14 Asian American Stars Recall When They First Felt Represented in TV and Movies
By Philiana Ng
It often only takes one formative, life-changing performance on a TV show or a movie where everything clicks, especially when it comes to representation onscreen: "That's me." "That's my story." "They look like my family!"
In celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we asked some of today's top Asian American entertainers to dig deep into their memory banks and tell us the first time they felt represented in mainstream Hollywood culture -- and they took the question and ran with it.
From Brenda Song's Suite Life of Zack and Cody character anda Disney classic, Mulan, to Sandra Oh in Sideways and Lara Jean in To All the Boys I've Loved Before, the answers were as varied as ever.
Here are what stars like Lana Condor, Chloe Bennet, Keiko Agena, Tamlyn Tomita, director Jon M. Chu and more told ET about the first time they felt represented in media.
Actress, Gilmore Girls and Prodigal Son
There must have been something before, but Lucy Liu in Ally McBeal. Not that she was like me, but she was an Asian person. She was very memorable. When I grew up, I didn't even think to look for an Asian person because there were none, so I just related to all the white characters. I grew up in Hawaii, so whatever character I saw, I attached myself to that storyline because I had to. It wasn't until Fresh Off the Boat -- and I'm a full-on adult at this time -- but I remember when that show came out thinking, "Oh please, dear God, let this be a good show," and it was funny and I was so proud and so nervous, and that was huge. And when Crazy Rich Asians came out and how people gravitated to that movie and watching those women dominate the red carpet for a little while, that gave me a thrill. That's so recent, which is sad in a way, but that was different than anything that had come before.
Actor, Never Have I Ever
Well, it's funny because I've always been the guy where people can't really pinpoint what I am. So I can't ever say I've been put into a box of being an Asian American. I have sometimes when people know about it, especially when I first moved to Florida. There was nobody with my ethnicity in my neighborhood, so I was very much put into a box of my own. This may sound super dumb, but when I was a kid, I was a huge fan of the movie Johnny Tsunami, which was a Disney Channel movie. I remember he had a Hawaiian father and a Caucasian mother, and I was like, "Oh my God, that's me!" And then he moved to Wyoming, where there's nobody that's his ethnic makeup and totally put into a box. I always identified with that one when I was a kid.
Actress, Marvel's Agents of SHIELD
Mulan. Which was kind of ironic, because I ended up working with Mulan herself for seven years. That was the only Disney movie I saw growing up -- that and The Lion King. I had literally zero Asian characters that I saw myself in when I was a child, and a lot of that affected the way that I thought. You know, you think that you're not good enough to be certain things, or you'll never get to be on the cover of a magazine... It really affects what you think you can and cannot do. It's been such an honor [on Marvel's Agents ofSHIELD] to meet so many young girls and boys across the country and have the storyline and the character affect how they see themselves and what they seen in themselves. For me, it was Mulan, and then, it was a very cyclical, satisfying ending for me to get cast as a superhero alongside Mulan herself. That's very cool.
JON M. CHU
Director, Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights
I don’t remember the exact first time I felt represented onscreen but I distinctly remember being so psyched to see Dante Basco in Hook play Rufio because he was the badass motherf****er I was waiting to play on the playground with my friends. He was strong, confident, funny and the leader. I didn’t fully understand why I was so drawn to him, but looking back, there was a sense of pride that someone who looked like me could be the hero. This, no doubt, gave me confidence as well that if Steven Spielberg could see me as this cool, rebel lost (and complicated) boy then I, too, could be anything I wanted to be.
