Catch Joan Chen in the Netflix Series ‘Marco Polo’

 

Netflix’s elaborate original series Marco Polo was met with some criticism from the Asian American community for being an outsider’s fetishization of the East. But actress Joan Chen urges skeptics to look at it differently. “It’s such a great opportunity for so many Asian actors,” she says. Other than the lead, Lorenzo Richelmy as Marco Polo, almost the entire cast is Asian or Asian American, with Benedict Wong as Kublai Khan, Rick Yune as the leader of the Golden Horde, Zhu Zhu as the Blue Princess, Chin Han as the villainous chancellor, Olivia Cheng as a suffering concubine with some tricks up her sleeve, and Claudia Kim (who was just named the first Asian face of cosmetics brand Bobbi Brown and can be seen in Avengers: Age of Ultron this May) as the warrior Khutulun. “I see how excited these kids are to work on this grand production,” says Chen. “They have dialect coaches and personal trainers, and this series gives them a year to work on their craft and express their talents. I think of it as completely positive.”

Chen has been acting since she was teenager in China, where she became a household name and was dubbed the “Elizabeth Taylor of China” for her role in 1979’s Little
Flower. She was “discovered” twice. Legend has it that Madame Mao discovered her at a school rifle range, impressed by her skilled marksmanship. She was soon chosen for the Actors’ Training Program by the Shanghai Film Studio. At 20, she decided to move to the United States to study filmmaking. Though she had no connections in Hollywood, she was discovered again by legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis, who honked at her in a parking lot. His line was: “Did you know that Lana Turner was discovered in a drug store?”

“I was like, ‘Who’s this dirty old man?’” she remembers. “I didn’t talk. I just kept walking.”

He managed to convince her to take his card, and her managers couldn’t believe she had met the Dino De Laurentiis. She soon landed her first Hollywood role in 1986’s Tai-Pan. In the last three decades, she’s been juggling films in both China and the U.S., from the Oscar-winning Bernardo Bertolucci film The Last Emperor to the American cult TV series Twin Peaks, to big Asian productions like Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution and smaller Asian American indies like Saving Face. She’s also a writer and director in her own right, directing the feature films Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl and Autumn in New York.

In Marco Polo, Chen plays Empress Chabi, Kublai Khan’s first and favorite wife. Though the creators researched the history for their fantastical story, there wasn’t much historical information on Empress Chabi to go on. So they worked with Chen to develop a more complex character who drives the plot and would be more fulfilling for the veteran actress to play.

The grand production, overseen by The Weinstein Company and reported to be one of the most expensive TV shows ever made, was shot mostly in Malaysia. “The costumes are made of real silk and ornaments,” adds Chen. “They’re so heavy that you know they didn’t spare a cent to make every detail luxurious.”

She also loved going to work and seeing all the stunt tents, where actors and martial arts performers trained every day. Though Empress Chabi doesn’t have a lot of action, Chen was able to learn some archery for some of her scenes. This brought her back to her days at her high school rifle range.

“Even though they’re two different sports, there are some principles that are the same,” says Chen. “The way you aim, the breathing techniques, the way you use your cheek and how you use your body. I took it up pretty fast. But obviously, I could take a lifetime to learn it.”

Though she knows that the show is romanticized and operatic, she hopes viewers of Marco Polo enjoy it for that very reason. “It’s a visual feast,” she says. “In the beginning, you have to set up all these characters and the historical background, but by episode 10, it’s really powerful. It’s cooking. It’s hot.”

All episodes of Marco Polo are currently available on Netflix, and the series has been renewed for a second season

Photo courtesy of Netflix
This story was originally published in our Spring 2015 issue. Get your copy here.

Obébé Organic, the Organic Baby Line Co-Founded by Ennie Lim

 

Born in Malaysia, Ennie Lim moved to Quebec, Canada, when she was 5 and was raised around French culture until she moved to Hong Kong at 24. After doing some modeling in Asia and then moving to California to work in tech startups, Lim was eventually inspired by her apparel executive mother to become a clothing entrepreneur herself. First, she created the women’s apparel brand Vie Désir (French for “Life Desire”), where she designed vegan leather jackets, and now, she and co-founder Kendra McPhee have created the 100 percent organic baby line Obébé Organic, based in San Francisco.

The word Obébé is what Lim calls “Franglais,” a mix of French (bébé means “baby”) and English, with an extra “O” for organic. A few of their original items include a kimono-style sweater and pant set, a cotton sleepsack, yarn mouse toys (inspired by the cartoon character that illustrator Valerie Willis drew on their packaging) and fairy tale-printed onesies — all packaged in a signature Obébé book box gift set.

“Kendra and I attend a lot of baby showers,” Lim explains, of why they were drawn to baby clothes. “One day, I was re-packaging baby gifts for my friend’s baby shower in a book box — it just looks so much better than the standard packaging — and I thought it would be so great if the gifts came pre-packaged in a beautiful box that parents could keep. Even better, I wanted to find baby gifts that made a difference.”

Not only is everything organic — eco-clothing is harder to find than you think and “more sustainable for the farmers, the environment and our business,” explains Lim — but for every signature set bought, Obébé Organic collaborates with the Bring Me a Book Foundation to donate a book to a child in need. “Sadly, many children lack access to quality books and don’t have an adult who reads to them,” she says. “We wanted to change that because early literacy is the key driver for language development and the foundation to every child’s success in school and life.”

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Photo courtesy of http://www.obebeorganic.com/

Learn more at Obebeorganic.com.

Feature Photo courtesy of Chung Li. 
This story was originally published in our Spring 2015 issue. Get your copy here

Haikus With Hotties: Randall Park

The latest hottie in our insightfully mediocre poetry series is Randall Park, an actor who’s been working in the entertainment industry for over two decades. You might recognize him as Lt. Danny Chung in Veep, “Asian Jim” in The Office, father Martin Fukanaga in Nickelodeon’s Supah Ninjas or Chris Park, a “Dog Daycare Owner” in the Chase Ink business card commercials. At the end of last year, even if you didn’t see him in the Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy The Interview, you saw him 24/7 playing Kim Jong-un on every single news channel talking about The Interview.

