Despite significant recent wins by the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community in the entertainment industry — with Oscar hauls for Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland,” Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” and Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” — AAPI actors, directors, and screenwriters are still facing what one critic calls a “complete erasure” when it comes to representation in Hollywood.
In a recent survey of 1300 films created between 2007 and 2019, nearly 40% had zero AAPI characters whatsoever — a number that jumped to 59% for AAPI women. Of the mere 44 films that featured an AAPI lead or co-lead, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson accounted for a third.
This news is bad enough on its own. But as violent attacks toward members of the AAPI community escalated over the last year, AAPI celebrities and the general public are demanding more representation in the industry, more investment in AAPI talent, and more stories, stars, and shows that depict AAPI characters with complexity, accuracy, and range.
It will take lots of pressure for Hollywood to change its ways. As the fight continues, here are five AAPI stars you should know and why.
Ah, the days before streaming, where Saturday mornings were filled with network television cartoons and cooking shows. For many Americans, Yan and his TV show “Yan Can Cook” offered their first exposure to and lessons on cooking authentic Chinese cuisine. Part cooking show, part history, and cultural lesson, Yan taught us how to cook everything from cured Chinese sausage to crab soup to his mom’s special braised cabbage and cellophane noodle recipe.
For the AAPI community, he represented Asian masculinity outside of Jackie Chan-driven stereotypes. He was kind, charming, charismatic, a little goofy, and incredible at his craft. His cooking brings people together, whether they be Chinese or American, new cooks or veterans. And his taste breaks down barriers, too. “As long as the food is well-prepared and not overdone,” he says, “I think it tastes good. It doesn’t matter if it’s Chinese, Japanese, anything.”
In his role as Mr. Miyagi in “The Karate Kid,” Morita inspired a whole generation of 90s kids to aspire to martial arts greatness and maybe even got them doing their chores, washing their parents’ cars, and sanding decks in the hopes of honing their craft.
Mr. Myagi is remembered for his dry wit and his insistence that nothing comes for free — and that regular life is a practice for greatness. That was certainly true for Morita himself, who grew up a child of migrant fruit pickers before contracting tuberculosis at a young age. Morita spent much of his childhood in a full-body cast at the hospital, where he was told he’d never walk. When he defied the doctor’s predictions and did learn to walk, he was given a clean bill of health but sent immediately to an internment camp, where the rest of his family was being held.
It would be easy for someone like Morita to have given up. Instead, he persisted, pursuing stand-up comedy and creating his own TV show, “Mr. T and Tina” — the first Asian American sitcom on network television — and eventually landing his seminal role in The Karate Kid. Perhaps the reason his audiences were so ready to take advice from Mr. Miyagi on rolling with the punches (er…karate chops?) to pursue a dream was that he’d spent his life taking his own medicine.
“Drop It Like It’s Hot.” “Milkshake.” “I’m a Slave for You.” What do these songs all have in common? Yes, they’re iconic pop hits and certified bops. They’re also written or co-written by Hugo, a Flipino American record producer, multi-instrumentalist, singer and songwriter, and the unsung hero and other half of The Neptunes and N.E.R.D.
While most people would be satisfied with writing one hit song for Jay Z or Justin Timberlake, Hugo is decidedly not. As a self-styled multi-hyphenate and renaissance man, he seems only to be satisfied when doing it all. He plays the saxophone, guitar, and piano. He has helped dozens of A-list artists create unique sounds and highest-earning earworms. And he has snagged Producer of the Year awards, everywhere from the Billboard Music Awards to the Grammys.
Along with his co-pilot, Pharrell Williams — whom he met in grade school band class — Hugo proves that, with enough talent and hard work, you really can have it all.
Anna May Wong
Known as the first Chinese American movie star, Wong rose to fame at a tenuous time for Asian Americans. Born and raised in California when the movie industry moved operations to the West Coast, Wong longed to be a film star — sneaking into nickelodeons to watch movies, begging directors for bit parts, and even dropping out of school to pursue acting. But Wong also grew up when racism was rampant, Chinese immigration was severely restricted and anti-miscegenation laws prevented Chinese actors from kissing white actors on-screen.
This meant that to achieve the success she longed for, Wong would have to walk a very fine — and often nonexistent — line between catering to white directors and production companies and her own ardent commitment to portraying Chinese characters in complex, nuanced roles. Wong landed several roles in silent films in Hollywood but, disappointed by the stereotypical roles she was expected to play, moved to Europe, where she became a star of the stage, the opera, and even the fashion industry.
When Wong returned to the United States and continued to be disregarded for leading Asian American roles — often given to white women — she starred in B-movies that allowed her to portray Chinese Americans in a positive light. Until the end of her life, she fought for Asian American representation in film and cultural and political respect for Chinese and Chinese American people at home and abroad.
You might know Chee from a segment on the “Late Night with Seth Meyers” TV show, where Meyers grills Chee to see if she can put a name to such 90s sensation, the Bop It, or identify Tammy Faye Baker in action. Chee usually fails, and that’s the point: As a 25-year-old millennial with a skyrocketing career in comedy and print, Chee doesn’t know what older comedy veterans like Meyers know — and she doesn’t have to. But when it comes to establishing herself as a formidable comedic presence before age 30, Chee knows a lot.
She’s written for The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, and Reductress. She’s appeared in heady hit shows like “High Maintenance” and written for everyone from Stephen Colbert to Comedy Central. And she’s done it all with a disarming, ultra-positive, who-me type of attitude that makes her impossible not to like.
Chee originally wanted to be a political speechwriter, but her favorite political “speeches” came out of the White House Correspondents Dinner, which Chee — whose family didn’t own a TV — would go to the gym to watch. And there, walking on a treadmill watching former President Barack Obama joke with Colbert, her hybrid passion was born: She wanted to be a political satirist.
Her timing could not have been more perfect, as Chee cut her comedy teeth during the era of former President Donald Trump. But with President Joe Biden in the White House, Chee is looking forward to making some comedy moves that showcase the other side of her personality — one that’s silly, upbeat, and hopeful. Just the right medicine for the times.