Dara Shen: Competing In A Combat Sport Where Asian American Women Are Rare

Story by Ada Tseng. Photo by Susan Hale Thomas.

Dara Shen is trying to explain what it feels like to get punched in the face. “Have you ever sneezed really hard?” she asks. “That’s what it feels like. I remember the first few times I got hit, my face was sore afterward, but your neck gets used to it. If you’re strong in your neck, you’re not going to be bobbing all over the place, and that’s what causes a knockout: when your chin turns too much in one direction and cuts off the blood to your brain.”

A Taiwanese American boxer who’s hungry for her first U.S. national championship (she already has multiple silvers and bronzes, but her only gold is from when she fought abroad in Taiwan), 27-year-old Shen is no stranger to black eyes. But she’s managed to avoid major injuries thus far, other than a concussion she got when she fought at the Olympic Trials back in 2011.

Despite her (almost) clean slate, Shen concedes that boxing is a dangerous sport and her loved ones have the right to worry when she’s in the ring. It’s no wonder that her parents can’t bear to watch her fight. They’d rather just hear about the results afterward, and they yearn for the day they can throw her a retirement party.

“Being punched in the face is part of the game,” says Shen. “For me, it’s not painful anymore. It’s more of a mental thing: how you deal with it is what makes you who you are as a fighter.”

Born in San Francisco, Shen moved to Utah when she was 11 (raised Mormon, she describes her formative years as being one of the only Asians in a sea of blond hair and blue eyes), before moving to Virginia for high school. Though Shen participated in many sports growing up, it wasn’t until she was a 20-year-old university student at Virginia Tech (going through a bad break-up that left her with much pentup frustration) that she discovered a boxing club at her school.

“I just did it for fun and to get in shape,” remembers Shen, “but I’m very competitive by nature, so once I found out there was a whole world of competition, I fell in love with the sport. I went to my first nationals in 2010.”

At 5-foot-9-inches and 165 pounds (“My coach calls me ‘Asian Amazon’”), Shen fights in the middleweight division, the highest of three weight classes that were allowed in the first-ever women’s Olympic boxing event held at the London Summer Olympics in 2012. Boxing has long been considered a male-dominated sport — it had been the last-standing all-male sport in the Games for years — and even nowadays, though she competes against other women, Shen does most of her training with her male teammates. (“It’s a treat to get to spar with another girl,” she says.)

All through 2011, Shen competed in numerous qualifying tournaments, fighting to earn a coveted spot at the Olympic Trials, but she kept missing by a hair. The U.S. National Championships qualified the top four; Shen was fifth. The National Golden Gloves took the first-place champion; she came in third. The National PAL qualified the top three; she was four. Once her U.S. opportunities wore thin, she decided to try her luck in Taiwan with her dual citizenship. There, she earned gold at the Taiwan Olympic trials, represented Taiwan in the Women’s World Championships (another qualifier for the Olympics), and there, again, she missed qualifying by one spot.

Eventually, she was able to compete at the U.S. Olympic Trials after there was a last-minute dropout, and she became an alternate for the London Olympics. But looking ahead to the 2016 Games, she wants more. In 2014, she will get another chance to qualify, and her past failures only fire up her passion and hunger to win.

“I lost so much when I first started competing,” Shen remembers. “I lost my first seven fights, so as an amateur boxer, being down 0-7, you have to question, ‘Is this for me?’ But I never saw quitting as an option. This is what I want to do. I’ve seen what my sport has to offer at the most elite level, and I know what it takes to be there.”

While there are numerous respected Asian women boxers abroad, including Ana Julaton of the Philippines and Mary Kom of India, Shen says she has only seen three other Asian American women in her seven years of boxing in the United States — and this includes both athletes and officials.

“I know when I go to competitions, when people don’t know me, they think, ‘She probably can’t fight. She’s a girl. She’s pretty. She’s Asian. Asians don’t box,’” says Shen. “You get looks from people, and they don’t need to say anything, you already know what they’re thinking. But being Asian in this sport has made me stand out. If you were to go to the tournament and ask for the Asian girl, there’s only one. It’s just me!”

Though she lives for boxing, Shen acknowledges that the sport is struggling, especially with the rise of UFC and mixed martial arts, and despite all the physical risks involved, boxing doesn’t necessarily pay. There are only a couple American women with major sponsorships, and the rest of the fighters have to make a living outside of the sport. Based in Alexandria, Va., Shen herself works a regular 9-to-5 job in project management for construction and real estate development, before heading to the gym each day for
her training workouts.

“It can be depressing if you read into it too much, so I try to do what I can to stay focused on my own goals and not let that part drag me down,” she says. “And that’s what I love so much about boxing — that it teaches you so much about life. If you pay attention to what everyone else is doing, you’re not going to be able to do what you need to do, the best way you can do it. That’s boxing, and that’s life!”

