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The ABCs of AAPI: Honoring the Legacy of the Asian Diaspora in Western Entertainment

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Previously published on

This is the hardest piece I’ve written to date. Even the title is weighted to what can easily be a thesis. The initial idea, which was not of my own, was to write a piece that highlights 5-10 films and artists that honor Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) via the cast, director, etc. that you can stream from home. As we reach the middle of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, this is the piece we are using to honor the month. Well, naming and summarizing 5-10 films and artists isn’t gonna cut it. Not for me and the 24 million Americans that identify as AAPI.

As a biracial Black and first generation Filipina woman, the erasure of the AAPI experience and history is far too vast to be boiled down to a top 10 list. This piece is to highlight a bit more of our collective impact on western entertainment while giving a brief history lesson on our continued progress and legacy.

Tackling this topic will remain incomplete and is only a measure of my personal experience. I probably won’t even touch a fraction of what I’d like to. So yes, this is difficult to write about as not everyone nor everything will be mentioned, but this effort signifies that when given a chance, we shall continue to celebrate our ancestors, pioneers, and trailblazers.

Lesson One: In the title, the reference of ABC is to mean fundamentals… not American Born Chinese. IYKYK.

Alright everyone, welcome to my everything bagel.

Let’s start at the Golden Age of Hollywood: 1920s - 1960s.

Technicolor and talkies were the big boom in technology and going to the movies was today’s ‘social media’. For me, this was the height of the musical film genre. My MMH track record proves my love for musicals. As a dancer, it’s one of the only chances I get to see dance in film.

Flower Drum Song, released in 1961, at the tail-end of this era, is the first American film that highlighted a cast of Asian Americans about the Asian American experience in its contemporary period. We wouldn’t see this again for another 30 years.

The film follows Mei Li and her father who immigrate illegally from China to California’s Chinatown to seek out the family that she is betrothed to only to find out her husband-to-be, Sammy Fong, is with someone else. All ends well as Mei Li falls in love with Sammy’s brother-in-law, Wang Ta, and the couples have a double wedding.

However, my favorite character is Helen Chao; a seamstress and Wang Ta’s childhood friend, who also happens to be in love with Wang Ta. As ‘the help’ and born to the wrong social class, Helen is regarded as an inappropriate wife option. Throughout the film, Helen is often present for most fallacies between the couples, but ignored. After one of these fallacies, Helen helps her drunken friend and admits her unrequited love, in a dream ballet sequence, while he’s passed out.

Helen Chao’s Dream Ballet: Love, Look Away

What is particularly special about this film is its lack of white saviorism that is present in many of the other films like The King and I and The Jungle Book. Which I find ironic because the Golden Age of Hollywood came off the backs of 100+ years of Black and Brown bodies building this country.

The transcontinental iron road was predominantly built by Chinese and Asian immigrants sowing the lands of the West. Connecting the nation’s railroads was completed in May of 1869 earmarking this feat as a major contender for identifying AAPI Heritage month as May.

Unfortunately, this was shortly followed by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which lasted 10 years and then was renewed under the Geary Act until the 1900s. It wasn't until World War II, the 1940s, when China became an ally, that all Exclusion Acts were completely repealed. Which is well after Ellis Island had opened its doors at the turn of the century for preferred European Immigrants.

Flower Drum Song is a reminder of cooperation between nations and in good times highlights the gifts and identities immigrants bring to this nation. This film opened the door for Asian Americans to participate and have representation for generations to come.

Let’s keep in perspective that the 1960s was not too long ago. James Hong, who has over a legendary 650 film and television credits to his name, had a minor role in this historic film. At his current age of 93 Hong is still acting and has finally received his star on the Walk of Fame! Hong single-handedly made sure that his face was present with any opportunity to keep the doors open for those following in his footsteps.

The Joy Luck Club: The film charged with uniting a generation of Asian Americans.

Like I said, it’d be 30 years until we have another Asian family take center stage. It would only happen one more time 25 years later. On the coattails of the Vietnam War, the AAPI community needed an outlet.

