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Author/Journalist/Consultant Kathleen Mackay reflects on the thought-provoking "Escaping the Shadow of Fu Manchu" panel featured at Harvard's 2001 APA Conference on Law and Public Policy. She contributed to Rolling Stone in the 1970s, where her editor was Ben Fong-Torres.
                                                                                - AC Team

 

Arista with Ben Fong-Torres at Harvard
Photo Courtesy of Arista

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,?the theme of the National Asian Pacific American Conference on Law and Public Policy, highlighted the diversity among Asian Americans?life experiences. The conference, presented recently at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, asked participants to question individual and community identities in relation to the social context.

If it is the artist’s duty to hold up a mirror to society, then this responsibility is especially important to Asian American artists - to portray Asian identities in an enlightening, realistic and honest way. This was the message of the actors, writers and producers who appeared in the panel entitled “Escaping the Shadow of Fu Manchu: The Struggle to Reconcile Professional and Social Duty in the Arts.?/font>

Over the past 50 years, many negative Asian stereotypes were prevalent in the media before the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s brought a cultural sensibility that would not tolerate stereotyping of ethnic groups.

(L to R): Terry Chen, who plays
Ben Fong-Torres; Ben Fong-Torres,
Rainn Wilson, who portrays
David Felton, and Felton.

But how far have Asian-Americans come? Do they have a duty to represent their community in a favorable light? These were some of the questions posed by moderator Ben Fong-Torres, who is an artistic pioneer himself. Fong-Torres is the acclaimed editor of Rolling Stone who discovered 15 year-old writer Cameron Crowe in 1973 and launched his writing career. Flash forward 27 years and Crowe, now a successful screenwriter and director, has repaid his RS editor by featuring him in the autobiographical movie, Almost Famous, about the rock scene in the 1970s. Fong-Torres was portrayed in the movie by Asian-Canadian actor Terry Chen.

Fong-Torres opened the panel referring to Asian images in movies, theater and TV in the past: from Charlie Chan and Ming the Merciless to Suzie Wong and Madame Butterfly, Asians were portrayed as sinister, inscrutable and foreign. “And, to add insult to injury,?he noted, “they were often played by non-Asians.?/font>

The panel brought personal experiences to bear as they discussed whether they have a duty to represent Asian Americans in a positive light.

Christine Toy Johnson (a regular on ABC's One Life to Live) said, “When I began in theater and TV, there were no role models for Asian performers, and there were heavy messages that assimilation equals success. So you try to fit in. And I remember feeling almost ashamed that I was Asian American when I would go to a New York audition for a role that did not call for an Asian.?Yet Johnson was so determined to succeed, that any turndowns just made her more convinced she could prevail.

She described a “cultural epiphany?she underwent in January, when she traveled to Hong Kong for the first time. “I was amazed to see all these people who looked like me! Maybe if you're from Hawaii you have had that experience, but I grew up in New York and was definitely in the minority. Now in Hong Kong, I was surrounded by the majority, and I blended in, and it felt so great. And I really felt a cultural epiphany, a marriage, between my identity as an Asian American and the Chinese who surrounded me.?/font>

Esther Hwang
Photo credit Arista

The exquisitely beautiful Esther Hwang has turned down many roles that portray negative stereotypes. “Most of the roles I get offered are to play corpses...or topless...prostitutes, and I will not do it. Fortunately I have a BA from UC Berkeley and I have others ways of earning a living. Some girls have to do it to make a living. And each role you turn down, you know there are 100 other girls who will do it.?/font>

Hwang also addressed turning down a plum role that could have signaled a change in her career: “I was offered to audition for Memoirs of a Geisha, being made into a film, from the bestseller by Arthur Golden. A great part. However, when I got there they wanted me to speak in an Asian accent. I said I am second generation Korean, and I don't have an accent. They asked me to imitate my mother's accent. I just couldn't do it.?/font>

Hwang is wise enough not to rely solely on her beauty to earn a living. She is a multi-talented businesswoman, model, actress and producer. She noted that her URL www.esther.com has had 2 million hits (“Half were from me,?cracked Fong-Torres.) And her site is linked with AsianConnections. Esther is moving from work in front of the camera to the important role of working behind the camera, too. She is the associate producer of the $10 million independent film, Sleeping With the Lion, being produced by Prodigy.