This story was originally published in our Winter 2013-14 issue. Get your copy here.

Haikus With Hotties: Freddie Wong

After last issue’s inaugural haiku exchange with our ultimate Smoking Hot Asian Guy (SHAG) Godfrey Gao, who could possibly follow but über-popular YouTube star, filmmaker and former competitive gamer Freddie Wong, otherwise known as FreddieW? Known for his slick, gun-toting, VFX-heavy, Michael Bay-inspired action-comedy videos that have garnered more than 1 billion views on his three YouTube channels (RocketJump alone has 6.6 million subscribers), Wong shows us you don’t need to be an international supermodel to seduce us with gravity-defying poetry.

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O Freddie, Freddie!
Wherefore doth thou beguile my
eyes with hot cat ties?

FREDDIE:
Before I answer
I must commend your usage
Of the word wherefore.

Do ladies prefer
sultry action stunts or smooth
Guitar Hero skillz?

FREDDIE:
The women, I’ve found,
are impressed by neither guns
nor plastic guitars.

After surviving
make-believe bullets, best fix
hair first? Or glasses?

FREDDIE:
When the myopic
Hand’s been dealt, one should always
Secure clear vision. 

 


But the fun doesn’t end there:

Behind the Scenes of Freddie Wong’s Haikus with Hotties Photo Shoot (Photos by Craig Stubing/Unwrittenfilms.com):

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Freddie Wong gets in the holiday spirit

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Freddie Wong’s smile melts hearts around the world

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Pardon me, were you taking a photo of this backdrop?

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No photos please, I’m concerned my hotness will shatter your camera

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Hey girl, brought this bow tie out just for you

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I’ll be right here… waiting for you.

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Bad guys don’t stop just because Freddie is at a photo shoot

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Freddie Wong hates ties, even beautiful ones with cats on them.

 

 

 

 

 

Our previous Haikus With Hotties with Godfrey Gao:

 

Who should be next in our “Haikus With Hotties” series? Tell us what you think!

This story was originally published in our Winter 2013-14 issue. Get your copy here

Audrey’s Top Restaurant Pick: Hakkasan

Story by Anna M. Park.

Dining at Hakkasan Beverly Hills, the newest location of the esteemed Michelin-star Cantonese restaurant that opened in London in 2001, is not so much dinner as it is an event. Walk past the crowd of paparazzi, there every night, into a labyrinthine interior cloaked in sexy, moody lighting and electronic dance music. For almost every offering, two servers are required, whether it’s the Smoky Negroni cocktail with its post-pour infusion of woodsy smoke from a decanter, or the Hakka Steamed Dim Sum Platter (one dumpling with squid ink) and its variety of tasty sauces.

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On a menu helmed by the Michelin-star chef Ho Chee Boon, the Crispy Duck Salad is a must-try and a good introduction to that lesser known bird. For true duck lovers, the Black Truffle Roasted Duck is almost an embarrassment of riches with its sizable slivers of black truffle atop perfectly crisped duck skin, a thin layer of fatty goodness, and then tender, juicy meat. If you’re not a fan of poultry, try the Grilled Seabass with Chinese Honey, a succulent alternative, or the Roasted Silver Cod with Champagne, a favorite among the wait staff. Skip the noodles altogether — everything is so rich and juicy and fatty (and the portions are hardy), you don’t need any carbs; just a veggie side dish should do. In fact, a couple of Shiso Gimlets and Black Sesame Crémeux with Yuzu Ice Cream for dessert offers a much needed palate cleanser to offset all that decadence.

Details Hakkasan.com/beverlyhills/

 

This story was originally published in our Winter 2013-14 issue. Get your copy here

DESTINY’S CHILD: Bollywood’s Biggest Actress, PRIYANKA CHOPRA

If she hadn’t been bullied at an American high school, she may not have returned to India only to win Miss World. If she hadn’t won Miss World, she may not have become Bollywood’s biggest actress. For Priyanka Chopra, with her debut pop album just on the horizon, destiny is all about taking that next step after you fall. 

STORY by Ada Tseng.
PHOTOS by Yu Tsai.

 BUY OUR WINTER 2013-14 ISSUE WITH PRIYANKA CHOPRA HERE.

 

When PRIYANKA CHOPRA was 17 years old, the young Indian beauty had spent a few difficult high school years abroad in the United States before deciding to go back to India for her senior year. Upon her return, her mother sent some photos Chopra had taken to apply for an engineering scholarship to the Femina Miss India beauty pageant. Within the span of a year, Chopra went from being taunted by American teenagers who called her “brownie” to winning the 2000 Miss World title at age 18 — still the youngest contestant to ever win the pageant in its 63-year history.

Now 31, Chopra says that if she hadn’t been bullied at school and desperate to return home to India, she would have never fallen into her mega-successful career in the Bollywood entertainment industry.