Since February, he can be seen as the warm, optimistic father Louis Huang in the ABC Taiwanese American family sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, based on writer/restaurateur Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name. The series takes place in the 1990s, the fashion-forward decade of Hawaiian shirts, mom perms and athletic breakaway pants.

In real life, Park is a father to 2-year-old Ruby, who was the star of Park’s winsome 2013 web series, Baby Mentalist, where she outsmarted shady tattooed criminals and even gunned them down if necessary.

So how does the busy Hollywood dad stay so hot while keeping another smaller human being alive? Let’s break out the haikus.

 

Dear Hot On-screen Dad
How to maintain quadriceps
For ’90s short shorts?
Randall:
I pick up my kid
Then I put the kid back down
Then I eat some cake.

Your fresh, dewy skin
Soft as a baby’s bottom
What is your secret?
Randall:
Besides eating cake
A lack of sleep works wonders
Also, use lotion.

Star of groundbreaking
TV show … or father of
crime-fighting baby?
Randall:
It’s all great to me
But nothing beats being her
Daddy in real life.

 

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Photos courtesy of Craig Stubing, unwrittenfilms.com
This story was originally published in our Spring 2015 issue. Get your copy here

Want to check out more Haikus with Hotties?
Yen Chen
Dante Basco
Freddie Wong
Godfrey Gao 

 

 


Hardly Elementary: Spring 2015 Cover Story Featuring Lucy Liu

 

Google “Lucy Liu,” and Liu herself will tell you that most of the information about her on the Internet is incorrect. She’s not Taiwanese, like many websites claim (her parents are from Beijing and Shanghai; they came to the U.S. separately for school and met in New York); she’s misquoted so often in interviews that she stopped reading her own profiles a long time ago; and maybe she’s not even born in 1968. She certainly doesn’t look it.

What is true about Liu is her extensive film and television résumé — from her breakout role in Ally McBeal, to the blockbuster films Charlie’s Angels and Kill Bill, to her current starring role on the CBS Sherlock Holmes reboot Elementary, where she plays Dr. Joan Watson. However, despite her high-profile successes, she takes special pride in her lesser-known creative projects, whether it be theater (her 2010 Broadway debut in God of Carnage, where she held her own alongside stage veterans Jeff Daniels, Janet McTeer and Dylan Baker), directing (her short film Meena tackles child trafficking in India), or visual art (since the mid-’90s, she had exhibited her work in galleries all around the world under an alias, until a few years ago, when her true identity was revealed).

For Liu, not only is working in all these different mediums a natural extension of the same creative impulse, she also believes that as an artist there is no separation between what you make and who you are. “I don’t leave my work at the door when I go home,” she says. “The way you progress in your life is how you progress artistically — especially as an actor, where you bring such complicated and personal experiences into what you do every day.”

Growing up in Queens, New York, Liu was a curious kid, and she points to that as one of her best attributes. (“To continue being curious as an adult is not easy,” she says, “but it’s such a great way to live your life.”) She grew up in what she calls a typical Chinese American immigrant household — Mandarin at home, Chinese school on Saturdays and parents who prioritized education above all. But as the youngest child of three, she was able to do more exploring than her older siblings, who were raised in a stricter environment. She quickly found a passion for acting. “I can’t think of anything I wanted to do before I started acting,” remembers Liu. “I dreamt about that more than anything.”

She did class plays in high school for fun, but they were never lead roles, and she was happy to be in the chorus. Her parents worked multiple jobs and not only didn’t understand the value of art but wouldn’t have had the time to attend her performances even if they did. “Most parents, especially Asian parents, aren’t going to completely grasp something that is intangible,” says Liu.

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In her last year of college, she went to a general audition for the play Alice in Wonderland. She went up to the announcement board to see whether she got cast and was surprised she was chosen to be Alice. “It was a new concept for me,” she says. “I didn’t see myself in the lead because I was so used to not seeing Asians in the lead role.”

After college, she pursued acting full force and began doing a lot of regional theater, as well as bit parts in film and television. Her big break came in 1998, when she was cast as Ling Woo in the second season of Ally McBeal, an hour dramedy that would win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series soon after she joined the cast. Ling, an unapologetically coldhearted client-turned-lawyer-turned-judge, was a character created specifically for her, and she became known for the most comically inappropriate zingers, like “My therapist told me to pay no mind to those who don’t matter” and “Are you sure he didn’t leave you just for being unattractive?”

An aspect of being one of very few Asian American women in mainstream media at the time was that everyone had an opinion about her character: Was Ling the ultimate dragon lady stereotype, was she hypersexualized, seen as “threatening” or “the other?” But Ally McBeal fans will take the nitpicking with a grain of salt. This was a show that featured characters with neck fetishes, dancing baby hallucinations, verbal ticks and gymnastic dismounts in the stalls of the unisex bathroom. Everyone was weird. Within the Ally McBeal world, Ling was funny, honest, clever, confident, unfazed by what others thought of her and perhaps, most important of all, respected.

Though she was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role, Liu’s star only got brighter when she was cast as the third Charlie’s Angel, alongside Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz. At the time, she was a rare Asian American actress who was able to participate in cultural touchstones of American pop culture, whether it be hosting Saturday Night Live or voicing a character on The Simpsons, when Homer visits China. She even played herself in a Futurama episode called “I Dated a Robot,” where Fry downloads the personality of Lucy Liu onto a blank robot to make a “Lucy Liubot.”

Though Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, an action film starring Liu and Antonio Banderas, was a critical and box office failure, it was notable because she was cast in a leading role that was originally written as male. She made headlines again when she was selected to play the lead, a media mogul named Mia Mason, in the highly anticipated, albeit short-lived, ABC dramedy Cashmere Mafia, a series produced by Darren Star and hyped to take up the mantle of his mega-hit, Sex and the City. Years later, she’d break the mold once more as Watson in Elementary, the first time the classic Sherlock Holmes sidekick has been played by a woman — an Asian American woman, no less. Currently in its third season, Elementary, which co-stars Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock, has been well received by critics and viewers who find it to be a novel twist on a familiar story. For her role, Liu won the Teen Choice Award for Choice TV Actress: Action, was honored with a New York Women in Film & Television Muse Award (which gave a nod to her decade of work with UNICEF) and even received the Seoul International Drama Award for Best Actress.

