Stories For Us

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Get a room of Asian American artists together and one way or another we end up talking about representation and what it means to us as a theatre community. There’s no question that there needs to be more performers on our stages and more of our stories being told to the general–mostly homogenous–masses. And who knows, maybe if that effort of inclusiveness happened, it would help audiences to diversify and grow.

That being said, it’s always a victory when we do get to see ourselves on the stage. Most recently, Miss Saigon has hit Broadway once again with a revival that totes authenticity to the Vietnamese culture it uses as a backdrop and celebrates the fact that it does not employ yellow face as the original had done. With gorgeous music, epic level design, and a fan base that is in line with the Les Miserable or Cats crowd, why wouldn’t I be thrilled to see this hit Broadway’s season this year?

Yet, I’m not. This isn’t the show I want to represent my maternal family’s history or culture. This wasn’t written for us. And no matter how much work is done to it, I’m not sure it ever will truly be for us.

It’s interesting that recently, there’s been a slew of musical revivals that make use of Asian cultures and because so, employ Asian American performers. From The King and I to New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ The Mikado, there’s been a somewhat steady stream of shows that allow people that look like me on to the stage in mass.

What’s also interesting is how there’s been a lot of talk and work about how to “fix” these problematic shows. Of course, addressing the obvious issues of yellow face is a no brainer, but also the need to find some justification and authenticity to lessen the themes of Orientalism and appropriation within the text.

In the case of The Mikado, it had to be demanded. In the case of Miss Saigon, there seemed to be some effort from the get go. The question is: is it really our job to clean up the mess of these White playwrights, composers, and lyricists? Should we really spend the time, energy, and resources to try and make it a little less painful to watch these shows that continuously point to us as being nothing but exotic, caricatures, villains, or the punch lines to jokes? Do we do it because it’s the only way we’ll be seen on stages as big as Broadway?

To be perfectly honest, watching Miss Saigon was not the best experience for me. It was filled with moments of being uncomfortable, confusion, and frustration. None of it had to do with the cast who, by far, are the best part of the show. If anything, they prove why we need more Asian American performers in our productions. They’re brilliant and every single one of them is astounding to watch.

How much can we do to “fix” these stories? Especially, when we can’t completely rehaul the script? Production teams and actors can only try to add so much nuance or depth, but at the end of the day, when you have a bad script…it’s a bad script. Race and culture aside, Miss Saigon is poorly written. Practically every character is unlikable, Kim loses all sense of logic and becomes laughably crazy by Act II, and the brutality that the women endure in the story is pretty hard to swallow.

Adding back in the issues of race, it quickly becomes apparent that it is clearly written by White men who did not do any research or hold respect up to the culture they wished to make use of. With plenty of lyrics that are cringe worthy including:

“Why was I born of a race
That thinks only of rice
And hates entrepreneurs?”  

Asian characters are either defined as villains, sleeze bags, sex objects, or unable to save themselves. I even began to question whether I didn’t know enough of my own culture as more and more of it was presented with a Pan Asian approach.

This is a story by White writers, for White audiences. They tout the Vietnamese as the mysterious, backwards, and victims who can’t help themselves. They make audiences feel better for the mistakes the United States made during the war without really holding the U.S. accountable. It misrepresents so much of the history in favor of romanticism; it’s painful when you know the truth of it all.

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Again, this is all in the text. It is the script that’s inherently a problem. When you try to glue something back together that’s broken, you still see the cracks and faults running through it.

I hope twenty years from now, that even if Miss Saigon is revived again (let’s pray not), this won’t be the only production giving Asian Americans work and telling our stories. I want there to be other musicals and plays that employ Asian Americans, that tell our stories, that are written for us and by us, and that performers don’t have to dream of playing prostitutes to be on Broadway. I want them to dream bigger.

