In 2007, Asian Americans made the nation laugh, cry, and feel inspired. They also made fellow Asian Americans cringe. Here's why.
APA looks behind the spotlight to uncover some of the behind-the-scenes talents we admired in 2007.
Subscribe to the APA Newsletter
In 2007, Asian Americans made the nation laugh, cry, and feel inspired. They also made fellow Asian Americans cringe. Here's why.
At the close of the year, magazines, newspapers, and websites feel inclined to complement their "best-of" lists with a run-down of the year's worst, most embarrassing, or most stupid. Here at Asia Pacific Arts, we'd feel somewhat awkward lampooning Asian American entertainers because, frankly, they haven't achieved the "critic-proof" status of a Britney or a Paris.
So instead we've concocted a list of the year's most "cringe-worthy" media moments starring Asian Americans. We do this not to necessarily criticize these stars of film and television, but to draw attention to "the cringe" as a collective response. What does it mean to be uncomfortable when we finally see a South Asian male vocalist on TV singing his heart out, seemingly oblivious to his less-than-stellar voice and his clownish hair? What does it mean to feel happy for the Vietnamese American superstar who is the biggest star on MTV, even if one is absolutely appalled by what possible damage she might be doing to Asian American women and the bisexual community?
What it boils down to this: at the sight of the following superstars, we sneer, we cringe, we throw our hands up and nervously remind the rest of America that "this doesn't represent me!" whether the rest of the country thinks so or not. All the while, we may be secretly proud of their achievement in an insidiously racist industry -- we may even be closet fans ourselves. Ultimately, this list represents the ambiguous, anxious response to Asian American agency in 2007. These stars have a right to represent themselves as they wish, and Asian Americans have the right to be torn by how to react to these dubious self-representations. Sometimes negative reactions are completely justified (as with the Kenneth Eng and Seung-Hui Cho incidents), sometimes less so.
Regardless, the anxiety over "the cringe" -- the "should I support this or hate this" reaction -- speaks to the current impasse in the Asian American community, caught between the burden of representation and the moral dilemma of color blindness. "The cringe" is both irresponsible and necessary, both stupid and empowering. Its stubborn insistence is an unavoidable headache that makes me just want to put down my remote and take a painkiller. Or at least a shot of tequila. --Brian Hu
2007 is a year of girls gone wild. When decadent is the new chic, Tila Tequila intoxicated both the Asian American and the LGBT community with A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, the second most popular MTV show after The Hills. 16 men and women competed for Tequila's affection, and despite the abuse of gender stereotypes, the battle of the sexes managed to capture audiences of all sexual orientations with massive amounts of skimpy clothing, catfights and other explicit content. The half-Vietnamese ex-playmate burst into Myspace celebritydom by holding the record for the having most MySpace friends: 2.6 million and still counting. Now a "model," "blogger," "singer" and "songwriter," the "American bisexual sweetheart" never fails to make an appearance wearing more than one square foot of clothing. In addition to acting in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry as one of Chuck's harem of Asian hookers, Tequila also recorded her debut album I Love U in 2007 and hosted a "Tila Tequila's New Year Eve Masquerade 2008" countdown concert in Times Square.
