Entertainment Weekly: Get to know Awkwafina before she’s in Ocean’s 8

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Entertainment Weekly (by Nolan Feeney):

It’s not every day that the cast of an upcoming ensemble film—like the women-led Ocean’s 8 project—is as good as the one you dream-cast in your head. But EW confirmed Wednesday that Warner Bros. is finalizing a coterie of stars that includes Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Rihanna, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, and Awkwafina a.k.a. rapper and comedian Nora Lum. That last name might not mean as much to the masses as, say, RiRi or Bellatrix Lestrange—at least not yet—but here’s why you should get excited anyway.

Her claim to fame is a hilarious viral video

Awkwafina made waves on the internet with 2012’s “My Vag,” a response to Mickey Avalon’s “My Dick” that she first wrote and recorded on GarageBand when she was 19.

You’ve definitely seen her before

She had a hilarious turn as one of the Kappa Nu sisters in this year’s Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, but she’s popped up on screen in a few other places, like as a co-host of MTV’s Girl Code Live and as a subject of the Tribeca Film Festival documentary Bad Rap, about Asian-Americans in hip-hop.

She’s got a classic New York origin story

Awkwafina grew up in Queens, studied music at the famed LaGuardia High School for the performing arts, and later graduated with a journalism degree from SUNY Albany in 2011. At LaGuardia, she planted the seeds for what would become Awkwafina with her own mock news show. “I used to chop up C-Span soundbites or interviews with politicians like John Kerry or Bill Clinton into a radio-esque show hosted by Awkwafina and her producer, Mookie,” she told The Daily Dot in 2014. “I would pitch down my vocals to have male guests, and would send them to a small circle of friends after they were done.”

She specializes in LOL-worthy raps

Really funny—her 2014 debut, Yellow Ranger, saw her take on Brooklyn hipsters and gentrification with songs like the title track (“Shout out to Greenpoint, Kielbasa in the oven/Greenpoint, where all the bitches look like Lena Dunham”) and “NYC Bitche$” (“New York City bitch, that’s where I come from/not where I moved to on Mom and Dad’s trust fund”). Some of the tracks are fairly New York-centric—“Mayor Bloomberg (Giant Margarita)” was inspired by Michael Bloomberg’s “soda ban”—but that won’t stop non-residents from enjoying them.

Her latest jam features a legendary comedian

She and Margaret Cho, who’s no stranger to re-working that Mickey Avalon song herself, teamed up earlier this year for “Green Tea,” which pokes fun at Asian stereotypes. “I remember watching Margaret Cho with my grandmother on TV,” Awkafina told the blog Angry Asian Man, which premiered the video. “She was my hero, not only because she was funny, but because she showed me that it’s okay to be yourself, that it’s okay to be a brash yellow girl, and to be a strong and brave woman.”

Margaret Cho slams SNL for inviting Donald Trump to host

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OUT.com: 

Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump is set to host Saturday Night Live next month, a move that has left many people outraged. Comedian Margaret Cho joined the foray, slamming producers for inviting a “known racist” to participate while failing for decades to promote true racial equality.

Taking aim, Cho said:

Why has there never been an Asian-American host, cast member or musical guest on ‘SNL’ in 41 years? Forty-one years. Yet they want Donald Trump, a known racist, a known sexist, who disgustingly wants to have sex with his daughter. Who does he think he is, Woody Allen?”

“People come at me and say, ‘Oh, Fred Armisen is a quarter Japanese, Rob Schneider is half Filipino.’ Yeah, that makes three-quarters of an Asian-American, not even in one person, in 41 years.

Cho went on to suggest herself as a musical guest and Ken Jeong and George Takei as potential hosts.

Ken Jeong moves to center stage on ABC comedy ‘Dr. Ken’

Ken Jeong: I Was an 'Intense' Doctor Before I Became an Actor

LA Times (by Greg Braxton):

Comedian Ken Jeong used to be a doctor in real life. Now he’s playing one on TV. The outrageous Jeong, who has been a reliable comedic sprinkle in movies (“The Hangover” franchise) and TV shows (“Community“), is moving to center stage with his own sitcom, ABC’s “Dr. Ken.”

Although Jeong is the main focus, he stressed that the series is an ensemble show with its settings in the medical office and his home.

It’s ensemble driven, with my life as a doctor serving as a building block,” said Jeong at a Television Critics Assn. press tour presentation.

When one reporter at the session pointed out that ABC was the same network that programmed the ill-fated “American Girl” with Margaret Cho 20 years ago, Jeong said that he was very involved in his show, both as a writer and a producer, and that Cho likely was not allowed that level of creative participation.

The series features Jeong as a brilliant physician whose bedside manner can be best described as “edgy.” Although he is trying to get better, his staff is always after him to be nicer. He’s also a devoted husband and father who is overprotective of his two children.

He jokingly referred to himself as a “second-generation Asian American Fred MacMurray,” referring to the classic father figure in the 1960s sitcom “My Three Sons.”

Jeong was a physician in an HMO several years ago, doing stand-up comedy on the side. He said he was very intense and serious as a doctor and that his patients were relieved when they learned that he had a sideline as a comedian.

They said, ‘It’s so good you have a hobby,’ ” Jeong said. When Judd Apatow cast him as a doctor in “Knocked Up,” Jeong won raves for his comic timing and persona.

“‘Knocked Up’ changed my life,” he said. His wife encouraged him to pursue show business full time.

Jeong is one of the executive producers and a writer for “Dr. Ken.”

“A conversation with cultural critic/Jeopardy champ Arthur Chu on nerd culture, Asians, and media

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The Awl:

Since Arthur Chu’s historic win streak on Jeopardy! early last year, he’s shrewdly turned his still-minty viral celebrity into a regular gig as a cultural critic and, as some have put it, “the ombudsman of the nerd community.”