Which means we will continue to push our stories into institutions that desperately need to expand the stories they present. We need to continue to obtain positions of power throughout the country and raise each other up. We should continue to be critical of what’s being produced, regardless of whether it gives us work or not. I don’t think it’s worth our time or energy to try and put a band-aid on stories that aren’t even really for us. We can’t be enablers to these kinds of stories, then shout about the very same problems that are running rampant in these works.

Why does it bother me so much? I get either Miss Saigon or Vietgone by Qui Nguyen to tell my family’s history. Two diametric works that exemplify what a story told through a white lens is and what a story written by our community can be. If we had more options, more stories, being shared that accurately depict our history and humanity, than maybe having a production of Miss Saigon on Broadway wouldn’t bother me as much. At least I’d have other options.

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Vietgone by Qui Nguyen. Photo by South Coast Repertory.
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Wendy Wu: The True Iron Fist?

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Brenda Song as Wendy Wu and Finn Jones as Danny Rand

Iron Fist made it’s debut and it sure did make a splash. From the get-go, it’s littered with a myriad of issues from weak writing, nonsensical character choices, and, of course, the inherent problems due to the white savior trope being played out yet again.

Besides Finn Jones generally being miscast, the argument for an Asian American Iron Fist still holds up. Coupled with the lack of an Asian American show runner and writers (we were lucky to get a few Asian American directors, but they could only do so much) we’re truly given the white man who knows how to be a better Asian than the rest of us story.

To the nay-sayer purists who say changing Danny’s race would have “ruined the character” or “destroyed the outsider narrative,” I say, get out. If anyone is an outsider it’s most definitely not the white guy practicing kung fu and immediately speaking Mandarin unprompted to the first Asian person he sees on the street.

I’m also very aware that Danny Rand was originally conceived as White. Let’s just get that one out of the way.

It’s been said over and over but, by casting an Asian American Danny Rand it would have reinvigorated the material. That choice could have given a new depth and perspective to a highly problematic character born out of the 1970’s kung fu craze and created by a man who still refers to us as “Orientals.”

Daredevil made use of film noir, Jessica Jones looked to P.I. noir, and Luke Cage turned its blaxploitation roots on its head, while Iron Fist was never able to find itself. They could have at least embraced kung fu and martial arts films to inject a sense of style and identity for the series, but y’know, the white savior was perhaps the only thing it had to go off of.

With an Asian American Iron Fist themes of identity, culture, and reconnecting with your roots becomes readily available. At the same time it would have allowed them to take the martial arts film genre and layer it into the show without it being appropriation. They could have really looked at what it means to be seen as an outsider in the United States, where you may be born here but viewed as a foreigner or an “other” because of your race.

What’s really sad is we came super close to this being realized. Then Marvel passed on actor Lewis Tan and instead cast him as a villain (shout out to the Yellow Peril holding strong over a century later).

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Lewis Tan

That being said, we’ve had a movie that does what Iron Fist should have. As ridiculous as it sounds, Disney Channel did the Iron Fist we’ve been clamoring for. They did it with Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior.

Ok, so, it’s a Disney Channel Original Movie from 2006, there’s no way it could have tackled issues of grappling with one’s own culture, the disconnect between being Asian American and American, and, heaven forbid, had Asians doing martial arts without it being a “stereotype.”

Oh, wait, it actually does all that.

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Wendy Wu coincidentally has a similar idea driving its plot as Iron Fist (the “chosen one” storyline isn’t exactly a new idea). Wendy’s a popular self-absorbed high school senior and only has one goal in life, to be Homecoming Queen. Little does she know, she’s next in a long line of reincarnated Chinese female warriors, destined to battle an ancient evil spirit and save the world every 80 years. Kind of like Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The rest of the movie deals with a young Chinese Monk, Shen, (also reincarnated every cycle) trying to convince Wendy to embrace her destiny, train her to be a badass, and then help her save the world. Long story short, she does it, becomes selfless, compassionate, strong, and saves the world forever defeating the big bad and ending the cycle of warriors.