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Despite her two-decade career in Hollywood — which also includes the films Chicago, Shanghai Noon, Lucky Number Slevin and the Kung Fu Panda franchise, as well as television shows like Southland, Ugly Betty and Dirty Sexy Money — Liu knows that her roles in film and television could never display a complete and well-rounded representation of her interests and passions. So visual art was always something she did on the side for herself. She has had art shows since the early ’90s, but for a long time, especially once she became famous, she exhibited under her Chinese name, Yu Ling. Part of it was that she wasn’t ready to be public with her art, and part of it was that she didn’t want people to come to her exhibits looking for the ass-kicking girl from those Quentin Tarantino action films.

She says it’s possible she would have continued leading her secret life, but one day, a book publisher visited her studio, thought her work would be great as an art book, and offered to publish it. It was the first time she was confronted with the suggestion to go with her celebrity moniker.

“At first, I thought it was really important and helpful for people to come in [to see my work] with a clean slate,” she says. “But in the end, it didn’t really matter. The editor said, ‘I think you should just own it,’ and I realized he was right.”

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Lucy Liu’s Seventy Two series (No. 34) Forget Thyself (2009), ink on paper, 8 x 10.5 in. Photo courtesy of the artist © Lucy Liu.

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Lucy Liu’s Seventy Two series (No. 53) No Agenda (2009), ink on paper, 8.5 x 11.75 in. Photo courtesy of the artist © Lucy Liu.

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Lucy Liu’s Seventy Two series (No. 56) Dispelling Anger (2009), ink on paper, 8.1 x 10.5 in. Photo courtesy the artist © Lucy Liu.

Her book, Lucy Liu: Seventy Two, consists of 72 abstract ink and acrylic paintings that are inspired by the Jewish mythical concept of the “72 Names of God.” However, instead of the three-letter Hebrew words, Liu creates images inspired by Chinese brush painting and calligraphy. “I liked how the [72 Names of God] chart looks similar to how Chinese characters are presented in boxes,” she says.

“I also love the idea of ink and its permanence,” she continues, contrasting the medium with paint on a canvas. “You can see the image’s history because when you make a mark, it stays. It’s like people and how the choices you make and the scars you have shape you as a person.”

This was a departure from Liu’s previous artwork, which included photographs, collages and larger-scale paintings. But unfamiliarity with a particular type of art doesn’t deter Liu from experimenting with it; if anything, she’s drawn to trying new things. She’s currently working with silk screens, another medium she’s discovering for the first time.

“Part of what I enjoy is just learning the art and its history,” she says. “I didn’t study it professionally, so I like working with someone I know who can teach me. And then I use my imagination to take it to another place. It keeps it fresh, naïve and different.”

Lately, she’s also been throwing herself into the world of directing. Her first directorial effort, the 2011 PBS short film Meena, was based on a child sex-trafficking story in Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. It was an extension of the work she had been doing with UNICEF, addressing children’s issues, including education and nutrition. (Coincidentally, the latest film project she’s been attached to is Evan Jackson Leong’s Snakehead, also about human smuggling, but a story that takes place closer to home, in New York’s Chinatown.)

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Last year, she upped her game, taking over the director’s chair for the first time on Elementary, for a second season episode called “Paint it Black,” featuring Sherlock and his estranged brother Mycroft (Rhys Ifans). At the time of this interview earlier this year, Liu had spent her holidays working, planning and creating a shot list for the second episode she was asked to direct — this time, a season three story that will be more challenging to helm because she also has more scenes in it as an actor. “It’ll be a lot more running around,” she says. “I will get my exercise in for sure.”

Liu believes that in directing, she may have finally found an outlet that combines all her artistic passions. “I’m really going on all pistons when I’m directing,” she says. “There’s something so magical about it. You’re in that time-space warp where you’re not even sure how you got there, and you’re so present at every minute that it feels like a maximum heightened state.” She laughs. “It’s like an exam. You cram in as much as you possibly can, everyone’s asking you a ton of questions, and you have a very short time to complete it.”

Though Liu loves to organize and feels comfortable leading the crew, who are all rooting for her to succeed, she admits she’s not the best planner when it comes to future career goals. “I try to be as in-the-moment as possible, which can be good and bad,” she says. “But I’ve been working with the same team of managers for 20 years. I couldn’t do this by myself. You might have an idea or inspiration, but you allow your team to create this world for you.”

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That’s not to say that working in entertainment is always easy — even if you are successful at it. At the end of the day, Hollywood often still doesn’t know what to do with a Chinese American actress, and unfortunately actors can’t always control the types of roles that they’re offered — or if they’re even offered any.

“You live in a limbo-ish world,” says Liu, of the actor’s lifestyle. “It’s an amazing place to grow, and it also can be very frustrating. But isn’t everything?

“It’s not just about being invited to the [Hollywood] community,” she continues. “It’s about living and breathing in it and finding your own space. You have to believe that you have something to offer, before anyone else even sees it. That’s kind of what this business is about. No matter what anyone says to you, whether it’s encouraging or discouraging, you have to listen to your inner voice. Especially if you’re doing art. No one else can do it for you. It’s important to stand behind yourself, because the only thing you can guarantee is yourself.”

To that end, she’s currently working on creating her own official website, which she hopes to launch later this year. She envisions it as a place where she can display all of her art, with proper descriptions she’s writing herself, so she can give her fans insights into her true self — not just the persona we see on film and television. Soon, we won’t have to depend on Google to learn all we want to know about Lucy Liu.

Cover-12/06_Test

 

Story Ada Tseng 
Photos Jeff Vespa
Stylist Ashley Avignone, The Wall Group
Makeup Rebecca Restrepo 
Hair Danielle Priano

This story was originally published in our Spring 2015 issue. Get your copy here

 

 

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A Closer Look at Asian American Night Markets: Ramen Burgers & Kimchi Fries Galore

Ramen burgers, kimchi fries and pho tacos. Stinky tofu. Spiral-cut fried potato skewers sprinkled with a variety of seasonings. And balls — lots and lots of balls: curry fish balls, fried yam balls, takoyaki squid and octopus balls, kimchi fried rice balls with DMZ sauce, gourmet rice balls with honey Sriracha, crispy tofu balls covered with Vietnamese green crisped rice and spicy orange aioli. Truly, the wealth of options at an Asian American night market can be overwhelming for an attendee. After all, we only have one stomach.

