In 2013, Asian Americans ruled in many areas of the entertainment industry and society in general. Bruno Mars (who’s half Filipino/Puerto Rican), had the second-best-selling album of the year with “Unorthodox Jukebox” (1.8 million, second only to Justin Timberlake’s “20/20 Experience”) with four Grammy nominations, including Song of the Year and Record of the Year for the irresistible “Locked Out of Heaven.”
In March, Kevin Tsujihara, became the CEO of Warner Brothers Entertainment, the first Asian American to head a major Hollywood movie studio. The Justin Lin-directed “Fast and Furious 6” opened to $120 million in its first weekend (a record for Universal Pictures), winding up the third-highest-grossing film of the year.
Nina Davuluri became the first Asian Indian Miss America, and, predictably, was subjected to racist tweets from people assuming she wasn’t American in the first place to others branding her an “Arab terrorist.”
Further along the lines of the “some things never change” department: Oakland’s KTVU was embarrassed when it aired fake names of the pilots of the tragic Asiana Airlines flight that crashed in San Francisco.
“Emperor,” about a general who goes to Japan after the country’s surrender in World War II to decide the emperor’s culpability for war crimes, included a fictitious white male/Asian female romance. Thankfully, it flopped.
With Hollywood seeking to exploit the ever-increasing Chinese market, many films added Asian characters to cater to the powers-that-be. The addition of two Chinese actors to the China version of “Iron Man 3” was reportedly superficial — even laughable — but “pleasing the Chinese” did give Justin Chon the chance to be the focus of the “boys night out” film “21 and Over.”
Also, perhaps not to offend the Chinese, the Mandarin — who looked like Fu Manchu in the Marvel Comics of the ’60s and ’70s — was played by the decidedly non-Chinese-looking Ben Kingsley in “Iron Man 3” and as a weak baddie at that.
In February, Sung Kang (“Fast and Furious”) was second-billed to Sylvester Stallone in “Bullet to the Head,” but the $55 million film opened to weak $4.5 million, making it Stallone’s lowest opener in 32 years! Luckily, since Stallone’s face and name dominated movie posters, Kang wasn’t blamed for it.
Ken Jeong’s presence increased to its highest level in “Hangover 3,” and the former doctor signed a production deal with NBC to create and produce a show based on his life in which he would star.
On television, Lucy Liu continued to co-star as Watson in “Elementary,” In the fall, Maggie Q came back for only six episodes to complete her “Nikita” run. “Mindy Project” became only the second television series starring an Asian to get a second season (after Sammo Hung’s “Martial Law”).
Han Lee continued to endure short/emasculating barbs from the two waitress he employs on “2 Broke Girls.” On the summer series “Mistresses,” Yunjin Kim (second-billed to Alyssa Milano) had an affair with her patient (John Schneider) then after he died, his son (I think — I had to stop watching before that happened)!
Ming-Na, though credited second on “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” seemed to get the least amount of screen time of the six regulars. Chinese immigrants and Americans demonstrated in 23 cities after a 6-year-old brat suggested on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” that, in order to get out of our debt to the Chinese, we should “kill all the people in China.”
Here, in chronological order, is my take on some of the media issues, people, and events that affected Asian Americans in the past 12 months.
January: You Call Yourself Journalists?/Contributing to an Even Dumber America Award to People Magazine for furthering the “legitimacy” of the “relationship” between a naïve Samoan football player and a woman he corresponded with — but never met — by saying “they only dated seriously since last April.” Apparently, in order to “date” someone, the magazine believes you no longer first have to meet.
Arigato Award to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for rejecting the awful and offensive yellow-facing in “Cloud Atlas” by refusing to nominate the movie for Best Make-up. MANAA’s press release decrying the hypocrisy over rampant yellowface yet no blackface remained the fifth- or sixth-most-read article on HollywoodReporter.com for two days. Maybe it helped sway opinion?
February: Inter-Species Couple of the Year Award to Reggie Jackson (Tim Jo) and Giselle (Lora Plattner), who made the cutest pair on “The Neighbors” as they tried to make Amber (Clara Mamet), the real object of Reggie’s desire, jealous. Even after the producers put Reggie and Amber together, they introduced yet another white girl to fight over him — Jane (Megan Park).
March: Exclusionary Award to director Antoine Fuqua for not including one Asian American face in his film “Olympus Has Fallen,” which was filled with scary North Korean terrorists led by Rick Yune. The African American director made sure blacks were prominently featured, however, including the head of the Secret Service (Angela Bassett), the speaker of the House who then becomes president after the kidnapping of both the president and vice president (Morgan Freeman), and to gain our sympathy, a black baby wheeled into the emergency room.
May: What Were You Thinking? Award to senior producer Ted Lin, who supervised the annoying L.A. city-funded “Geisha” video featuring a Latino man in geisha make-up, white-face, and stereotyped voice. After outcry from MANAA and the Japanese American National Museum, the city apologized and pulled the video.