At Nom Wah Tea Parlor in Manhattan’s Chinatown, we talked about milking his fifteen minutes, the crisis of nerd culture, and becoming an unlikely Asian-American male icon over a plate of chicken feet. (For me, since he politely declined.)

Is online celebrity strange?

It is, because stuff that’s happening on Twitter, you feel like it’s the whole world and you step off for a few minutes and it doesn’t matter to the majority of people. Even to the extent that it does, there’s a huge decoupling of what makes you important online. A lot of times, I just throw up my hands and say, “I don’t even know what my follower count means anymore.” You just have to keep that in perspective. It affects the real world but it’s something separate from the real world.

What did you do after Jeopardy!?

Call up publicists and PR firms, and said straight up, “Hey, do you work with viral celebrities?” Then I’d ask, “If you were me, how would you hang on to the fame, how would you monetize it?” I got good answers—they weren’t bad answers—but it was stuff I couldn’t imagine myself doing. It was stuff like, “Well you should take the whole idea of game theory and you should become an advice kind of guy, you should do lifehacker stuff, stuff like how-tos on how to invest, get a mortgage.” I said, “That stuff doesn’t interest me.” I didn’t want to keep talking about that for the rest of my life.

You started writing for the Daily Beast. There was that piece that was a critique of nerd culture, and specifically the misogyny in nerd culture, which seems to be a topic you’re obsessed with talking about.

I was the weird smart kid when I was in school, and it sucks being isolated for any reason. But especially guys in our culture, when you feel like you have no romantic prospects, the girls look down on you. It’s baked into our TV, books, and media, that validation comes from girls who like you, and being rejected by girls is sort of being rejected by society. I didn’t date much, and when I’d have fights with my girlfriend in high school, it would always come back to me feeling this sense of being judged. Like, you’re a girl, you’re attractive, you’re automatically on this higher level than me, on this pedestal. People always talk about this like it’s a good thing. The nice guy narrative—“Oh, I admire you so much. I would lavish so much attention on you”—that quickly becomes about getting what you want. Resentment.

I feel like what happened with Jeopardy! was that I got public recognition of my membership in this club. The nerd club. I was specifically lambasted online for being a nerd. If you want to talk about nerds being an oppressed class, a ton of people attacked me in public for being socially awkward, the way I came off. And yet I still have a huge problem with the narrative of the nerd underdog that’s being used to justify all of these things. Awkward guys have taken a lot of abuse, but we are not the actual victims right now in society. We’re taking our past victimization and using it to justify the terrible things that we do. Weirdly enough, I started saying this, and this past year become the year of the big events that highlight that. Elliot Rodger, Gamergate, the low-level nastiness that’s in gamer culture just blows up, and starts drawing attention to itself. That’s not unique there. You see it everywhere when people say, “Oh Christians are oppressed in the US. Or white people are oppressed.” Everyone wants to have that victimization narrative.

How do you see this affecting Asian-American men?

Speaking of horrible things on the Internet, there was a forum called AutoAdmit. One of their memes was this guy who would get really mad and post a photo every time he saw a white guy with an Asian girl. You know this is a long simmering issue in our community. That blog “Stuff White People Like” had a post that said, “What do white guys like? Asian women.”

Everyone thought that he was an Asian guy for a while because of how angry he sounded about that. Anytime there’s a fracture between Asian man and Asian women, it’s always like, Well who are you trying to date? Why are you trying to date white guys? Why are you trying to date white girls?

I’m in this Facebook group that’s basically just Asian guys railing about why Asian women don’t date Asian men, and their perceptions about how Asian men are emasculated in the media. There’s all of this anger and resentment.

Yeah! I mean, I can speak to this. When The Joy Luck Club, way back when, was a bestseller, the one woman’s story whose life most closely mirrored Amy Tan’s—she marries a white guy. And it’s the happy ending. Every Asian man in this story is a horrible abuser, or he’s an unloving cold fish that gets dumped for a white guy. It was a small part of what the book was about. But for a lot of Asian guys, it hit pretty hard. Some guys make it a whole part of that men’s rights activist thing, saying Asian women are privileged relative to Asian men—Asian men are almost an unnecessary demographic.

A lot of the positions you take perhaps aren’t mainstream Asian-American positions. Talking about race, talking about police violence, talking about sexism.

You get raised to run away from politics. That was how I was raised, in an evangelical Christian family. People from our backgrounds, you want to be just like everyone else. You want to integrate into American culture, you want to be invisible, you want to be the same as your white friends. For me, that was very much true. For a long time I’d say things like, “Why bring up race? Why not try to be colorblind? Why not have an identity that’s distinct from any racial background you have?” I was one of those guys. I’m an American. No hyphen.

There’s just a point—the more you confront what America actually is and how America works—you can’t say that America is apart from race. America is race. It’s a series of colonies that were founded by people taking land away from people who they felt didn’t deserve it. Because of race and then working the land with people who were enslaved because of race. It’s built on that. Do you look at your black friend and say, “I don’t see your race. It’s just a coincidence that you get stopped by cops when my white friends don’t. It’s just a coincidence that this black kid got shot”? When you try to be an actor and you look around and say, “Hey, there’s no other Asians here. Weird”? There are all these spec sheets that they put out, audition sheets, and they all say, “Whites or other race.” I’d like to keep thinking that it’s just merit, but gosh, it feels like, once you actually have your eyes open, you can’t keep lying to yourself about that stuff anymore.

What does it feel like to become a bit of an Asian-American icon?

