High school: such a pivotal time in young women’s lives for college/career decisions, familial tension, first loves, first rejections, no-holds-barred attitude and unexpected self-discoveries.
And when high school years are depicted on American film and television, extracurricular activities may involve solving murder mysteries (Pretty Little Liars), and unrequited love is sometimes best told through song (T.V. Carpio’s cover of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in Across the Universe).
One could argue that Tamlyn Tomita’s Kumiko was the ultimate Asian American high school “girl-next-door” crush, even if, back in 1986, the Karate Kid had to travel all the way to Japan to be in the right neighborhood. But in the past 25 years, there have many memorable Asian American girls — as well as British Asians, Asian-Scots and Asian Canadians that we snuck onto the list — that we can look up to (or reminisce with) in these classic tales of high school.
Below are our Top 10 Asian American High School Girls Next Door:
10. Tina Cohen-Chang (Jenna Ushkowitz); Glee
Jenna Ushkowitz has been playing Tina on Glee since the first season debuted in 2009. After dating Artie, she connected with “the other Asian,” Mike Chang (Harry Shum Jr.), making them arguably the most prominent Asian American couple on television. As part of the glee club, Jenna has had many notable performances, covering songs such as “True Colors,” “My Funny Valentine,” and “Gangnam Style.”
9. Cho Chang (Katie Leung); Harry Potter
3,000 girls auditioned for the role of Cho Chang, and the Scottish Katie Leung made her debut in 2005’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. As Harry Potter’s first love interest, she also gives him his first kiss. Though Harry and Cho’s romance is short-lived, bookended by Cedric’s death and Cho’s jealousy of Hermione, Leung continued to reprise her role until the final installment.
8. Margaret Yang (Sarah Tanaka); Rushmore
Rushmore fans remember Margaret Yang as the sweet, bespectacled student at Grover Cleveland High School who has a crush on Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer. Unfortunately, the 10th grade extracurricular activities junkie is too busy chasing after the new teacher (Olivia Williams) to pay any attention to her. Yet, Margaret Yang is the one that ultimately gets to call Max out on his bullshit — “You’re a real jerk to me, you know that?” — eliciting a well-earned apology that made Noise to Signal‘s 10 Most Affecting Wes Anderson Moments.
7. Annabelle Manalo (Joy Bisco); The Debut
In 2000’s The Debut, Joy Bisco plays Annabelle Manalo, the best friend of Rose Mercado (Bernadette Balagtas), who is having her 18th birthday party (aka her “debut”). Rose’s brother Ben, played by Dante Basco, is the high school senior who clashes with his father and struggles to reconcile his Filipino American identity. Annabelle, a beautiful dancer with a dangerous thug boyfriend, easily charms Ben by putting him at ease on the dance floor (“If you’re Filipino, you can cha cha. It is in the blood.”), and, as an unexpected confidante, she makes a lasting impression on Ben and viewers alike.
6. Emily Fields (Shay Mitchell); Pretty Little Liars
The sporty Emily Fields, played by half Filipina, half Irish/Scottish actress Shay Mitchell, is one of the four leads in the murder mystery ABC Family series Pretty Little Liars, which debuted in 2010 and is currently in its third season. In the first season of the show, Emily comes out of the closet to both her friends and later to her parents (played by Hapa actors Eric Steinberg and Nia Peeples). Since then, the series has explored her difficult relationship with her mother and subsequent tragedies in the girls’ mysterious lives.
Click here to watch the Pretty Little Liars coming out scene.
5. Knives Chau (Ellen Wong); Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Scorned by her first love Scott Pilgrim, Knives Chau is a 17-year-old girl learning about heartbreak (and boys who aren’t the best at communication) for the first time. Played by Ellen Wong, Knives is not just an ex determined to win her boyfriend back, but a fireball of passionate energy that bursts out of the screen even we discover she has all these hidden ninja moves up her sleeve.
4. Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens): High School Musical
In the popular High School Musical franchise, Gabriella Montez — played by the Chinese-Filipino-Spanish-Irish-Native American actress-singer-dancer Vanessa Hudgens — was ultimate high school dream girl to the ultimate high school dream boy, Troy Bolton, played by Zac Efron. The dream only intensified when the fictional relationship spilled over into reality: the High School Musical movies were released from 2006-2008, while the two lead actors were real-life lovebirds until 2010. While the first two movies were made-for-television, the stakes were upped when High School Musical 3: Senior Year was brought to the big screen.
3. Jesminder “Jess” Bhamra (Parminder Nagra); Bend it Like Beckham
The 2002 film that picked up Golden Globe and British Academy Award nominations features Parminder Nagra as Jess, a tomboy in London who idolizes David Beckham and wants to play football (soccer), even though her Indian immigrant parents will not allow it. This ultimate underdog story, directed by Gurinder Chadha, not only kickstarted Nagra’s career (as she would later play Dr. Neela Rasgotra on the hit show ER for six years), but it also showcased early performances by Keira Knightley, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Archie Panjabi.
2. Lana Lang (Kristen Kreuk): Smallville
Though Smallville ran for 10 seasons, during which the relationship between Clark Kent and Lana Lang would reach greater highs and lows, involving a time travel crystal and eventual break-up, we will focus on the high school years — Seasons 1-4 — for the purposes of this list. The half Dutch, half Chinese Kristen Kreuk played Lana Lang, Clark Kent’s literal girl next door. Clark Kent (as Superman) saves her again and again, without her knowledge, but as their feelings for each other deepen, his secretive behavior continues to be a source of distrust. Smallville‘s ultimate high school moment has to be when Lifehouse comes to sing at their prom, and Clark asks Lana to dance. In that pure, fleeting moment, all other potential love interests understand that there’s no coming in between them.
1. Lane Kim (Keiko Agena): Gilmore Girls
And my personal favorite has got to be Lane Kim, Rory Gilmore’s best friend in Gilmore Girls, which ran from 2000-2007. The character of Lane was loosely based on Helen Pai, a Korean American producer on the show who was raised as a Seventh Day Adventist. Because Lane’s super strict mother (played by Emily Kuroda) disapproves of everything loud, and non-Christian, and non-mother-approved (which is most things), the aspiring drummer has secrecy perfected to a tee — hiding her rock CD collection under the floor boards of her room and concocting elaborate stories so she can date without her mother finding out. And, as an actress, Keiko Agena perfected delivering Amy Sherman-Palladino’s cleverly complex lines at super speed, a fun requisite for being on Gilmore Girls in the first place.
Click here to watch the scene where Lane reveals her scheme to get her mom to like her new secret boyfriend, Dave.
Tell us who your favorite Asian American high school girl next doors are!