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan was published in 1989 and was followed by the film of the same title in 1993. This story follows the lives of four elderly Chinese immigrant women who meet regularly for a game of mahjong who often converse about their relationships with their adult daughters of Asian American heritage. We go on a journey unfolding each elder’s story as they presently navigate the fray of differing cultural assimilation of their own experiences from their American-born daughters.

Tan has stated that this narrative is loosely autobiographical. In the film we follow June, Suyuan’s daughter, who Tan has depicted as herself. Stubborn and often rebellious, but loves her family deeply. On Netflix you can watch Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir, which goes behind the scenes and discusses the book, film, and the fame Tan received for sharing her story with the world.

At the time Ming-Na Wen, who plays June, was relatively unknown. Little did we know that she would become an icon with her roles as Mulan; Melinda May in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; Fennec Shand in the Star Wars franchise; and Chung-Li in Street Fighter.

Take it as you will, but this singular film molded the images (good and bad), and the expectations and assumptions in how Asian Americans can participate in Western society for the second half of the 20th century. Particularly with the stereotype as ‘foreigners’.

By the early 90s the ‘model minority myth’ was deemed our signature identity. But in reality it’s just racism rearing its ugly head. The model minority myth supports the idea that people with Asian heritage are the most well-behaved, hard-working, with a submissive demeanor of all the non-white minority groups. It’s more like, ‘if you keep your mouth shut, we’ll leave you alone… not help, but we won’t bother you’.

This brings us to ‘Yellow Peril’. A term coined alongside the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 1880s. Yellow Peril was to validate the idea that Asians are ‘unassimilable’. In other words, we cannot be trained. We cannot be stripped of our histories and beliefs. Yellow Peril was a fear tactic to exclude Asians and deem them unfit to participate, particularly, in American democratic rights, including voting and citizenship.

During the 1960s and the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the AAPI community reclaimed ‘Yellow Peril’ and protested for equal rights beside African Americans. This legacy continues today with the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Crazy Rich Asians: A Love Story for Our Families

This brings us to the present and the third time we get to experience an Asian family take the stage. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan was published in 2013 and was followed with a film of the same title in 2018. I will admit that I had no interest in this book. Romance novels are not my preference but after watching the film, I picked up the trilogy. No spoilers here, but I found its successors much more engaging than the premier. So, if you’re on the fence as I was, hang in there… it gets so much better and that much crazier.

Unlike its cinematic predecessors, Crazy Rich Asians isn’t about the strife of our communities. The backdrop is celebratory. We follow Rachel Chu, an NYU economics professor, and her boyfriend Nick Young, who invites Rachel on a trip to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding. We observe the struggle any couple has when it’s time to ‘meet the parents’ and the cultural nuances it carries for Asian families.

But what Rachel doesn’t know is that her beau is Singapore’s #1 elusive bachelor. It isn’t until Rachel visits her very wealthy college best friend, Peik Lin when she arrives in Singapore. Peik Lin explains the difference between her wealth, being new money (wealth gained by investing and the rise of technology, etc.), and Nick’s wealth, being old money (generational wealth)... which is ‘crazy rich’.

I won’t spoil the ending, which is different from the novel, but it’s a fun film full of absolutely lovable characters and over-the-top glamor. What I love about this film is that it’s an actual celebration, and all the stress and excitement that comes with it. We can all relate to planning and attending a party, especially one with family involved. We all know who pushes our buttons. We know who loves us even when we’ve been difficult to be around. We all have a crazy uncle/auntie. We all have a favorite cousin. This is all to say that this film is for the whole family. You don’t have to be Asian to empathize with the characters. You don't have to be Asian to understand the narrative. But it is up to you to want to learn and experience how Asians solve problems familiar to anyone. It’s up to you to want to learn how we celebrate life.

Watch the trailer here

Bayanihan Spirit: A Spirit of Civic Unity and Cooperation

Bayanihan is a Filipino saying that means to work together for a common cause. It comes from the word ‘bayan’ which means nation/town/community. This is what we as a nation are currently doing.

As a result of the killing of George Floyd, America and Western society is having a racial reckoning. The necessity to decenter whiteness has been long overdue. Who knows how long this novel thinking will last, but BIPOC folx are screaming from the rooftops to make sure that we maintain a steady pace for progress.

