Subscribe to the APA Newsletter
Yes, in 2006, Asian Americans demonstrated excellence in film and television. Yet the Asian Excellence Awards make achievement sound so cheesy. Luckily, Kenny G was there to save the day.
Red carpet, Asian Excellence Awards
May 16, 2007
Interviewed by Siddarth Puri
Camera and video edit by Oliver Chien
Music courtesy Far East Movement
What a production! Is there any awards show in America more breathtakingly schizophrenic and shamelessly brass than this year's Asian Excellence Awards? Has there even been an Asian American film or novel this year that's more of an emotional and intellectual roller coaster of pride, shame, success, failure, glamour, and disgust? Is there anything on TV that matches the AXAs in terms of high concept, low delivery, and middle-brow progressivism? Okay fine, there was American Idol's love song to Africa. But the Asian Excellence Awards surely come in second. And when the standards of achievement are Cindy Cheung from Lady in the Water and Betty Sun in Fearless, second place is more than enough to ask for.
I was lucky to see it all go down at UCLA's Royce Hall, weeks before the show debuts in its entirety on Memorial Day, 2007 on the cable network AZN. It was shown in truncated form on E! on May 24, but take it from me: see it in all its brazen glory. It has to be seen to be believed.
Let me break it down. I'll inevitably give away some of the winners, but that's okay since they've already been posted online elsewhere, and as with any worthwhile awards show, it's not who wins that matters, but who shows up and winks at the audience, letting them know this is all one big sham. Because it is.
Because there were moments during the show when I felt genuine pride in being an Asian American consumer of Asian American culture. Namely:
1) When poet Beau Sia delivered a beautiful elegy to Asian and Asian American film artists who passed away in 2006. He boldly called for our collective acknowledgement of past achievements, so that we can better see the road ahead. His performance was delivered with humility and punctuated with grace.
2) When comedians Russell Peters, Dat Phan, and Margaret Cho took center stage, striking the right combination of entertainment and bold social commentary. Their appearances were far too short.
3) When Chow Yun-fat picked up the AXA's Lifetime Achievement Award. The man is a legend in Hong Kong but doesn't get the recognition he deserves as an Asian American pioneer. I enthusiastically joined the standing ovation, because seeing Chow get his kudos made me proud of being an Asian American, and proud of the AXA's for recognizing his importance.
The AXAs were ridiculous. There are countless reasons. I implore you to watch the program on AZN so you can see just how laughable and gratuitous (and therefore totally awesome) the awards really were. Here are some of the reasons why:
1) Because Kal Penn said so. In one of the more powerful, better articulated acceptance speeches of the night, The Namesake star thanked the Asian Excellence Awards, but then suggested that he wishes such meager attempts at identity politicking didn't have to exist. Imagine that kind of self-criticism at the Essence Awards, and you'll realize how shocking and ballsy Penn's comment slyly was.
2) Because Rob Schneider said so. Eliciting gasps, then laughs from the audience, the hapa actor delivered a string of one-liners making fun of Asians, before putting the awards show itself in his comedic crosshairs. This show will be watched by... all 200 of AZN's subscribers! Cable channel E! is willing to play anything! It was sobering to hear somebody involved with the show directly admit that this really isn't good enough for television. Of course, that means that it's perfect for television.
3) Because Maggie Q won an award for Mission Impossible 3. I have total respect for her as an actress and model, but I know, you know, and she knows that her winning the award for her miniscule performance makes the AXAs lose all credibility as any signifier of "excellence." Her acceptance speech was priceless: she chuckled a bit before saying that she "never wins anything." She wasn't just being humble; it's as if she secretly realized that she won for looking hot in a red dress and that her fellow nominees must have been really really bad.
4) Because Grace Park and Daniel Dae Kim were the hosts. Again, total respect for the two. But imagine if you were a non-Asian flipping through the channels and saw them hosting an awards show. "Hey, isn't that the number seven most memorable star from Lost? Is that the best the Asians could do? The girl is hot though. That makes up for the fact that I don't know who she is." Grace Park and Daniel Dae Kim are great role models for the Asian American community, but award shows traditionally work best when the hosts are either comedians, second-rate stars, or industry has-beens. Not third-rate actors with the potential of becoming genuine stars in Hollywood.
5) Kenny G. When the AXA lineup was announced, Kenny G stood out like a sore thumb that's gangrened and attracting bugs. Why was he there? Would he announce that he was part Asian? Turns out he was there to provide a musical tribute to his friend, chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, who was winning a special "pioneer award." On the red carpet, the saxman looked happy to be there supporting his friend, but he was clearly uncomfortable by the questions undoubtedly on everyone's minds: why is Kenny G here? He's not going to perform is he? Why is Kenny G here?
But when Kenny G's time came up and the spotlight fell on his curly locks and famous soprano sax, everything changed. All my doubts about his presence vanished when I heard what song emitted from his glorious instrument. It wasn't one of his white-washed jazz standards, or one of the G-clunk classics that made him a multi-platinum laughingstock. No, he played Teresa Teng's "Moon Represents My Heart."
To the Chinese Americans in the audience, it's better known as "Yue Liang Dai Biao Wo De Xin." It's one of the road-trip staples: one of those annoying songs your parents used to blast in the car, but which you secretly loved and remember vividly all these years later. It's one of those songs that you can sing in karaoke even though you can't read Chinese. It's cheesy but classic, straddling the line between you and your square parents. Is there no better person than Kenny G to pay tribute to it? Is there no more fitting song to define Chinese American-ness in this bizarre carnivalesque of awkward celebrities known as the Asian Excellence Awards?
I loved it. I have a feeling the perfection of the moment was lost on all the non-Chinese Americans in the audience. As Kenny G tooted his soprano sax in the aisles, onlookers in view of the camera tried to conceal their laughter while fellow presenter Quentin Tarantino shot the cameraman an awkward look that read: "please don't frame me in the same shot as Kenny G."
How do you describe an awards show that awards the excellence of celebrities who themselves aren't sure if they really want to be there? How do you applaud politely when it all feels like a high school production with a Hollywood budget? How do you explain the fact that the AXA's are simultaneously a heartfelt celebration of Asian American progress and a blatant sign that despite this progress, perhaps Asian Americans (as opposed to African Americans and Latinos) aren't prominent enough yet in film and television to warrant a nationally-broadcast awards show?
However, one thing's for sure: nothing more powerfully announces Asian Americans' arrival in mainstream American culture than the fact that they can put on a sham awards show as gratuitous, trashy, and self-promoting as anybody else.
The Asian Excellence Awards will premiere May 28, 2007 on AZN. If AZN knows what it's doing, it will repeat the show over and over, until every ounce of indignity is exhausted. Check out the website here.
Date Posted: 5/25/2007