Asian Americans, growing in number, struggle to emerge from political shadows

TW160202_11741454530512Sixteen Asian American men and women boarded a van in Springfield, Va., early one recent morning, armed with brochures and talking points. They were headed to Richmond for a day of lobbying, strategizing and mingling with state legislators and officials.

Some were seasoned advocates, such as Dewita Soeharjono of Arlington, 50, an Indonesian immigrant who has spent years pushing for minority access to Virginia’s Democratic Party machinery. Others were neophytes, such as Trung Nguyen, 28, a youth worker in Falls Church and the son of Vietnamese refugees whose first civic experience was serving on his fifth-grade student council in New Orleans.

Everyone in the van was anxious about the journey ahead, both the long-planned day of outreach events and the uncharted future of their fast-growing minority as it begins to test the rough waters of public life.

Over the past 15 years, Virginia’s population of Asian Americans has soared from 261,000 to 628,000, including 250,000 U.S. citizens of voting age. But despite their potential to influence elections in a closely watched battleground state, many remain reluctant to engage in politics. The group in the van, and a growing number of younger Asian Americans, are determined to change that.

“The older generation was told to be quiet, not to participate,” Nguyen said as the van cruised south on Interstate 95. “I grew up here speaking English. . . . I want Asian Americans to speak out and have our voices heard.”

With immigrants a focus of angry debate in the 2016 presidential race, activists are working to mobilize the nation’s 18 million Asian Americans, about 75 percent of whom are U.S. citizens. One national nonprofit group is setting up phone banks in every state with a significant Asian American population. A new progressive PAC, the Asian American Pacific Islander Victory Fund, aims to register 100,000 voters in six battleground states.

Some advocates say they hope the anti-immigrant vitriol that has marked this year’s campaign can propel new activism from Asian Americans who have stayed on the sidelines.

In Virginia, Asian American activists from both parties are gearing up for Super Tuesday on March 1, when Virginia and 14 other states and territories will hold primaries or caucuses. They have been visiting Korean churches, speaking at Filipino community halls and seeking coverage in Vietnamese-language newspapers, trying to reach potential voters in their comfort zones.

But even though 61 percent of adult Asian American citizens in the state are registered to vote — a total more than double the margin of victory in many recent elections — advocates say they face a struggle to translate that potential into action.

According to U.S. census tables, turnout among Asian American citizens in Virginia has been consistently lower than among the overall population; in the 2012 election, Asians had lower turnout than all other ethnic groups. Their participation has zigzagged from race to race, with 61 percent voting in 2008, a presidential year, but only 23 percent voting in 2010. In the most recent state election, in 2014, turnout was 42 percent overall, 45 percent for whites, 34 percent for blacks, 32 percent for Asians and 25 percent for Hispanics.

“We are a pivotal constituency in a swing state with close elections, and both parties are trying for the Asian American vote. You see candidates shaking hands at all our events. But it is still very hard to mobilize people,” said Wesley Joe, an adjunct assistant professor of government at Georgetown University whose father immigrated from Korea. “We have the values and the education, but we just don’t have the turnout.”

Historic, cultural obstacles

Mark L. Keam (D), 49, one of two Asian Americans in the Virginia House of Delegates, describes one of the challenges as “permanent foreigner syndrome.” Keam’s district includes part of Fairfax County, home to 183,000 Asian Americans. “Many people have arrived recently, and mentally they are still in the old world,” he said. “I have a hard time convincing them they have to cross over to the new.”

Among first-generation immigrants, obstacles to political involvement include concentration on moving up economically, poor English skills, unfamiliarity with the American political system and reluctance to invite public scrutiny.

Many, especially those from China and Vietnam, harbor memories of political intimidation abroad. Others remain glued to issues in their homelands — often through foreign-language cable TV — rather than shifting their attention to U.S. politics.

Among second-generation Asian Americans, there is more political interest. Yet Asian-born parents tend to steer their children into professions rather than public service, community leaders said, leading to a dearth of candidates and role models. Even in Northern Virginia, only a handful of Asian Americans have been elected to local office.

Sharon Bulova, a Democrat who chairs the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said many Asian newcomers have been too focused on work to join homeowner associations and other “portals” to politics. Even their more assimilated children, Bulova said, “have to be invited to feel comfortable.”

Another reason for the disconnect between size and clout is ethnic balkanization. Despite various efforts to form pan-Asian coalitions, many Asian immigrants identify themselves chiefly by country of origin and socialize in their native languages. Some remain divided by historical conflicts, such as the rivalry between Pakistan and India.

And although Asian Americans tend to share common concerns, such as small business benefits and high-quality education, there are differences in ideology and partisan affiliation. Indian Americans tend to be Democrats; Vietnamese Americans tend to be Republicans. Nationwide, nearly half of Asian Americans register as independents or undecided, making them hard for political groups to target.

“Our biggest challenge is diversity. People bring baggage from home, and they are still fighting old battles,” Keam said. “I tell them, only if we join forces can we be strong and fight for our rights and become a swing vote.”

‘Go right up and greet them’

After arriving in Richmond, Soeharjono and the others were guided to a caucus room in the capitol for a formal welcome to the 12th annual Asian American advocacy day. Ting Yi Oei, a retired teacher from Reston who chairs the Council of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans of Virginia, urged them to venture out and practice their lobbying skills.