Crazy Rich Asians helped skyrocket numerous AAPI actors' careers. Introducing films like Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Turning Red, Everything Everywhere All at Once, and Easter Sunday are the beginning of a new milestone for AAPI representation in film. Each of these films have already offered more diverse narratives than we have previously seen.

We have a superhero!

I’m talking about Michelle Yeoh kicking ass and saving her daughter by preventing generational trauma. Everything Everywhere All at Once has shaken me to my core. I watched this film with my Filipina mother and openly wept with her. I bring my mom everything bagels even though she hates them. Yeoh deserves every award and praise for her work. The film deserves oscar nominations for numerous categories. Best Picture, Leading Female and Male, Director, Editing, and Cinematography at the very least. If you haven’t seen it… GO!

I am also talking about Simu Liu becoming the first Asian superhero in the MCU. This man is literally one of my favorite people. Ironically it’s not because of Shang-Chi. It’s because of what he decided to do with his growing fame. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings came out last year in 2021 and in the process saved the pandemic box office. This year on May 17th, he’s releasing a book titled, We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story. It’s about his parents and his own immigration story. Let me be clear here. The first thing this man did once he reached stardom was honor his parents. Most celebrities wait until they’ve had decades-long careers before they reminisce about their own heyday and say the things they were too scared to say. Not for Liu. Just like many children of immigrant parents, the sentiment remains the same with his actions in wanting to honor the incredible journey his parents endured. And the world deserves to know their story.

From here on out, things will get a little less detailed. Like I said… could be a thesis and a whole dissertation. This is the seasoning on my everything bagel.

Why Brenda Song is a Symbol of Representation

Song, of Hmong and Thai heritage, is known for being a Disney Channel star. She starred in Get A Clue; Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior; and portrayed London Tipton on The Suite Life of Zack & Cody. Her adult roles include The Social Network, Scandal, New Girl, and Station 19. You can now catch her on the Hulu Original Series, Dollface.

According to my records, Brenda Song is the only recognizable Hmong actor to date. There’s Brenda Song and then those who were in Gran Torino. Anyway you carve it, this isn’t ideal.

I know I said that we are focusing on the collective AAPI culture and haven’t mentioned exactly the origins of individuals, but I must acknowledge Song’s Hmong heritage. This significance is to acknowledge AAPI communities that are further marginalized among peers. The economic disparities and access to upward mobility, and recognition of cultural heritage varies. Hmong communities are among the poorest in both the AAPI communities and nationally across all races and ethnicities.

When it comes to AAPI representation, we often first think Chinese, Japanese, and Korean; then maybe Desi, Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese, and Cambodian. You may even have friends or colleagues from these places and enjoy their cuisines, but people like the Hmong, Native Hawaiian, Micronesia & Oceania, Laoian, Pakistani, Fijian, and Burmese just to name a few, are not even a thought.

We are not a monolith. Especially when I just discussed four films that center Chinese culture and identity. We do not all look alike and we come in various shades. Brenda Song’s singularity also emphasizes the loneliness of the AAPI community in western society. A loneliness that manifests when we are still viewed as foreign or exotic in our own society. Take this as a reminder to think about who and what stories get to be portrayed on screen. We are not the handful of stereotypes that the media produces.

The Ang Lee Director’s Club:

Members: Ang Lee, Alice Wu, Chloe Zhao, Jon M. Chu, Justin Lin, Lulu Wang, and M. Night Shyamalan

Yes of course, this exclusive club that I just made up, is named after the guy who made the blueprint. Lee is the first person of Asian descent and non-white to receive an oscar for direction. He is popularly known for Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi.

Alice Wu is a champion of the intersectionality of AAPI and the LGBTQI+ experience. She is known for The Half of It, available on Netflix; and Saving Face, available on Hulu.

Oscar winner, Chloe Zhao is known for her best picture winner, Nomadland and MCU film, Eternals. Fun Fact: Zhao is a Mount Holyoke Alumni, which is only significant to me and a handful of MMH members because we’re from Western Mass.

Jon M. Chu, as I already referenced, brings us to the present with his adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians and intends to bring the book trilogy by Kevin Kwan to the big screen. He’s also known for In the Heights and Step Up 2: The Streets. He is slated to direct Wicked based on the popular broadway musical and book by Gregory Maguire.