Last October’s OC Night Market — the latest extension of the 626 Night Market that has since branched out from Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley (home of the 626 area code) into downtown Los Angeles and Orange County — was filled with over 200 vendors competing with each other for the attention of 60,000 potential customers. Sometimes that involved shouting Korean BBQ menu items from a loudspeaker or flashing eye- catching disco lights; sometimes it took three half-naked Asian girls encouraging onlookers to buy delicious Vietnamese coffee. But the most effective and envied form of attraction was a long line of customers, signifying the food must be worth the wait.

Though many Asian countries have their versions of outdoor food markets — from Singaporean hawker centres to Korean pojangmacha — the term “night market” was popularized in Taiwan, where these nighttime food markets still remain a key attraction for foreign tourists visiting the country, eager to experience the noisy atmosphere, crowded food stalls, mouth-watering smells and cheap eats that you consume on the spot (or while walking in search of your next snack). According to Taiwan’s government information site, food bazaars that operated at night in ancient China were originally called ghost markets, and contemporary-style night markets began to appear in Taiwanese cities during the turn of the century, when the government actively set aside blocks of streets for permanent night markets.

For Asian immigrants and their second-generation children, night markets elicit fond memories. “I always remember visiting the night markets with my family and friends to eat all different kinds of food,” says Jonny Hwang, the founder of 626 Night Market, who was born in Taiwan but immigrated to the U.S. when he was a child. So when his family relocated to Alhambra, a suburb of Los Angeles with a large Chinese and Taiwanese immigrant population, he wondered, why didn’t they have one?

“There are tons of little businesses and good restaurants, but they all have Chinese menus and signage, so it can be very foreign and intimidating to outsiders,” he says. “Because so much good food is hidden, I thought a night market would be a great showcase for the talent and entrepreneurs in the area.”

Hwang had heard of a couple successful night markets in Vancouver, as well as previous attempts to start a night market in Southern California that didn’t work out. Assuming it had to do with the challenges working with health departments and government agencies, he and his partners went straight to different cities of the San Gabriel Valley with a night market proposal, figuring that if they had the government backing them, the entire process would be a lot easier.

At first, most of the cities in the area were not interested. “The people running their events recreation departments didn’t even know what night markets were, because they weren’t Asian,” says Hwang. “Which is kind of sad, because they serve a very Asian population. They were used to doing their Lunar New Year Festivals, so they figured they already had an Asian event.”

Pasadena was the only place that was interested, because they happened to have an initiative to attract more Asian businesses to the area. So the very first 626 Night Market was scheduled for April 2012, with plans to shut down a couple streets in Old Town Pasadena for the event.

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Spiral cut potato skewers from Hotato Potato. Photo courtesy of Fritz Batiller/ 626 Night Market

Hwang’s team was optimistic that they could get 8,000 attendees, but the Pasadena special events folks, who had years of experience planning signature events like the Tournament of Roses parade, tempered their expectations. As first-time organizers, they’d be lucky to get 500 people to attend, they were told. But come event time, Hwang says the team had mobilized hundreds of thousands of people — many of whom ended up stuck in long lines, trapped in walkways like sardines or unable to even get in.

“If we had gotten 8,000 to 10,000 people throughout the day, it probably would have been OK,” says Hwang. “But people were coming from Orange County and Riverside, and all the way from San Diego and Las Vegas.” The surrounding freeways and side streets were packed. A police chopper had to monitor the traffic jams and crowds from above.

Though it seemed like a disaster to attendees (many of whom blasted the event through angry Yelp comments), business-wise, it was a huge success. Vendors were happy because they all sold out, and most importantly, it proved that there was a huge demand for a night market. The 626 team learned a lot of things, and soon, the other cities that had originally shunned their proposal came knocking.

Though 626 Night Market was not the first night market in America — Night Market Philadelphia, for example, though not focused on Asian cuisine, began in 2010 — it has made the biggest impact.

“626 are the ones that really started this night market hype,” says Jeff Shimamoto of The Original Ramen Burger, whose ramen-bun burgers have been a fan favorite since his brother Keizo debuted it in New York in the summer of 2013. “Our type of food probably wouldn’t have existed in a regular food market. It’s when the Asian night markets started popping up that we were able to participate.”

Shimamoto now has a brick-and-mortar of sorts, offering The Original Ramen Burger at a take-out window in Los Angeles’s Koreatown. Tonight, he’s hanging out at the adjacent Lock and Key bar with his fellow night market veteran friends, Phillip and Carol Kwan of Mama Musubi (who specialize in a gourmet version of onigiri rice balls, a popular Japanese snack) and Matthew Hui of Fluff Ice (a Taiwanese-inspired snowflake ice that takes flavored ice blocks and shaves them into what they call “frozen cotton candy”). They’re celebrating the end of another busy and successful night market season.

Since 626 debuted, night markets have opened up in other areas of Southern California, like Koreatown and Little Saigon in Westminster. Hwang himself was contacted for advice or collaboration requests from groups who wanted to start their own night markets in San Jose, San Diego and St. Paul. There are now night markets in Seattle, Honolulu and New York, and the list goes on. Even the team behind Studio City’s Sportsmen’s Lodge 1st Thursdays Night Market, who Hwang remembers jokingly called themselves “the white night market,” wanted in on the action. Now, you might be thinking, isn’t a Caucasian night market just … a fair? Like every single county fair in America? But this was just an indication of how the term “night market” was catching on. It had looped back into the mainstream.

Benjamin Kang, one of the organizers of the KTOWN Night Market and the MPK Night Market in Monterey Park, California (both debuted in 2014), believes it’s a good time for night markets because Asian culture is trending more than it ever has in America. “All my white friends want to come to Koreatown,” he says, laughing, citing the Koreatown episode of Anthony Bourdain’s CNN show Parts Unknown, as well as the numerous Asian American chefs on mainstream TV cooking shows. “They’re always asking me what the best Chinese or Japanese restaurants are in L.A.”