Actress, Good Trouble
Mulan! I wanted a baby dragon more than anything. Even though it was animated, it was a story I could truly relate to. It meant the world to me because I always felt like a fish out of water, trying to find myself but also trying to stay true to who I'm supposed to be. Now I live to shatter barriers and prove stereotypes wrong, which is exactly what Mulan did. I think every Asian girl has a warrior inside of them because of her. Looking back, it's super cool that Disney brought Chinese culture into the mainstream -- but aside from Mulan and Ross' short-term girlfriend, Julie, on Friends, I hardly felt seen as a kid. I remember seeing Margaret Cho's stand-up later on, and I was blown away at how unapologetic and out-of-the-box she was. Even then, there was still a lack of representation. Let's just say it took a while for our reflection to actually show (on the screen) and we still have so much work to do. We're on our way! There's been some progress in the last couple of years, but now that my community has gotten a taste, we're hungrier than ever.
Actress, To All the Boys I've Loved Before
I’m trying to think back to the first time I saw myself represented onscreen, and I honestly think it was Brenda Song in Suite Life of Zack and Cody on Disney Channel. It’s hard to remember exactly how I felt when I watched that show as a child and what it meant to me to see someone like me up there. But I do think as a child, I felt simply happy that there was someone up on the screen who looked like me, and that made me feel more normal in school -- my brother and I were the only Asian kids in our primary school. But I also remember feeling a little awkward because her character was so silly, and I would think to myself, “But I’m not dumb!” Of course, now, I know that that was the point of her character, to provide the comedy.
Actress, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
When I was growing up, it felt like Lucy Liu and Sandra Oh were my two beacons of hope. When I first expressed to my mother that I might want to be an actor, I remember her saying that there was no way I could do that because, "Look at the screen, there’s nobody that looks like you.” Though some may say this was a very “tiger mom” thing to say, I’d push back and actually say that the truth of the matter is, she was not wrong. I followed everything that Lucy and Sandra did because they were living proof that it must be possible. Sideways felt like rocket fuel for my dreams of having a life in the arts. I’ve had the wild and humbling pleasure of working with both of them over the last years on small projects in theater, and they are just as fierce and trailblazing as I imagined them to be. It is never lost on me how hard the two of them and all those who came before me had to work in order for us to reach this small milestone in visibility that we are just beginning to see.
I had a Mulan kindergarten-themed party. I was all about her. I was a daddy's girl, for sure. I can't wait to see Mulan, the movie that they've done which is an adaptation and different. But just the trailer makes me cry every single time. I'm so connected to Mulan. And I think as I went on, Sandra Oh was definitely somebody who I was like, Oh, she's got this stuff. She's got that anger and emotionality, she's full. She's a bottle rocket and I felt really similar to that I feel like. That's how I feel and actually how I look. That was secondary. But yeah, Mulan was so, so awesome because I was very young. When it came out, it was the first time anyone in my class thought something that looked like me was cool.
Honestly, I remember Brenda Song so much on Disney. I remember being like, "Oh, my gosh, she's so cool and funny and outspoken." I think it was Suite Life of Zack and Cody, and I was like, I just love this woman so much. She enjoys getting dolled up and being cool and doesn't really care what people think about her. Like, this girl is everything I want to be. And then as I started watching more film, I absolutely fell in love with Joan Chen. I was like, "One day when I get to be an actress, I hope I get to have the range that she does." Joan is just full of class and just stunning from The Last Emperor to Saving Face. When I met her on Tigertail, it's the only time I've ever been starstruck. And she was just as magnetic in person as she was onscreen.
The first time I saw anything onscreen that remotely resembled myself was The Last Emperor. I don’t think I understood fully what was happening, but when I think upon it now, I realize that I must have been hit viscerally in the gut by that film, because I watched all of the credits, then quietly went into the bathroom, closed the door and sobbed. John Lone’s performance alone was a masterpiece, yet the film showed me a piece of my own culture that I felt reflected my own experience as an immigrant in America. That once you start over in a new place, who you once were can be forgotten.