“Feel free to seek out your own delegates. Remember to go right up and greet them,” Oei said.

For the next hour, Soeharjono and two other women wandered the carpeted corridors, stopping often to consult a floor map, and poking their heads in several doors.

In the office of Del. Patrick A. Hope (D-Arlington), they sat primly on a sofa and asked him about understaffed schools and improving health-care benefits. In the office of newly elected Del. Jennifer Boysko (D-Herndon), they chatted about her bill to expand immigrants’ access to driver’s licenses.

Soeharjono said she went door to door campaigning for Boysko, whose district is 21 percent Asian. She noted that the delegate lost her previous race by only 32 votes, but then triumphed in November. “So we really do count,” she said, beaming.

Senior Democratic figures in Virginia, including Sen. Timothy M. Kaine and Gov. Terry McAuliffe, also have received strong support from Asian American voters and taken pains to court them. Former senator Jim Webb (D-Va.), whose wife is Vietnamese, won election in 2006 with widespread backing from that ethnic community.

“Both candidates and elected officials know they can’t ignore the Asian Americans in their regions anymore,” said Jason Chung, a former Republican activist in Virginia who is now on the staff of the Republican National Committee. With surging numbers and many uncommitted voters, he said, “these ethnic groups are all up for grabs.”

The activists’ day in Richmond was capped by a reception in the penthouse of a downtown bank, hosted by Oei’s council and several other groups. A stream of politicians and officials, including Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), made brief welcoming speeches. State Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) was especially effusive, saying, “We are extremely lucky that you all chose to come here. You are making a phenomenal contribution to the United States and Virginia.”

The only sobering moment came when Keam introduced Karen Korematsu, an activist from California whose late father legally challenged the 1942 presidential order confining most Japanese Americans to wartime internment camps.

“There are echoes of the same thing today,” she told the momentarily subdued crowd. “Some candidates want to round up Muslims and put them in concentration camps. It could happen again, and it is up to all of us to stand up.”

Oei was one of several leaders there who suggested that the current political animosity could galvanize Asian immigrants who have remained aloof from politics.

“The Muslim experience of today is definitely waking up this community,” Oei said. “In the past, it has been tough to confront our ‘model minority’ image, to get people to identify with the struggles of other groups. But now . . . people are beginning to see the parallels. This is not just about immigration. It is about all our rights.”

Written by: Pamela Constable

February 16, 2016

In An Immigration Debate Focused On Borders And Walls, Asians Often Get Left Out

Which makes little sense if you look at the numbers.

Jose Antonio Vargas
File – In this Feb. 13, 2013 file photo, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, immigration rights activist and self-declared undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on comprehensive immigration reform. Vargas has been detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents at a South Texas airport. Border Patrol spokesman Omar Zamora says Vargas was in custody Tuesday morning, July 15, 2014, but he had no other details. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

Conservative rabble-rouser Ann Coulter unwittingly summed up one misunderstanding about undocumented immigrants in America earlier this week, when she suggested “we put a few of them on buses.”

Her tweet referenced “that illegal who ‘lives in the shadows’ with his own show on MTV” — presumably referring to journalist and activist Jose Antonio Vargas, who is undocumented and whose film “White People” aired on the network. But Coulter either didn’t know or didn’t care that if Vargas were to be deported, it couldn’t be by bus. He was born in the Philippines.

Immigration, especially unauthorized immigration, is often framed as a Latino or, specifically, Mexican issue. There are many examples of this: Coulter summing up deportation as a matter of putting people on buses, politicians pivoting directly to security along the southern border when asked about immigration policy, and media focusing on whether Latino voters are swayed by such policies.

Asian immigrants, by contrast, are usually left out of the discussion — even though they make up the fastest-growing undocumented population and are expected to surpass Latinos as the largest immigrant group in the U.S. by mid-century. Asian-Americans are also becoming a larger proportion of the electorate, and some Democratic politicians have made an effort to target them. But they don’t get the same level of attention as Latino voters.

Vargas is trying to bring Asian immigrants into the conversation.

“We have so relegated this to a border issue, to a Mexican issue, to a brown issue, that we are not seeing the global view,” Vargas said. “I think that is a danger.”

He came to the U.S. from the Philippines when he was 12 years old, and has been living here without authorization since. Vargas, now 34, “came out” as undocumented in 2011 and then founded a group called Define American that seeks to reshape the immigration debate, in part by highlighting a wider array of stories.

Last weekend, the group held a film festival in Iowa that featured movies not just about Latinos — who currently make up the largest proportion of undocumented and legal immigrants in the U.S. — but also people from Asia and Africa.

One movie screened was “The Joy Luck Club,” a story about Chinese-American women and their immigrant mothers. Janet Yang, a producer of the 1993 movie who participated in a panel at the festival, said by phone that it’s even harder now than it was then to get a film like “The Joy Luck Club” made. That’s a loss for everyone, she said.

“It’s something that is just so good for America to be reminded of these stories and how rich this country is because of it,” said Yang, who is the daughter of Chinese immigrants.

It is ironic how invisible Asian immigrants are in the debate now, when earlier immigration laws, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, were largely shaped around arguments over admitting people from China and Japan, said historian Erika Lee, who wrote The Making of Asian America: A History and also appeared on the panel.

When Asian immigrants are mentioned these days, it’s often as the “model minority” or “model immigrant,” she told HuffPost, which pits them against Latino immigrants in a way that is harmful for both populations.