I thought it was weird. I compared it to Linsanity when I first started thinking about it. It’s not just that there is a successful Asian-American that’s in a field that we’re not used to—we get sick and tired of the same narrative, someone with a web-based business, some computer scientist, an engineer. To see someone become successful in a different way, it’s liberating. I didn’t think an Asian-American winning on Jeopardy!by itself would be a big deal. The funny thing being there’ve been very few champions who are Asian-American—the contestant pool has been overwhelmingly white. So it was funny when it happened and people were like, “an Asian guy winning Jeopardy!, that’s predictable.”

The idea of an Asian in the news for being controversial and unapologetic, for having strong opinions… Asians are supposed to work hard and do well but not to make waves. Not to create controversy. When you’re raised to think that’s not your place, to me, it’s important to make that space. It’s okay to be loud and rude and opinionated as an Asian. It’s a good thing.

Margaret Cho comes to mind.

Yeah, like Margaret Cho! Her show, her standup is so good, and her show, as soon as they gave it to her, they were like, “We can’t let this happen, we have to shape it into something that we’re comfortable with.” Pat Morita did stand up his whole life, he was a very outspoken, profane, funny guy. But America remembers him as Mr. Miyagi.

That’s how I remember him too, to be honest.

Exactly. That’s what they want to see. So it’s always fighting to see something else, to push some other narrative.

Did this influence you as a kid? This lack of a different narrative about Asian-Americans.

I often grew up in communities where there weren’t many Asian kids, so I tried to identify with my white friends.Then there was the flip side, in high school, when we moved to California, and there were a lot of Asians. I didn’t fit in with them either. My dad always had this idea, once you’re with other Asians who won’t reject you because of your race, you’ll fit right in. I was like, “No! I’m still a weird person.” Most Asian-American kids in LA are like white American kids in LA—they have certain tastes, and it was very, very different from me. It was always me kind of feeling like, whatever community I’m in, I’m always different. Having spent a lot of my life feeling alienated from the Asian-American community, it’s weird to be welcome back.

How so?

In retrospect, I know there’s been Asian-American activists being very loud and political even before I was alive, but where I lived, it just wasn’t visible. That’s not something we do, that’s something that Black activists do. I think it would’ve made a lot of things easier for me if I’d had those messages—like it’s okay to be mad about racism, it’s okay to talk about it, it’s okay to think about and analyze things in terms of race, instead of just pretending like you don’t notice.

Would you describe yourself as an Asian-American activist?

I’d like to think of myself as one. A slacktivist, maybe. I haven’t put in as much work as people who’ve put in work, but it’s something I care about.

So what’s next for you?

I’m looking at writing a book about my journey on Jeopardy! and the idea of success around nerdy guys in America.

Any title ideas yet?

No, not yet.

Time to get on the Chu-chu train? I can tell from your face that you’re not really into that.

Ken Jennings likes Chu-phoria.

Haters Gonna Hate: An Interview with Constance Wu of “Fresh Off the Boat”

Haters Gonna Hate: An Interview with Fresh Off the Boat's Constance Wu

The Muse:

Constance Wu is living the dream of every up and coming actor—landing the lead on a hit sitcom on a major network with a rapt audience. But Wu’s role as Jessica Huang, Taiwanese mom of three boys on Fresh Off the Boat, is more than just a sweet gig—it’s historical, as FOTB is only the second Asian American-centric sitcom in 20 years after Margaret Cho‘s All-American Girl in 1994. Add to the pot the outspoken opinions of the show’s creator Chef Eddie Huang, who went from bashing the show to supporting it in a matter of days, Wu’s first big break is breaking color lines and studio systems. But the 26-year-old is taking all of it in stride because haters gonna hate, you know?

For your first sitcom, your comedic timing is great without trying too hard. How do you strike that balance with Randall Park, who plays your husband Louis Huang, and the three boys Hudson Yang, Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen?

This is only the second comedy I’ve ever done and it didn’t work until I stopped trying to be funny. That’s the trap. Whenever you’re trying to be funny, it becomes cloying and manipulative. My goal with my performance is to be as true as possible.

People think that Jessica’s accent is funny but no one writes jokes about her accent. The humor comes from the writers giving me very funny situations and lines. What makes her so refreshing is that she has an accent and doesn’t know perfect English but she doesn’t think that’s a reason for her not to have a voice and a very loud one at that. That’s what’s interesting and fun about her and playing against Randall and the boys because we’re all just trying to have a good time and tell a specific story.

Speaking of the accent, some felt it was very controversial for you to portray Mrs. Huang with her Taiwanese accent. Why do you think accents in general are so divisive when it reflects actual humans?

Asians have been so rarely represented in mainstream media and historically, especially in the early stages, the accent was used as a humor tool with jokes written about it. But now I would challenge people who say that Jessica’s accent is stereotypical and ask what does that mean? An accent is not a stereotype, it’s just a set of linguistic phonetic changes that happen when your mother tongue has a different set of phonetic constraints than the newer language that you are now speaking. Stereotype enters when that accent is used for the purpose of humor. Of course there are people who are laughing at my character’s accent for very coarse reasons, but we aren’t writing jokes about the accent. It’s an important shift to make.

Recently, a lot of Asians actors want to neutralize their roles on television and say ‘This person is playing a character who happens to be Asian and that has nothing to do with their identity.’

That is a trend that is flying across all minorities, it seems…

My grandfather was an illiterate bamboo farmer and my dad really had to work himself up academically to get a full ride scholarship and a Ph.D in biology in America. He didn’t have a leg up anywhere, he had to work to get that. To even say that that type of journey has nothing to do with my place and opportunities now is dishonorable.