“I think it gave me the strength to take adversity head on,” says Chopra. “I also learned that your life and destiny is in your own hands. Take chances, push boundaries, jump, fall, fail, cry, and then brush it all off and start all over. You will face adversity at many points in your life, but you can’t let it become a roadblock.

“The incident [in high school] upset and hurt me tremendously,” she continues, “but ultimately made me stronger. Then being back home in India led me to participate and win the Miss India and Miss World crowns. I found what I loved to do, gave it everything I had and left the rest up to destiny. Nothing anyone says or does will ever change that.”

In a business that is ruled by Kapoors, Bachchans, Roshans and Khans (who are often sons and daughters of already-successful film industry folk), Chopra prides herself in being a self-made star. Her parents, both doctors in the Indian army at the time, had no connections to Bollywood. But when Chopra was flooded with acting offers after her Miss World win, her mother actually gave up her flourishing practice to come to Mumbai with her daughter to help chase her new dreams.

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“We were so far removed from this world,” says Chopra. “We didn’t know anyone and didn’t know a thing about the film business. What actually helped us through it was that we knew this was not a ‘do-or-die’ situation, so we just trusted our instincts and stuck to our values. Every day was a challenge, everything I had to face, good or bad, was a new experience, and that in itself was a challenge.”

In the beginning of her career, Chopra was involved in some commercial successes — Andaaz opposite Akshay Kumar, Mujhse Shaadi Karogi with Salman Khan and Kumar, Krrish with Hrithik Roshan, and Don opposite Shah Rukh Khan — but it took a while for her to be taken seriously as an actress and gain parts that did more than capitalize on her looks.

“Learning to be an actor and understanding the craft was a huge challenge for me,” says Chopra. “I didn’t go to acting school. My [previously] desired career path was to be an engineer. So I listened, observed and absorbed everything that was happening around me. It gave me the foundation that I needed to build on and really paid off.”

One could argue that Chopra’s biggest turning point came in 2008, with her role as an ambitious supermodel in Fashion. Not only was Chopra in the title role in the women-centric film with no male leads, she picked up most of the major best actress awards that year, including the Filmfare Awards, International Indian Film Academy Awards, and the National Film Awards.

In 2012, she further cemented her acting chops by donning a short curly hairdo to play an autistic girl, rendering her almost unrecognizable as Ranbir Kapoor’s unlikely love interest in the romantic comedy Barfi!. Nowadays, with more than 40 films under her belt, she’s respected as a hard-working actress who is bankable yet not afraid to take chances with her roles.

But it was late 2012 that brought her boldest move yet — a foray into the international pop music scene. Bollywood film is known for its musical numbers, and as part of film tradition, the actors and actresses dance and lip-synch to songs that are pre-recorded by professional playback singers. While there have been instances of actors recording songs for their own films, Chopra is the first major Bollywood star to sign a record deal with the intent of releasing a solo English album for a global audience.

Instead of staying in India, where she is already a bona fide superstar with almost 5 million Twitter followers (the most of any Bollywood actress), Chopra deliberately chose Los Angeles as her base for recording music, and she is working with American artists and producers to develop her own style that fuses universally appealing pop/dance beats with her Indian roots.

“It’s been super fun, but also scary in a way, because as a lyricist you are delving into your own experiences and emotions to create these songs,” says Chopra. “As you will hear, my music is really driven by my moods. When I’m hyper I write a pop song; when I’m sad I write ballads.”

Chopra has since released two singles, with a third due any day now. “In My City,” featuring will.i.am, was certified triple platinum in India when it debuted in September 2012, and it made a resurgence this past September when it was chosen as the NFL Networks’ official new Thursday Night Football opening theme song. Her second single “Exotic,” featuring Pitbull, not only hit number one in iTunes India when it was released this past July, it also appeared on the Billboard Dance/Electronic charts in the United States, as well as the Canadian Hot 100.

Her upcoming debut album, scheduled for early 2014, is a collaboration between Universal Music Group, Interscope Records and Desi Hits!, and both “In My City” and “Exotic” were produced and co-written by Grammy-nominated producer RedOne, a Top 40 hit-maker for artists like Nicki Minaj, Jennifer Lopez, One Direction and Lady Gaga.

“Making music is such an organic process, and there is really no set pattern,” says Chopra. “In the course of putting my album together, I have had such varied experiences. Sometimes a song has been borne out of a melody created while sitting in the studio, or it germinates from a particular emotion that you are feeling on any given day. Sometimes a story or a word tossed into a conversation — that becomes the center point of the idea for your song. It can happen anywhere and anyhow, and that’s what makes it so magical.”