“It further demonizes Latino immigration and it also helps deflect from the problems Asian immigrants do continue to have,” Lee said.

Asians and Pacific Islanders make up more than 80 percent of the people in the government’s employment visa backlogs, according to Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. They also account for more than 40 percent of the people waiting for family immigrant visas.

“This is significant, but few know that these backlogs force so many AAPI [Asian-American and Pacific Islander] families to be separated from their loved ones for decades at a time,” she said in an email.

Chu also noted that undocumented young people from Asian and Pacific Island nations make up only 2.6 percent of recipients of deportation relief under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, even though they account for about 8 percent of those eligible.

“In order to truly raise more awareness about our community, we need the media to help us share AAPI stories and to provide a more holistic narrative of those impacted by our broken immigration system,” Chu said. “It is through these stories that we can ensure that Asians and Pacific Islanders are no longer rendered invisible in our push for comprehensive immigration reform.”

Written by: Elise Foley

January 29, 2016

The Affordable Care Act and Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders

The Affordable Care Act is working in terms of affordability, access and quality, for Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander families, seniors, businesses and taxpayers. This includes those who were previously uninsured and those who had insurance that didn’t provide them with adequate coverage and financial security.

Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander families have more security, and many of those who already had insurance now have better coverage. Fewer Americans are uninsured. At the same time, as a country, we’re spending our health care dollars more wisely and we’re starting to receive higher quality care.

Health insurance coverage is now more affordable and accessible for millions of Americans. The Affordable Care Act invests in prevention and wellness, and gives individuals and families more control over their care. In addition, the law addresses disparities in access to quality, affordable health coverage.

Addressing Health Disparities

Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders are less likely than other groups to get screened for cancer. For example, in 2010, Asian American women over 18 years of age were the least likely to have had a Pap test (68.0 percent) compared with other women: non-Hispanic white (72.8 percent), non-Hispanic black (77.4 percent), Hispanic/Latino (73.6 percent), American Indian/Alaska Native (73.4 percent).

Additionally, in 2008, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders ages 19 through 24 were 1.6 times more likely to have Hepatitis B than non-Hispanic whites2. Expanding access to coverage can be an effective strategy for reducing disparities.

Millions of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders across the country are already benefiting from the stronger coverage and consumer protections made possible by the Affordable Care Act:

  • 4.3 million Asian Americans with private insurance now have access to expanded preventive services with no cost-sharing. This includes services such as colonoscopy screening for colon cancer, Pap smears and mammograms for women, well-child visits, and flu shots for all children and adults.
  • Private plans in the Marketplace are required to cover 10 essential health benefit categories, including maternity and newborn care. Over 208,800 Asian Americans in the individual market alone are projected to gain maternity coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
  • An estimated 2.5 million Asian American women with private health insurance now have guaranteed access to women’s preventive services without cost-sharing. These services include well-woman visits, HPV testing, breastfeeding support and counseling, mammograms and screenings for cervical cancer, prenatal care, and other services.
  • 121,000 Asian American young adults between ages 19 and 26 who would have been uninsured, including 53,000 Asian American women, now have coverage under their parent’s employer-sponsored or individually purchased health insurance plan.
  • About 5.5 million Asian Americans, including 2.1 million adult Asian American women, no longer have lifetime or annual limits on their health insurance coverage thanks to the Affordable Care Act.
  • Major federal investments in quality of care are improving management of chronic diseases that are more prevalent among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
  • Investments in data collection and research will help us better understand the causes of health care disparities and develop effective programs to address them.
  • The $11 billion in the Affordable Care Act for nearly 1,300 community health centers has increased the number of patients served by nearly 5 million. Health centers provide culturally competent and linguistically appropriate care.

Getting Covered

  • Consumers have access to health insurance that fits their needs and budget through the Health Insurance Marketplace. All plans in the Marketplace cover essential health benefits, pre-existing conditions, recommended preventive care and more. Open enrollment begins November 15, 2014 and ends on February 15, 2015. Enroll by December 15, 2014 for coverage that starts January 1, 2015.
  • Enrollment in Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is open year round.  Members of immigrant families lawfully residing in the United States may qualify for Medicaid and CHIP coverage, if they meet the eligibility criteria in that state; if they don’t, they may qualify for Marketplace coverage and assistance. And so far, twenty-seven states and Washington, D.C. have expanded their Medicaid programs to extend eligibility to more individuals. If all states took advantage of new opportunities to expand Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act, 90 percent of eligible uninsured Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders might qualify for Medicaid, CHIP, or tax credits to help with the cost of premiums in the Marketplace.
  • Many immigrant families are of “mixed status,” with members having different immigration and citizenship statuses. “Mixed status” families can apply for Medicaid and CHIP or for coverage through the Marketplace, where dependent family members may be eligible for programs that help lower the cost of Marketplace health insurance coverage. People without lawful immigration status are not eligible to enroll in the Marketplace. Medicaid provides payment for treatment for an emergency medical condition for individuals who do not meet the citizenship or immigration status requirements for Medicaid and are otherwise eligible for Medicaid in the state.  It is important to note that information provided by applicants or beneficiaries won’t be used for immigration enforcementpurposes.  Also, applying for Medicaid or CHIP, or getting help with health insurance costs in the Marketplace, does not make someone a “public charge” and will not affect someone’s chances of becoming a Lawful Permanent Resident or U.S. citizen.
  • For more information on the Marketplace, Medicaid, and CHIP visit If you have questions or need to find someone who can help you in person, find local help at: Or call the Marketplace Call Center at 1-800-318-2596. Translation services are available. TTY users should call 1-855- 889-4325. The call is free.