I don’t think that identity is purely determined by race and if a story wants to focus on other things that are important to the narrative, that’s great. But it’s not harmful to say that ethnicity plays an important part in identity and that that part of the story matters. It’s not fodder for humor, it’s just another unique and beautiful element of humanity. Hopefully, we celebrate that. And we’re also a comedy! We want that comedy to be great and warm in our show, which Randall and I both found important.

How’s Fresh Off the Boat been as your first TV experience, between participating in the first Asian American sitcom in 20 years and the tumultuous process creator Eddie Huang had making it?

Eddie and I are new to network television. Before this show I’d done one guest star on Law & Order when I was in college. The network system is established, so being a newbie in this already established constrained situation, we struggled to find our footing. There can be the danger of gratitude becoming complacency which Eddie wasn’t willing to let happen. I think he had to realize which battles he needed to lose in order to win the greater war of representation. Even for myself as an actor, there were certain parts that I was uncomfortable with in terms of lines I was given.

As someone new to television, I wasn’t sure how openly I was allowed to express my opinion. I certainly didn’t want to tread on the toes of people who have more experience than I but I didn’t want to let that inexperience be why my voice and opinion were not valid. Straddling that line was nerve-racking. I didn’t protest too much, instead I found a way within my character work to make it work.

Then last week I emailed our show runner Nahnatchka Khan about a live reading I gave in episode nine or ten. In the first takes, I was trying hard to be clever and improved these funny lines and then on the last take—the scene was with Hudson (Eddie’s character)—for the first time, I actually heard what Hudson said to me, which was ‘You did good mom,’ and I had a genuine response to it. So I emailed Nahnatchka and wrote ‘When I’m doing that series of takes and I’m trying really hard to be clever and funny, and I know that it came off, but if you don’t mind, could we use the last take because I have plenty of times during the series where I’m clever and funny. The last one was the only take in which I actually heard what Hudson was saying to me.’ She emailed me back like, ‘We did use one of your clever takes and we just re-watched it and you’re right. The last take you did was good and it was lovely for a different reason and if that really means something to you, we’ll change it.’

I was stunned because I thought, ‘She’s been doing this forever but this means something to me. So I’m gonna say it with as much respect as possible and if she says ‘No’ at least I tried.’ But she said yes and added ‘Don’t be afraid to ask things like that, I really want to run this with an open door.’ Because Eddie has been so vocal from the beginning—and in the beginning, maybe they didn’t listen to him as much—I think it’s making the system change a bit. People were quick to stigmatize the conflict that Eddie was expressing but that’s just people trying to do better and figuring out how. And of course he’s gonna be sensitive about the show, it’s about his family.

You spoke earlier of stereotypes and a bit of the Tiger Mom trope arises in your portrayal of Jessica Huang when she begins tutoring her three boys after school. Was that something you had to negotiate?

We have real source material in Jessica Huang. I don’t think I should play against a stereotype just to fight the war against stereotypes. Because I’m playing a role that carries the show and a character that has an arc, occasionally elements of Jessica’s personality do fall into a Tiger Mom stereotype. But I’m playing them because they are true to her, not because I am exploiting a stereotype. I’m never doing that. You have to serve the truth of the character and Jessica Huang does what she digs, whether or not it falls into a stereotype.

Chris Rock said that if Tom Hanks does a project, he’s free to fail, but if Denzel Washington does something, he’s representing the entire black race. How are you handling the pressure of being the first Asian American family on network television in 20 years?

I feel that pressure but it’s not something that’s manifesting itself in my work. Sure, there is a burden of representation but the burden shouldn’t be to represent every Asian ever. The burden is to represent an Asian story with as much truth as possible that it touches something in other people and strikes up a curiosity for an experience that is different than your own. Then that gets the ball rolling for others to make individual stories based in truth, intelligence and compassion. My job is not to give you a watered down McDonald’s version of an Asian family so that your next door neighbor thinks, ‘Oh they’re just like me.’ I’m not like freaking out, haters gonna hate, lovers gonna love. People like authenticity and courage, that’s why people like Eddie. Haters will always hate, they’ll see a beautiful flower and be like ‘Ugh, look at that flower!’

Fresh Off the Boat airs Tuesdays at 8/7 Central on ABC.

NY Times: “Eddie Huang Against the World”

NY Times (by Wesley Yang):

On a cold, dark street in Tijuana, Mexico, I asked Eddie Huang a question that many people were sure to ask him in the months to come. “What did you expect?

For the past week in December, Huang had been venting about his tortured ambivalence toward “Fresh Off the Boat,” the ABC sitcom based on the memoir he wrote about growing up as a child of Taiwanese immigrants in Orlando, Fla. He deployed his gift for pithy, wounding invective against the show’s producers and writers — before professing gratitude and love for the same people he just vilified. He described what he took to be the show’s falseness and insensitivity to nuance — before praising its first episode as the best sitcom pilot he had ever seen. He lamented the choice he had made to sell his life rights to a major network — before insisting that the premiere of “Fresh Off the Boat” on Feb. 4 would be a milestone, not just in the history of television but in the history of the United States.

He had a point. “Fresh Off the Boat” would be the first network sitcom to star an Asian-American family in 20 years and only the third attempt by any major network in the history of the medium. Huang chose to sign with ABC in deference to the residual power of network television to alter mass perceptions about race, and he had hoped to portray the Asian-immigrant experience without equivocation or compromise.

What did I expect?” Huang responded. “I expected I could change things.” He told me that he thought his story was powerful enough for ABC to allow him to tell it his way. “I thought that people in network television had their own conscience about things.”