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The Ramen Burger. Photo courtesy of Albert Chen / 626 Night Market

“I think the food industry revolves around the Asian population,” says Hui of Fluff Ice. “When all the Asian people think it’s cool, then the non-Asians flock to it. Because all the foodies on Yelp are Asian girls named Grace or Nancy.” He laughs. “The Yelp elite start reviewing all these places, and they become the definitive source.”

While 626 Night Market also had creative entertainment to go along with the food — Asian American performers, live art battles, eating competitions and the unveiling of the new Guinness World Record for the largest cup of boba milk tea — KTOWN Night Market made use of their Korean American showbiz connections, bringing together high-profile food celebrities, like the guys behind Seoul Sausage Company, who won Season 3 of the Food Net-work’s The Great Food Truck Race, as well as musicians like rappers Dumbfoundead and Shin-B. Six months later, KTOWN Night Market also hosted a Halloween Food Fest, where there were costume contests and carnival rides.

“Night markets in Asia are open all the time, so they don’t make a festival out of it,” says Shimamoto. “But here, they turn it into a big event, and that’s what makes it fun. We have concerts and beer gardens. And that’s why we get so many people concentrated at one time.”

The Kwans launched Mama Musubi at the first 626 Night Market in 2012. The brother-and-sister duo wanted to test the market and see what people thought about fresh Japanese rice balls. Would people get their gourmet version — with 24-hour braised Berkshire pork belly — or would they assume it was the same as the refrigerated kinds you can get at Mitsuwa supermarkets? Turns out, there was excitement for rice balls not only in the night markets but in non-Asian markets like the Altadena Farmer’s Market, where they are regulars. But though they work these markets and also cater, their ultimate goal is to launch their own store.

Similarly, The Original Ramen Burger started participating in night markets in Los Angeles because California foodies were asking for it. They do pretty well, but they see night markets as a transition into eventually running four to five restaurant franchises.

“There are two crowds of vendors at the night market,” says Phillip Kwan. “Vendors like us who have long-term visions of opening up brick-and-mortars. And others that make a comfortable living for themselves doing festival-type events.”

Some vendors may have a full-time job on the side. Others might be there just for fun. “On the last day of the night market, there were these 15 Vietnamese ladies from Orange County [in the booth next to us],” remembers Shimamoto. “They showed up four hours before everybody else, and they were all perky and ready to go with all their juices. And they said, ‘We all go to the same church, and we decided we were going to come out here and try and sell some lemonade!’” He laughs. “And that’s great! Maybe they’re just doing it once a month for a little money. Or maybe they could become the next Mrs. Fields Cookies. Either way, they were just so happy to be there.”

Hwang encourages it all. “In the beginning, most of our vendors had stores, but we really encourage the ones who don’t,” he says. “It’s such a good platform for people to try new ideas for cheap. Just do it for one weekend. If it’s good and you like it, then do it again. Those are the types of food you can’t eat anywhere else. You have to go to our event to find them.”

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Takoyaki, one of the many variety of balls available at 626 Night Market. Photo courtesy of Bryan Cole / 626 Night Market

“Phil and I think that the model for starting a restaurant is going to start changing,” says Shimamoto. “In Los Angeles, you see a lot of restaurants come and go. But [working the night markets] is a way you lower your overhead and costs, and it’s a great way to get some exposure while retaining flexibility to work on other things, like food trucks or developing your brick-and-mortar.”

Even Fluff Ice, which already had a store in Monterey Park when 626 first opened, found that attending night markets is just a good way to network, advertise and grow your business. “There’s just so many layers of income you can get with a business like this, whether it’s night markets, school fundraisers or Hollywood catering,” says Hui, who has catered for How I Met Your Mother, Parks & Recreation, The Office and the upcoming film Paranormal Activity 5. They now have four locations in Southern California.

But these Asian American night markets aren’t without its skeptics. In Taiwan, you go to the night market because you’re craving certain foods, whether it be oyster pancakes, ba-wan (Taiwanese meatballs wrapped in gelatinous dough) or aiyu jelly drinks. You’re also expecting a certain atmosphere — makeshift stalls where you see and smell the food being prepared right in front of you — and a certain experience, a.k.a. cheap stuff, whether it be food, shopping or games.

In the beginning, that was the source of some of the disappointment for night market goers in America. It didn’t look right — health codes in the U.S. require covered canopies so it looked like a typical fair. It’s not cheap: there’s usually a cover charge of $5 to $10 just to get in, and everything, even a tiny plate, usually costs at least $5 (which adds up!). And there was a random mix of foods, both Asian and non-Asian, that weren’t necessarily what you thought of as “street food.” (One vendor at a recent KTOWN Night Market was serving up 100 percent grass-fed, organic, pasture-raised Australian bone-in lamb.)

“But I think that’s what makes us different in a good way,” says Hwang. “If you think about the night markets in Asia, it’s all the same foods. We always get a good amount of vendors that are new or tweaking their menu, and it’s exciting to see people experimenting with new things — whether it’s fusion foods like the ramen burger, pho tacos and new types of guabao [Taiwanese pork belly buns] — or if they’re bringing in traditional stuff that we never had before, like yam balls and chicken sausages. It’s a competitive marketplace, so you have to be creative. Don’t do the usual things, or if you do, figure out how you can do it differently.”

“You can’t be stale,” agrees Carol Kwan, who recently collaborated with the Shimamoto brothers to create a one-month-only specialty mash-up: the Mama Musubi 24-hour Pork Belly Ramen Burger. “It’s the same even if you’re in a restaurant. You have to innovate and keep creating something new to keep people coming.”

That said, for every food item that’s worth waiting for in the night market lines, there are many, many more that are underwhelming and overpriced. It’s also hard to tell whether something is innovative or just gimmicky, and with so many copycat renditions of almost the same idea (there’s a reason Ramen Burger changed its name to The Original Ramen Burger), it’s tempting to assume the latter.

But one can only hope that the truly tasty, fusion or not, rises to the top — that the prevalence of night markets are giving those gems a place to grow and a community of like-minded food fans a place to gather.

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“One of the major pluses [of the night markets] is how it impacts the current and hopefully the next generation of Asian Americans,” says Christine Chiao, a food writer who’s contributed to LA Weekly and Sunset. “A regular or seasonal night market can be a platform for more than just the vendors. It can become a channel, too, for young Asian American attendees to seek and express their identity.”

