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MARGARET CHO

Where the fierce Asians at?

They're here, they're loud and they've got our attention

By David Yi

LOS ANGELES – Margaret Cho made them cry.

For a comedian whose sole job over the years was to do the exact opposite — illicit laughter – the emotional reaction was curious, if not completely foreign.

But there they were, dozens of Asian-Americans sitting in the audience, misty-eyed. Some were weeping, others holding back emotions. This was a groundbreaking moment in history. A moment to be celebrated.

The year was 1994 and the then 25-year-old was walking onstage for the first time for her first-ever sitcom, All-American Girl. It was in front a live audience, mostly Asian-Americans who flocked to the set to cheer her on. The network, ABC, had finally greenlit a sitcom starring an Asian-American cast. 

 

Not only did the show cast Asian Americans as leads, but it allowed a character like Cho to be flawed, sassy, normal, humanized, just like anyone else. 

For years, Hollywood portrayed Asians as caricatures, as if extrapolating on Yellow Peril, a late 19th/early 20th Century racist color-metaphor that deemed East Asians dangerous to the Western world. Asian men were emasculated villains like Fu Man Chu, in 1965’s The Face of Fu Man Chu, portrayed as foreigners who preyed on hapless young white females. Asian women were portrayed as the opposite: sexualized and fetishized in roles like in 1961’s Flower Drum Song. For years, this colonial mindset created a sense that Asian women were for the taking and to be conquered.

Then there were the altogether cringeworthy portrayals: Long Duk Dong in 1984’s Sixteen Candles, or everything about Mickey Rooney in 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.By the time Cho stepped into the role on All American Girl, as the sole Asian American actress allowed to be her own American self, Americans were already accustomed to viewing faces like hers in a specific manner.

Would Cho's role on All American Girl finally mean the bamboo ceiling could be shattered? 

“It’s overwhelming to think about now,” recalls Cho, to Mashable. “Seeing all of those people jumping to their feet, crying and screaming in a standing ovation was all very emotional.”

But the win only lasted for so long. After only a single season, ABC canceled All-American Girl, citing low ratings. Some criticized the show as being too Asian, while some in the Asian American community accused it of being unrepresentative of their own personal experiences.

“I think it was really difficult then,” says Cho, at a photoshoot in Los Angeles. “A lot of problems I had then was that this television world that never included us before was afraid to be inaccurate.”

Meaning, since there had never been an Asian-American on television, networks were scrambling to get the tone and culture right.

Regardless, studios took the show as a case study. It would take another two decades before television would put another Asian American family on its screens.

After that wait came the deluge. 

They came in waves, from ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Dr. Ken” to Netflix’s “Masters of None.” They were funny, flawed, sexy. They were normal. And like Margaret Cho before, normal was, in this case, quietly progressive.

Just as Asian-Americans were finally having their moment to shine, along came the Oscars. After all the attention around #Oscarssowhite, Asian-Americans were handed the Chris Rock joke.  

As social media has demanded increased visibility for black artists, Asian-Americans, too, have pushed for a voice in the conversation. Recently, the hashtag #Whitewashedout, trended in response to films like Ghost in a Shell and Doctor Strange, which replaced Asian characters with white women. Those decisions came only months after Emma Stone was cast as a quarter-Chinese woman in Aloha.

On Twitter, the account , @StarringJohnCho doctored movie posters with the actor John Cho’s face. Los Angeles-based rapper Dumbfoundead’s viral music video for “Safe” showcased the artist in “white-face” and challenged the white-washing of Asian-Americans. Brooklyn-based rapper Awkwafina recently collaborated with Cho for "Green Tea," a song meant to become an anthem of sorts for Asian-American women.

These movements seem to be gathering momentum and starting to pay off. One thing is more certain than ever: Asian-Americans refuse to be made invisible. 

Mashable spoke with eight prominent Asian-Americans in entertainment about their experiences in comedy, film, television and fashion, to see what it’s really like to be a minority of minorities in 2016.

Where are the fierce Asians at, you ask? They're here. They've been here.

Here are their raw, real, American experiences told ...

In their own words

MARGARET CHO, COMEDIAN AND ACTRESS

Seeing all these Asian Americans come up is exciting. I didn’t have anything like that growing up, I just had Bob Hope.

All of these Asian American artists now say they were so inspired by what I had done and they then took it their own way and paved their own paths. So many people are out there who owe so much to what I’ve done. For them to say I’ve inspired an entire generation of writers is empowering and exciting.

I have incredible gratitude.

But we have a ways to go.

It’s this exclusion in Hollywood with whitewashing and being at the bottom of the heap when it comes to racial relationships. When it comes to racial relationships it’s always white or black, rarely do we get to Asians. Asians are at the very bottom of the invisibility skill. It’s down with Latinos and Chicanos. It’s pushed down with the fight between white and black people.

We need more engagement and we need more support from everyone else. It’s getting better and certainly we have had our own civil rights revolutions along the way. We need to have more conversation and more involvement as everyone else does, too. We have to get this idea of invisibility out of our heads and we are powerful and we are important to all of these conversations. We need to prove that our voices are important and they matter too. And I think we’re close to getting there.