On June 2 and 3, I had lunch with two very interesting and different people — actor Jason Scott Lee (whom I was finally meeting for the first time over 20 years after MANAA gave him its first media award in 1993) and an activist in Australia whom I met through Facebook, respectively.
Erin Chew, a media and civil rights activist from Sydney, Australia, was coming to the States for four months, and I was hoping to meet up with her because I wanted to know what it was like growing up a minority in another country. As if she read my mind, Chew emailed me asking if I had time to get together, as she had followed my work for years.
During a three-hour lunch in Glendale, I learned about a land that sounded vaguely familiar, yet at times seemed to exist in an alternate reality, the kind I read about in comic books or saw in films.
Although the land “Down Under” — best known for kangaroos, boomerangs, and raising Olivia Newton-John and the Bee Gees — is almost as large as the contiguous United States, its population is only 24 million to our 324 million. They have an ABC network, but it’s the Australian Broadcasting Company, not the American Broadcasting Company. And ABCs are not American-born Chinese but Australian-born Chinese.
Chew’s Chinese parents emigrated from Malaysia. And though she was born and raised in Sydney, she couldn’t escape her Chinese visage. She had no friends in school. So in 1988 at the age of five, when a bunch of kids said they were willing to play with her, she followed them, only to be tied to a tree where they threw stones at her, breaking two ribs. The principal asked Chew not to tell her parents, saying she would instead. But the “responsible” administrator didn’t, so Chew’s parents didn’t know about the attack for a long time.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the parents of her classmates told her, “Go back to China, commie!” By the time she was 10, Chew told her parents she wanted to change her last name. From then on, she thought of herself as white until the age of 24 when a white man less qualified than her was promoted at work. Chew looked at herself in the mirror, realized she was Chinese, and decided to no longer be in denial about it.
In 2013, she founded the Asian Australian Alliance to support AA-related causes and issues. Unfortunately, one of the effects of internalized racism is that Asians in Australia compete for their small piece of the pie, wary of each other. Even in an advocacy group dedicated to bettering the lives of people of all Asian backgrounds, Chew told me they couldn’t have a hierarchical structure with a president or chair, as Indians wouldn’t trust a Chinese person to represent their issues, and vice versa. So its 30 members are all “conveners” of equal stature.
Now at 33, she feels that sensitivity toward minorities is an uphill battle because unlike the United States, there was no civil rights movement in Australia. Blacks (who make up only 1.6 percent of the country’s population as there was no slavery, and they only began arriving in large numbers in the 1990s!) didn’t protest in the streets demanding equal rights and treatment, which inspired other ethnic groups here. And the Aborigines were rather passive.
According to Wikipedia, 8 percent of Australia is Asian (mostly Chinese, Indian, Filipino and Vietnamese), and Chew predicts that will jump to between 11 to 15 percent when the next numbers come out. In either case, proportionally, there are more Asians in Australia than the 6 percent in the United States. But about 90 percent of the country is white.
So it’s still common today for the average Aussie to make racial barbs at Chew in public. To her credit, though, she has made a name for herself in the Australian media, which regularly solicits her opinion on racial issues affecting Asian Australians. So there’s hope — at least in my eyes — that the country as a whole can become more enlightened in how it thinks of and treats minorities.
Recently, the AAA protested a segment on a sports television program, “The Footy Show,” hosted by former rugby players. Beau Ryan saw a Chinese Australian outside an optometrist’s office taking a picture of some dogs. He asked her, “Picking out which one for dinner?!” (Sound familiar?) The studio audience laughed, and the show put the segment on Twitter until enough people protested it as racist and stereotyped.
The AAA asked the show’s sponsors to drop their advertising, and the executive producer issued an apology.
Based on some of the recent essays she’s written on YOMYOMF.com (You Offend Me, You Offend My Family), where she swore up a storm, I thought every other sentence coming out of Chew’s mouth would be an expletive. But I don’t remember her uttering one the entire time we spoke. Given the traumatic experiences she’s faced in her home country, it’s amazing how calm and level-headed she appears.
She’s hoping to attend tonight’s MANAA meeting, and I hope she can get some more encouragement by the success we’ve been having in pushing media issues that help to balance the playing field for Asian Americans. And the fact that we trust each other to take on each other’s issues, no matter our individual ethnicities.
About Time! Department: When MANAA gave Jason Scott Lee its first Media Achievement Award for 1993’s “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” he was unable to attend, so he sent his brother Steve in his stead.
Lee was 20 years ahead of his time. A month before that film was released, he starred in “Map of the Human Heart,” one of the 10 best films of the year according to both critics Siskel and Ebert, where Lee played an Eskimo who wound up with his childhood sweetheart who was French/Indian.
The following year, he starred as Mowgli in “The Jungle Book” and as an Easter Islander in “Rapa Nui.” In each and every case, he got the girl. Unheard of!
His Chinese/Hawaiian ancestry allowed him to play people of different races, but even that wasn’t enough to maintain his movie career. After he co-starred (and fought) with Kurt Russell in the big-budget 1998 flop “Soldier,” Lee seemed to disappear to his farm in Volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii, where he befriended a neighbor, my father, Herbert Aoki.
Lee and I first spoke by phone in early 2010 when I was trying to assess his interest in getting back into the business (he was), so I pitched him to the head of casting at CBS, trying to find him a regular role on the soon-to-be rebooted “Hawaii Five-O.” When Lee was instead cast as a cop killer, I hit the roof, which led to a special meeting with CBS executives about how to use Asian Pacific Islanders in positive roles on the notoriously whitewashed series (they flew out to Honolulu to hold auditions and a headshot workshop for locals).
I knew the actor was going to be in town for the Los Angeles Comic Book and Science Fiction Convention (which I regularly attend), along with Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon, whom I hadn’t seen since the 1993 awards dinner. So I contacted Jason and luckily, he had time for lunch a few days before the event. At the convention, it was great to see Jason’s brother Steve again and take a picture with Jason and Shannon, together “for the first time.”
Jason, who hasn’t aged a bit, used the opportunity of being in L.A. to make the Hollywood rounds, soliciting interest in a potential TV series he was writing, realizing he had to take the bull by the horns and not wait for Hollywood to provide him with material.
To read my 2010 column on Jason Scott Lee, where I interviewed him about aspects of his career, click here: www.rafu.com/2010/12/itns_jason-scott-lee/
What?! What’s That You’re Saying? Department: Despite my hatred for sellout M. Night Shyamalan (“Last Airbender,” don’tcha know?), I had to admit I loved the television series he executive-produced last summer, the scary “Wayward Pines.” It’s back for a second season (Wednesday nights on Fox) with a mostly new cast. The star, replacing Matt Dillon, is Jason Patric, who doesn’t show enough emotion for a doctor who realizes he was kidnapped (SPOILER ALERT!), is over 2,000 years in the future, and everyone he knew is dead except for his estranged wife played by boring Indian actress Nimrat Kaur. Though she’s pleasant to look at, I can barely understand a word she says. Her accent makes it too hard to decipher and in other moments, she mumbles. Together, they make for one boring couple. Bah!
’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.