So did Hwang ever imagine that the 626 Night Market he created would become such a cultural touchstone?

“Not really,” he says. “At first I really did it for fun, as a side thing, because I knew it’d be something that people would enjoy. I never thought I’d end up working full time to produce night markets.” He laughs. “Who goes to college thinking that? It’s surreal.”

 

 

 

Feature image: 626 Night Market at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California. Photo courtesy of DANNY LIAO PHOTOGRAPHY. This story was originally published in our Winter 2014-15 issue. Get your copy here. 

 

 

Haikus With Hotties: Yen Chen

 

Our latest Haikus with Hotties poet is the Taiwanese American piano prodigy turned American Ninja Warrior competitor Yen Chen. He recently joined an esteemed group of athletes on the hit NBC obstacle course competition show, based on the Japanese sports entertainment television special Sasuke.Chen first heard about Sasuke when an English-dubbed version of the show called Ninja Warrior was being broadcast in the U.S. on the now-defunct G4 channel. Producers announced they were making an American spin-off in 2009. An audition tape Chen filmed, where he made light of Asian American male stereotypes, went viral, and as a result, he got a shot at the course. Though he didn’t have an athletic background, he had previously taken up rock climbing to conquer his fear of heights, and his resulting grip strength now serves him well in difficult obstacles, including the Salmon Ladder, Giant Cycle and the Doorknob Arch.

This year, Chen became one of only 18 finalists to make it to Stage 2 of the Las Vegas Finals at Mount Midoriyama — an impressive feat considering only 90 competitors from the multiple-city national tryouts made it to Vegas, and only two athletes made it to Stage 3, where they both fell. So the challenge to become the first American Ninja Warrior to complete the course still remains, and it could be Chen.

So what does it take to tackle Mount Midoriyama while maintaining ultimate hotness? We seek answers through the ancient art of haiku.

 

Ninja warriors
like you need badass nicknames

starting with “The.” Right?

YEN:
A moniker, aye
Would be cool if I had one
But alas, I don’t  : (

 

Warped wall. Spinning bridge.
Salmon ladder — which required 
musical talent?

YEN:
My ear shattering
A capella just before
I hit the water. 

 

Hotter ninja look:
Cliffhanger’s bulging biceps,
ripped shirt at buzzer?

YEN: 
This question you ask
Should be a question I ask
And you to answer 

 

 

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Photos courtesy of Craig Stubing, unwrittenfilms.com
This story was originally published in our Winter 2014-15 issue. Get your copy here

Get to Know Actress, Writer and Filmmaker Ayako Fujitani

 

When her latest film Man From Reno won the top prize at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival this summer, Ayako Fujitani was initially confused. “Dave [Boyle, the director,] told me, ‘We won!’ and I said, ‘For what?’” she remembers. She laughs. “I had forgotten it was a competition! The project had come such a long way from the [initial] Kickstarter [fundraising campaign]. We had such a tough time even finishing the movie, and we were super happy to even get in the L.A. Film Festival. So when we won, we were super shocked and surprised, in a good way.”

This is the second time the hapa actress (born to Japanese aikido master Miyako Fujitani and American action star Steven Seagal) has worked with Boyle, the first experience being in his 2012 black- and-white indie romance Daylight Savings, in which she had a supporting role as Goh Nakamura’s ex- girlfriend. After that wrapped, Boyle was working on a crime film that started out as a pair of simultaneous mystery stories with vastly different protagonists, a Japanese writer and an elderly sheriff. The sheriff character, who’d eventually be played by Pepe Serna, came from an unproduced screenplay Boyle had written previously, but the Japanese writer Aki was a new addition and written with Fujitani in mind.

“I think she has a unique cerebral soulfulness about her that was perfect for the part of Aki,” says Boyle. “While the sheriff’s storyline is more of a traditional police procedural, Aki’s is a bit more emotional and character driven. She is the classic amateur sleuth, but she has secrets of her own that make her darker than your average heroine.”

“Aki is a very successful Japanese mystery novel writer who’s not happy about her success for some reason,” explains Fujitani of her bilingual character. “She runs away from her book tour to San Francisco — and runs into a real mystery.”

During post-screening Q&As during the film’s festival run, Fujitani remembers Boyle joking that after she got involved, the Aki character suddenly became super dark. “Before, the character didn’t feel too much regret or sadness,” says Fujitani. “But if she was happy, no one would really care about what she goes through.”

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“[Once] we realized how game Ayako would be to push the character further and further into the darkness, she made all three of us [Boyle and co-writers Joel Clark and Michael Lerman] braver as writers to make the character rougher around the edges. Her fearlessness gave us confidence,” says Boyle.

Though Fujitani wouldn’t describe herself as the type of actress who practices method acting, it was difficult for her to get Aki out of her head. Part of the reason was because they shot many of the film’s foreboding scenes in a hotel room in San Francisco, which was right next door to the actual hotel room where Fujitani stayed during the weeks they were filming in the city. “When you’re basically on the set in the same hotel room the whole time, it’s almost impossible to forget the character,” she says. “It helped my acting a lot, to get into the maze of this world, but I felt like I had no way out.” She laughs.

“So after I finished the movie, it was like, I need to go to Hawaii or something!”

A relaxing vacation wasn’t in the cards, however, because Fujitani, also a filmmaker herself, has been working on numerous projects that take her back and forth between the U.S., Japan and Korea. Her short film The Doors, shot entirely on an iPhone 5 without any special lenses, recently played at the Asian Film Festival of Dallas. (It was originally made for the Olleh International Smartphone Film Festival in South Korea.) She also co-wrote a four-episode short film series, A Rose Reborn, a collaboration between acclaimed Korean director Park Chan-wook and the Italian fashion house Ermenegildo Zegna, which stars Daniel Wu and Jack Huston. She is currently developing another Korean short film, a dark comedy that follows a nervous, picky, routine-driven businessman.