Huang, 32, was dressed in an acid-wash denim jacket and a black fur hat with its earflaps folded up, which lent his large, round baby face a not-at-all-coincidental resemblance to a certain East Asian dictator. (Huang likes to give himself nicknames — Kim Jong Trill, the Rotten Banana, the Human Panda, the Chinkstronaut — all of which, like the name of his show, repurpose and reclaim slurs and stereotypes.) He was sitting on the back fender of a Vice Media van, in which a five-man crew was preparing its equipment to shoot. We were waiting for two young female marijuana dealers whom Huang would be interviewing for “Huang’s World,” the gonzo food and travel show he hosts for Vice.

He had, he admitted, been extremely naïve about the realities of network television. By way of explanation, Huang reviewed for me the string of previous triumphs that induced him to overrate his ability to set his own terms in the world. “You have to remember how unlikely all of this was. With Baohaus, for instance,” he said, referring to the basement hole-in-the-wall Taiwanese sandwich shop that took Huang to the forefront of a new generation of hip young New York chefs, “I had never worked in a New York City restaurant. I came out of nowhere. And I did it!” After a brief dalliance with the Cooking Channel, Huang started the Vice show, which at the time was called “Fresh Off the Boat.” “When had there been a television host with an identity like mine — a hip-hop Asian kid? I was the first! And the show was a huge success!” In 2013, he published a memoir, the story that Huang had always wanted to tell, and it became a national best seller. “And so I said, We can do this one more time! But network television wasn’t what I thought it was.”

Huang feels that by adulterating the specificity of his childhood in the pursuit of universal appeal, the show was performing a kind of “reverse yellow­face” — telling white American stories with Chinese faces. He doesn’t want to purchase mainstream accessibility at the expense of the distinctiveness of his lived experiences, though he is aware of how acutely Asian-­Americans hunger for any kind of cultural recognition. “Culturally, we are in an ice age,” he said. “We don’t even have fire. We don’t even have the wheel. If this can be the first wheel, maybe others can make three more.”

Then, he added, “we can get an axle and build a rice rocket.”

The story Huang tells in his memoir is one of survival and struggle in a hostile environment — a prosperous neighborhood in Orlando. Though the picaresque book is written in Huang’s jaunty mash-up of hip-hop lingo and conspicuously learned references to American history and literature, it is also an extraordinarily raw account of an abused and bullied child who grows to inflict violence on others. The racism Huang encounters in Florida is not underhanded, implicit or subtle, as it often is for the many Asians from the professional classes living in and around the coastal cities where the American educated elite reside. It is open, overt and violent.

Up North and out West, you have a bit more focus on academics, and there are accelerated programs for high-achieving kids,” said Emery Huang, reflecting on the tumultuous upbringing he shared with his brother. “Down South, you’ve got football and drinking, and that’s it. If you weren’t fighting, you were a nerd and a victim.” In response to this bullying, the Huang brothers did not conform to the docile stereotypes of Asian-American youths, in large part because of the influence of their father, Louis. A hardened, street-smart man, Louis had been sent by his own father to the United States to get him away from the hoodlums he had been running with in Taipei. “We wouldn’t get in trouble with our dad if we got into a fight,” Emery said. “We would get in trouble if we didn’t win.”

Huang’s memoir records an unusual life trajectory: from tormented outsider, to angry adolescent who would twice be arrested on assault charges, to marijuana dealer, to high-end street-wear designer (under the “Hoodman” label, which eventually led to a lawsuit from Bergdorf Goodman), to corporate lawyer, to successful restaurateur. The book fixates on themes of pain and punishment. As a teenager, Huang was commanded by his father to kneel and bow to police officers after he was caught stealing from neighbors. Later, he would find himself surrounded by cops with guns drawn after he drove his car into a crowd of frat guys who were menacing him and several friends (after one of his own broke a window at their house).

At times, Huang comes across in his memoir as a dutiful son who admires and reveres his parents and feels the enormous weight of obligation to them — “I wasn’t mad at my dad,” he writes after being forced to remain kneeling on his asphalt driveway for several hours, “I deserved it” — and at others as an enraged teenager, rebelling against constant assaults on his self-esteem to which he was subjected in the home — he recalls “constantly being told I was a fan tong (rice bucket), fat-ass or waste of space.” He finds in hip-hop a language for his alienation, citing Tupac Shakur’s “Me Against the World” as the cathartic soundtrack of his youth. (“Our parents, Confucius, the model-minority [expletive] and kung-fu-style discipline are what set us off,” he wrote. “But Pac held us down.”)

In Los Angeles later in December, while driving with Huang in his canary yellow Porsche Boxster to his Malibu apartment, I asked him what his parents thought of his portrayal of the abuse they inflicted on him.

My parents have never acknowledged that it was abuse — because in their culture and their country it wasn’t,” he said. Huang believes that the psychological and physical harm that was done to him was largely a matter of context. “I think the abuse had extra meaning that I gave to it, because I saw that it wasn’t happening to other kids.” For a time, every Friday afternoon, Huang said, social workers would take him out of class to inspect him for cuts and bruises. “And I knew that I was weird and different and was made to feel like I had done something wrong, like there was something wrong with us.”

The book proposal for “Fresh Off the Boat” was sent to publishers not long after an excerpt from Amy Chua’s memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” appeared in The Wall Street Journal. The commercial prospects of Huang’s proposal were almost certainly enhanced by this coincidence: Chua’s book indirectly addressed the chief preoccupation of the American upper-middle class — getting their children into top-tier colleges — and therefore generated one of the infrequent moments in which Asian-­Americans aroused the fascination of the wider American public. Chua made Asian-Americans matter just long enough for Huang’s proposal to sell as a counternarrative to hers.

