The quotes below have been edited for length and clarity
On the last day of NYCC 2019, Asian-American fans, creators, and marketers came together to present a conversation not only on how to increase representation on screen but how to have necessary conversations about representation. How should one handle the “rep sweats?”
Mike Le, one of the organizers of Racebending, an organization that works for greater diversity in Western Media, moderated the panel. On the panel were actress Celia Au, writer and podcaster Preeti Chhibber, writer and podcaster Keith Chow, actor Jin Ha, comics writer Greg Pak, and marketer Lisa Y Wu.
The panel focused on the overall question of how people in Asian-American communities should push for their place in entertainment media. While Asian representation has risen in the past few years, it remains limited and focuses mostly on East Asians. “East Asian representation is it, even though the community is very diverse!” said the moderator Le.
In particular, there was a discussion on the degree to which Asian-American critics should criticize Asian-American media. How can they make sure that they can both critique and celebrate it so as to push for more representation? “We are in this time where there is amazing content coming out, but we’re in this weird space where critiquing is very strange…Sometimes I don’t want to write something for a review, or I would rather not say anything at all. But that also kind of sucks!” said Preeti Chhibber, who writes for SyFy Wire. “I don’t want to use language [as a critic] that can be weaponized. We’re in this weird place where a lot of this criticism is internalized.”
Chhibber reiterated that it was still important to critique media openly and honestly. She said Asian-American critics should always strive for this ideal, even with media from their communities. “We do have to contend with the issues,” she said. One of these issues was in Crazy Rich Asians’ only scene with darker-skinned South Asian characters, who were side-characters that were just there to briefly intimidate the main East Asian characters. ” I wish the South Asians [in Crazy Rich Asians] weren’t even there. We need to recognize our own blind spots and bring in those creators to have another set of eyes on it.”
“Chow elaborated on the reticence to critique openly. “The problem is the ‘only-ism’—because Crazy Rich Asians was the first [Asian-American led film] in 25 years, we can’t criticize it. We don’t need to be the greatest thing ever!” On what the community should be doing to encourage more criticism in art, his answer was straightforward. “I think the answer is more! More creators, more directors, more writers, to tell the story as well. We’ve seen, when you don’t have the writers, you can put a lot of color in front of the camera, and the movie isn’t ‘colorful’ at all.”
Chhibber and Chow also noted the importance of activism to improve the state of representation for everyone in the community. “There is an anger in our activism—it’s about making sure that our anger is paired with action. And that’s hard,” said Chhibber. She also stressed ensuring that when one succeeds, they should support others’ success whenever they can. “When any one of us succeeds, it opens doors for everybody.”
Chow echoed her thoughts. “[Activism] doesn’t have to be positive but in an ACTIVE direction” He also stressed the importance of “You use your voice to uplift other voices. It’s important for Asian-Americans to uplift Southeast Asian, South Asian, and LGBTQ voices.”
Ha, who played Aaron Burr in the Chicago production of Hamilton, echoed Chow’s comments, saying that the community should aim toward simply being part of the pop-culture norm. “How many jacked white actors are out there that keep getting jobs?” he said, “I would love it if we had as many famous Asian-Americans as the Chrises!”
Greg Pak, who has co-created Asian superheroes for Marvel like Korean-American Amadeus Cho and Filipina Wave, also noted the importance of supporting one another. “Once you’ve got a leg-up, help people up the ladder…As a creator, I’ll try to elevate stuff that I love [and] uplift other folks.”
Pak also noted if others closed you off from opportunities, you should make your own opportunities. “When there’s a closed door, or a club I can’t join, I’ll just find a way to do it elsewhere. Sometimes, you should make your own club.” However, Pak noted that “This time is the best time it has been specifically for Asian-American creators to get things out.” He also said that while opportunities for Asian-American creatives are growing, they remain limited by the old school executives in charge. “Some of the powers that be have awakened to the fact that there is an audience. At the same time, starting off those opportunities is not going to be right there for you.”
Pak expressed hope that soon, all different Asian communities would have representation. His story New Agents of Atlas has heroes with origins in South, Southeast, and East Asia. Pak noted how important it was for other media to reflect the vast diversity of the Asian and Asian-American experience. “Projects should be as specific as they want to be,” he said, “As Keith says, sometimes these projects force us to be THE ONE.”
Of course, to get those opportunities, it’s important to get recognition. The key to getting recognition is marketability. Lisa Y Wu, who has expertise in marketing, elaborated on how the community should make their voices heard and establish themselves in the media industry. “I think a lot of it is just being honest about who you are—that’s how you really get your brand out,” she said.
Wu’s journey into marketing connected to her own feelings on exclusion. “Marketing found me because I did something nice for somebody. I saw a post, someone from Dave & Busters, about how no one showed up to this girl’s birthday party. I know a little bit of how it feels to be different and forgotten sometimes, and I thought, I’m going to take this girl to build-a-bear. I knew some business owners in the geek and nerd community, and I called them. We ended up getting two rooms at D&B and got two rooms for this little girl.”
In helping this little girl have a great birthday, Wu was able to bring artists, including from Marvel, to draw for her, and brought members of the geek community together. Ultimately this led to Wu to become a professional marketer at Dave and Busters, and soon other companies reaching out to her for their projects. Wu attributed her success to being willing to put her profile online as much as she could. “Social media really allows you to directly communicate with the consumer. There are people in there waiting to interact with your content.”
Celia Au, who stars on Wu Assassins, highlighted the importance of supporting the community in promoting yourself, going off of Wu’s story. “I always believe if you help each other you can generate a better community. As long as you have friends and a community you can do it.”
Au also relayed her story of how she made herself stand out as an actress. “When I first started acting, I had normal hair. Later, I dressed to be more marketable, including by cutting my hair short in the front with a faux-hawk. Going around auditions, people asked ‘who are you?’ because I stood out.” For aspiring actors, Au advised them to develop a unique visual brand to get noticed, and, if they wanted to, “be normal again.”
The panel was, overall, an illuminating and fun time discussing important Asian American issues, some of which are applicable to other communities of color. The panelists aimed to inspire their large audience to fight the good fight for representation. Based on the constant applause, it would seem they succeeded.