In honor of Hyphen’s 25th issue, I present a highly subjective list of the 25 best Asian and Asian American characters on television and in the movies. The list is, for the most part, contemporary, but I also include characters who are icons, have left a distinct impression on pop culture or have gained a loyal cult following. So, in no particular order, here’s my list.
Abed Nadir from Community: The movie/TV savant played by Danny Pudi serves as the eccentric and moral center of one of the best shows on TV that 50 percent of you aren’t watching. He’s clever, a tad bit awkward, witty and has an ambiguous case of Asperger’s but is just so gosh darn lovable. The only way he can socialize with people is via his endless knowledge of pop culture. Sounds a lot like me.
Jin and Sun Kwon from Lost: Many may not know this, but J.J. Abrams sculpted these characters for actors Yunjin Kim and Daniel Dae Kim. As cast-offs on the mysterious island, they provided a tolerable, non-vomit-inducing romantic center to a show that was spewing WTF moments out of all its orifices.
Jocelyn Packard from Twin Peaks: Speaking of WTF moments, Twin Peaks was the show of the ’90s that gave audiences a good mind-fuck. Joan Chen portrayed a femme fatale in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s primetime serial soap opera about the investigation of the death of Laura Palmer, one of pop culture’s biggest conundrums in the ’90s. The show was stiff, exaggerated, unbelievably sudsy and over the top with its crazy characters. It’s kind of like watching community theater, so in essence, entertainment at its finest.
Bruce Lee: His actual characters didn’t matter because he was always “Bruce Lee.” From Kato on TV’s The Green Hornet to Cheng Chao-Chun in Fists of Fury, Lee reached legendary status, making his name synonymous with pop culture royalty. Plus, if I didn’t include him on this list, my Asian membership card would be revoked.
Mr. Miyagi from The Karate Kid: Jackie Chan may have taught that Smith kid how to do karate in the overrated remake, but Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi put the original Karate Kid in the zeitgeist. He also got an Oscar nod for his performance. In your face Jackie Chan!
Kelly Kapoor from The Office: Actor Mindy Kaling does wonders with this ditzy office drone who surfs on the same wavelength as a bedazzled teenager. She’s annoying, needy, sassy and pop culture savvy. Her crowning achievement thus far? The pop music girl group Subtle Sexuality.
Harold Lee and Kumar Patel from Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle: This stoner duo (John Cho and Kal Penn) gives us humor in the three-pronged franchise that pushes comedic boundaries to epic proportions of lewdness. Most importantly, they showed the world that Asians love smoking weed just as much as any other race. And we all know smoking weed is what bridges cultural gaps.
Hikaru Sulu from Star Trek: George Takei played him in the classic series while John Cho (his second appearance on my list) brought him to new audiences in 2009’s movie reboot. I must admit that I am more of a Star Wars man, but how can I NOT know who Sulu is? He’s the only expert Asian swordsman with space-age swagger.
Margaret Kim from All-American Girl: Margaret Cho was the funny front-woman for the short lived (and only) all-Asian sitcom that comically prodded at generation gaps and culture clashes — and it was actually funny! But apparently not “Asian” enough. That’s like saying Friends wasn’t white enough.
Lee from Rush Hour: Jackie Chan found a place with American audiences as one-half of an odd couple cop duo. It found so much success that they made a second one…and then a third. It’s OK to stop there.
Glenn from The Walking Dead: Anything involving zombies is pretty damn cool, but a TV series about zombies is a first. Props to Steven Yeun for being part of the AMC series based on Robert Kirkman’s graphic novels. (And props to him for knockin’ boots with that ranch girl!)
Annyang Bluth from Arrested Development: The adopted Korean son (played by Justin Lee) of one of TV’s most dysfunctional families is practically mute, but is probably the sanest of the delusional Bluth family on the snarky show.
Tina Cohen-Chang and Mike Chang from Glee: The two were snidely nicknamed Asian (Jenna Ushkowitz) and Other Asian (Harry Shum Jr.) by the show’s biting and toxic antagonist, Sue Sylvester. Despite the ignorant nicknames, the two characters have gained a prominent place in the saccharine-infused show that has mutated into a full-blown circle jerk of music and dancing!
Cassandra from Wayne’s World: Before Tia Carrere danced with the stars, she played this bad-ass rocker chick in this movie that starred Mike Myers (when the world actually thought he was still funny).
Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: Jonathan Ke Quan was the go-to ’80s actor when the role called for a quirky and precocious little Asian boy. I think it’s safe to say that this is Quan’s crowning achievement (even though it was the least-liked Indy movie). Furthermore, his name is Short Round. Is there a comeback as a rapper in the midst?
Data from The Goonies: Jonathan Ke Quan also played Data — and he just happens to be behind my favorite Asian characters in entertainment history. If it weren’t for his wackadoodle inventions like the “pinchers of power” or “slick shoes,” his fellow Goonies would’ve died and the Fratellis would have run away with One-Eyed Willy’s treasure. See? It really pays off to have Asian friends.
The Ewoks from Return of the Jedi: I firmly believe that these lovable, furry little creatures are Filipinos from another dimension.
Alex from Charlie’s Angels: The movie adaptations may have been outrageously cheesy (more so than the TV series), but the fact that they included an Asian angel (Lucy Liu) proved that we can whip our hair in slow motion with the best of them.
Nikita from Nikita: Lots of action. Lots of feminine empowerment. Lots of skin. Maggie Q. We can live with that.
Mr. Chow from The Hangover: From the moment the Asian gangster (played by Ken Jeong) jumped out of the trunk of that car buck naked and spit out the line, “Toodle-oo motherfuckers,” he captured the heart and soul of America.
Lloyd from Entourage: He may have been Ari’s metaphorical punching bag for gay insults, but Lloyd (Rex Lee) held his own and proved to be the better (and sometimes funnier) person. He’s like the gay little brother we all want to have.
Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles: He’s just like all John Hughes characters: angsty, a little irritating, misguided and privileged — he just happens to be Asian. Some people may call this John Hughes character racist, but I think it’s just funny. Really funny. Imagine what the movie would be like if he wasn’t in it. We would have to sit through a movie where Molly Ringwald pines over a guy and complains about how small her boobs are the entire time. Ugh.
All the characters from Joy Luck Club: I have decided that all the people in this movie based on Amy Tan’s epic novel of mother-daughter relationships are one character. For those of you who disagree, I will respond by lewdly digging into a watermelon and scoffing the words, “Dog fart!”
Dino-Ray Ramos is Hyphen’s pop culture columnist.