'The Goods,' Ethnic Media, and Putting Your Money Down

September 10, 2009

the_goods.jpgRecent protests over the Pearl Harbor scene in The Goods (in which Ken Jeong's character gets attacked by fellow car salesmen for looking Japanese) succeeded in getting the offensive bit removed from trailers. But did it really change the attitudes that screenwriters or directors have about race or stereotyping? Did it show that Asian Americans have influence over how Hollywood portrays us?

Not really, says blogger Phillip at YouOffendMeYouOffendMyFamily. He writes that the protests over The Goods and other movies with offensive scenes won't do any good because Asian Americans don't matter at the box office. Marketers have always had a hard time defining and selling to Asian Americans, a group that doesn't really exist, according to Oliver Wang at Chasing Chan.

Oliver agrees that protests alone may not change anything in Hollywood, but goes a step further by saying, "the main reason why 'Asian Americans as a whole' don't support Asian American film is because 'Asian Americans as a whole' do not exist." 

The term Asian American encompasses many ethnicities, nationalities, languages and histories. There's no common thread that ties group members together. It's a political term that grew out of the Yellow Power movement of the 1970s.

Advertising agencies have told Hyphen that Asian Americans spend their money like white people, so an ad in Time or Vogue will do just fine in reaching us. (They seem to miss the point that while we consume mainstream media, we also consume ethnic media.)

I worked for a company during the mid-1990s Internet boom called ChannelA.com that had its roots as something like Hyphen but morphed into a web site about Asian culture that targeted non-Asians because it was a bigger market. I kind of felt like we were abandoning our community and made it seem like Asian Americans weren't worth the effort.

It was disheartening, but it was a pragmatic move. A lot of magazines have come and gone trying to cover the Asian American market. Hyphen is getting by with a volunteer staff and a nonprofit model, but we face many of the same obstacles as our predecessors.

One of the reasons Hyphen exists is the belief that mainstream media doesn't cover Asian Americans, however you define it, adequately or accurately. Media outlets such as Hyphen can also provide a counter balance to things like the Pearl Harbor scene in The Goods.

But is it enough just to exist? Phillip says in his post that he knows people who are protesting The Goods or the whitewashing of Avatar: The Last Airbender, but who haven't paid a dime to see movies such as Better Luck Tomorrow, Saving Face, Finishing The Game, The Motel, In-Between Days, The Debut, and Journey From The Fall. All were  produced by and had casts that were primarily Asian Americans

African Americans have protested Hollywood, too, but movies aimed at black audiences also sell a lot of tickets, so that's when the studios perk up and listen. Phillip breaks down the numbers in his post.

In that same vein, it's great that Hyphen and publications like Giant RobotThemeEast West and KoreAm Journal are still around, but like the movies, there may not be enough box office, at least for ad agencies.

Do you subscribe to Hyphen or one of the other magazines? Did you pay to see Better Luck Tomorrow? If no, why? Or, if you do subscribe and pay for movies, I'd love to hear why, too. I'm just wondering if there's something that can create a critical mass audience. Maybe Oliver is right, and there isn't. But I still think it's worth the effort.


Harry Mok

Editor in chief

Editor in Chief Harry Mok wrote about growing up on a Chinese vegetable farm for the second issue of Hyphen and has been a volunteer editor since 2004. As a board member of the San Francisco and New York chapters of the Asian American Journalists Association, Harry has recruited and organized events for student members. He holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was also a graduate student instructor in the Asian American Studies Department.