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That said, her ardent Bollywood fans need not worry about her abandoning the silver screen any time soon, as Chopra’s filming schedule has definitely not been put on hold amidst the madness. Always the multitasker, the impossibly busy triple threat recently re-teamed with Hrithik Roshan for the superhero sequel Krrish 3, released in November, and she will soon finish filming the upcoming Mary Kom biopic, in which she plays the titular role of the celebrated Indian boxer. Chopra was also recently named the new Guess Girl, becoming the first model of Indian descent for the clothing brand and following in the steps of such well-known names as Claudia Schiffer, Anna Nicole Smith and Kate Upton. Handpicked by Guess CEO Paul Marciano, not only will Chopra appear in their holiday ads shot by Bryan Adams (yes, the musician) in the December issue for almost all the major American fashion magazines, her music and Guess campaign video will stream across the brand’s 1,700 stores worldwide.

Looking back, even though the teenage Chopra dealt with her share of mean high school girls who didn’t appreciate her South Asian roots, her experiences in the United States weren’t all bad. Her exposure to American hip-hop and R&B during her formative years — she was obsessed with Tupac Shakur and wore black to school every day for a week after he passed away — has influenced the eclectic mix of music she co-writes and listens to today.

And Chopra recognizes that we’re now in a different time: as the world is becoming more global (our own Miss America is of South Asian descent, after all), we just might be ready for an Indian pop star in America.

 

This cover story was originally published in our Winter 2013-14 issue. Get your copy here

Brenda Song Opens Up About Her Controversial Character in “Dads”

Story by Carol Park.

Not only is Brenda Song not your stereotypical Asian American who grew up to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer, she’s a former teen star who’s managed to make the jump to adult roles while avoiding the pitfalls of a child actor.

 

“Transitioning from child to teenager to adult is a difficult process for anyone,” says Song, who began acting and modeling at the age of 7. “But doing it in front of the camera, you can grow with your character, and I’ve been fortunate to grow in the right direction.”

 

Song made a name for herself playing the ditzy heiress London Tipton on the Disney Channel’s The Suite Life of Zack & Cody and The Suite Life on Deck from 2005 to 2011. Since her Disney days, she’s played various grown-up roles on ABC’s Scandal, FOX’s New Girl and most notably the Academy Award-winning The Social Network. Currently, the 25-year-old plays Veronica on the FOX sitcom Dads, executive produced by Family Guy creator Seth Mac-Farlane. Veronica is the vice president at a successful video game company owned by childhood best friends, Eli and Warner, played by Seth Green and Giovanni Ribisi, respectively, whose lives are turned upside down when their fathers move in with them. Fellow Asian American Vanessa Lachey stars as Warner’s wife.

 

Though Veronica is described as the “voice of reason, who is never afraid to stand her ground with her bosses,” according to FOX’s website, the role was criticized by various groups, including the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, as racist and offensive. The controversy centered on Song’s character forced to dress up in an anime outfit and jokes aimed at Asians.

 

“With the controversy, I found it interesting,” says Song. “People took a 30-second bit and, in my eyes, blew it out of proportion. Our show isn’t for everyone; that’s why I was so attracted to the character of Veronica. On a show like that, we’re able to poke fun at stereotypes. It’s empowering to get ahead of the joke.

 

“Something I might find funny, my dad may not find funny,” she adds. “But we’re not out to please everyone.”
Working with MacFarlane, Green and Ribisi has been humbling and a blessing, says Song. The show has helped her grow and learn from an amazing cast and crew, and she believes the show is innovative and creative while racy and edgy at the same time. And now that FOX has ordered another nine episodes from the show, it’s likely Song will have more opportunities to learn from her colleagues.

 

Her appreciation for the experience is likely due in no small part to her recognition that it’s difficult being an ethnic minority in Hollywood. Of Hmong Chinese and Thai descent, Song says sometimes castings can be difficult because people don’t listen to her. But she stays one step ahead, sticking to her guns, and the knowledge that the right roles will come along sooner or later has gotten her through the challenge, she says. “At the end of the day, as long as you’re passionate, if you’re enjoying what you’re doing, [ethnicity] shouldn’t matter.”

 

Indeed, for Song, any difficulties in her career are eclipsed by a challenge closer to home: her mother’s fight with breast cancer. A two-time breast cancer survivor, Song’s mother is currently undergoing treatment for her third bout with the disease. The experience changed her, says Song, who supports various breast cancer organizations. All she’ll say is, “Mom’s an amazing woman.”

 

Though Song hopes for better, fuller, older roles in the future, for now, she’s focused on taking it one day at a time. “Regardless of what you do, you have to look at things and the lessons to be learned, because the moment you stop learning, you need to stop doing what you’re doing,” she says. “You never know what the universe is going to bring you.”

 

Dads airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on FOX

This story was originally published in our Winter 2013-2014 issue. Purchase yours here.

