INTO THE NEXT STAGE: What? Filipinos on Television?!

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AOKI-GUY-color1By GUY AOKI

They’re the second-largest Asian group in the United States — four million. Yet how many times can you remember seeing a clearly defined Filipino character on television or film?

Even though there’ve been actors like Liza Lapira and Tia Carrere, many are mixed-race and either played characters with vague ethnicities or other races (e.g., on the much reviled sitcom “Dads,” Vanessa Minnillo Lachey plays a Colombian!). And as much as I’ve asked the networks to at least cast Filipinos as nurses — reflecting their over-representation in that occupation — I can’t recall ever seeing any.

So on last week’s episode of “Grimm,” it was funny hearing a couple speaking with Filipino accents! The man flirts with his pregnant wife and goes to the drug store. She sleeps in their bed, then from an open window, a tentacle reaches under the covers and into her protruding stomach. She tries to fight back, and the creature, jumping onto the ceiling, escapes.

For the first time in a long time, this episode focused on Sgt. Wu (Reggie Lee), because he’s been childhood friends with the woman — Dana (Tess Paras) — since they grew up in the Philippines. Wu also knows her husband Sam (Alain Uy), but because Wu and Dana were an item a few years ago, Sam’s jealous of their friendship.

This was the first mention of Wu’s background. Given his last name, we just assumed he was Chinese and in the show, he may still be; just because he grew up in the Philippines doesn’t mean he’s Filipino. See what I’m saying? Here we could have another (part) Filipino actor playing another race!

Heck, this was the first time they actually gave the poor guy a first name!  Turns out its Drew. Drew Wu? A name that rhymes? Oh boy…

Lee, who is Filipino/Chinese, said the producers of “Grimm” asked him if he knew of any Filipino folklore that might be appropriate for the show. He gave them a list of three, and they chose the Aswang, which feeds on unborn babies when they are fetuses (yuck!). In the episode, it turns out Sam was the creature that attacked his own wife. He was under pressure from his dying mother, who needs to eat the first-born in order to survive (she reasons with him that they’ll have other babies! Gee, no wonder they called this episode “Mommy Dearest!”).

In the beginning of the series, Nick (star David Giuntoli) kept his knowledge of the various humans-that-turn into-monsters (called Wesen) that crop up weekly in Portland a secret from everyone on the police force. But after his partner Hank (Russell Hornsby) came across one of them and was shaken by it, Nick realized he had to tell Hank such creations did exist or he’d lose his sanity. So it’s silly that when Nick and Hank discuss whether or not to let Wu into their little club, Nick insists they should not.

Sgt. Wu (Reggie Lee) reacts in horror when confronting the Aswang.

Sgt. Wu (Reggie Lee) reacts in horror when confronting the Aswang.

At the end of the episode, Sam’s mother becomes the creature, knocks out her own son, then tries to attack Dana. Wu struggles to fight her off but she has to be shot and killed by Nick. The monster then reverts to human form, and Wu’s traumatized by what he sees.

Instead of telling him then that he’s not crazy, Nick just says, “She’s safe!” So what happens? Wu ends up in the mental ward.

And the partners still don’t tell him!

Arrghgh. How long can they drag this out? In interviews, Lee says he’ll remain there for a few episodes. At least the writers are giving the guy something to do besides the usual give-the-preliminary-report-of-a-murder-to-the-two-main-detectives-then-let-them-solve-the-case.

A couple of seasons ago, Wu ate some magically tainted cookies and almost died. But hey, at least the audience was made to care for him! Negative attention, I know, but still…

Anyway, a gruesome episode to be sure — as many of these stories have been — but good acknowledgment of both Filipino culture and Filipino people. And there was also a nice scene where Wu visited a Filipino cousin at a Filipino restaurant, so all in all, it was a nice expansion of Wu’s identity and background.

By the way, Lee is the star of a film by Aki Aleong that has yet to be released, “Chinaman’s Chance: America’s Slaves,” about the struggles of Chinese railroad workers. He’s excellent in it. Lee will receive an award from East West Players at their annual dinner on April 28.

Kill Me Now Department: OK, after having to cast Asian Americans in the original roles of Chin Ho Kelly and Kono Kalakaua, the producers of the rebooted “Hawaii Five-O” did give the coroner role of Max Bergman to Masi Oka. However, there was a never-ending array of unofficial regulars that kept hanging out with the team.