Tila Tequila's blatant sexuality, her confidence bordering on shamelessness and her prized I-don't-give-a-damn attitude alternately delighted and pained the new MTV audience who couldn't avoid the marathons even if they tried. With the scandals between the contestants and the controversy over her actual sexual preference, A Shot at Love might have caused more damage than assistance to the already underrepresented bisexual community -- showing the world that "bisexuals are sluts and lesbians are confused" -- but it's worth noting that her unique personality outshined her 4'11" frame to the point that her ethnicity was hardly brought up during her show. Perhaps Tila Tequila can be heralded as a presence in American media that truly transcends her race. Stay tuned for A Shot at Love, Season 2, as it turns out she never returned Bobby's calls. --Winghei Kwok
It may have been the hair. Perfectly coifed tresses fell just to the shoulder, and, in one golden moment, multiple ponytails were piled high on the crown in a blinding faux-hawk. It may have been the smile. Stretching from cheek to cheek, it was blindingly white, with dimples as a cherry on top. It may have been the personality. Sometimes shy and naïve, at other times, goofy and campy, but always exuberantly positive. One thing it most certainly wasn't was the voice. Sanjaya Malakar, the 17-year old American Idol contestant garnered major votes, criticism and media notoriety by staying on the reality television juggernaut week after week despite his shaky and off-key vocal talents. When Malakar was finally eliminated, ending the world's Sanjaya madness at 7th place, American Idol's ratings dropped 9%. Though the "Team Sanjaya" group on Myspace and "Sanjaya Idol" web communities may be mourning for the demise of everyone's favorite crooning nightmare, at the least the rest of America can stop covering their ears. --Janice Jann
"Why I Hate Blacks" by Kenneth Eng, God of the Universe: the title pretty much sums up the cringe. Kenneth Eng's column that appeared in the February 23rd issue of San Francisco's AsianWeek cites a "list of reasons why we should discriminate against blacks." Angry America condemns the hate speech, and Asian Americans' racial immune systems shift into auto-response: "Rejection, this writer does not represent us." By the next week's issue, AsianWeek has up a front-page apology, and contributor Kenneth Eng is disowned from the publication. But to fully appreciate the cringe, you have to watch this clip on YouTube. Given the chance to defend or elaborate on his views, Eng instead tries to make a shameless plug for his book, spewing out some fast-talking gibberish about Dragon: Lexicon Triumvirate to squeeze as much as he can into his three minutes on national television.
Publicity stunt? Mentally unstable and seriously disturbed? Regardless, Kenneth Eng makes us cringe, for while Neo-Nazi teenage twins "Prussian Blue" can go around singing about the superiority of the Aryan race without greater America wondering if they represent the majority, the same cannot be said in Eng's case, where the burden of representation is definitely present. But Eng also helps raise other questions: like, why the reaction after this particular column? Why not earlier, when he wrote about why he hates Whites, or why he hates Asians? Maybe only the God of the Universe can tell. --JoJo Yang
As a journalist and researcher immersed in the world of Asian American arts and entertainment, I can watch the AZN Asian Excellence Awards with a genuine, though critical, interest. But imagine the casual, middle-American viewer, flipping randomly to E! Channel only to see an awards show hosted by vaguely familiar second-string TV stars, headlined by a Kenny G performance in honor of a chef, and peppered with acceptance speeches by award recipients who seem troubled that such an awards show even exists to begin with (Kal Penn). It’ll look funny to say the least, and not at all because everyone honored happens to be Asian. I’m glad that such an event exists, because it means that there’s Asian American talent out there to honor, and that there’s an audience out there who’s proud of those talents. But when the party looks forced, the object of celebration looks fake, and that’s no good for anybody. That said, nothing screams Hollywood authenticity better than a cheesy awards show. Blockbuster Movie Awards: eat your heart out. --Brian Hu
The cringe reflex is sometimes automatic and not necessarily warranted -- mostly there as a defense mechanism. A story about a family who accidentally adopts a Pakistani Muslim boy called "Aliens in America" definitely sets it off for anyone who is wary about the long Hollywood tradition of mocking immigrants, but the initial showering of critical acclaim and buzz surrounding this new CW show (comparisons were made to Malcolm in the Middle and The Wonder Years) scaled the apprehension back a little bit. Could this show actually be good?