“She’s very confident and has a great eye and ear for unusual characters and interesting dialogue,” says Boyle of Fujitani’s work as a writer and director. In fact, he often relied on Fujitani’s instincts when it came to the Japanese-language scenes in Man from Reno, which also stars actors Kazuki Kitamura, Yasuyo Shiba, Hiroshi Watanabe and Tetsuo Kuramochi. “We worked with a lot of great translators during the scriptwriting process to make sure the Japanese version would be up to snuff, but a couple of days before we started shooting, Ayako and I did a last brush up that did amazing things for the movie,” says Boyle. “Having her ear at our disposal was huge.”

Man from Reno, which has also won awards at the San Diego Asian Film Festival and Wichita’s Tallgrass International Film Festival, has a theatrical release planned for next spring. Next up, Fujitani is off to shoot a film with Japanese director Takashi Miike, known for bloody cult films such as Ichi the Killer, Audition and 13 Assassins. “After I had been in Korea for a while, I visited Japan, and as soon as I arrived and turned on my Japanese cell phone — which is never on when I’m in another country — I get a call from Miike’s producer,” says Fujitani of the role she seemed fated to get. A fan of Miike’s work, Fujitani said yes before she even read the script. She plays a nurse in a medical drama about doctors from Nagasaki, Japan, going to Kenya. “This is a departure for him,” she says. “It is definitely not one of the horror, crazy-in-a-good-way films that Miike is known for.”

 

Photo courtesy of Chika Okazumi.
This story was originally published in our Winter 2014-15 issue. Get your copy here

 

‘Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One With the Universe’ by Yumi Sakugawa

 

One year after her debut comic book, I Think I’m In Friend-Love With You, artist Yumi Sakugawa has released her second book, Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One With the Universe, complete with nine black-and-white, ink-illustrated metaphysical lessons about how to slow down, appreciate your surroundings, overcome your insecurities and feel more connected with the world around you.

“As a self-help junkie who used to read a lot of self-help books to get through periods of depression and extremely low self-esteem,” she says, “this book is my own way of contributing to the self-help genre, but in a more visual format that is very different from the usual style of self-help books.”

Originally intended to be part of an online course before it became a book, the content was inspired by Sakugawa’s own meditation practices that she’s been doing (and doodling about) since 2008. Some of the other illustrated meditation practices she created while she was working as a blog editor on a wellness website include “Anxiety is a Heavy Rock,” “Sometimes It’s Okay If The Only Thing You Did Today Was Breathe,” “How To Be A Silent Witness To Your Thoughts,” and “There Is No Right Way to Meditate.”

An excerpt from Your Illustrated Guide, where she advises people to have cake and tea with your demons, was selected as part of the Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014 anthology. This section is also her own personal favorite. “Loving my own weaknesses and flaws is never easy for me, and thinking of that lesson helps me put things in perspective,” she says. “I also love hearing from other people how that lesson has helped them through their own personal struggles and issues.”

Details Hardcover, $14.99, adamsmedia.com.

This story was originally published in our Winter 2014-15 issue. Get your copy here. 

yumi

 

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Ameriie is Back: New Albums, New Novels, New YouTube Channel

 

Listening to Ameriie talk a mile a minute, it sounds like she’s working on a million creative projects at once. The singer and musician is most known in mainstream America for her 2005 hit single “1 Thing,” back when her name only had one “i.” (The second “i,” which doesn’t affect the pronunciation, was added in 2010 for a different “vibration.”) Since then, she’s released two albums — 2007’s Because I Love It, which was only released abroad, and 2009’s In Love & War, her first release under her own label, Feeniix Rising, which she created with her husband and collaborator Lenny Nicholson. And she has two more in the works (BILI, a nod to the initials of the earlier album Because I Love It, and Cymatika Vol. 1, the first of a trilogy in mind) that are scheduled for a 2015 release.

Ameriie is constantly planning, constantly thinking and constantly putting together vocals, chords, beats and drum riffs in her head, even if she encounters writer’s block and needs to go on a run to tempt inspiration to come. She doesn’t like to write down her ideas, because she feels like it loses some of the magic. (“If the idea is good,” she insists, “I’ll remember.”) And she’ll throw herself into each project. “I always record in the dark, and then I pace,” she says. “I go into a corner and face the wall, so it probably looks creepy.” But after she’s done, she’s on to the next thing. And when she’s not writing, recording or performing music, she’s working on her novels. Yes, novels, plural — one a young adult story and another that has a fantasy theme. She makes it a point to write almost every day, and her drafts and outlines are impressively organized on Scrivener, her choice of writing software she can’t stop raving about.

She’s been like this since she was a kid. Before she pursued music, she wrote stories and even worked on an epic saga that took her from third grade to eighth grade to finish. “I could have sworn it was hundreds of pages, but recently, I found it and it was only like 200 pages,” she remembers, laughing. “It was about a lone 9-year-old who arrives at the stables and asks if they need a stable cleaner. The family hires her, she befriends the youngest daughter, and the two of them are terrorized by her older twins.”

The creativity gene comes from Ameriie’s Korean mother, who, in addition to being a voracious reader, is also a painter, a pianist and a poet. Her mother introduced her to traditional Korean music, classical music and singers like Barbra Streisand, while her African American father introduced her to Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Michael Jackson. On top of that, she moved around a lot as a kid, living in Germany for three years where she discovered German pop and ’80s new wave, and she later went through a phase where she only listened to heavy metal for a year. As a result, even though many of her fans know her for her R&B/soul/hip-hop sounds, for which she earned two Grammy nominations, her musical influences are equally diversified.

ameriie 2

“Sometimes I’m like, ‘Sensory overload! Sensory overload!’” she says, “and I can feel overwhelmed. But I do love to create.”

That was the theme for Because I Love It, a celebration of making art for the pure love of it. While the upcoming BILI will retain a couple of songs from the 2007 album, it’s mostly filled with new music that is sonically similar — a blend of hip-hop, soul, new wave and electronica. The album’s first single, “What I Want,” produced by her husband, and its lyric video have been released.

In contrast, Cymatika Vol. 1’s sound is bolder and more cinematic. “Cymatics is the study of visual sound,” explains Ameriie. “They’ll take sand on a plate and put vibrations through it, and you can watch the sand making shapes when you go from one frequency to the next. The patterns aren’t random; sound affects the matter in a certain geometric pattern, so that made me think about what sound does to us, how we’re affected by music and our own words.”