Written by: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (ASPA)

November 5, 2014


President Obama, Nominate the First Asian-American Supreme Court Justice

CourtEqualJustice-1024x751(This editorial appeared in the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA). Christopher Kang is the NCAPA National Director. He is a former Deputy Assistant and Deputy Counsel to President Barack Obama in the Office of the White House Counsel, where he was in charge of the selection, vetting, and confirmation of the president’s judicial nominees.)

One of President Obama’s biggest accomplishments with respect to the Asian Pacific American community is his appointment of a record number of APA federal judges. Now, as he considers Supreme Court candidates, the president has an opportunity to truly cement this legacy.

In January 2009, there were only eight Asian Pacific Americans in lifetime, federal judgeships throughout the country — out of 870 potential positions. What’s more, there had not been an APA judge on a U.S. Court of Appeals — the level just below the Supreme Court — in almost five years.

Today, there are 25 Asian Pacific American federal judges, including four at the Court of Appeals level. In fact, President Obama has appointed more APA federal judges than all presidents in history combined, and the nine APA women he has appointed is even more remarkable considering there were only two prior to 2009.

How did he do it?

As the lawyer in charge of the day-to-day selection, vetting, and confirmation of President Obama’s judicial nominees for more than four years, I can tell you that it actually was quite simple: the president made a commitment to a judiciary that resembles the nation it serves.

Of course, each of the president’s appointed judges has the necessary experience, intellect, and integrity. But through his efforts, federal judges are now beginning to reflect the diversity of our nation — racial, gender, and sexual orientation — and today, at the Court of Appeals level, a majority of judges are women and minorities. The president also has sought a judiciary that encompasses the range of experience in the legal profession, including more judges who had represented the poor in their criminal defense and legal services.

While judges will not necessarily consider a case differently because of their background — they are sworn to uphold the law and precedent — when the men and women who deliver justice look more like the communities they serve, there is greater confidence in our justice system overall.

Also, as judges break barriers throughout the country, they serve as role models for generations to come.

I’ve seen this first hand. In 2009, I had the honor of working on Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation, as she became the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice. A year later, I assisted on Justice Elena Kagan’s confirmation. For the first time, three women (along with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg) sit on the Supreme Court at the same time. Throughout those processes and beyond, these remarkable women have had an indelible impact on our nation — not just in their rulings and their commitment to equal justice under the law, but also in inspiring countless Americans that the doors to opportunity are opening to all.

While Justices Sotomayor, Kagan, Ginsburg, and retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor certainly are role models for my four year-old daughter, I also want her to have a role model who is Asian Pacific American.

Growing up, I was bullied for my “slanted eyes,” my parents’ accent, and the food we ate. I was constantly asked if I knew karate and complimented for “speaking English good.” Even now, I have resigned myself to a lifetime of being asked, “Where are you really from?”

I know that an Asian Pacific American Supreme Court Justice won’t prevent my daughter from experiencing all of this, but it would go immeasurably far in chipping away at the stereotype that she is a “perpetual foreigner” — that we are something other than simply American. And it would give her another example of success at the highest level to emulate in whatever she decides to do.

In 2010, it was past time for the Supreme Court to have more than two female Justices. Today, especially as nearly half our nation’s children are from communities of color, it is time for the Supreme Court to have more than two Justices of color. And, more specifically, it is time for the first Asian Pacific American Justice.

Asian Pacific Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the nation. There were almost twice as many Asian American voters in 2012 as there were in 2000, and by 2040, the number of Asian American registered voters will double yet again. We deserve — and demand — a government that is reflective of our nation’s changing demographics.

The good news is that President Obama understands the importance of a judiciary that resembles the nation it serves, and his commitment has tripled the number of APA federal judges in just seven years. However, 25 APA federal judges out of 870 is only the beginning of real change. To leave a truly historic legacy on behalf of Asian Pacific Americans, we must urge the president to take the next step by nominating an Asian Pacific American to the Supreme Court.

Written by: Christopher Kang

March 8, 2016

Asian-American’s in the Entertainment Industry

FRESH OFF THE BOAT – ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” stars Randall Park as Louis Huang, Forrest Wheeler as Emery Huang, Constance Wu as Jessica Huang, Hudson Yang as Eddie Huang and Ian Chen as Evan Huang. (ABC/Bob D’Amico)

Asians do not bode as well as people think in the entertainment scene. If you were to as someone to name an Asian movie star most would answer with a long delay and answer Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee because those two were one of the few lucky ones who managed to break into Hollywood. Asian actors have been the recipient of subtle discrimination from actors of other ethnicity as well as directors and casters themselves. The extent to this is that an Asian actor could be turned away just because they are not the ‘right’ Asian. When it comes to Asian’s, the roles in movies are very limited. When do you see an Asian college student going to parties? The answer is hardly ever, if anything they get casted as the moral anchor for the character that goes to the party. Some say this is positive stereotyping however, there are a plethora of Asian actors who could not find jobs because they are the ‘wrong’ kind of Asian. In addition, Hollywood has an under representation of people with color but not to the same extent as the exclusion of Asians.