 

Guy Talk With Michael Yo: Dating As A ‘Blasian’

Story by Paul Nakayama 

This column used to be called The Awful Truth because dating advice can be exactly that. After watching the impossibly racist “music” video “Asian Girlz” by the band Day Above Ground (aptly named since they must’ve been living under a rock), I think the awful truth is that some people just plain suck. But the other side of it is that interracial relations, especially dating, can be a complicated issue. I recently had a chat with comedian and co-host of CBS’ OMG! The Insider, Michael Yo, self-proclaimed “Half-Black Brother with a Korean Mother,” to talk about growing up in an interracial family and his dating experiences.

Q. Where did you grow up?
Michael Yo: I grew up in Houston, Texas, in a predominantly white neighborhood. I was the only “Blasian” growing up. We didn’t even have the term “Blasian” back then. In my neighborhood, they never asked me, “What’s your ethnicity?” It was more like, “What are ya? I don’t understand what you are.”

Q. What were the race dynamics like in your neighborhood?
MY: I had white friends, and small sets of Asian and black friends. It’s weird. Back then, it’s like the stereotypes were kinda true. I was on the basketball team, which was mostly white kids, a couple of black kids and one Asian. You know, ‘cause the Asians were studying most of the time.

Q. What, but not you? You have an Asian mom and you weren’t locked in a dungeon to study?
MY: [Laughs]. My dad has a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, and my mom never went to college. But my mom was always the one pushing me to study while my dad was the opposite. He was like, “School is not your thing.” My dad was very honest that way, and my mom hated to hear that. She was like other Asian moms, wanting to compare their kids to other kids. But she couldn’t brag about my grades. I was the dumb kid out of the whole group. But now, when they say, “My son doctor, my son lawyer,” she says, “Oh yeah? Turn on TV.”

Q. Being on TV, how does that help your game with dating? Inciden- tally, writing for a magazine has zero dating perks.
MY: I’m just a dude who interviews people. So it’s weird to get that kind of attention when you’re on the other side of the camera. The other day I was driving down the street, and this girl pulls up next to me screaming [high- pitched voice], “OMIGOD I love you!” And she almost wrecked her car. They know who you are, but you have no idea who they are. You have to go and find out about them.

Q. It’s similar to how people can stalk someone on Facebook before a date. How do you react to someone knowing so much about you?
MY: Here’s what I like about it: when they say, “I feel like I know you.” That’s like the biggest compliment to me. I’m OK with them not really knowing me, but for them to feel like they know me must mean they have some kind of connection with me.

Q. So, let’s talk about dating with your unique perspective as someone half-black and half-Asian.
MY: Dating is dating. Women are women. I would date anyone: black girls, white girls, Asian girls. With the white girls, you know, they didn’t know what I was, so their parents didn’t know which stereotypes to apply. I mean the biggest thing about dating a white girl is more about how their parents will react. You know, a lot of parents will say they’re not racist or they don’t care until you’re actually dating their daughter.

Q. Do you think this is true for all ethnicities or just the girls that were white?
MY: I can’t say for all the ethnicities, but my own experience with white girls, and it’s not all the time obviously, but there were times when a girl would say, “Oh, my parents will totally be fine.” And then we started dating, and her parents found out, and they weren’t cool. She never knew that side of her parents. And sometimes you experience a side of her parents that [the parents] are experiencing for the first time.

Q. That’s interesting. For me, my first girlfriend was white and her parents were very cool with me. It was actually some of the parents of my Chinese or Korean girlfriends that didn’t like that I was Japanese. I was either a pervert or a war criminal.
MY: You automatically get stereotyped no matter what ethnicity you are. I’m half-black and Asian so what do girls automatically ask? “Oh, so are you big or small?” I get put into a box all the time. It’s just a stereotype, and I get it.

Q. I’m full Asian, so my box sucks. What about your parents? Do they have a preference? For girls to date, I mean.
MY: My parents being interracial, they never cared who I dated. So I never felt that pressure, whereas I know a lot of Asian parents want their daughters to date someone Asian. Now, I’m older so they just want kids. My mom is all, “You have baby? You have baby?” That’s all she cares about. And I do want that. My parents have been married 40 years, so I know what I want, and that’s what makes it so hard to find the right one.

Q. It does take a while to find the right one.
MY: In your 20s, you’re all about hooking up. You don’t really care what they say. True story, I was walking on the beach with a girl, and she looked up and said, “Oh my God, look at the shooting star.” I look up, and it’s an airplane. But all I cared about was hooking up so I said, “Make a wish.” Now I actually care about content. In my 30s I care about what they’re doing, if they’re hungry for life, for a career. Now I want somebody that I can grow with.

You can follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelYo, or his website, MichaelYo.com.

This story was originally published in our Fall 2013 issue. Get your copy here.