Equally multi-talented, New York-based Arista is an actress-writer-producer. Like Hwang, she found that many roles she has been asked to read for involved her permeating stereotypes - like performing kung fu. She said, “I told the producers, I really don't do kung fu. They said, ‘Can you just do one little chop?’”

How do these actresses try to fight the stereotypes? Both Johnson and Arista have experience in “non-traditional casting,?meaning that the person's gender or disability is not germane to the storytelling. Arista has written, produced and hosted her own documentary on the New York PBS station, WNYC. It is called Asian American Artists: Stereotypes and Alternatives.

Johnson also considered it a great success when she landed the part of Julie in "Carousel" --not written for an Asian performer. Like many minority actors, the ability to do crossover roles signals progress and the disappearance of stereotypes (Did it matter that Denzel Washington, instead of a white actor played opposite Julia Roberts in The Pelican Brief?).

Yet Greg Pak, the filmmaker, offered his own take on “duty?in the arts. He reminded the audience that people go to movies to be entertained, not to have their consciousness raised about a certain ethnic group. “People didn't go to Braveheart and say, ‘Let's get all our Scots brothers to go see this!’”

Pak also said that key to more positive portrayals of Asians in film and TV is “audience.?“As soon as Spike Lee broke through into big movies, and black action movies hit big, Hollywood producers knew that blacks would fill movie theaters to see these films, and they could make money producing them,?said Pak enthusiastically. (Some of Greg’s popular short films can be seen via his Web site, www.AsianAmericanFilm.com.)

Pak sees Spike Lee's independent voice and vision as a strong motivator to show aspiring independent filmmakers that they can break in with original stories, represent a minority group, and find a mainstream audience. “With Spike Lee's films, you can see that movies can change people's attitudes,?he said.

Fong-Torres introduced the audience to the book by Helen Zia, Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, as being “the course book for this panel.?Stereotyping, the book notes, “has an impact on key issues concerning all Americans-from affirmative action and campaign finance to popular culture and national security.?Ben also recommended Bill Wong's Yellow Journalist, a collection of columns that extended the issue to cover reporters and broadcasters such as Connie Chung.

Ben, who, along with Arista and Greg, spoke at a reception the evening before, made reference to his own experiences being portrayed in Almost Famous. “Every Asian American actor in L.A. tried out for that role, and they were really pissed that this kid from Vancouver got it.?But Terry Chen, he noted, previously took parts as a cocaine ganglord (in Romeo Must Die) and as a waiter in Trixie.

Pak noted that while Ang Lee (Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger?/i>) and Joan Chen (who directed Autumn in New York) are experiencing mainstream success, they are not drawing on the Asian American experience, and they are not even native Asian Americans. Lee is from Taiwan, and Chen is from Shanghai, China.

The audience was held spellbound, and moved and entertained by the panel’s personal insights. Leaving the lecture room, one female law student said, “This panel was so good! And we are putting such a responsibility on them!?It is true that most other actors, producers and writers do not operate from a locus of social responsibility, but have many other factors motivating their careers. The fact that talented performers like Christine Toy Johnson, Arista, Esther Hwang and Greg Pak are so socially aware and committed to positive portrayals of Asian Americans can only signal great progress for Asian Americans, and for our entire country, in the future.

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Kathleen Mackay is a journalist/author/consultant. She has co-authored three books, and has an essay in the anthology, The Anne Rice Reader (Ballantine, 1997) about her friendship with Ms. Rice. Ms. Mackay is also a consultant to the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard, fundraising for KSG Asia programs among other responsibilities. She contributed to Rolling Stone in the 1970s, where her editor was Ben Fong-Torres.

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Visit Ben's Official Site: www.BenFongTorres.com
Click to Ben Fong-Torres Articles Index


 

 


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