The Journal excerpt, titled “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior,” gave what Chua would later claim was a misleading impression of the overall arc of her book, which chronicled the crisis that ensued when her younger daughter revolted against “Chinese” parenting methods that might seem “unimaginable — even legally actionable” to Western parents. But the marketing campaign, of which the excerpt was a part, appealed to an underlying (and not entirely unjustified) concern among white American parents that they had grown too indulgent toward their children. Huang found the book repellent. “She Kumon-ized our existence,” he told me, referring to the popular Japanese after-school learning program. “This is something that 50- and 60-year-old Asians are still dealing with.”

When I spoke to Huang’s parents, they didn’t deny his claims, but they emphasized that there was a cultural and generational gap. They were young at the time, they said, and they had reverted to parenting practices they saw in Taiwan. “I wanted to make them tough,” his father said, “and I think that I did.” Emery, however, claims that his brother’s harsh depiction of their childhood in the book seemed “sugarcoated.”

Still, Huang is quick to say that he never thinks of his parents as bad people. “I do think about getting hit, though,” he said. “And I definitely am the way I am because of it. I am quick to react. I am quick to protect myself. I am very comfortable with people yelling at me. And I am very comfortable telling people exactly what I think. I am very comfortable getting personal.”

This mixture of love and loathing toward parents will be familiar to generations of immigrants of every color, but Asian-Americans feel this tension with an unusual acuteness, in part because Confucian tradition is so explicitly directed toward the breaking of individual autonomy in favor of the demands of the family. This tension is compounded by the fact that, as a result of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which eased national-­origin quotas, Asians began arriving in the United States in large numbers just as the cultural upheaval of the 1960s was drastically loosening American manners and mores. Today the means that many Asian-Americans apply to achieve academic success (a narrow emphasis on rote memorization and test preparation) could not be more out of step with the attitudes and practices of the socially liberal elite that Asians aspire to join. The ensuing cultural dissonance generates an awkward silence around the topic of Asian-Americans — Asian-­Americans don’t want to portray their parents as backward, and white liberals don’t want to be seen as looking down on people of other races and cultures whose parenting practices seem primitive. Huang hates this silence.

It is no paradox that Huang’s brazen attitude resembles nothing so much as that of his brash immigrant mother. As we arrived at his apartment in Malibu, Huang casually mentioned that his mother had on more than one occasion turned the wheel of her car sharply into oncoming traffic to terrorize her children into compliance. But Huang would later insist that he owes everything he has become to her. “Every morning, whether it was weekdays or weekends, she would get me up and start demanding: ‘What are you going to do with yourself today? What is the plan? What is the itinerary?’ ” Huang credits this with instilling in him the drive that made him relentless in his pursuit of success.

In fact, his mother’s haranguing inadvertently helped jump-start his writing career. In 2010, his attempt at a second restaurant, Xiao Ye, received a zero-star review in The New York Times. The restaurant’s menu included facetiously racist items, including an “Everything but the Dog Meat Plate” and “Princeton Review Bean Paste Noodles.” In the write-up, Sam Sifton lamented that “if Mr. Huang spent even a third of the time cooking that he does writing funny blog posts and wry Twitter updates, posting hip-hop videos and responding to Internet friends, rivals, critics and customers, Xiao Ye might be one of the more interesting restaurants to open in New York City in the last few months.” Huang’s blog went viral when he published an email his mother sent him after the review came out.

Trust me, you much keep your bar license active just in case you need it,” his mother wrote. “You do not even understand your own strength or the whole scope of this business, and you are not even willing to listen. YOU MUST GET BURNT BEFORE YOU WILL HEAR YOUR MOM. Please calm down, analyze yourself, and be honest. You have a lot of potential, but you must make good choice and stick to it with the best choice. With all the staff, and your korean friend, no one was able to point out or warn you the mistakes, or problems you have???????????????????

Huang closed the restaurant after repeat visits from the State Liquor Authority, which might have been peeved by his “Four Loko Thursday” deal, when the high-alcohol, caffeinated beverage was sold at a steep discount. (Huang had also floated the idea of an all-you-can-drink deal.) But Sifton grasped something important in his observation that the blog posts and Twitter updates mattered more to the chef than the food did. Huang’s true ambitions always had more to do with writing than with feeding people. He told me he opened the restaurant “because no one wanted to listen to me.”

Huang’s cocky social-media personality kept getting him in trouble, but it only seemed to swell his fame. His inability to censor himself, combined with his talent for speaking frankly and intimately to a mass public, aligned him perfectly with the mood of social media. When the Cooking Channel signed Huang to host a show called “Cheap Bites” — the kind of opportunity that most dedicated chefs would hold on to for dear life — the deal fell apart after Huang lashed out at the network’s biggest stars on Twitter. Huang has no regrets about the dust-up. (“The show looked like trash.”) He was later named a TED fellow, a potential gateway into the world of highly compensated corporate speaking, but quickly got himself booted from the program when he skipped some of the events to appear on a podcast with the graffiti artist David Choe and the porn star Asa Akira. Choe declared it to be a meeting of the “worst Asians in the universe.” Huang would later denounce TED as a “cult.”

Huang’s utter lack of instinct for self-preservation has had the curious effect of preserving himself against any harm. While the established institutions he railed against had myriad vested interests to balance and secrets to hide, Huang has always taken the inherently sympathetic role of the only honest man, refusing to compromise with arbitrary or corrupt authority. This has made Huang a particularly good fit with Vice Media, whose food channel, Munchies, seeks to appeal to young hipsters turned off by bourgeois “foodie-ism” but interested in educating their palates. Tricked out in big sunglasses, high-top sneakers and flashy street wear, Huang’s on-screen persona often resembles an Asian Ali G — easy to mock, were it not a deliberate self-­caricature. Much of the pleasure of Huang’s Vice show comes from watching him slyly emerge from his buffoonish character to make incisive comments revealing an agile, literary mind — and then lapse back into the role of the pot-addled numbskull.