The grass is not greener in the music industry, it’s essentially the same stale patch. Unlike in the film industry, there isn’t a household Asian musician name. There are however some Asians who do have talent and are able to go head to head with singers of other races however the stigma that ties them down are still very much alive. Christine Joy, an Asian singer who won a local idol contest, tried out for American Idol but did not make it past the auditions. One of the compliments she received was that she sand like an African American Woman. Although this may seem flattering, it also poses an issue. People should just accept that she has a voice but should only be compared to other specific artist and not an ethnic group because it would imply that she is merely a copy cat and not actually good enough to have her own voice.

In the next collection of Articles you will see how the entertainment industry is exclusive to White, and some Hispanic and Black, actors. Asian actors are having to put more work in just so that they could break this barrier however, you will find that the barrier is stronger than many believe. Sociologically this is interesting because entertainment offers emotional and physical relief to many and it seems as though they do not trust this task on people of color, especially Asians.

Trying to Crack the Hot 100



AS a child of Detroit, Harlemm Lee says soulful music runs through his veins. Mr. Lee has sung R & B in talent shows, in musicals at Disney World and even on an album he recorded in the 1980s as he pursued a music career after high school.

Then in 2003 he won the NBC reality show “Fame,” gaining national attention and another record contract. Mr. Lee thought it was his big break, but he is about to turn 40 this year and is still working as a secretary, still waiting to make it as a singer.

Of all the factors that have shaped his career in a fickle industry, Mr. Lee said he is sure about the one that has hurt him most: looking Chinese.

“In terms of finding an advocate in the industry, the Asian thing has been the critical factor,” said Mr. Lee, who is of Chinese and Filipino descent. “You don’t fit.”

There are Asian-American stars in sports, movies, television and classical music. But the “Asian thing” is what Mr. Lee and many other aspiring Asian-American singers say largely accounts for the lack of Asian-American pop stars. People in the music industry, including some executives, have no ready explanation, but Asian-American artists and scholars argue that the racial stereotypes that hobble them as a group — the image of the studious geek, the perception that someone who looks Asian must be a foreigner — clash with the coolness and born-in-the-U.S.A. authenticity required for American pop stardom.

Asian-Americans may be expected to play the violin or know kung fu, some artists and scholars say, but not necessarily to sound like Kanye West or Madonna, or sell like them. The issue came to the fore most recently on “American Idol,” where a Korean-American contestant, Paul Kim, 24, said he was giving music one last shot after many disappointments.

Mr. Kim, who sang ballads for the show, was praised by the judges for his “range” and “tonal quality,” but he was among the first four contestants to be voted off by viewers after the first round. While he was still on the show, Mr. Kim wrote on his page that “I was told over and over again by countless label execs that if it weren’t for me being Asian, I would’ve been signed yesterday.”

Some in the music industry note that there is no dearth of Asian-Americans or Asians of mixed race in the ranks of successful record producers (Chad Hugo of the Neptunes), rock bands (Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park) and pop and hip-hop groups (Nicole Scherzinger of the Pussycat Dolls and Allan Pineda Lindo, whose professional name is, of the Black Eyed Peas), and musicians in general.

But where is the Asian-American Justin Timberlake, Prince or Christina Aguilera?

Asked to name the most recognizable Asian-American pop solo singer today, older generations might say the Hawaiian singer Don Ho, but younger Asian-American artists agreed on one person: William Hung, the “American Idol” castoff who became an overnight sensation in 2004 for his off-key rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs.”

“By and large the music industry hasn’t done a great job cultivating Asian-American talent,” said Jon Caramanica, music editor at Vibe magazine. “Because there’s no significant tradition in the mainstream, it becomes that much harder to become that breakthrough artist.”

Scores of young Asian-American singers are trying to become that artist. Like aspiring musicians of all stripes, they have created their own parallel universe, and many are writing songs and putting out music on the Internet, playing shows in small clubs and Asian festivals and sometimes starting their own labels. Some get play for their songs and videos on niche cable television channels and a few are even performing abroad and recording in Asian languages. In fact, some South Korean entertainment companies regularly hold auditions in cities like Los Angeles to scout for Asian-American talent.

“There are very talented Asian-Americans out there,” said Michael Hong, founder and chief executive of ImaginAsian Entertainment, a multimedia company that features Asian-American artists. “The only problem is nobody is signing them.”

Some are being signed, but the roster tilts heavily toward mixed-race Asians whose looks are racially ambiguous, like Cassie, an R & B singer of Filipino and African-American descent whose song “Me & U” was one of last year’s hottest summer hits, some Asian-Americans artists noted.

In this parallel universe, there is even an Asian-American Idol contest in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has a large Asian population. The contest has been held by Element, an event production company, for as many seasons as the national show has run on Fox.

Christine Joy Villano, whose professional name is Christine Joy and who won this local Idol contest four years ago, said she tried out for “American Idol” in 2004 with her version of Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman,” but didn’t make it past the auditions. Last fall, she moved to Atlanta to pursue her music career more seriously.