According to a New York Times interview, the creators, David Guarascio and Moses Port, were aware of sensitivity issues and hired a consultant from the Muslim Public Affairs Council for accuracy purposes. The British-accented actor Adhir Kalyan, who portrays Raja, also assuaged cynics, saying he feels a reponsibility towards the community to convey the culture accurately and positively. Oddly enough, initial reactions to the show sometimes swayed to the opposite side of the spectrum -- with objectors being offended by the stereotypical and offensive portrayal of the ignorant mid-Westerners. At one point in the pilot, a teacher tells the students about "Muslimism" and asks Raja if he wants to apologize for blowing up the buildings in New York. But this is all heresay. Upon viewing, sometimes it's hard to distinguish whether the cringe-worthy moments (Raja is so holy, Raja doesn't see the big deal about getting naked in the locker room, Raja is the school mascot, Raja takes a part-time job at a convenience store) are actually ways of keeping the Raja character as a one-dimensional outsider, or if these are just genuine examples of over-the-top comedy resulting from differing cultures, awkward adolescent misfits, and those painfully-saccharin messages (Aliens are just like us!) that teenage shows do so well. But the show's boldness and irreverence is admirable, and there are laughs, albeit sometimes guilty ones. --Ada Tseng
Rob Schneider should have known he would get in trouble yet again in 2007 when he donned bucked teeth, prosthetic make-up, and a mushroom haircut to play a Japanese minister in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. While the movie itself gained a fair share of publicity over whether or not the movie degraded or progressed the LGBT community, Schneider's role received its own set of criticism from Hollywood and media watchdogs alike. As in 2005, when he was admonished for using a pidgin accent to play a Hawaiian character in 50 First Dates, Schneider was unapologetic. At times, he has cites his own Filipino heritage for justification, but others around Hollywood -- from Masi Oka (Heroes) to Entertainment Weekly critic Lisa Schwarzbaum -- remain unconvinced. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) criticized Schneider, likening his portrayal to yellow face, while movie critic Richard Roeper reportedly compared the role to Mickey Rooney's notorious Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany's. Schneider's talent as a comedic writer and actor are marred by his weakness for cheap laughs using ethnic stereotypes. --Catherine Manabat
Behind every long-sleeved blue-collar shirt, khaki pant, and parted bowl haircut is a Bollywood star waiting to be unleashed, right? Mohammad Kashif Memon, a Pakistani sandwich worker from Skokie, IL proved that not all “Bollywood-stars” are created equal, on the American Idol-knockoff America’s Got Talent. Okay, so Kashif does not represent and should not be made fun of as a stereotyped desi who dreams of becoming the next Amitabh Bachchan. But his performances on season two of the NBC show, first in the Chicago qualifying round and later in the top 20 at Las Vegas, sparked a wide response in the blogosphere about how America understands the portrayal of a “Bollywood-type performer.” On the Sepia Mutiny blog, a comment by Sadaiyappan read, “The dude needs to get out more and see what other desis dance like. If he had a good network of friends they would be telling him how bad he is. So either he doesn't have friends or it is a media conspiracy to make us look bad.” On the other hand, comments from All Things Pakistan had this post by commenter Bilal Zuberi: “I have to agree he wouldn’t do well in front of a Pakistani audience but hey -- he is having fun, Pakistan is getting some publicity, and the audience is seeing something they are not used to…Go for it, Kashif!!!” So why do you ask is Kashif cringeworthy? Might it be because he was in terrible need of a new hairdo or wardrobe? No. Actually, we cringe because Kashif makes most Asians, particularly South Asians who are familiar with the Bollywood that a majority of America is ignorant about, feel like he is fueling self-inflicted racial tension upon himself. It’s not that we don’t appreciate his individuality; rather, we find ourselves asking what exactly audiences are responding to. --LiAnn Ishizuka
