‘Big Hero 6′ shows that an Asian American cast can top the box office

Big Hero 6 stars (L to R): Hiro Hamada, Baymax & GoGo Tomago. Source: disney.wikia.com

Smithsonian Asian Pacific American:

 

This past weekend’s box office numbers are in, and Disney’s latest project Big Hero 6 stands soundly on top. This might not come as a big surprise, considering that Frozen-fever is still holding every auntie’s TV hostage – but the film still breaks ground, especially in the scope of Asian Americans in cinema. And Hollywood should take note.

 

Daneil Henney (left) and Ryan Potter (right), co-stars of Big Hero 6. Source: sanfransokyo-bae.tumblr.com (yes, that's a real URL)

Daniel Henney (left) and Ryan Potter (right), co-stars of Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 is a robotic sci-fi tale that revolves around Hiro Hamada,  Disney’s first explicitly mixed-heritage protagonist. Hamada is voiced by Ryan Potter, who is of Japanese and Caucasian descent himself. In fact, the entire film is placed in a “Hapa environment” of sorts, set in San Fransokyo, an architectural and cultural hybrid of the cities the name references.

Casting Asian Americans isn’t new to Disney, whose Mulan in 1998 was voiced by Ming-Na Wen, BD Wong and George Takei, among others.  Still, the studio has been inconsistent when it comes to this matter – the lead role in Lilo & Stitch wasn’t voiced by a Hawaiian (or an Asian Pacific American, for that matter), and we’d have to go as far back as Aladdin or even The Jungle Book to locate another Disney animation starring characters from a broader Asian origin (let’s pretend the Siamese Cats from Lady and the Tramp never happened).

Among those mentioned films, the only voice actor of Asian descent was Lea Salonga for Princess Jasmine’s singing parts. So while Big Hero 6 is a fictitious metropolis which never reveals what country it’s actually in, its cultural mash-up of settings, characters and themes means it could very well be Disney’s first Asian/American film that actually stars Asian American actors.

Hollywood’s reputation for placing white actors in Asian roles is a tale as old as time – from Goku in Dragonball: Evolution to Aang in The Last Airbender, glossing over the past century of Asian roles in American film would show little progress since Paul Muni and Luise Rainer donned yellowface in 1937’s The Good Earth. The track record for animation hasn’t been fantastic either, with white actors playing the lead roles in both Avatar series’ and the English dubs for Dragonball Z and Pokemon (I just ruined my childhood going through those links, BTW. You’re welcome).

 

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’m not the only one who has been griped by this cinematic phenomenon. When 2010’s The Last Airbender revealed an all-white cast (minus Dev Patel as the villain, of course), it caused such an uproar that an entire website called Racebending was launched against the production, and multiple petitions continue to call for a reboot of the franchise. Director M. Night Shyamalan, who’s Indian American himself, seemed aloof about the matter, insisting that the diversity of the cast and crew was on par with the United Nations. Those who have tried to actually find logic in prioritizing white actors in these roles have eluded to Asian and Asian American actors having less audience appeal than white actors, despite the fact that these films have failed among critics and fans alike.

Enter Big Hero 6, adapted from an obscure Marvel series about a Japanese counterpart to the Avengers. Unlike other Marvel titles like X-Men – which has an existing fanbase, or other Disney films like Maleficent – which is based on a childhood classic, Big Hero 6 relies on Disney’s promotion engine and, more importantly, its characters and storyline. Merely being a Disney film hasn’t always been a shoe-in (anyone watching The Rescuers: Down Under tonight?), but critics and audiences have been singing this one’s praises since it opened at the Tokyo International Film Festival late last month.

 

A night view of San Fransokyo, the make-believe home of the Big Hero 6. Source: disney.wikia.com

 

Debuting an awesome cartoon about Asians in the land known for cranking out awesome cartoons about Asians is a tough job for anyone, but Big Hero 6‘s ability to exhibit cultural tropes between America and Japan without being overly cheesy or offensive was impressive even to a cinema Grinch like me. Sure, I scoffed a bit at the pagoda-topped Golden Gate Bridge, but I also couldn’t help but feel validated to hear someone on the big screen say “red bean paste” as casually as one would say “hot dog.” The cast is diverse enough to make me suspect at least one member of the talent scout was a former member of the Third World Liberation Front – Potter, along with Daniel Henney, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans, Jr. and Génesis Rodríguez make T.J. Miller and Scott Adsit’s roles the only two not filled by an actor of color.

 

"Big Hero 6" © 2014 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

 

I must say that I left the film with a bittersweet feeling, as I was disappointed when I didn’t see any Asian American names in the credits among the top-level crew – this is a testament to the fact that much progress is yet to be made. But where Big Hero 6 does succeed is that it actually tried what many of us knew would work all along – make characters that reflect the audience, and hire actors who reflect those characters. So if anyone else in Hollywood is still wondering if our audiences are ready to see more Asian Pacific Americans in the big screen, I’ll leave you with yet another box office dominator:

therock

 

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ABC commits to changes after Jimmy Kimmel Live controversy

 

AsAmNews:

A coalition of community groups recently met with executives from ABC to discuss the recent “kill everyone in China” segment on Jimmy Kimmel.

According to a letter sent out by the Organization of Chinese Americans to its membership, the network committed to a number of changes.

Some of them had previously been announced.

They included:

  • The formation of a community-network advisory group to develop national programming during APA Heritage Month in May.
  • Regular meetings with Executive Producers to develop more roles for Asian Pacific American actors
  • Cultural sensitivity training for network staff
  • A commitment to not air any more segments using the Kids Table Format which the “kill everyone in China” segment aired under
  • Removal of Kids Table segment from Jimmy Kimmel Live, their website and social media
  • Acknowledgement that such language can lead to hate crimes
  • An apology to the community

Among those groups attending the meeting were Media Action Network for Asian Americans, Chinese American Citizens Alliance, Japanese American Citizens League, National Council of Chinese Americans, East West Players and the Organization of Chinese Americans.