A compliment she often hears, she said, is that “You sing like an African-American woman.” But she does not want to hear that. “You want people to say: ‘She can sing!’ ” Ms. Joy said. “ ‘Who cares what she is? She needs to be a star!’ ”

Phil Chen, 23, the lead singer of an all Chinese-American alternative punk rock band, 8PAST, in the San Francisco Bay area, said: “I’ve had a lot of people come up to me after we play and they say, ‘I didn’t know what to expect with an Asian band.’ But they’re impressed. We’re not just kids who do math very well.”

Some artists say so much is percolating in the underground that more Asian-American talent is bound to start bubbling up soon.

Written by: Mireya Navarro

March 4, 2007


“East of Hollywood”: It’s Not Easy Being an Asian American Actor When You’re Not the Asian Non-Asians Think You Are

Film_East_of_Hollywood-1024x576We’ve finally entered December of 2015, and I have one end-of-the-year prediction to make: expect a deluge of year-in-review think pieces calling 2015 a Renaissance Year for the Asian American actor. Hell, a lot of these articles have already been written. There’s this one. And, this one. Oh, and this one. Hell, I’ll probably even write one before this year is out.

It’s safe to say that if you’re an Asian American who cares about seeing Asian American actors get work, 2015 was the year for you. Fresh Off The Boat is midway through their critically acclaimed second season and celebrating news of a full season order. In contrast to the multi-cam format of FOTB, Ken Jeong debuted a refreshingly conventional family sitcom in Dr. Ken, bringing ABC’s Asian American-led primetime sitcom offerings to two. On Sundays, ABC also airs Quantico, which stars the impeccably-coifed Priyanka Chopra as an FBI recruit- turned-agent- turned-fugitive (check out recurring guest contributor Lakshmi Gandhi’s weekly recaps of Quantico every Monday morning right here on Reappropriate). And, over at Netflix, Aziz Ansari stars in Master of None, a show he co-created with producer Alan Yang.

But what if you’re an Asian American actor whose name isn’t Ken Jeong or Aziz Ansari? For these folks, Hollywood is still a tough place to find work, where few decision makers can imagine an Asian face being worn by anyone who isn’t the nerd, the ninja, the prostitute, the gangster, or the foreigner.

Now, a really fantastic independent short film — East of Hollywood — uses comedy to explore what it’s really like being a struggling Asian American actor in Hollywood.

Styled as a mockumentary, East of Hollywood stars actor and producer Michael Tow(R.I.P.D.Unfinished Business) as Ken, a fourth-generation Chinese American actor who finds himself trapped in an endless cycle of callbacks to play walk-on roles as Asian archetypes. Even though he’s tired of the schlock, Ken is also a newly-single dad with a young daughter. So, when he learns of an audition for a part as a series regular on a new sitcom (“Kung-Fu Mom”) playing a stereotypical kung-fu master-slash-love interest, Ken decides to give it all one more shot even though he’s only been learning Mandarin for two weeks and doesn’t know how to throw a punch.

In frustration, his agent (played by East of Hollywood writer and director, Chris Caccioppoli) suggests that Ken go to a workshop run by Beatrix, portrayed by a hysterical and scene-stealing Celeste Olivia (Mystic RiverThe Company Men)). Having failed to break into Hollywood because she is too ethnically ambiguous, Beatrix now helps other 2+-generation Asian American actors adopt some emergency “Orientification” to help them land a coveted audition callback for the few roles that Asian actors are ever considered for. There, Ken and other hopeful actors learn how to assume the role of “the Asian that non-Asians think Asians are” (my favourite line of the film), complete with lessons on how to mimic a stereotypically thick Asian accents and proper form for the Asian squat. In the midst of all this, Kens finds himself falling for his Mandarin instructor, fellow actor and former dancer, Ryan (Danni Wang (BlacklistMadame Secretary)).

East of Hollywood is an enjoyable, laugh-out-loud, awkward-funny short film with a clear, thought-provoking point of view. It offers an incisive criticism of mainstream Hollywood’s implicitly racist structures of power, where the decision to create or deconstruct racial stereotypes lies in the hands of an entrenched Old (White) Boy’s Network of writers, producers, directors, and casting companies, many of whom lack the imagination, motivation or courage to rise above the residue of Old Hollywood racial stereotypes that continue to permeate contemporary mainstream filmmaking. This is the culture of racial insensitivity that Asian American actors and other actors of colour navigate on a daily basis: where ethnic pigeonholing is par for the course, and where there’s no right way to respond when the casting director asks for a second take in a “more authentic accent”.

Indeed, East of Hollywood found its genesis after just such a real-life casting meeting. Writer/director Chris Caccioppoli was inspired to create East of Hollywood after challenged by East of Hollywood star Michael Tow during a casting meeting for an earlier film. Caccioppoli writes in his Director’s Statement:

While casting my feature film, The Cocks of the Walk, I found myself on the wrong side of the equation. I had based the script on my own experience playing Badminton, and as a result, I needed to cast many Asian American actors, all of whom came prepared to audition in an accent and portray a stereotype. Not because they wanted to, but because it’s what they assumed I wanted to see. And they were right.  But why did I need these stereotypes in my movie? What did it add to the final product? And more so, why did that seem more acceptable than asking any other race to become a caricature on film?