Potentially, this could have fallen into many writing traps that would have only perpetuated tropes and stereotypes about Asians, Asian Americans, and martial arts.

Yet, it didn’t.

Wendy Wu skillfully gave us a story about what it means to be an Asian American. The Wu family is not filled with immigrants. The Grandmother, played by Tsai Chin, is the only one in touch with her Chinese culture while the rest of the family are American born Chinese who don’t have much interest in their cultural roots.

Whether it’s Wendy’s parents who work as a museum researcher and in advertising, to Wendy’s lunkheaded football jock brother, the movie sets us up for a very American family who just also happens to be Asian. Once, Shen arrives, and begins to inject more of their Chinese culture into their lives, they suddenly come to grips with their cultural identities.

Moments such as Wendy’s parents admitting that they let go of their roots and the regret of it emphasize this point. We even get a microggression from Wendy’s best friend when she suggests that should Shen go around in his monk garb handing out chopsticks with Wendy’s name for her Homecoming Queen campaign.

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Details such as Wendy’s Mom being dumped with the Chinese art exhibit because her boss thought she’d know everything about it because she’s Chinese or Shen jokingly quoting Jackie Chan when teaching Wendy how to fight shows that the movie isn’t shy about exploring real life instances we face and how these kinds of characters are often portrayed.

It’s not a perfect movie (some how Wendy changes into her warrior outfit in the middle of a battle in 5 seconds flat…), but it does what not many have been given the chance to do. It gives us characters, not caricatures of Asians and Asian Americans. They’re real characters who can be flawed, have insecurities, and learn from the choices they make. They find empowerment in rediscovering a part of their identity and culture.

The thing is, it’s not a stereotype to have anyone Asian doing martial arts on a screen. It’s when they lack any dimension and are only defined by this skill that we fall into that trap. It’s 2017 and we’re still doing this. It’s 2017 and for some reason I’m using a Disney Channel Original movie that’s over 10 years old called Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior as an example of how to at least try to get it right.

By continuing the tradition of white saviors, Iron Fist found itself full of cringe-worthy moments like Danny showing Colleen that he’s constantly more in touched with her culture than she is, microaggressions galore, and once again, regulating Asian Americans to the sidelines and as villains.

In the end, we had everything to gain by reimagining Danny Rand. We had nothing to lose–except maybe a few decades long of erasure and misrepresentation. At least we can add this series to a long list of white savior and white washing flops, among the likes of The Great WallThe Last Airbender, and hopefully soon, Ghost in a Shell.

Essential Reads on Iron Fist from The Nerds of Color:

Fear of an Asian Martial Artist: The Thing about Stereotypes & #AAIronFist

The Frustrating Aftermath of #AAIronFist

Race, Politics, and the Third Self: Why We Need Iron Fist and Ms. Marvel to be Asian American

Family History

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(L to R) Aunt Phung, Grandpa, Grandma, and Mom (kidlet edition)

My mom was born Nga Cao in Saigon, Vietnam. She is the third girl among four brothers and three sisters. She was adopted by her aunt and uncle, Qui Cao and Dr. Ha Ta Ngoc, who were unable to have children. She would be raised by them alongside their first adopted daughter, Phung. Mom spent much of her childhood in Bạc Liêu, while also studying in Đà Lạt and in Saigon. Although she was adopted, she still saw her biological parents and siblings often.

They lived a privileged life in Vietnam. Having a father as a doctor does that for your family. Especially one who studied for nearly a decade in Paris, France. Her early life was filled with family vacations, French Catholic Boarding School (she did not enjoy those nuns), and getting into teenage trouble with her siblings.

Since she lived in the city, the war was something faraway and removed to her. She only begun to see the effects of the war when soldiers returned to the city, injured and worn, or when family members would leave to serve in the military. This removed existence created a shrouded sense of safety that didn’t last forever. It was inevitable.

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Father and daughter before the fall.