We are pleased and optimistic about the outcomes of our meeting with ABC. They committed to addressing the damage done by the ‘kill everyone in China’ statement. And they have also taken proactive measures to prevent another incident,” OCA said in its letter signed by Executive Director Tom Hayashi and OCA President Sharon Wong.

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ABC commits to changes after Jimmy Kimmel Live controversy

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One-Third of Korean Americans are smokers, study says

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A new report suggests that tobacco continues its tight grip on the Korean American community, with a disturbing increase in second-generation female smokers, in particular.

Smoking rates have been steadily declining for decades in the United States, thanks to increased restrictions, higher taxes on tobacco products and effective anti-smoking campaigns in the media and at schools. But for Korean Americans, as well as other Asian communities, the rates have remained at high levels.

That is reason for concern because the three leading causes of death for Korean Americans—cancer, heart disease and stroke—are all associated with smoking. Smoking is also the leading cause of preventable illness and death in the U.S., accounting for one in five deaths, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  The harmful health effects of smoking are common knowledge, and though an estimated 80 percent of Korean American smokers want to quit, according to a recent survey, the addiction has a stronger grip than people realize.

It’s a tough habit to break. Tobacco use and smoking are an addiction, and I think for the Asian American community, in particular, there are a lot of challenges,” said Rod Lew, the founder and executive director of Asian Pacific Partners for Empowerment, Advocacy and Leadership (APPEAL), a group that aims to reduce health disparities in the Asian Pacific American community.  APPEAL has been working with APA communities across the country for 20 years, said Lew, trying to build their expertise on why there is high tobacco use and ways to counter the trend.

We need to be able to get messages to them through resources that are culturally appropriate,” he said.  Lew’s group recently released an 88-page report that provides new data and insights about tobacco use among Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, and also discusses effective approaches to combating smoking in these communities.

The special journal supplement, Promising Practices to Eliminate Tobacco Disparities Among Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Communities, was done in collaboration with the bimonthly health journal Health Promotion Practice.

This is only the second time a report of this kind, dedicated to AAPI communities, has been released, said Lew.

It’s a historic document that has within it several articles that talk about what works around tobacco prevention and control in our communities,” he said.

One of the more alarming statistics in the report is that Asian Americans had the highest rates of smoking out of any ethnic group surveyed in New York City in 2009. While most ethnic groups experienced a significant drop in smoking rates between 2002 to 2010, the smoking rate for Asian men stayed relatively the same, at 17 percent.

Lew noted, in reality, this number could actually be much higher. Mainstream research studies have estimated that only 9 percent of Asian Americans (men and women) smoke nationally, but Lew says the figure is inaccurate because it is based on surveys usually conducted in English, with a small number of Asians included.

Mainstream studies also tend to lump all Asian groups together, despite the great diversity within the Asian Pacific Islander communities. That’s why, he said, it’s important that research also looks at the distinct profiles of AAPI sub-ethnic groups, as the APPEAL report did.

According to that report, an estimated one-third of Korean Americans today are smokers. The study also revealed that second-generation Korean Americans are more likely to be smokers than first-generation Korean Americans. This figure was surprising, given the fact that second-generation Korean Americans, having been raised in the U.S., were exposed to aggressive anti-smoking campaigns in the past decades and, it is assumed, would have a higher awareness of the health consequences of tobacco use than the immigrant generation.

Lew believes this high rate among the second generation can be explained, in part, by a notable spike in the number of female Korean American smokers over the years, and that increased the overall number.  During the height of the tobacco industry’s campaign to target Asian American females, a 1990s Lorillard Tobacco Company internal memo revealed its corporate strategy to capture this emerging market: “The literature suggests that Asian American women are smoking more as they believe they should enjoy the same freedom as men.” Lew suggested that we are now experiencing the consequences of the tobacco industry’s successful marketing to Asian American females.

Anti-tobacco efforts meanwhile are not effectively reaching segments of the Asian American community, said Lew. “We need to be able to get messages to them through resources that are culturally appropriate,” he said.  Informing parents about the harmful impact that smoking has on children has proven an effective tool with Asian American communities. Lew also said APPEAL provides a smokers’ quit phone line that is available in different Asian languages. This development is fairly new outside of California and has allowed smokers to call in and get information, telephone coaching and, often, access to free nicotine replacement medicines that help smokers end their addiction.

The group also advocates for legislation banning smoking in public places. Almost half of all states currently require smoke-free indoor air, a policy that experts say is an effective deterrent to tobacco use. However, a challenge for the Korean American community has been the lax enforcement of secondhand smoking laws. Despite regulations prohibiting smoking in public places in California, it is not uncommon to walk into a Koreatown restaurant or bar and see patrons unabashedly lighting up.

Yet, that picture contrasts sharply with Korean American public opinion at large. According to the APPEAL report, 83.4 percent of Korean Americans strongly prefer to eat in a smoke-free restaurant, and 96 percent strongly agree or slightly agree that second-hand smoke is harmful.

While having the laws in place is a good step forward in reducing secondhand smoke, Lew emphasizes that it is also important to do grassroots education.

I think that is a combination of working with Korean community leaders, as well as doing what we call ‘changing the community norms’ around smoking, so that members within the Korean communities recognize that it is not safe or appropriate to smoke in a public place,” he said.

This takes strong leadership and courage,” said Lew, “and saying no to traditions that need to be broken.”

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One-Third of Korean Americans are smokers, study says