White-Washed Award to the producers of “Star Trek: Into Darkness” for giving the Asian Indian role of Khan Noonien Singh to the pasty-skinned, cold-looking white guy Benedict Cumberbatch. Khaaaaaan!
Dancing on Your Creative/Commercial Grave Award to director M. Night Shyamalan, whose “After Earth” (which cost $130 million) starring Jaden Smith — the most hated kid in Hollywood — and Will Smith only grossed $60 million in the U.S. Sony was so afraid of his radioactive name that, bucking standard practice, they did not open their trailers with “From the director of…” Anyone who purposely got the ethnic (read: Asian) casting wrong on “The Last Airbender” deserves all the jeers he can get.
July & August: Arigato II Award to Julie Chen for using her show “The Talk” to discuss how offended she was by the racist things “Big Brother” contestant Aaryn Gries said on the reality show, then later asked the model hard-hitting questions when she was voted out of the house and subjected to loud boos and groans from the audience.
White Male Fantasy Award to the writers of “Wolverine.” The title character woke up to find not one but two Japanese women looking at him with concern if he was all right. Awww…! Typically, every Japanese man in the movie was a villain.
How Do You Sleep at Night? Award to Quentin Lee, producer of “Chink,” who admitted to me in a meeting that he purposely chose the provocative title hoping the controversy would bring attention to his film about a Chinese American serial killer. Not enough. It deservedly flopped.
August: Bachi ga Ataru!/Liars! Award to Day Above Ground for reinforcing hateful stereotypes in their music video for “Asian Girlz,” promising to take it down… then continually delaying when that would happen, hoping to use the attention to promote a second video for another song… which no one paid attention to.
September: Racist Bastards Award to Fox and the producers of “Dads” for airing one of the most racist pilots in memory. If any other group (gay, Jewish, black, etc.) had been the target of so many hateful jokes in a single episode, it wouldn’t have aired. Goes to show despite some strides forward, some things never change. The low-rated sitcom will be pulled from the schedule in February.
You Call Yourself a Reporter? Award to Greg Braxton, who regularly quoted MANAA in The L.A. Times until the group’s letter in 2007 asserted his blind spots in focusing mainly on black perspectives to the absence of the Asian American one (suspiciously, he hadn’t named the group in even one article since). When he begrudgingly had to report on MANAA’s request that Fox re-shoot scenes from the “Dads” pilot, he refused to name the organization, only calling it an “Asian American watchdog group.” His editor, John Corrigan, defended him and refused to look at evidence proving Braxton’s obvious, unprofessional grudge.
Real Reporter Award to KTLA’s Frank Buckley, who pointed out to in-studio guest Brenda Song that Alec Sulkin, one of the two executive producers of “Dads,” had sent out a tweet the day of the Japanese tsunami in 2011 saying if people felt bad about it, to Google “Pearl Harbor death toll,” which made Song so nervous she suddenly began speeding up as she continued spouting well-rehearsed cliches that the show was an equal-opportunity offender.
October: Stop Him Before He Hurts Our Ears Again! Award to songwriter/producer Patrice Wilson. “Fridays” was irritating enough. You love Chinese food? Next time, keep it to yourself!
November: Racist Bully Award to “Holland’s Got Talent” judge Gordon Heuckeroth for continually harassing a Chinese opera singer with food jokes and changing his R’s to L’s, then refusing to apologize. If anyone should get the hook, it’s him.
Knee-Jerk Reactionary Award to those who called Katy Perry dressing in a kimono on the American Music Awards “yellowface” (when she didn’t even put on white make-up, let alone try to make her eyes look Asian) then made the leap in logic that just because the song she performed was called “Unconditionally” she had to be stereotyping subservient Japanese women (read the lyrics!). Some went on and on trying to link this to hate crimes and Vincent Chin. Embarrassing.
December: Temporary Redemption Award to executive producer Peter Lenkov for co-writing the deeply moving Dec. 13 episode of “Hawaii Five-O” — the best in the show’s three and a half seasons — which focused on the internment camps of Hawaii. One of my favorite scenes: David Toriyama (James Saito) returning to the Honouliuli camp grounds and asking, “Listen. Can you hear my mother crying? I still can…” Haunting. The writers and Saito should get Emmy nominations.
General: Self-Loathing Asian Award to Mindy Kaling for enforcing a “white-only” dating policy on her show “The Mindy Project.”
Inspiration Award to Larry Ramos for being one of the earliest Asian American stars on records and television through the New Christy Minstrels and the Association (which he’s led since 1984)
Once again, thanks for your support of this column. If you’re interested in trying to improve the media depiction of Asian Americans, please come to MANAA’s monthly meetings on the third Thursday of each month in Chinatown. Call (213) 486-4433 for more info or email [email protected].
Here’s to 2014 being a better year for Asian Americans in the media. ’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.