KATRINA LAW Actress, Hawaii Five-0, Spartacus and Arrow
The Joy Luck Club was the first time I saw my family’s story portrayed onscreen. I experienced my mother’s journey as an Asian immigrant and I recognized my own struggle to be a good daughter while balancing two cultures. I remember watching it with my mother beside me and she never looked away. It was as though she finally found something that understood what "home" meant to her and was telling her story for her. I remember seeing my mother in a new light after watching The Joy Luck Club. It allowed me to have a deeper connection with my mother and understand the parts of her life she was taught never to speak about. Another movie that provided inspiration was Chicago and Lucy Liu’s portrayal of Kitty Baxter. It was a delightful surprise to see an Asian woman amongst the cast. It gave me hope that Hollywood was changing in a positive way in regard to representation and inclusion.
Actress, Nancy Drew and The Half of It
When I was younger, I grew up watching The Suite Life of Zack and Cody. I remember watching Brenda Song be London Tipton and I never really made the correlation of the two, like, "Wow, she's Asian and I'm Asian." But I just remember growing up and really, really enjoying that character. The character that I was really, really able to envision myself one day playing the lead or playing that kind of character was, honestly, Lana Condor in To All the Boys I've Loved Before. Even though that was recent, I've watched a lot of movies with Asian leads and thought, "Awesome," but this one specifically, a teenage full-Asian-looking lead who is considered beautiful and is being fawned over by boys. She's adorable, quirky, lovable and everything that I've wanted to play in my life and as an actress in my career. That was the first time I really noticed thoughts of that circulating in my brain. This was just two years ago, but it was that movie. It's so funny and ironic, because I remember watching that and being like, "How does one become the lead of a Netflix film? How does one land a role that is written about Asians in a Netflix film? How does this happen?" Then The Half of It popped up and I was like, "Oh, is God speaking to me? My goodness." I'm sure so many other Asian women felt that way when the script landed into their inboxes. I just love that that was the movie that even sparked that actual, realistic goal in my mind for me.
Actress, The Joy Luck Club, The Karate Kid Part II and Star Trek: Picard
The first time I saw a character that resembled me was Kim Miyori in the excellent NBC series, St. Elsewhere, from the early '80s. Kim portrayed Dr. Wendy Armstrong, a doctor of Asian American descent whose stories did not revolve around her ethnic heritage. Other folks of other backgrounds (I think Denzel Washington came up at the same time) at St. Eligius Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, just trying to do their best work at their jobs as medical professionals. It was the first time I watched a show with an Asian American woman who did not have an accent, who didn't have to justify her presence, was not seen as a foreigner, in a non-period or historical dramatic television series was groundbreaking -- America was seeing a doctor who looked like me, talked like me, was schooled and acculturated like me -- just an all-American girl trying to do her best.
The other significant time I saw myself, or rather, my father, represented onscreen was with Pat Morita in a very short-lived ABC cop show in the mid-'80s, Ohara, where Pat played a Los Angeles Police Department Japanese-American detective solving crimes. And that is who my father truly was. A running joke was that Ohara would be pronounced as if it was an Irish last name, but he would constantly correct it to the Japanese pronunciation. I remember having the feeling that seeing these characters on TV would show people that folks who look like us are American, too.
JIMMY O. YANG
Actor and comedian, Crazy Rich Asians and Jimmy O. Yang: Good Deal
When I was in high school, my dad and I would gather around the TV every Saturday night at 11 p.m. -- not to watch the institution of Saturday Night Live but to catch a new episode of our favorite show, MadTV. We've always chosen MadTV over SNL because it featured Bobby Lee, an Asian brother who made us laugh out loud. Every time Bobby showed up in a sketch, we cheered as if he was part of our family. It was a special moment to see that representation in comedy. Then my dad subscribed to NBA League Pass for the first time in our family history. This frivolous $160-a-year subscription is quite out of character for our typical Asian family who is always hunting for a bargain deal. But that year, Yao Ming was drafted No. 1 to the Houston Rockets, and we had to watch every single Yao Ming game. Yao became a religion in most Chinese families because we saw ourselves represented for the first time in this physically dominating sport of basketball. Even though none of us were seven feet tall, it was empowering. Yao felt like family, and we were excited to be proud of him.
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, Meredith B. Kile and Stacy Lambe contributed to this story.
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