The first time I got to write a featured role for an Asian character was on a one-hour network TV drama. I was a staff writer and my showrunner told me he had an idea for my episode. “It’s about two sisters. Two HOT sisters. And they’re Asian. Like the Hilton sisters, but Asian.”
I’d like to say I was secure enough in myself and my views on cultural representation to tell him to stick it up the hole he was pulling these ideas from, but I didn’t. I was just psyched I had a job. Also, this was before Twitter, chronic wokeness, and #MeToo. Instead, I opened my notebook, licked my pen (figuratively), and asked, “So what are these two hot Asian sisters doing?” My showrunner shrugged. “They’re running around for two acts being hot.” I dutifully scribbled “Asians Being Hot” in my notebook.
That was just the beginning. That same showrunner also wanted me to feature Chinese triads, have them use Japanese throwing stars, and get into a kung-fu fight with our (white) lead. To not feel like I was totally selling out my race and culture, I tried to own it. Subvert expectations. I had the badass triads selling imitation handbags. (OK, that was more a dive into different stereotype.) I tried replacing the throwing star with another less culturally on-the-nose weapon: guns! And I tried to not have a scene between our other (also white) lead and his Chinese contact at a roast duck restaurant. I tried, but I failed. If you find this distasteful, it’s worth noting the episode did great with a 3.0 rating in the demo, which is astronomical for today’s standards. America did not share your squeamishness for racial stereotypes.
That was over 10 years ago, and the shows I’ve worked on since have not come close to that level of doofy obliviousness. (Also, now that I’m more established in my career, I don’t put up with that nonsense.) But there are other issues I’ve faced in depicting my culture—or, more accurately, not depicting it. Of the dozen or so shows I’ve written on, none of them had an Asian lead. Only one had an Asian character in their main cast. And the few instances where I’d write a strong, sexually appealing Asian male guest character, I’d face pushback from the showrunner or casting. “Can he be Latino? Or African American?” was usually the first response, as if one minority was interchangeable for another. Casting would claim the talent pool wasn’t there, but I realized if I was an annoying enough jerk about it, they’d eventually find me the right actor.
So when director Jon Chu—who I’d worked with before, we sold a TV pilot together—asked if I’d be interested in working on the screenplay adaptation for Crazy Rich Asians (with co-screenwriter Peter Chiarelli), based on a book by Kevin Kwan featuring all Asian characters, my reply was not so much “yes” as it was “OH MY GOD. YES, PLEASE! WHEN CAN I START?!” It didn’t matter that I didn’t have the time (I was a full-time writer and producer on another TV show), had no idea how much or little money it would be, and I’d never written a movie before. I just knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and that I was going to make it work.
My rabid enthusiasm for the book went beyond the fact its entire galaxy of amazing characters was Asian. Jon didn’t know it, but I grew up in Southeast Asia in the same overseas Chinese community and culture the book is set in. (Alright, not the exact same culture—we were middle class. I like to say my family isn’t rich, but plenty crazy.)
In a world where the majority of lead characters is male and white and you’re not, that’s a constant challenge.
I came to the States at 18 for college and hustled for years before landing my first TV writing job in Los Angeles. I feel blessed and fortunate for the career I’ve had, but I’ve often felt that there was a level I wasn’t hitting in my work. “Write what you know” is the platitude most often leveled at writers. But in a world where the majority of lead characters is male and white and you’re not, that’s a constant challenge. I had to work doubly hard to make sure their lines sound authentic (enough) or to have a handle on their drives and motivations. And if I did pull from my own experiences, I had to translate them through a fractured prism to make them applicable to a white guy with a strong jawline.
With Crazy Rich Asians, I had to do none of that. I felt these characters in my bones—they looked and acted like my family members or people I knew. Their voices were ones I grew up with. Their vices, predilections, and obsession with food and luxury handbags were details etched in my DNA. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is one that isn’t in the book—we had to compress plot points to squeeze it into a two-hour movie—and that’s a scene of Rachel, the protagonist, playing Mahjong with Eleanor, her boyfriend’s mother.
It was inspired by the countless hours my family has spent around the Mahjong table, telling stories, working out family issues, and trash-talking the living fuck out of each other. It sounds narcissistic, but I cry every time I watch that scene. Not because of the Mahjong, but because it’s a love letter to my world and my people. One I never had a chance to write before.
Jon Chu has said that he wants our movie to be a movement. And I hope it is, or at least the beginning of an age where we give voice to all people whose stories have yet to be told. Where minorities and women in this country get to be equally celebrated in movies and TV. Having had a taste of it, I know there’s no going back. Kiss my ass, Asian Hilton sisters.
Crazy Rich Asians is in theaters now.
Photos: Warner Bros./Everett Collection, Getty Images