I couldn’t answer any of these question. Perhaps I was just subconsciously influenced by what I was exposed to in the media. After all, it seems that aside from misrepresentation there is very little representation at all for Asian Americans in Hollywood. And as I got to know the actors in my feature on a more personal level, I discovered they all had the same story. They all had to pretend to be more Asian to get a role, despite most of them being born and raised in America and not knowing a word of (insert language of choice here). The most vocal about the topic, and the person with whom I went on to make this film, Michael Tow, shared the desire to shed light on this often overlooked problem. And so, East of Hollywood was born.

I got the chance to work with some amazingly talent actors who simultaneously exposed and shattered stereotypes with their performances. Each actor not only created hysterical characters but brought them to life with improvisations that could have only come from their own experiences. I hope this film can do its part to keep the momentum going and creating more opportunities for equal and fair representation in Hollywood. And I hope it makes a few people laugh while doing so.

East of Hollywood premiered earlier this fall at the Boston Asian American Film Festival (BAAFF), where it won Best Narrative Short, and was an official selection at thePhiladelphia Asian American Film Festival and other festivals throughout the country. It has won Best Comedy, Best Actor, and Best Editing at the Asians on Film Festival, as well as Best Screenplay and Best Actor at the Tulsa American Film Festival, and Best Mid-Length Film at the New England Indiefest (formerly SNOB).

Stay tuned to the film’s website and Facebook for more information on how you can catch a screening near you!

Written by:

December 5, 2015

Where Are All the Asian Americans in Hollywood?

yom2yelx9iqtx7ndeqxsIn the 2003 sci-fi film The Matrix Revolutions, Keanu Reeves’ character Neo reassures his love interest Trinity that the two will reach Machine City to finally end the war between the machines and humans. “If you tell me we’ll make it, I’ll believe you,” Trinity says, as a small army of machines pursue their ship. Neo hesitates for a moment and replies, “We’ll make it. We have to.”

In some ways, the brief exchange between the two applies to a harsh reality that many Asian-American actors face. Audiences are all-too-familiar with Reeves, who has Chinese and Hawaiian ancestry. But as more Asian Americans aspire for the bright lights, many of them have struggled to land blockbuster roles. A recent study by children’s book publisher Lee & Low Books reveals that just eight of the top 100 best-selling sci-fi and fantasy films from Hollywood had a protagonist of color. Worse, only two minority actors landed lead roles: Will Smith, who alone played six of those characters, and Reeves. Both actors have starred in major films since the 1990s.

“We wanted to highlight the lack of diversity in that particular industry, but we also wanted to show that [it] is not an isolated incident,” said Hannah Ehrlich, Lee & Low’s director of marketing. “It repeats itself over and over in a huge number of places.”

It’s hard to argue her claim. Asians made up just 4.4 percent of speaking characters across last year’s top 100 grossing movies, according to a University of Southern California study. The figure is slightly lower than the total percentage of Asians in the country, which is just over five percent. The difference may not be much, but the numbers belie the difficulty of becoming an Asian-American Hollywood star. Although Asian Americans are now the nation’s fastest-growing demographic, their presence in films has gotten visibly smaller since 2008.

To some critics, this sort of underrepresentation is an all-too-familiar story. “American history is pretty racist and sexist, and Hollywood is a reflection of our culture,” RaceBending’s Marissa Lee wrote in an email. “Hollywood doesn’t put minorities in lead roles because our society rarely lets minorities take the lead.”

In fact, the number of lead roles offered to Asian Americans has dwindled over the years. In 1959, the late Japanese-American actor James Shigeta landed a groundbreaking role as a detective in the crime drama The Crimson Kimono. With his slicked-back hair and clean suit, he challenged the notion of Asian men as scrawny and alien. Seven years later, his better-known Chinese-American counterpart Bruce Lee almost single-handedly redefined that image as Kato in the 1966 TV series The Green Hornet. Boasting nearly impeccable abs, the high-flying martial artist-turned-actor eventually starred in his own films and appeared to pave the way for other Asian Americans. But the subsequent decades following Shigeta’s and Lee’s success saw few, if any, play lead or supporting roles.

In some cases, directors and producers ignored them and completely whitewashed films based on Asian-American lives or Asian culture. In 2008, for instance, Columbia Pictures released 21, a drama inspired by a group of mostly Asian-American students who formed a team to beat casinos at blackjack. The main cast featured just two Asian-American actors, both of whom played supporting roles. Two years later, M. Night Shyamalan fended off a hail of criticism for failing to cast more Asian Americans in The Last Airbender, a fantasy film based on a Nickelodeon cartoon series influenced by East and South Asian cultures.

Not much has changed since, according to actress Christine Toy Johnson.

“I think that [people’s] perception of who we are, what we can do, or where we come from is what’s at issue,” Johnson says. “If someone perceives us as being foreign or being ‘other,’ they are not going to see us as part of Broadway or [Hollywood].”

The noticeable absence of Asian Americans in film has irked some observers, who say that TV networks have done more to recruit actors of color. ABC, for example, recently announced that it had picked up two shows with Asian-American leads: Fresh Off the Boat, a series based on Taiwanese-American restaurateur Eddie Huang’s memoir, and Selfie, a comedy starring Harold & Kumar’s John Cho. “In a way, it’s not so much diversity as it is authenticity,” explained the network’s president Paul Lee, during a press tour last month.

It’s also a savvy business move. As the national audience becomes more racially diverse, the TV industry has placed its bets on shows that people can culturally appreciate. Today, most of these consumers are blacks, Hispanics and Asian Americans, whose buying power “has increased markedly over the past 20 years, out-pacing the total U.S. growth rate,” according to a UCLA study. But Hollywood has yet to adapt to this trend.