Harry,Just to clarify, I think there's a major difference between talking about "Asian America" as a uniform or identifiable consumer group vs. "Asian America" as a community that desires its own media or cultural creations. I absolutely believe in the latter, not the least of which is that, as a community based around a shared imagination of its own existence, it makes sense that products of our imagination (media, culture, etc.) would be a significant way in which Asian America is created, debated and transformed.But I think trying to sell Asian America as a consumer group presumes a level of uniformity that doesn't exist. I think there are major generational differences in consumption patterns, I think there are differences between Asian sub-groups. I think there are differences based around geography. I'm sure there are dozens of market research groups dedicated to parsing down these micro communities and figuring out how to tap into them but I just don't think you can talk about a macro "Asian American market" least of all for something like cinema. The challenge, since day one, has been to define what "Asian American cinema" comprises and 30+ years later, I don't think we're any closer to answer that in any definitive way. That's both the beauty and curse of our community and its cultural movements.
Asian Americans may not be interested in AA media, but thankfully - Asians are interested in Asian media.(Perhaps that fact will cheer you up?) I confess it's a tad irritating when Asian Americans seem to act like only the American movie market matters (or exists). There's still the rest of the world AND ASIA.Just recently, I even came across an article wherein Japan's biggest movie distributor was complaining about how Hollywood movies are currently not selling as much as before (in Japan).reuters.com/article/reutersEdge/idUSTRE5861RO20090907---"The popularity of Japanese movies is a very good thing for us as a distributor but in terms of our cinema operations the drop-off in Hollywood movies is not something to smile about," Toho President Hideyuki Takai told Reuters in an interview.---AND have you heard about Hollywood stars looking to Bollywood for roles (because the movie market in the US is currently so bad)? I remember it was on BBC this week or last week.If my memory is accurate - that guy who plays Rambo is in a Bollywood production.---Aside from polling whether Asian Americans have seen AA films, ask them if they have seen Asian films. We have a LOT of great Asian films over here.Then again... considering that another Hyphen contributor was complaining about Korean native Jay Chou getting the role of Kato "instead of a funny, talented Asian American" - I suppose it's safe to assume that Asian Americans are, as a group, not interested in Asian media also.hyphenmagazine.com/blog/2009/08/jay-chou-as-kato-in-the-green.html
two things.first, hyphen is the only print magazine that i pay for in advance. i've been addicted after it was introduced to my asian american studies class @ laney.and most importantly, jay chou is not korean. he's taiwanese.just sayin!
Sorry, my mistake. Jay Chou is native Taiwanese, not Korean.I got his ethnicity mixed up with Korean stars Lee Byung-Hun and Rain which that Hyphen contributor was also fussing about because they weren't Asian American but just Asian.I see red (and can't remember at 100% capacity) when I see Asian Americans complain about and/or ignore Asians.AAs complain about not being properly represented in Western media when Asian media is 99.99% Asian, but when Hollywood cast Asian stars - it's still not good enough (and it's an insult!) because apparently - Asians can't represent Asian Americans properly. Not sophisticated enough.Whatever.
Yo--I think our diversity, spendthriftness, and possibly uber-high expectations or maybe even self-loathing? (excuse my essentializing "us") may contribute to the non success of these Asian American films. I did see (rental though, because I didn't hear about it in time) Better Luck Tomorrow, Motel, Saving Face, and The Debut. Of those I only really liked Motel. Saving Face had a cop-out ending. Better Luck Tomorrow not exactly my favorite, too nihilistic for me. There was a Ping Pong movie and a Bruce Lee movie that I was interested in seeing after seeing some fliers/trailers around, and then they disappeared from my radar.I remember back in high school there being a huge buzz about Better Luck Tomorrow when it came out, and then later seeing it and being disappointed. I also tried watching a few early Wayne Wang movies and not liking those too much either (although I did like Smoke with Harvey Keitel..). There was also a documentary I watched about Asian American/Asian men in cinema, where an Asian actor said, Hey, if you want people to watch these movies, you've got to make GOOD movies. As for the self-loathing, I only say that because a few of my non-asian friends tell me I should like Lane from Gilmore Girls. But just seeing her nerdiness makes me cringe (there's the same character in Rushmore, isn't there? But I haven't really given Lane Kim a chance because I don't like the show)--no Asian American female representation's going to be good enough for me, unless it's Margaret Cho I guess.We are in a pickle: Lately I've been learning about early film star Anna May Wong, she's a hottie, and it seems like she got grief from her Chinese peeps and her American peeps--Not true enough to her roots to the Chinese, but too foreign/exotic/nonwhite to be cast as a main character(even one that's supposed to be Chinese!!). Not much has changed in almost a hundred years, sadly. But how can we create a true Asian American character that doesn't turn into another stereotype (I think Wayne Wang said this too)?p.s. I was up in arms about Airbender. I don't under$tand the casting choice of that guy from Slumdog, he doesn't look like a young Rufio/Zuko.
Asian Americans do need to flex their economic muscle, but frankly most AA indie films aren’t very appealing. Why would I want to spend the time and money to watch a film that’s a depressing bore?I’m a guy who likes comedy and films with a tight plot, good dialog and a fast pace, so something like “Saving Grace” isn’t going to compell someone like me to go to the theater. If I wanted to reflect on my relationship with my parents and ponder the significance of my cultural heritage, then I’d rather pay for therapy.This is why Better Luck Tomorrow was so much more successful than any other AA indie film: tight story, fast pace, witty dialog, humorous moments. Not a lot of introspection. I paid to go see it at the theater, and I rented it through Netflix.Asian Americans as a whole don't care to watch films centered on their Asian-ness, but they make a big hoopla over Asian characters in mainstream films. For better or for worse, they would rather be accepted than be independent. This is why you can't tell Asian consumer trends apart from white consumer trends.
