I read Joy Luck Club in high school, and it was so incredible! I couldn’t believe that it was assigned as necessary reading, and I was so overjoyed by that because it meant my new high school was actively trying to give us a diverse, well-rounded education. I loved how the school celebrated that book and how much care and attention was put into reading and analyzing it. It made me feel so proud. I know I am biased, but I also genuinely learned so much from reading and acting out To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Jenny Han honestly opened up my eyes so much about the beautiful Korean culture, and I’m beyond grateful.
Actress, The Boys
This was a difficult question to answer because the “Asian experience” is super complex and subjective. Although many period pieces have been done, I don’t think modern Japanese culture has been given the light it deserves in Hollywood. In my case, growing up, my aunt used to send my family videotapes of recorded movies and TV shows from Japan. Watching these tapes helped me connect to the culture. Growing up, I was exposed to the same values that native Japanese people are born into. This included the entire Miyazaki animated movies collection, Sailor Moon, Pokémon, comedians like Gori, time-travel dramas like Jin, doctor dramas like Iryu and cop procedurals like Aibo.
Actress, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
I just listened to the unedited episode of Krista Tippett’s On Being podcast with Ocean Vuong, author of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, and it made me feel... all the feelings. Highly recommend!
One hundred percent Ali Wong's book [Dear Girls], her letters to her girls. It's such a fun read, and hearing her come up in the comedy scene and what that was like in San Francisco and New York as one of the few Asian women and doing her specials while she was pregnant, it's so eye-opening [for] anybody who's starting out. I wish this book existed when I first started auditioning and was nervous to come out into this world and to fail. It's a book that allows you to fail and laugh at your mistakes and just gives you hope. It's so funny and charming and wonderful and talks about Asian food -- and that just makes me happy -- so, definitely add that to your queue, because it's a fucking ball.
I’m just starting a book called Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong and it’s the first time I’ve read a book where I can’t believe someone is saying all these things I’ve unconsciously felt or whispered to myself in private. You really tussle with the voices that pop in your head of what feels real or imagined when you face discrimination or the uncomfortable feeling of constantly questioning your value. I used to think it was a result of just having come from a dysfunctional family, but when you see the experience being named by someone else, it allows you some relief that it’s not just you. I love how Hong’s very personal voice breaks through a complex and dense exploration around identity.
Actress, The Joy Luck Club, The Karate Kid Part II and Star Trek: Picard
The question is too huge to answer with one film, TV show or book. What we as a nation are experiencing right now is the benefit of all the decades of hard work in advocating for Asian and Asian American stories. It is a joyous thing to be able to flip the channels on TV and see Mindy Kaling's Never Have I Ever, Alice Wu's The Half of It, Alan Yang's Tigertail, watch Darren Criss and Michelle Krusiec kick it on Hollywood, to witness over 100 episodes of Fresh Off the Boat and to anticipate the release of Mulan. There is a wide and expansive universe depicting the Asian American experience: the rise of the Asian American movement, the continuing struggles against racism and prejudice (call any racist s**t out!), the celebration of the diversity of culture and traditions, the contributions and accomplishments of Asian Americans in America, etc. I wish there was a book that could be the start of learning Everything You Need to Know About Asian American History. Oh, wait! There is!
Director, The Half of It
I'd say The Wedding Banquet. It resonated for me as an American film where the Asian characters felt like they were just living their lives as people. The fact that they were Asian and Asian American fed into who they were, yet was not their defining quality. Their desires to pay rent, find love, make their parents proud -- the basic desires of any character -- made them feel like real people. I loved it.
Actor, Fresh Off the Boat
My dad just got me Jimmy Wong's new cookbook The Feast of Fiction Kitchen, which is based on his YouTube channel where he makes real food based on dishes from comic books, movies, video games and stories. It's funny because I had a similar idea for a show. It was called Animenu and it was about bringing animated food scenes from movies and cartoons to life, so when I saw Jimmy's channel, I was obsessed with it. It reminded me that there are so many talented Asian Americans bringing their dreams to life on their own on places like YouTube. And now Jimmy's in Mulan!
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the U.S., which celebrates the contributions and influences of the Asian community. To capture the current state of representation in entertainment, ET Online will be spotlighting Asian performers and projects all month long.
John Boone contributed to this story.
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