In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) held a panel discussion moderated by actress Jodi Long (All American Girl) discussing what the new Asian America (and Canada) looks like.
Chris Tashima, Ellen Ho, James Hong, Sandra Oh, Ken Mok and Julia Kim participated in the panel and took turns answering and questioning each other on what it’s like being Asian American* and working in Hollywood.
The questions and answers were fairly standard. How did you get your start in the industry, what was it like for you, what’s your image of Asians in the industry now, etc. etc.
I did feel like one part of the panel stood out a lot and was a telling point to ideas on acting, being Asian in the industry, artistry and image.
Sandra Oh hit the tough question in the nail from the get-go when she put James Hong on the spot. James was talking about how he recently had a job on a web series and was persuaded into taking on a “fu manchu” type of role. Sandra asked James, “Why did you take it?”
The room kind of got silent at this time as James seemed almost at a loss for words.
“I don’t know why I did it. I suppose I shouldn’t have and I feel a little ashamed for doing it now,” James said in a quiet voice.
This sent the entire panel into a tizzy. Some defended James, saying that the veteran actor is just doing what he needs to do to work and others feeling like he should draw some sort of line with what jobs he should take on.
Now, this is a really politically-correct perception on my behalf, but I feel like both Sandra and James are correct in their perceptions.
Both James and Sandra are very talented in their craft. Both have been successful and pioneering in carving out Asian American identities in Hollywood.
But Sandra is an artist. She’s someone who needs to feel challenged with her roles, someone who wants to bring depth and art and deep ideologies out with her characters.
James, on the other hand, is an entertainer. He makes a living on amusing and entertaining his audience with his roles, from wacky to cool.
With these two mentalities, the roles each decide to take on is very different.
This leads to another question that begs to be asked: Is any type of representation in Hollywood, whether good or bad, better than no representation?
I think tongues will fly with this question. Both sides have good (and not so good arguments). But the key thing to keep doing is what all of the panelists are accomplishing. America’s Next Top Model executive producer Ken Mok made this point: “I found the best way to change the system is to get inside the system.”
With more Asian American casting directors (like panelist Julia Kim), more Asian American independent directors (like Chris Tashima) and more Asian American actors (like Sandra Oh and James Hong) slowly infiltrating the Hollywood system and exposing our cultures, our races, our stories into the industry, slowly but surely, we’ll be seeing more of that translate onto the screen.
That’s my thought, anyway. What’s yours?
Photos courtesy Screen Actors Guild, all rights reserved.
*Sandra is actually Asian Canadian, thanks for reminding us!