@sighssighs, you got a point about there being a number of stars from Asia (Jay Chou, Jet Li, etc.) Perhaps from your perspective it's good to just get Asian faces on there to represent, and it IS good.But here's the thing. First, I'm Asian American. I guess I'm more American than Asian (Vietnamese to be exact) but I straddle the two worlds. In fact, that's pretty much the whole point of Hyphen and the Asian American moniker. We are these weird bastard children of two mixing (or not mixing) identities. So while it's good to see an Asian on screen because he looks like me, I can hardly identify with someone who was born in a whole different continent and didn't have the same life experiences as I. Again, I'm not saying having Rain and Jay Chou in movies is BAD, but they're not Asian American. Maybe that's splitting hairs to you, but if it's an American movie I don't think it's too much to ask for an accurate Asian American portrayal.Which brings me to point two. What are the roles these Asian actors are cast in? We got Rain being a ninja, Jay Chou being the Green Hornet, Zhang Ziyi being like 30 kinds of the same Dragon Lady, need I continue? These Asians are literally being imported to play (and in my opinion, reinforce) a stereotype? Need a ninja? Let's get that Japanese pop star. Korean? Whatever. Same thing right? Slanty eyes? Check.
So if you're looking for Asian Americans in non typical roles, go watch my new webseries LUMINA! :) We've got Asian Americans and Asian Canadians, and Asian Europeans, and Eurasians and Asian Asians...! Plus we've got Asian American college circuit favorite Tim Be Told on our soundtrack! :Dhttp://www.luminaseries.comThe first two webisodes are out now, and new ones will be added every Tuesday.
(eye roll @Mic)"but if it's an American movie I don't think it's too much to ask for an accurate Asian American portrayal."Would you like it if Asian movies deliberately exclude Asian Americans? Hmm?
sighs, What's so wrong about wanting acceptance and representation in our own country? This is what these posts seem to be primarily about. It's not about pitting AAs against Asians. Many AAs do consume and appreciate and have pride in Asian pop culture, but that doesn't mean we don't want to see ourselves represented in Western media, where we grew up.Would I like it if Asian movies deliberately excluded AAs? Sure. If a movie is in Mandarin and you get an AA actor who can barely speak Mandarin, then yeah, leave him out and get an Asian actor in there who can deliver the lines.BTW, no one said anything in this post or the prior one you object to about Asians not being sophisticated enough. I think that's just you projecting.
@lalaI suggest you visit (below) which I already mentioned here before:http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/blog/2009/08/jay-chou-as-kato-in-the-green.htmlI mentioned about it because Harry was talking about how other magazines have given up on the Asian American niche.I mentioned about it because if most people in this website really are fine about criticizing Asians for getting Hollywood roles just because they aren't Asian American - then this website is not only going to not appeal to Asians but will be offensive.I found it offensive. My Asian friends were all O.O at such "American" arrogance. Cue the "Just ignore them. They're no longer Asian anyway" comments.Btw, I am trying to follow their excellent advice and just ignore Hyphen, but apparently - I still have a bone to pick with such arrogant Asian Americanisms. The XKCD comic below accurately illustrates my flaw.http://xkcd.com/386/I just couldn't help but comment (again) because this article was about how "niche" Asian American ego-stroking media was (Hyphen included). It's so "only for Asian Americans" only, that even Asians will feel excluded.
If I can veer this discussion back to what my post was about: What if John Cho were cast as Kato instead Jay Chou, would Asian Americans be more likely to go see the movie?He's probably the most bankable Asian American actor of east Asian descent who could play the role. A studio is not as likely to take a chance on an unknown Asian American actor as it would be on an unknown white actor. A white guy won't work as Kato (though they could have rewrote the character as white).If not Cho, than go with an Asian pop star from Asia is the thinking of producers and studio, I suppose. It's a safer choice than an unknown.And Sighs, I don't think anyone is demeaning actors from Asia or people from Asia in general. You miss the point.I think what most people have a problem with is Asian American actors and stories that convey real and nuanced portrayals of Asian Americans being excluded from mainstream movies and media.If an actor from Asia is cast in a good role that isn't a stereotypical portrayal of Asians or Asian Americans, I think that's great. Even better is to just have more diverse casts no matter what the role or story.
Harry, you're missing my point(s) so I will itemize them and make them short.You asked:1. Why is Asian American media ignored even by AAs?2. When can be done to increase audience size?I answered:1. There is no problem if you consider that Asian media is so popular.2. Audience size will increase if AAs do not insult or ignore Asians. (I provided a Hyphen example.)Btw, do not think I haven't noticed the "we're innocent victims" and "sighs is the misguided accuser" role play.(eye roll)
Harry I commented about this a bit on Hyphen before Phillip's post went up:http://www.hyphenmagazine.com/blog/2009/08/jay-chou-as-kato-in-the-green.htmlTo sighs, you said:[1. Why is Asian American media ignored even by AAs?2. When can be done to increase audience size?I answered:1. There is no problem if you consider that Asian media is so popular.2. Audience size will increase if AAs do not insult or ignore Asians. (I provided a Hyphen example.)]Sighs there is a difference between using Asian actors from the Asian continent, instead of using Asian American actors, just as there is a difference between seeing a movie with a Black American actor versus one straight from Africa. One reason so many Americans don't even consider Asian Americans as American (especially towards Asian American men), is because of the media images almost always depicting Asian male actors and not Asian American ones. At least there are plenty of Asian American female news anchors on television.Also, I dispute your point about Asian media's popularity. Look at the box office numbers. The overwhelming majority of movies played even in most East Asian theaters, are Hollywood movies starring White actors. It's not like this problem of what I call White-worship, doesn't exist in Asia as well. Hollywood movies with White actors do way better even in Asia, compared to Asian-made movies even with huge budgets.