All the rage

November 25, 2007

I have come to realize, Asian comedies just aren’t that funny to me. It’s the same movie over and over. Going to put this under ‘things i hate”

All the rage

Tracking the trend of angry Asian men

 

Actors Tetsuro Shigematsu (centre), Patrick Ku (left) and Khai Nguyen in the satirical film Yellow Fellas. (Tetsuro Shigematsu)Actors Tetsuro Shigematsu (centre), Patrick Ku (left) and Khai Nguyen in the satirical film Yellow Fellas. (Tetsuro Shigematsu)

In his prescient new comedy, Yellow Fellas, Vancouver actor-writer-director Tetsuro Shigematsu plays a disgruntled young Japanese-Canadian named Howie Hiroshima, who decides to create a politicized (and unintentionally bumbling) Asian gang to combat skinheads and racism.

This independent film both satirizes and typifies what Shigematsu sees as an emerging cultural figure in North America: the angry Asian man. And he says the revolution is coming.

“All Asian guys are angry,” says Shigematsu, a stand-up comic and former CBC radio host who made Yellow Fellas over seven years, with only $5,000. “It’s just a question of whether they’re in touch with it or not.”

The image of the angry Asian man has gained infamy since a Korean-American student killed 33 people in a horrific shooting rampage at a Virginia college in April. But in the past few years, Asian men in North America have also become increasingly vocal and visible in non-violent ways as they voice their displeasure with certain inequalities in society. (The upsurge in anger can be seen in its most concentrated form in websites and message board postings.)

The trend is playing out in pop culture, too. After being pushed a little too far, the titular Asian-American heroes of the stoner flick Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle lash out against racist frat-boys and entitled bankers who stiff their quiet Asian co-workers. The Chinese-American rapper Jin — who happens to be the first Asian rapper to be signed to a major label — recorded a Donald Trump-sampling “diss track” about Rosie O’Donnell after the talk-show host used a “ching-chong” approximation of the Chinese language on The View. Justin Lin’s 2002 film Better Luck Tomorrow is considered a watershed film in Asian-American cinema, for its stereotype-shattering depiction of Asian teenage males who exploit their honour-roll grades and image as obedient sons to steal, snort cocaine and brandish pistols.

For many Asian men, racism and pop culture stereotypes are an ongoing source of irritation. Websites like Angry Asian Man and Asian Media Watch track objectionable portrayals of Asians in the U.S. media. Activist groups and not-for-profits, such as the Organization of Chinese Americans, have protested radio DJs spouting racial slurs and using offensive accents, racist t-shirts and stereotypical movie depictions.

Daniel Dae Kim, who stars in the series Lost, is one of the few Asian-Americans featured on television. (ABC/CTV) Daniel Dae Kim, who stars in the series Lost, is one of the few Asian-Americans featured on television. (ABC/CTV)

Others are dismayed by the lack of representation. A 2004 study of U.S. television revealed there were no Asian-American characters in series set in Los Angeles and Miami, even though both cities have significant Asian populations. In shows set in New York City, the study found Asian-Americans made up only one per cent of regular characters but nearly ten per cent of the population.

When Asian men do appear on TV, “it’s either the martial arts villain or hero, or the opposite, the nerd who never seems to get the girl,” suggests Craig Takeuchi, film editor at the Vancouver weekly Georgia Straight. “It’s rare to ever have the Asian male as the dramatic lead.”

Which brings up one of the top grievances that young Asian men have with their profile in the pop culture landscape: dating patterns. Namely, they are upset about the predominance of interracial dating between white males and Asian females — who are often fetishized as hyper-feminine and subservient — over dating between Asian men and white women.

“I see a lot commercials where you have an Asian girl and a white guy,” observes Eric Nakumura, co-publisher of Giant Robot, a magazine devoted to Asian and Asian-American culture. “But when do you see the Asian guy and the white girl?”

Some point to actor Daniel Dae Kim (Lost) or an athlete like basketball player Yao Ming as proof that the Asian male’s alpha status is rising; but many remain dissatisfied.

While this griping is justifiable, at what point is anger counter-productive? Is this resentment helping to replace the colonialist image of the weak Asian man with an equally unpleasant stereotype — namely, the bitter Asian man?

According to Nakumura, the solution lies in including other races when talking about issues facing Asian men. He’s taken the idea to heart. The circulation of Giant Robot has shot to 55,000. Nearly half of his readers are non-Asian. “We don’t worry too much about identity,” he says. “That’s why [Giant Robot] crosses over. Because [when you worry about your own identity], you’re excluding other people.”

Boston-based Tak Toyoshima started his semi-autobiographical comic strip Secret Asian Man in 1999, to, as he says, “get all the Asian American-centric things off my chest and out there, without any real expectation. If you look at older strips, there is a lot of anger in them. It was public therapy.” More recently, however, Toyoshima has tried to reach a broader audience. “I want the strip to serve as a bridge between communities, not a wall.” He’s now more open to writing about light-hearted topics, and while he still often discusses race, he’s also considered it from the perspective of a Muslim woman and a black man. Sam, Toyoshima’s militant Asian protagonist, has evolved a more peaceful disposition.

“All the protests are great,” says Toyoshima. “It shows that Asians can organize, mobilize and speak with a collective voice. But the danger comes when people become closed to ideas and act according to feelings of obligation and become almost blinded by their duty of being an Asian.”

(Drawn and Quarterly)(Drawn and Quarterly)

Starting from real characters instead of a political stance is what makes Adrian Tomine’s wry and observant treatment of white-Asian dating so fascinating. Shortcomings, a graphic novel culled from Tomine’s comic book Optic Nerve, follows Ben Tanaka, an angry Asian man with an Asian girlfriend, Miko, who takes issue with his interest in porn featuring only white women. After Miko moves from Berkeley, Calif., to New York, Ben dates a couple of white women. When these relationships fizzle, he heads to New York to find Miko, who has since begun dating a white guy. Their relationship sets Ben off on a racist tirade.

What makes Ben Tanaka so compelling is also what accounts for Tomine’s wide appeal (and the praise of writers like Jonathan Lethem and Nick Hornby). With an eye for awkwardly revealing interactions, he depicts Ben as a sometimes unpleasant character (rather than a put-upon Asian Everyman) who’s openly disdainful of Asians who blame all their troubles on racism and the boosterism within Asian-American cultural circles; he has to be convinced that race has anything to do with his relationships. Ben might be angry, but not in a way that’s different from the Asian female and white males that Tomine also writes about.

For Shigematsu, the best way to fight the lack of representation in media is to make his own movies. As Yellow Fellas makes its way through the film-festival circuit, he’s already planning his next feature, which stars another angry Asian man at its centre.

This time around, Shigematsu doesn’t think he’ll have much trouble finding actors. But back when he began casting Yellow Fellas in 2000, he recalls finding Asian actors was not unlike recruiting members for a politicized gang. Shigematsu remembers seeing Asian men on the streets of Montreal; they would eye each other tensely before Shigematsu even approached them.

“Nothing cuts tensions more than the query, ‘Have you ever considered acting?’” Shigematsu says. “I’d give them a five minute speech similar to Howie’s [in Yellow Fellas]: ‘When was the last time you saw an Asian onscreen who wasn’t Long Duk Dong or the stuttering waiter? When did you see the Asian guy get the girl? If you want to be part of the solution and not the problem, here’s my number. Join the revolution.’”

Kevin Chong is a Vancouver writer.

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