By the spring of 1975, panic grew quickly as the North Vietnamese troops advanced towards the south. It felt like more and more people, displaced by the war, were coming to the city. With their arrival, whispers filled with fear began to spread. That sense of safety around the city faded quickly.

Filled with uncertainty, some of my aunts, uncles and cousins had begun to leave by boat. Due to my grandfather’s age, and the chaos around them the day Saigon fell, my mom and her immediate family were unable to escape and had to face the aftermath of their government’s fall.

This was not how life was supposed to be. Everything had changed. Nothing was promised.

When her father was released from the camps in early 1979, she hoped that the whole family would be able to escape together. But her father was in poor health, making it impossible for him and my grandmother to leave, so the family faced a difficult decision. My grandparents urged them to go–to have a better life away from what was once considered home.

Posing as ethnic Chinese, also called nguoi hoa, my mom, her first husband, my aunt, Phung, Phung’s first husband and my two cousins escaped. At the time, the new government was making deals with nguoi hoa to allow people to leave the country if they paid a large sum of money. Once my family paid, things happened very quickly.

My mom didn’t even have the chance to properly say goodbye to her father. In their rush to prepare, the moment evaded them. No heart to heart. No final words of advice. No hug that felt like an eternity.

Just a simple good bye. It was the last time she saw him—a few years later he passed away while she was in the U.S.

Her mother accompanied them to the dock and saw them off. With only a few steps away from her escape, my mom wasn’t able to hold it in anymore and she cried in my grandmother’s arms before boarding the boat.

That was only the beginning. It wasn’t an easy journey.

“I knew I wouldn’t eat for a week and just have a little bit of water to drink,” Mom recounted. “It’s easier when you’re younger. If I had to do it now, I wouldn’t.” The group had no destination, just a hope that they would make it to a country that would take them in. There was no alternative.

When they reached Singapore four days later, they weren’t permitted to land. The Coast Guard provided them with a few supplies and then the group had to head into the unknown once again.

Two days later, they reached an island in Indonesia, where they were allowed to stay overnight, but were told to leave in the morning. It was a prospect no one wanted to face: pirates, darkness, and death lived out at sea. They knew they had to do something to stay.

That night, under the veil of darkness, they set fire to their own boat.

With no way to leave, they were allowed to set up a refugee camp—one of the first in the area. The U.S. government was quickly contacted, beginning the process of interviews and securing sponsorships from families in the U.S. to enable migration to America.

My mom was  fortunate to have reached the U.S. six months after setting up that refugee camp (almost unheard of). Her sister, Oanh, who had reached the U.S. years earlier, sponsored my mom to come to California. My aunt, Phung, and her immediate family were sponsored to Chicago, Illinois. The two sisters had known from the beginning that they would be separated in the U.S.

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With her co-workers at one of her early jobs.

In October 1979, my mom flew into LAX, where she was reunited with her family and settled into their home in Long Beach. They welcomed her with the best American meal they could think of: pizza and Pioneer fried chicken. Among her sisters, brothers and biological parents, she had found a new home after a long journey. Two weeks later, she was able to secure a job through a family friend and began her new life in the U.S. (she had a tendency to get things done quickly, apparently).

As the years went on, she became a U.S. citizen, gave birth to my brother, David, ended her first marriage, married my father, had me and was reunited with her adoptive mother, Qui, who years later was able to immigrate to California.

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By far, our best family portrait ever.

She dedicated herself to raising a family and making sure her two sons earned a college education and lived a better life than she had.

It wasn’t easy adjusting to her new life. Learning English, getting used to the culture, and trying to navigate how the United States worked.

img_4496There can be a misunderstanding about refugees,” she went on to explain. “We came here as refugees—not immigrants. We didn’t plan for any of it. We had to try to adopt a new country.”

It may have never been in her plans to end up in the United States. Who knows what she could have been if the Southern Vietnamese government hadn’t fallen?

She muses that maybe she would have been a writer (she did win a writing competition in the newspaper as a girl). One thing is for sure, she found resilience in the chaos that impacted her life.