‘Boat People’: The Horror Stories of The Vietnam Exodus

Story by Ethel Navales 

When I began reading Boat People: Personal Stories from the Vietnamese Exodus, I had no idea what was in store for me. I didn’t expect to find each page more difficult to digest than the one before it. I didn’t expect that I would need to pull away for moments just to process what I had read. I certainly didn’t expect to be on the verge of tears, but that’s exactly what happened.

In riveting detail, Boat People brings together the heartbreaking stories of those who survived one of the largest mass exoduses in history — an exodus which had more than a million Vietnamese citizens fleeing their homeland after the Vietnam War. The book’s editor, Carina Hoang, was only 16 when she took part in this journey in 1979. Despite previous hardships — including her father being taken away for 14 years as a political prisoner, her house being confiscated, and nearly unbearable poverty — nothing could have prepared her for the difficulties that were to come as a refugee. “I was not aware of the risk involved,” says Hoang. “I did not realize that once I [stepped] foot on the boat, my chance of survival was very slim — it was something like 10 percent.”

Hoang’s account of her own experiences proves to be just as horrifying as the other stories in Boat People. “There were 373 people on board. It was so crowded that most of us sat with knees to our chins for nearly seven days,” she says. “We were tossed about by a violent storm; we threw up all over each other, and sat with the vomit and the stench for the rest of the trip.” As difficult as this may seem, the hardships of the journey were far from over. Hoang and the others on her boat were attacked by pirates, faced starvation and dehydration, and were quickly overcome with disease. “There were times when I didn’t think we would make it,” recalls Hoang. “It was God’s will that we lived while hundreds died and were buried in the jungle.”

Now, 34 years later, Hoang has dedicated herself to telling her story, as well as the stories of the other survivors. “My main motivation,” Hoang explains, “is to help my daughter, my nieces and my nephews know about their heritage and to understand why and how their parents fled Vietnam.” Of course, a task like this is no easy one. After months of searching and interviewing, Hoang and her co-editor, Michelle Lam, found many people who resisted the idea of digging up their past. “Not everyone we approached was willing to share his or her stories. Some found it difficult to relive their tragic past,” says Hoang, “especially when we touched the subject of the boat people being brutally and inhumanely attacked by pirates.”

Despite these obstacles, Hoang continued to work on Boat People because she understood how important it was to tell these stories. She points out that although the Vietnam exodus was one of the largest in history, many people do not know the enormity and details of this event. To help heal and educate, Hoang organizes trips back to the refugee camps. “Many families lost their loved ones while in refugee camps,” she says. “It is part of our culture to visit the graves of our loved ones regularly, but more importantly, it’s just hard to grieve as the loved ones died in such a tragic way and the families were unable to give their loved ones a proper burial. In some cases, people just couldn’t let go; thus revisiting the graves of their loved ones gives them a sense of comfort or a form of closure.”

Whether through organized trips, public speaking or Boat People, Hoang continues to fight to give voice to these stories. “I believe that as people are more informed, they will have better judgment about refugees and will hopefully approach the matter with more compassion.”

carina


This story was originally published in our Fall 2013 issue. Get your copy here.  

Throwback Thursday: Olivia Munn Was Adorable Even Before ‘The Newsroom’

This story was originally published in our Spring 2011 issue. Get your copy here.
Story by Janice Jann

It must be really hard to date Olivia Munn. Not because she’s gorgeous in the girl-next door way, with freckles lightly scattered across her button nose and her goofy, toothy grin. Not because she’s got the wicked sense of humor of a teenage boy, spouting racy jokes one minute, shocking hairstylists and photographers the next. And not because she has the curves — and we’re talking curves — of a real woman, unlike other half-starved actresses.

No, it must be really hard to date Olivia Munn because she is probably one of the busiest women in Hollywood right now. After rescheduling six times the first day, only to push the interview back to the next day, only to have her finally call me on the phone while driving between errands, I almost felt like a suitor who just wasn’t getting the hint. “Sorry, I know you had to move stuff around for me all the time,” apologizes Munn. “It’s [just] an amazing time right now.”

An amazing time, indeed. Besides television gigs on both sides of the coast, Munn is also a best-selling author who just landed her biggest movie role to date. I understand, but Munn still extends an offer to meet in person. The next morning, I arrive at her newly purchased home tucked away in the Hollywood Hills, bearing a gift. “Oh, nice!” she exclaims, unwrapping a Japanese jelly energy drink. “I actually needed this.” She shows me around the house, sharing intimate details, from photos of loved ones (there’s shots of her mother with all her siblings) to the contents of her fridge (I spot kimchi). It’s clear that the Chinese-German-Irish Munn is as Asian as she is American.