Watching Balls of Fury, a ping-pong parody of Enter the Dragon, is a prolonged 90-minute-long cringe. Balls of Fury gets laughs because it is the kind of stupid comedy that gets a get-out-of-jail-free card when it comes to crude racist, sexist, and homophobic jokes. Yet, the crazy Asian jokes get old quickly and the movie becomes a bizarre freak show of every Asian-themed stereotype. Fu Manchu villain (Christopher Walken), sage old Chinese man with fortune cookie advice (James Hong), Siamese twins, enslaved Asian women, you name it. The standout cringe is Maggie Q playing another hot Asian lady who can kick your butt. Q’s character Maggie Wong trains former ping-pong child star Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler), an overweight slacker. Maggie goes from storming off Randy’s advances to kissing him. Huh? Granted, the slacker dude/hot girl coupling is dujour with comedies like Knocked Up, but Maggie and Randy elicit cringes, and it’s not because she’s Asian and he’s Caucasian. Maggie, dressed in a sexified Halloween-costume version of a cheongsam, offers to “honorably” sacrifice her life for Randy during a ping-pong death match. Cringe. The closer the movie gets to Madame Butterfly, the less funny the joke gets. Watching Maggie Q look gorgeous and kick butt is enjoyable... but is this it? --Lisa Leong
The Apu character (last name: Nahasapeemapetilon) in The Simpsons has often been a sore spot amongst South Asian community. In the film Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, Kumar (Kal Penn) is mocked by bullies taking on the Apu-accent, but in an epic moment of revenge, Kumar reclaims Apu's catchphrase "Thank you, come again!" while flipping them off and stealing their truck. With the popularity of The Simpsons, there are many defendants who see Apu as a parody of a stereotype, instead of an actual one; they talk about the show's reputation for poking fun at all people equally and point out all the good developments that have added to the Apu character over the years. Either way, eyebrows were raised when real-life 7-Eleven workers, many of whom were South Asian or Middle Eastern, were asked to dress up as Apu (complete with the nametag, uniform, and accent) as a promotion for this summer's Simpsons movie. The 7-Eleven franchise transformed 12 stores into Kwik-E-Marts, stocked full with KrustyO cereal, Buzz cola, pink doughnuts, Squishees and your very own Hank-Azaria-sounding Indian convenience store owner with a Ph.D in Engineering. "Every Item Guaranteed Fresh or your money begrudgingly refunded," said the Apu cut-out posters. "Thank you for Loitering. Come Again." Well, at least with all the Simpsons merchandise (including Homer bobble heads), there were lines outside the Kwik-E-Marts at all hours of the day, and storeowners came away with a ridiculous profit. The Wall Street Journal reported that in one month, 7-Eleven's merchandise sales had doubled, customer counts were up 50%, and the promotion had resulted in an estimated $7 million in free publicity. One might argue, business is business. Perhaps for the 15th anniversary of Sixteen Candles, we can throw exclusive MTV Sweet Sixteen-style high school proms in Laguna Beach and force teenage Asian boys to dress up as Long Duk Dong. How much do you think we could get for that? --Ada Tseng
“Cringe” doesn’t adequately capture the Asian American response to the Virginia Tech massacre. First there was sorrow for the victims. Then, with the revelation of the killer’s race, even the most color-blind members of the community were suddenly thrust into an unprecedented fit of racialized paranoia. For an eloquent and moving play-by-play of the Asian American reaction to the massacre, see the Angry Asian Man archives. What continues to haunt the community is the face of the killer, Seung-hui Cho, as depicted on television, in print, and online, from his student ID to his notorious press kit mailed to NBC studios. No other image embodies the complex, ambiguous, and deeply troubled notion of Asian American media agency than the photographs Cho took of himself and his weapons. Here’s an Asian American who managed to play the media and get his message across to the world, yet is there any other such image that the Asian American community would rather censor? Is there any other image that makes Asian Americans feel the color of their skin, whether they want to or not? Is there any other image that makes Asian Americans feel more marked, targeted, and scrutinized, whether the rest of the country actually notices? Any other image that, for better or worse, has Asian Americans reconsidering their relationship to Oldboy, John Woo, and the second amendment? The community cringed, not because Hollywood, the government, or “the media” played the race card, but because Seung-hui Cho got himself on TV, and the terror of race inevitably followed. --Brian Hu
Best of 2007:
Date Posted: 1/4/2008