I met Huang in Los Angeles during a time of high tension surrounding his show, a few weeks after he exploded in a Twitter tirade, accusing the network of neutering his book, and a week before shooting would wrap. The executive producers were, at this point, careful to emphasize that the show was not a biography of Eddie Huang and his family. It was a loose adaptation “inspired” by, rather than “based” on, Huang’s book. The series borrows the setting and the characters but applies them to a plot that was invented almost entirely by a professional writing staff, led by the showrunner Nahnatchka Khan. Though Huang lived the life depicted in the show, 20th Century Fox Television (which produces the show for ABC) retains creative control over it.

Melvin Mar, the producer at Fox who bought the rights to the book, told me that Huang’s arrangement with the studio is atypical. Usually, a production company will pay an author for a book it options and neither seek nor offer further participation. But Huang insisted on being brought on as a producer as a condition of the sale. So, Mar told me, “we decided we would all do this together, like a family.”

More than anything, the fraught dynamic that emerged between Mar and Huang resembles that of Huang’s actual family. The ambivalence Huang feels toward his parents tends to manifest itself in all his dealings with authority, Mar most emphatically not excepted. Huang sometimes describes Mar as a mentor, someone who has taught him about when to pursue confrontation and when to acknowledge the necessity for accommodation. But these sincere expressions of respect often segue quickly to contempt for the compromises endemic to the entertainment industry. “It’s a system that is kind of similar to the Asian upbringing,” Huang told me. By giving up so much autonomy for his career’s sake, Huang said, Mar “got a second set of parents in network television.”

Mar and Khan met at a symposium for Asian-Americans interested in the popular arts, where they dealt with a familiar crowd of activists demanding to know why Hollywood seemed so uninterested in casting people who looked like themselves. (Mar’s family is from China; Khan’s is from Iran.) “You go to these conferences, and there’s always people saying, ‘You should do more for Asian people,’ ” Mar said. “And my response is, ‘Yes, I agree with you.’ But it’s easier said than done. I have to bring actual projects that are viable and convince the executives that there’s a real business case for making it.”

The business case for making an Asian-American show is simple: Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country, they earn and spend more than the average American and they are overrepresented in the advertiser-coveted 18-to-34-year-old demographic. But if the case were really so strong, surely two decades would not have passed without some network making a bid for this audience. Perhaps the reason is that the so-called Asian-American demographic (some 18 million viewers) is actually made up of many different nationalities with no common culture or language.

Moreover, comedies about nonwhite people generally must navigate a trap-laden path between offending the group represented and neutering the comedy to avoid doing so. And they suffer from having to be approved and produced by people who are overwhelmingly white, and thus unfamiliar with the nuances of the stories they are telling, and also intensely wary of giving offense — but all this does is increase the likelihood that these shows will be dull, though still capable of offending their audience. This is exactly what happened to “All-American Girl,” the sitcom starring the comedian Margaret Cho and the last significant attempt to make an Asian-American TV show. The series was disowned by the Korean-American community that it tried to portray and was eventually rejected by the wider audience for being unfunny. It was canceled after just one season, two decades ago.

Fresh Off the Boat” was meant to be different. Not only is the production staff diverse, but the source material helps indemnify the show against criticism of many of its outlandish elements, which are rooted in Huang’s actual life. For example, the ferociously uninhibited and heavily accented mother portrayed in the series might appear to be an offensive caricature if it were a generic “Tiger mom” conjured out of thin air.

In fact, Constance Wu, the actress who plays Jessica Huang on the show, told me that she underplays her character in relation to the actual woman. “I don’t actually think they would believe she was real,” Wu said. “That’s what reality television is for — to show you people who no one would actually believe were real.” To preserve the appearance of reality, the show has had to depart from it — while also claiming that same reality as its license to go as far as it does in presenting a raw slice of immigrant life.

When Mar asked Khan to sketch out her vision for the show, she described what would become the opening scene of the series: a tight focus on someone in hip-hop garb that pulls out to reveal . . . a short, chubby Asian boy. The apparent incongruity (more apparent than real) is at once a joke for the prime-time network audience and a wedge that protects the series from recapitulating “model minority” representations of Asian-Americans. It is also the sore point that offends Huang more than any other aspect of the show.

Hip-hop had been the emblem of Huang’s alienation from his own household and the violence he encountered at school. It provided a language through which to reject the role of the eager assimilator that his own culture seemed to urge onto him. It was, as Huang described it in his book, a means of survival — not some glib, touristic fascination, or even a way of being cool. Huang identified with the black kids at school because they, too, were enduring beatings in their households in a way that white kids weren’t. “It’s a funny position being an Asian in America,” Huang wrote. “You’re the dude who can cross the union line. Your community actually wants you to sell the [expletive] out and work in law, accounting or banking. But I realized then that I wasn’t going to cross the picket line.” (Though he was briefly a corporate lawyer.) “I was down with the rotten bananas who want nothing to do with that.”

Huang’s appropriation of the language of racialized resistance might seem intrinsically noncredible to many white, black and even Asian interlocutors, who — implicitly or explicitly — regard Asian-Americans as the minority group that gets ahead by working hard and eschewing the politics of racial grievance. Not Huang, who likes to analogize his relationship with Mar to that of the “field Chinaman” to the “house Chinaman.” (Mar called this comparison “heightened,” which was his diplomatic way of saying “fantastically overwrought.” If there is a class distinction between the two men, it’s this: Mar’s family worked in the bean-sprout business in Los Angeles’s Chinatown, while Huang’s father become a millionaire many times over in Orlando.)