Growing up, Munn spent a large portion of her youth in Japan and Oklahoma, and it wasn’t easy moving around a lot. “When you’re always the new girl, it forces you to come up with new ways to make friends,” says Munn, “because every time you go somewhere, it’s literally the same battle. Eventually with me, once I built up so much scar tissue, I didn’t have to worry so much about becoming popular or being welcomed or being accepted.” That doesn’t mean Munn doesn’t care what people think now that she’s in the spotlight. “Nobody wants to be un-liked. You want people to respect you,” she says. “It’s really annoying, those people who go, ‘I just want to do art.’ Really? ’Cause why aren’t you doing community theatre in Missouri? You’re out here busting your ass for a Taco Bell commercial. … I think once everybody is honest with themselves on what they’re searching for, you can break down what truly matters at the end of the day.”

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Munn realized early on that what she wanted at the end of the day is to act. In second grade, Munn informed her mother of her dreams and was met with rejection. “She was like, ‘no, no, you be a lawyer,’” Munn recalls. “They took a big risk coming to America with no money and so they think, don’t take risks. And from that moment, I thought I wasn’t allowed to dream that dream.” But the dream refused to die and a couple of years later, Munn begged her mom to move to Hollywood. “Financially, I could have made it [on my own], but because I’m Chinese, I needed my mom’s approval,” Munn says. “It’s ingrained into my DNA.” Munn’s mother, in turn, made her graduate from the University of Oklahoma with a journalism degree and work for a year at a local television station before granting her permission to move west.

But getting to Hollywood was only half the battle. Though the actress is embraced for her unique look now, that wasn’t always the case when she was a struggling artist. “Early on, I knew I didn’t look like everyone else. I used to look in the mirror and cry and literally hit myself [because] my eyes looked so Asian,” says Munn. She did some catalogue modeling that “sucked because I was the shortest and the biggest out of all the girls.” And she set her sights on the future, one goal at a time. “I told myself, my bar will always be higher than what I was doing at the time. Then if I reached that one, I would make another higher one, and another one,” she says. “I’ve worked hard for a long time [so I could] tell myself, I’ll never be the reason I hear no.”

It was a resounding yes for Munn when she got the offer to host G4’s Attack of the Show (AOTS), a tech-gaming live variety show. Munn joined AOTS in 2006 and over the next four years, a geek goddess bloomed. “I didn’t know what [the show] could do or what it could bring; I just knew that I wanted to be myself and I only wanted to do things that I found funny and not conform,” she says. “That was a place that allowed me to do it.” Together with co-host Kevin Pereira, Munn raised AOTS to cult status, with the tech-geek, Internet- savvy, heavily male audience embracing Munn’s quirky blend of humor, tomboy attitude and sex appeal. (Case in point: a video of Munn chugging a hot dog has more than 11 million hits on YouTube.)

Munn’s reign on G4 ended late last year, but her profile is rising higher than ever with the new NBC prime-time series Perfect Couples and as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Despite all her slightly naughty behavior in  front of the camera (Munn’s Maxim and Playboy bikini shoots top her Google images search), the rising star’s managed to stay out of the tabloids, until recently when she was linked to Justin Timberlake. “Over the last year, I’ve dated guys that, if people knew, would be on the cover of magazines. But they don’t find out because I say, ‘hey, would you like to go to Valencia?’” says Munn. “Some people go to restaurants that are so popular. They say it’s really good food. You’re like, ‘what food is worth that?’ The lobster ceviche will be just as good in a to-go box.” Already a pro at handling fame, Munn knows how much to give and what to keep private. “I feel like I’ve been given a lot and I try to say thank you. The only thing I ask of myself is to try to keep my personal life personal,” she says. “I will take as many pictures as you want, I will try to answer every single question under the sun, and the reason I’m doing that is so you’ll realize that I just have to keep something for myself.”

True to her word, Munn’s relationship with her fans is legendary. The celeb is known for her generosity at impromptu fan meet-and-greets and for fulfilling fanboy desires with sexy cos-plays. Her fan club, cheekily called the OMFGs (Olivia Munn Fan Group), totally reciprocate the love. “They’re amaz- ing. I’m very lucky. It’s a really good feeling to know they have my back,” gushes Munn. And though she’s left G4, she won’t be leaving the OMFGs behind any time soon. “They put me on this ride,” she adds. “They’re coming along for the ride.”

So where does Munn hope this ride will take her? “I’m in a place where I’m very grateful and I’m living my dreams right now,” she says. “I’m doing a million things at once, but the next step is just being on the same plane and being able to hold onto that.” Munn pauses and gazes at the plush white rug we’re lounging on. “I believe in the energy you put out there,” she continues. “If you just keep putting it out there and then if it all goes away, well, as long as I’ve been working hard and I’ve been respectful to myself, my friends, my family, then I’ve won and I’ll feel good about that. I just hope it doesn’t.”