A lover of sci-fi and fantasy, Ameriie always likes to think big, which sometimes results in disappointment. “Things I want to do always cost too much money,” she laments. “I always have a big production in my brain. And then it’s like, ‘That’s great that you want it to snow in the middle of the forest, but that’s not really going to work within our budget.’” But that’s what she loves about writing music: Even if she can’t squeeze in a whole apocalyptic storyline into one of her music videos, she can add as many vocals and instruments as she wants to her songs and make it as grand as she likes. She imagines Cymatika Vol. 1 as a score for a movie like the epic fantasy war film 300, based on the comic book series by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley.

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Looking forward, she wants her art to go weirder, and she wants to take more risks. But mostly, she wants to release music faster. “Putting out projects traditionally is hard for me,” she says of working with her former label, Columbia Records. “Sometimes it was two to three years in between projects!” If she had it her way, she’d be able to release music whenever she felt like it.

But until then, Ameriie keeps herself busy. Two albums, a potential EP she’s thinking of giving out free to her fans, two novels, a new YouTube channel called Books Beauty Ameriie, and a long-standing goal to improve her Korean language skills. Though she’s conversationally fluent — she’s done music collaborations with K-pop artists 4Minute, Se7en and Tiger JK — she wishes she had more confidence when she spoke. So creating her own Rosetta Stone language class — just another thing to add onto Ameriie’s to-do list.

To keep up with Ameriie, follow her on Tumblr, Instagram and official website.

 

Photos courtesy of Mr. Nicholson, Feeniix Rising Ent.
This story was originally published in our Winter 2014-15 issue. Get your copy here. 

 

GIRLS WHO CODE: Reshma Saujani’s Nonprofit Encourages Girls to Pursue Careers In Engineering and Technology

 

In Reshma Saujani’s 2011 Ted Talk, she discussed the importance of encouraging more American youth to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers in order to create jobs and re-ignite our economy. Not only are twice as many degrees being earned in business and social science compared to STEM, she also pointed to a startling gender gap, especially in technology fields. While 58 percent of women earn bachelor degrees, only 25 percent of them are in STEM fields, and only 12 percent of computer science graduates are women, down from 37 percent in 1985.

Research has shown that in a poll of fourth graders, two-thirds of both boys and girls claim to like math and science. However, by the time girls graduate high school, only 0.3 percent choose computer science as their college major.

“I think there are subtle things we do to girls that tell them that these fields are not for them,” says Saujani, who provided the voiceover for this summer’s “Inspire Her Mind” campaign, a cultural dialogue ignited by Verizon and MAKERS, a digital platform showcasing stories of trailblazing women from all walks of life. The commercial shows how parents discouraging their daughters from getting their dresses and hands dirty, telling them to be careful around electric tools (while passing them off to their brothers), can really have an effect on girls’ perceptions of what they think they can be.

“It’s not intentional,” Saujani continues. “I was home in Chicago with my two nieces and nephew, and my father called my nephew to come help him fix something, instead of calling my nieces. After he watched the ‘Inspire Her Mind’ ad, he realized he may also be unconsciously not pushing girls toward creating and building things.”

To combat this gender disparity, Saujani created Girls Who Code, a nonprofit that exposes girls to engineering and technology at a young age, with hopes that cultivating these interests early will encourage them to become the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators. In 2012, Girls Who Code kicked off an eight-week summer program in New York City that taught programming to 20 girls, many from underserved communities. Since then, those girls have been inspired to spread their knowledge and enthusiasm by creating Girls Who Code clubs at their high schools across the country. A year later, the nonprofit had grown to eight programs in five different cities, and they are only getting bigger. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that, by 2020, there will be 1.4 million computer specialist job openings; Girls Who Code aims to provide computer science education and exposure to 1 million young women in the next six years.

“If girls have this skillset, they’re going to build tools and products that are going to make the world a better place,” says Saujani, pointing to her first set of students who built apps that tackled issues like bullying, obesity, cancer and world hunger.

“These girls want to create a product that will make communities better, and having the technological skills and being able to code will be important to solving these problems.”

One former participant of the Twitter Girls Who Code summer immersion program, Ming Horn, started a nonprofit called Khode Up! to teach web development and graphic design to teenage orphans in Cambodia. Though the high school student was inspired after meeting Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg through the program, Saujani believes that “the kids’ biggest role models are each other.”

Though Saujani grew up in a family of engineers in Illinois, she says she was terrified of studying math and science, a regret that gnawed at her all through adulthood. She eventually studied political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, earned a master’s of public policy at Harvard and attended Yale Law School. She had discovered a passion for public service and political activism early in life. Her first march was as a 13-year-old youth activist fighting against racial and social injustice, and later, after 9/11, she worked to educate Muslim immigrants in Queens about their legal rights post-Patriot Act.

“It reminded me of what my parents, who came here as refugees from Uganda, went through,” says Saujani. “How your rights can literally be taken away at a moment’s notice if you don’t participate in the political process.

“That showed me how much the South Asian community lacked a voice in politics,” she continues. “In many ways, politics wasn’t encouraged in my family. In Asian families, you’re not supposed to put yourself out there like that. But I’ve always loved it. I’ve always had the desire to serve.”

Eventually, she worked as the deputy public advocate at the Office of the New York City Public Advocate, and in 2010, she was the first South Asian woman in the country to run for U.S. Congress. While she suffered two political defeats — she also ran for New York City Public Advocate in 2013, coming in third in the primary — she’s determined to change public perceptions of what’s possible for a South Asian American woman.

During her time campaigning, Saujani visited many schools and was impressed by their technology. She was also looking for a way to support the economic transformation of New York City, and it was then that the seeds of Girls Who Code were planted.

“After [the Facebook film] The Social Network, more boys think technology is cool, but I don’t think it has had the same effect for girls yet,” says Saujani, who published her first book, Women Who Don’t Wait in Line: Break the Mold, Lead the Way, in 2013. “And that’s what we’re working on. No matter what you want to be, whether it’s a doctor, dancer or artist, technology is a part of who we are.”

Find out more about Girls Who Code at girlswhocode.com.

 

This story was originally published in our Fall 2014 issue. Get your copy here