UBC’s Asian Canadian and Asian Migration Studies (ACAM) program held a panel discussion on March 24th with the Vancouver Sketch Comedy group Assaulted Fish called “Asians on Stage / Asians on Screen”. Featuring Kuan Foo, Diana Bang (The Interview), and Nelson Wong, the conversation revolved around Asian representation in the mainstream entertainment industry.
The group is currently made up of four members: Kuan Foo, Diana Bang, Nelson Wong, and Marlene Dong. They started in the early 2000’s and “[a]udiences of all sizes, shapes, colours and orientations have enjoyed their tightly crafted sketches that range from well-observed character studies to sharp social commentary to surreal slapstick”.
They discussed the difficulties in the entertainment industry as a visible minority. Asian actors seldom take the lead role. Often, the characters that films or television shows require them to portray have a reason for being Asian. The characters are stereotypical; they almost always know martial arts, they’re the super smart technical person, they’re the villain, or someone expendable.
There is not a lot of space for Asian-Canadian actors, and so the expectations are high when we do see an Asian character on screen or on stage.
The arrival of the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat has garnered a lot of criticism; some people find the perpetuation of Asian stereotypes to be offensive, some hate the faux accents, and some people don’t find that their own family or experiences is similar to the one portrayed on screen at all. Fresh Off the Boat is under immense pressure to properly or accurately portray the Asian-American or Asian-Canadian community—but what even is this Asian-Canadian/American community? (Can we even settle with a satisfactory definition of Canadian identity?)
This term Asian-Canadian or Asian-American encompasses many communities—of which many groups seldom interact. So how does a TV show or an actor accurately, respectfully, and responsibly portray the entire Asian-Canadian/American community—or rather, communities. It’s impossible. Nelson Wong reports that his job as an actor is to portray a human being and the humanity of a character. One character or person is not going to be representative of an entire community, let alone a network of communities.
It seems like the solution to accurately portraying Asian-Canadians or Asian-Americans is simply more representation. But is it really so simple?