Michelle Borth, Chi McBride, Jorqe Garcia

Michelle Borth, Chi McBride, Jorqe Garcia

First an ex-CIA agent (Larisa Oleynik), then a former FBI agent (Lauren German) and an assortment of white guest stars (Tom Sizemore, Terry O’Quinn, Jimmy Buffett, blah blah blah). Last year, Steve McGarrett’s girlfriend Catherine Rollins (Michelle Borth) was added to the opening credits with the familiar theme song. And this season, SWAT team captain Lou Grover (Chi McBride) was named a regular (though not added to the opening yet).

Now comes yet another addition: Jorge Garcia (Hurley from “Lost”). Now, I like Garcia, and it’s always nice to see former “Lost” cast members reunite with Daniel Dae Kim playing different characters. But come on. Enough is enough.

All this demonstrates is intentional disregard for the Asian Pacific Islanders who populate the 50th state. This show is increasingly looking like any other series that takes place on the mainland. A black regular? Where blacks make up a mere 3% of the state (it’s bad enough the governor’s also black)? A Latino regular where Latinos make up less than 8%? Compared to the 60% Asian Pacific Islander population?  Right.

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Executive Producer Peter Lenkov has been going out of his way to make viewers care about non-Asian characters and couldn’t care less about balancing the plethora of guest Asian bad guys with guest Asian good guys. And he’s doing his best to ensure the API regulars get lost in the mix as well. Do that on some other series that doesn’t take place in Hawaii. This must all be based on some uncharted ninth Hawaiian island or something.

In the most recent episode it was nice seeing another “Lost’ refugee, Francois Chau, at least attempting a Hawaiian pidgin accent, probably the first non-Hawaiian I can recall even trying. If a show took place in New York, wouldn’t non-New York actors “try to pass?” Why not here?

Corrections: In my last column, I mentioned the 2003 “Counterpunch” article Robert Payne wrote for MANAA in The Los Angeles Times. I said that after criticizing the producers of the second “Charlie’s Angels” movie for casting John Cleese as the biological father of Lucy Liu’s Alex Munday, he asked director McG to return the Media Achievement Award MANAA gave him two years before.

Payne showed me a copy of the article online and it had no mention of that. He said he didn’t even include it in a rough draft, though I swear we did as I gulped, realizing what a big statement we were making to a former awardee. I’m stumped, but I stand corrected.  Thanks, Robert.

Payne also pointed out that the 1984 Oscars wasn’t the only time two actors of Asian descent were up for acting awards. In 1958, Sessue Hayakawa (“The Bridge on the River Kwai”) and Miyoshi Umeki (she won for “Sayonara”), both Japanese nationals, were nominated for “Best Supporting” acting roles.

’Til next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

 

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3 Comments

  1. This guy sucks. EVERY stinking column is about Hawaii Five-0 and how many Asians are on it. Can’t Rafu find a reporter who leaves his house once in a while and finds something else to talk about?

  2. Pingback: Guy Aoki: Why Are There No Pinoys on TV?

  3. The author is correct: as soon as Asian actors become popular, TV producers water-down their roles by introducing an ever-expanding list of non-Asian cast members, or emphasize the roles of existing Caucasian and African cast members. The TV shows Heroes and Walking Dead are good examples; the movie Fast and Furious, with Sung Kang, is another example. Hollywood keeps saying that they can’t put Asians in prominent roles because audience members supposedly don’t want them, but the popularity of Masi Oka and Steve Yeun, as shown by message boards, shows that this isn’t true. In fact, the skill and talent of many of these actors is clear from the fact that they develop such popularity from non-Asian audiences, even when they have relatively small or supporting roles. John Cho and Steve Yeun always get catcalls when they appear on late night talk shows. But TV producers seem determined to pull back when actors like Masi Oka develop a following–it was never their intention to make these guys as prominent as their non-Asian counterparts, and when Asian actors do attain some popularity, the producers pull back. Masi Oka was such a popular, iconic character on Heroes, so I always wondered why they made the plot so darn complicated and involved a gazillion people, when they could have done the sure-fire thing and focused on Oka. In fact, the show was criticized for just that–an overly complex storyline with too many people–and that was its undoing. Strange that the TV producers would cut off their nose to spite the face, but they were willing to take that risk because Masi was becoming too big, and gee, can’t have that.

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