Huang especially took issue with the second episode in the series, in which a youthful Eddie develops a protosexual fascination with a blond, large-breasted trophy wife who has just moved into the neighborhood. It includes a scene in which Eddie fantasizes himself into a rap video. He “makes it rain” and squirts Capri Sun onto models. Though test audiences found the scene to be innocuously funny, Huang considered the thrust of the episode outright offensive. In his estimation, it denigrates hip-hop culture by portraying it as a vector for adopting sexist attitudes — a perversion of what, for him, had been a vital emotional outlet. His analysis is credible but, as the writers and producers told him, way too abstruse for anyone in the audience to think about.

It’s so interesting, what he’s going through,” Khan told me. “Most people never get the opportunity to experience what he’s experiencing. So now he’s rebelling and manifesting the angst, and that’s what makes him him, and that’s why he wrote the memoir in the first place. Part of me just wants to say, ‘Sit back and enjoy this.’ ”

When I told Huang that Khan wanted him to sit back and enjoy the ride, he had an immediate response: “That’s what pedophiles tell children.”

Even if Huang’s attraction to black culture is played for cheap laughs, to him it is an essential element of his person. It provides the missing half of the fully human entity that the Asian-American who consents to the model-minority myth has to relinquish. A model minority is a tractable, one-­dimensional simulacrum of a person, stripped of complexity, nuance, danger and sexuality — a person devoid of dramatic interest. Huang is something else: a person at war with all the constraints that would fetter him to anything less than an identity capacious enough to contain all his contradictions and ambivalence.

At the hotel on our last day in Tijuana, Huang spent the morning managing his Manhattan restaurant, Baohaus, by Skype. Besides traveling 24 weeks of the year for Vice, writing a second memoir and working on the ABC series, Huang continues to manage his restaurant. He often finds himself in fights with one cook in particular, an older Cantonese-speaking veteran of Chinatown restaurants. Huang is as exacting a boss as he is an insubordinate employee, but he is often forced to suffer the rebelliousness of his staff. He and the cook argued about how to properly cut chicken. The cook wanted to slice the chicken, which he believed white people prefer. Huang wanted it done the proper way, diced. “He never really accepts what I tell him,” he said. “And as soon as I turn my back, he starts doing it his own way.

I’ve wanted to fire him so many times,” he said. “The problem is, you can’t teach American kids the speed this guy has or his ability to problem-­solve on the fly.”

As he thought about it, Huang hit on a comparison between Hollywood executives and the typical Chinatown restaurant. Each, he said, think they know what people want and strive to give them exactly that. But it never occurs to either of them to sell people the authentic thing itself — Chinese food the way Chinese people make it for themselves or, in the case of Hollywood, stories that don’t rely on formulaic contrivance to be funny.

I really feel that people don’t always know what’s good for them,” he said. “When you have a strong conviction, you have a duty not to tell people what they want. At least represent yourself and say: ‘Yo, this is what I’m into, and this is what I’m seeing in the world. Let me take your hand and guide you through it, so you can see through my eyes.’ ”

Randall Park on what it means to star on TV’s first Asian American family sitcom in 20 Years

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Audrey Magazine: (story by Randall Park)

 

It happened! A pilot that I worked on got picked up to be a series!

Now, I’ve done several of these during the course of my career, and none have made it past the pilot stage. But after over a decade of hard work in this business, it’s finally happened. I will be a regular character on a nationally televised show. But this is not just any show. When it makes its debut next year, ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat will be the first Asian American family sitcom to air on network television in 20 years, since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl. For me, coming from an Asian American studies background, this is like a wet dream. But it’s also a lot of pressure.

People are hungry to see themselves represented on television, and people rightfully want to be represented properly. But the Asian American community is not monolithic, and proper representation means different things to different people. For example, there has been a great deal of online debate about whether or not the title Fresh Off the Boat is offensive. The answer isn’t so clear-cut: it’s yes for some, no for others. Again, members of our community do not all think alike. But with that said, this particular show is based on an amazing book bearing the same title by Eddie Huang. It is his memoir, it is his title, and I, for one, am all for it.

I do, however, have my own issues with the show: first of all, the fact that I’m on it. To have a Korean American actor play the father of a Taiwanese-Chinese American family is an issue that is not lost on me. I’ve even expressed my concerns repeatedly about this to Eddie himself. And every time, he has shown me nothing but love and support, assuring me that I’m the only one for this job. Whether true or not, I take that to heart because, again, it is his story.

Then, there’s the issue of having to speak with an accent. In an ideal world, I would never have to play a character with an accent. But this is a character based on a real person. So it’s something that I have to honor and try to perfect as the series moves forward.

Playing an immigrant character on a television comedy also has its own inherent risks: Is the audience laughing because the joke is funny or because I’m speaking with an accent? Are they laughing because I’m a human being in a funny situation or because they think I’m a funny-talking immigrant? I am constantly analyzing through this lens, almost to the point of paranoia.

Geesh, white actors never have to go through this sh-t.

But issues aside, I am proud to be a part of this amazing show. Getting a television series on the air is an incredible feat. Getting one with no bankable name stars in today’s television climate is damn near impossible. Getting one about an Asian American family on the air is a frickin’ miracle. Just know that. And regardless of how Fresh Off the Boat does ratings-wise, I believe it’s a step toward more varied representation on the small and big screens. Hopefully, it inspires others to tell their own stories and translate them to a TV show, as Eddie did. It is possible. And we shouldn’t have to wait another 20 years for it to happen again.

 

This column was originally printed in KoreAm Journal. It was later published in Audrey Magazine’s Winter 2014-15 issue– Get your copy here

Fresh Off the Boat premieres Wednesday, Feb. 4, at 8:30 pm. and a second episode will air at 9:30. Fresh Off the Boat will move to its regular 8:00 pm Tuesday timeslot on Feb. 10.