Last Thursday, the cast and crew of “Fresh Off the Boat” spoke at Stanford about the representation of Asian Americans in entertainment and media. “Fresh Off the Boat” is the first sitcom with an Asian cast on a major network in 20 years.
Following an early screening of an upcoming episode of the show (which was hilarious and probably one of my favorite episodes of the show), actors Constance Wu and Hudson Yang, executive producer Melvin Mar and writer Ali Wong, came on stage for a Q&A, moderated by the executive director of the Stanford Institute for Diversity in the Arts, Jeff Chang, and three student representatives.
The Q&A began with a question about representing Asian Americans without making the show solely about Asian American interests. Wong said, “We’re not here to preach. We’re here to make a funny show.” However, Wong added, “The more socially conscious you are, the better the work you make.”
Next, Wu spoke candidly about the inherent obstacles of being an Asian American in the entertainment industry. Noting how most of her interviewers focus on her ethnicity while her white male counterparts get asked about their acting process, she said, “I don’t get asked about my process. That’s a privilege.”
Wu also commented on a popular question that she gets asked frequently: why her character, Jessica Huang, has a Chinese accent. “There is nothing inherently wrong about an accent,” said Wu, and she hoped that she could show that her character Jessica could have an accent and still be “a fully fledged character with an emotional arc.”
The speakers also addressed current issues of yellow face in Hollywood, such as Scarlett Johansson’s casting as a Japanese woman. Wu, who was a vocal leader of the #WhiteWashedOut campaign on Twitter against whitewashing of Asian roles, encouraged students to “vote with [their] dollars and views.”
“I didn’t watch the Oscars. I’m not going to watch ‘Ghost in the Shell,’” she explained.
Mar also encouraged more Asian American students to get into filmmaking and share Asian American stories. “If you’re a writer, write it. If you’re a producer, make it.”
Wong elaborated on her experience in an Asian American theatre group at UCLA. Addressing the students in the room, she said, “You don’t know how lucky you are to produce whatever you want, when you want. Take advantage of the opportunity to grow and build your voice and keep your momentum going.”
The only awkward moment of the evening came when Chang broached the subject of Eddie Huang’s falling out with the show. Wu eloquently defended Huang’s perspective: “Change is difficult, no matter who you are, and I don’t think we should punish or stigmatize. We don’t know what it’s like to have a show based on your life.”
Finally, the speakers discussed their biggest setbacks of working in the entertainment industry.
Mar responded, “Ninety percent of things in Hollywood don’t work out,” and shared how his mother didn’t really understand his job as a producer until she read about “Fresh Off the Boat” in the Taiwanese media.
Wu talked about graduating from drama school tens of thousands of dollars in debt and waitressing and working as a nanny between auditions.
Wong, whose recently debuted Netflix comedy special, “Baby Cobra,” received rave reviews, commented instead on the learning curve of doing stand-up. Learning from her mistakes, she says, was like “failing up.”
Yang, the 12-year-old actor who plays the young Eddie Huang in the show, stole the show with his down-to-earth responses to the panel’s questions. After pointing out that his acting career is just beginning, he joked that his biggest setback was eating too many dumplings on his first day and “passing out” during a table read.
Contact Samantha Wong at slwong ‘at’ stanford.edu