Justin Lin has directed 5 of the 9 Fast & Furious franchise films. Homie is slated to direct the 10th installment. Don’t fix what ain’t broken.

Lulu Wang is known for The Farewell, starring Awkwafina is available on Prime. This must see film is a reflection of being raised in dual cultures that can often contradict each other. It also emphasizes the challenges of respecting each culture while managing your own identity within each culture.

M. Night Shyamalan has been scaring me my whole life. Whether that be in Signs or The Village or The Last Airbender in the worst way possible, this man deserves his recognition.

Standing Tall: Basketball Legends Jeremy Lin & Yao Ming

I’m going for the MMH trifecta. Here’s my full court shot.

Breaking the ‘Asians are short’ stereotype, Lin stands at 6 '3 and Ming at 7 ’6. Both men had a career in the NBA and now are active members of the CBA (Chinese Basketball Association).

Lin’s career had a rocky start with the Golden State Warriors but attained stardom, more like 'Linsanity' while he played with the Toronto Raptors. He is now an All-Star player with the Beijing Ducks.

Ming is the titular Asian NBA player to date. His career was with the Houston Rockets from 2002 - 2011. He would be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2016 alongside legends Allen Iverson and Shaquille O’Neal. The following year, he’d return to China to become the current and 6th President of the CBA.

Although only 0.4 percent of NBA players identify as Asian, Ming and Lin opened the door for more people of Asian descent to be recruited. You can catch Rui Hacimura with the Washington Wizards; Jordan Clarkson with the Utah Jazz; Yuta Watanabe with the Toronto Raptors; and Jalen Green with the Houston Rockets.

Monsters, Spirits, and Horror, Oh My!

I detest horror films. But that doesn’t mean I won’t recognize its impact. This also means, I won’t be anywhere as familiar with this genre. The cinematography from films like The Ring and Parasite, have been the blueprint to many of our favorite psychological horror films, including Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us.

The iconic Japanese monsters, King Kong vs. Godzilla had its American debut with a thunderous box-office success in 1963. People would continue the legacy of these famous monsters to today. Their 36th adaptation, Godzilla vs. Kong, is American-made, and was released on HBOMax in 2021 and is still one of the platform’s highest grossing films.

The Jurassic Park series was surely inspired by these two monsters. We’ve even been lucky enough to watch Stitch famously destroy San Francisco in Lilo & Stitch.

The “Over the Rainbow” Effect

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s most iconic song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is an American standard. This ukulele rendition is played for weddings and funerals and has been featured in numerous films and TV shows including Finding Forrester, Meet Joe Black, Fred Claus, Scrubs, Modern Family, Lost, and South Pacific.

Kamakawiwo’ole’s activism is only a wave in the legacy of native Hawaiians’ activism that stems from the times of Queen Lili’uokalani. Kamakawiwo’ole ensured the lives, experiences, and rights of native Hawaiians were recognized in the face of tourism in his homeland. He’d also advocate for the sovereignty of Hawaii through his music making him a champion for his people.

The Chosen One

That’s Kenau Reeves. Although born in Beirut and raised in Toronto, Reeves is possibly one of the most recognizable household names in Western entertainment with Asian descent. His three iconic roles are Ted from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, John Wick, and Neo from The Matrix franchise.

Being of mixed parentage: English and Native Hawaiian/Chinese, Reeves checks the boxes of racial ambiguity, male, and ‘just exotic enough’ but won’t change the master narrative, being the views of Eurocentric cultural metrics.

“I don’t want to live in a world where kindness is a weakness.” - Keneau Reeves

Kenau Reeves is known for his down-to-earth attitude and his kindness. He has been spotted numerous times having no security while taking the subway and public transportation. He plays bass with the band Dogstar. He is known for generous donations to both philanthropic efforts and to individuals on the streets. There are miles of testimonials that say Reeves is an incredible person to work with.

It’s fitting to conclude with Reeves because of what he represents firstly, to the AAPI community, and secondly to Western entertainment and the world at large. Which is basic human decency.

With AAPI Hate ever more present, let’s remember to “Be excellent to each other. And… PARTY ON, DUDES!”


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