“I just don’t think there’s enough exposure for us,” says independent film producer Erik Lu. “In order for us to pop up on the Hollywood scene, we need to make sure that people who are writing Asian-American parts are coming through.”

Some artists have taken that matter into their own hands. In 2003, college buddies Philip Wang, Wesley Chan, and Ted Fu started Wong Fu Productions, an independent film production company whose videos have since garnered over 200 million YouTube views and more than two million subscribers. The trio casts mostly Asian Americans but often tells stories that are not unique to their identity, in an effort to prove that Asian Americans are marketable and share universal experiences. Many skits playfully and seriously deal with relationships.“The Last,” for example, focuses on a man who reflects on his exes, while “The Best Third Wheel in the World” humorously describes the perks of tagging along on a date.

“It’s important to show that we’re going to build up our star power on our own so that Hollywood can’t ignore that we have millions of followers,” Wang says.

The company’s dedication has paid off. Wong Fu has worked with several prominent Asian-American actors, including Veep’s Randall Park and Glee’s Harry Shum Jr., and it continues to raise the profile of countless others. They’re working on their first feature film, a romantic dramedy backed by more than $350,000 it raised by way of crowdfunding site Indiegogo. The movie is just one of its many works that will shed light on Asian-American talent.

“We’re committed to portraying Asian Americans in a positive light,” Chan says. “It’s important to represent the community as best as we can.”

Now, it’s Hollywood’s turn.

Written by: Justin Chan

August 20, 2014

Asian Americans in Sports History

Mirai_Nagasu_Spin_2008_Junior_Worlds-798434When sports are mentioned in the United States, few people initially think of Asian American athletes. In fact, most people can’t even name more than a small handful of Asian American athletes. In the United States, athletes are primarily either white or African American. Throughout the years, however, there has been an increase in the number of Asian American athletes, though the number of Asian Americans still cannot be compared to that of white athletes and African American athletes. Sammy Lee and Victoria Manalo-Draves were amongst the first Asian American athletes that broke through the sports barrier. They were the first Asian American athletes to ever win a gold medal at the Summer Olympics in 1948 London Games. Sammy  Lee first earned a medical degree due to his father’s wishes. However, he did not give up diving and won a gold medal in platform diving and a bronze on the springboard. He then continued in Helsinki in 1952, to win another gold in platform. Not only was he the first Asian American to do so, Sammy Lee was the first male athlete to win two gold medals in that event.

Following Sammy Lee and Victoria Manalo-Draves, there have been many other Asian American athletes who have been successful in the Olympics. Ford Konno, a Japanese American, won a gold medal in swimming in 1952. Amy Chow led her team to the United States’ first ever team gold medal in gymnastics in 1996. Other notable Asian American athletes that have broke through the sports barrier and opened doors for future generations are Michael Chang (tennis), Jim Paek (hockey), Dat Nguyen (football), Michelle Wie (golf), and Kristy Yamaguichi (ice skating).

In recent years, there has been a great rise in the number of Asian American ice skaters. Other than Kristy Yamaguichi, Michelle Kwan has been very successful as well. In the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, Mirai Nagasu was a representative of the US team. Many of the alternates for the US team were Asian American as well. While the number of Asian American athletes in individual sports is growing at a nice rate, there are still few Asian American athletes on team sports, such as football, basketball, baseball, and hockey.

In recent years though, a few Asian American athletes have played large roles on their teams. Don Wakamatsu has recently made history by becoming the first Asian American coach of a Major League Baseball team, specifically, the Seattle Mariners. Jeremy Lin is a prominent figure on his basketball team at Harvard. Jessica Wong has made a bang her first year on the University of Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey team.

Asian Americans are starting to break through the discrimination and stereotypes holding them back from participating in sports. With that and the success of Asian American athletes from previous generations, the interest in sports of Asian Americans is slowly growing.

Written by: Francis Kelly, Christine Lee, Jordan Lee, Connie Li


Crime against Asian Americans


In recent times, we have only seen racial discrimination in the form of crime towards African Americans, specifically towards police brutality. Discriminatory acts of violence towards Asians are therefore overlooked. A 62 year old Asian man was murdered as he was fishing off a pier in Chicago and was pushed into Lake Michigan. A 9 year old had to stand in court and talk about his 16 year old brother who was a casualty in a brawl consisting of Asian and White kids. 4 Asian American men were attacked in Douglaston, Queens which is a very Caucasian populated area with a recent stream of Asians coming in.

When we talk about discriminatory crime against Asians, most of the time it happens with the youth and the perpetrators are often, if not always, a person of a different race. This issue stems from the stereotype that Asians are weak (possibly because many of us are not as tall as the other races) and are often push overs. The stereotypical Asian is one with glasses and a tucked in shirt. He or she probably spends all day and night studying thus lacking a social life and deemed ‘uncool’. Many feminists say “I deserve to not be afraid of getting raped while walking the city streets” well, we Asians too would like to not be attacked.

In the following pieces of articles you will find that culturally, America has been and is somewhat not accepting of Asians. It is not an isolated event where a certain race (be it White or Black) is against them but it is a cultural issue that needs to be fixed. In these articles you will also find the gruesome extent to which Asians are not even safe walking around certain areas.