 

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Haikus With Hotties: Godfrey Gao

When contributing editor Ada Tseng suggested exchanging poetry with Smoking Hot Asian Guys (SHAGs), we were skeptical. Turns out — pure genius. Here, model and actor Godfrey Gao (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones) gamely responds to our lyrical inquiries through Japanese haiku.

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How often do fans
Faint from Godfrey’s smile (or wink)
Be honest, OK? 

Godfrey:
People think I am
Sexy; Flattering, its true
But I’m just bashful.

Striving for beauty
Best regimen for Godfrey
Summed up in haiku? 

Godfrey:
Sweating on “THE” court,
B-ball is my game. Keeps my
Body in good shape.

Louis Vuitton man
How does Godfrey make purse look
So good. Confidence? 

Godfrey:
Never thought I’d be
Godfrey Gao as Magnus Bane
Powerful warlock.

 

 This story was originally published in our Fall 2013 issue. Get your copy here

Accessories Designer Rafe Totengco Bring Us Something Different

Story by Kristine Ortiz

 

When asked what his 10- year-old self would tell him today, Rafe Totengco jokes, “Why didn’t you get started sooner?” Even as a young child, the Filipino American accessories designer — who has been designing for his coveted namesake brand Rafe New York for the last 16 years, and serves as the creative director of handbags at The Jones Group, which handles more than two dozen labels including Rachel Roy, B Brian Atwood, Stuart Weitzman, Givenchy Jewelry and Nine West —always knew that fashion was in the cards for him.

A self-described “creative,” Totengco remembers growing up in the Philippines and making alterations to his school uniforms and Sunday church clothes on a seemingly weekly basis. “Since the fifth grade, I was already designing. The tailor and I had a very good relationship,” he says with a laugh. It was his realization that simple aesthetic changes to something as basic as trousers could bring him “instant gratification,” that laid the foundation for his future in the fashion industry.

After starting his own fashion business in Manila, Totengco made his way to New York to pursue his love for design, a move that his family supported. It was his time in the Big Apple that allowed Totengco to explore and to hone in on how he wanted to make his mark on the industry.

“I felt that the only way for me to be independent and be my own designer was to start an accessories company,” he says. “I didn’t have to go through the drama of producing so many sizes per style and all of that. You can essentially do a capsule collection of 10 pieces and be in business. So it was a great way for me to still be in fashion and express a different side of my creativity.”

But it wasn’t until Totengco saw one of his pieces in a fashion magazine that he felt his place was affirmed in an often-brutal industry. “I was like, ‘OK, here we go! It’s gonna be a whirlwind, it’s gonna be great, it’s gonna be fun!’”

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And what a whirlwind it’s been. Since his start in 1997, in addition to his namesake label, he has designed a collaboration collection with retail giant Target, has been recognized by prestigious organizations like the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and Gen Art, and received the Pamana ng Pilipino Presidential Award from the Philippine government for bringing honor and recognition to his home country through his work.

The praise that he has garnered seems inevitable given his ability to draw inspiration from an “amalgam of different things.” For the fall season, he takes cues from graphic marbled floors in Venice (“[Everyone] was taking pictures of the frescoes, and I’m the only one taking pictures of the floor,” he laughs), a vintage photo of Eartha Kitt and Barbra Streisand featuring a leopard clutch, and the Art Deco aesthetic of The Great Gatsby. His pieces range from the structural Maryanne minaudiere, which he describes as one of his “iconic” designs, to practical zip clutches and totes, some of which are inspired by his time growing up in the Philippines.

Totengco is always prepared for visual inspiration, using both old-school and new-school technologies. He says that he always carries around his sketchbook, which he considers a type of “therapy” and a “second crutch” — it gives him a space to get all of his ideas out. But he also relies on his iPhone; an avid Instagram user, Totengco calls the popular phone application his “visual library,” a public space that enables people, both peers and customers, to get a glimpse into his world. Full of photos from his collections and various travels around the world, his feed lets people see where he draws his inspiration from. For Totengco, this allows him to nurture a close connection with his customers.

In a market flooded with big names and designer “It” bags, this intimate relationship is “something that’s really special” to Totengco, who’s more than pleased to have his small niche in the industry. “There’s a woman out there who wants something different [and] who wants to take the road less travelled,” he says. “There’s something authentic about what I do, [and] to me, that’s something I’m really proud of.”

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ON RAFE’S RADAR:

  • Go-to comfort food: Filipino food of course. Fortunately in New York I can run over to Jeepney, a restaurant in the East Village, to satisfy my craving.
  • On repeat on my iPod: “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke.
  • Pet peeve: Ill-fitting clothes — on anybody.
  • Talent I’d like to have: I would love to be able to play the piano.
  • What I love about being Asian: There’s an automatic kinship when you meet a fellow Asian, this unspoken understanding that you “get” each other.

 

This story was originally published in our Fall 2013 issue. Get your copy here.