Brace Yourselves: A New Narrative Is Coming
In this exclusive feature, Tony Wu, co-founder of Nomz (a Slant'd membership partner) and Asian noodle soup enthusiast, sits down with Slant’d to discuss how encouraged he is over the expanding roles and narratives taking place in the Asian American world.
"It’s been a long, a long time coming”
Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come”
An anthem of the Civil Rights movement, Sam Cooke’s famous 1964 ballad “A Change Is Gonna Come” soulfully captures the artist’s hope and perpetual belief that positive change is on the horizon despite previous prejudice and disappointment. While that particular subject is multiple orders of importance above the subject of this article, the lyrics still resonate when I consider the Asian American (“AsAm”) narrative and how Asian Americans and their cultures are often perceived or portrayed in American media.
This conversation has been bubbling for decades, but every so often there are cultural flashpoints in national dialogue that release a flood of momentum for an overlooked population (think: #MeToo, Linsanity). The Asian American narrative is evolving and I have enjoyed watching the range of Asian American expression blossom in recent years.
But it wasn’t always like this.
During my formative years in the Midwest around the 1980s, Asian images were rather limited. Other than my immediate family, categories such as food and media played an outsized role on my understanding of my Asian American identity.
When it came to food, my peers either thought of Orange Chicken from Panda Express or thought I ate “weird things.” In his Netflix mini-series Ugly Delicious, chef and restaurateur David Chang describes the latter sentiment perfectly when he admits: “These are [the Asian] foods that I grew up loving but I was embarrassed to publicly love.”
When it came to media, Hollywood gave me a standard list of Asian tropes to consume: fearless karate fighters (Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan), wizened sensei masters who trains heroes who were often Caucasian (Mr. Miyagi, Grandpa Mori), the cold femme fatale (Lucy Liu in both Ally McBeal and Charlie’s Angels), or the lovably inept and often emasculated Asian man who provides comic relief (Long Duk Dong in 16 Candles, Mike Yanagita in Fargo).
Sure, there were occasional bright moments (Dat Nguyen of the Dallas Cowboys, Better Luck Tomorrow), but the familiar and cringeworthy tropes encompassed the majority of Asian images I absorbed—and shaped my sense of self.
While there is a range of emotions associated with these roles and images, the purpose of this article is not to resent the road traveled, but to recognize and celebrate the diversity that has been introduced in the AsAm narrative over the last decade. While it will be impossible for this short article to fully capture the extent, let us lightly touch on a few areas:
Media (Television/Social Media/Film/Music)
Personally, this is one of the most exciting areas given media’s scalable power to influence American culture. Thanks to the democratic nature of social media and an increase in mainstream appetite for diverse content, there has been an explosion of AsAm storytelling and—most importantly—a spotlight on the diversity within the AsAm community itself. We are not all good at math, passive, or homogenous in any predictable way. Today, anyone with a smartphone or computer has the power to broadcast a voice that is authentically them. It’s a wonderful time to be alive.
Within television, AsAm actors are no longer limited to being emasculated comic reliefs or dragon ladies. Steve Yeun is incredible as the action and romantic lead in The Walking Dead, the most watched TV series in America. From annoying girl in The Office to headlining her own female-led show to being emblazoned across a Time Square billboard for Ocean’s 8, Mindy Kaling is absolutely crushing it.
Even shows where the characters are not overly tied to their racial heritage are gaining traction. For example, the Netflix mini-series Master of None largely centers around Dev Shah, a cool, eccentric, and hilarious New Yorker (who just happens to be Indian American). The quantity of these AsAm roles alone exceed the diminutive expectations set during my childhood, but there’s even more. After 20+ years without a majority Asian American cast on mainstream television, both Dr. Ken and Fresh of the Boat touched down nearly simultaneously on major networks.
There are plenty of moves happening on social media, too. I love watching the emergence of independent media companies like the Fung Bros (Jeremy Lin Effect series) and Wong Fu Productions (Asian Bachelorette skit was a great concept) that aren’t afraid to address Asian American-centric topics in a fun, nuanced, family-friendly way. Social media being what it is, streaming videos of one’s everyday antics is extremely popular (and lucrative). With over +5MM followers, AsAm Ricegum channeled this following to become a RIAA platinum selling artist for his single “It’s Every Night Sis”. Also within music, 88rising is a fast-growing online media platform with a reputation of showcasing Asian and AsAm musical artists, including Rich Brian, Dean, and Higher Brothers.
We’ve seen glimpses of AsAm movie casts before, but we have some major break-outs headed our way. On the indie level, Evan Jackson Leong, director of Linsanity, is nearing completion of his passion project Snakehead. This biopic, a production Leong has been working on for over 10 years, stars a female lead and traces the story of Sister Ping, one of the most infamous human traffickers based in Manhattan Chinatown.
However, all eyes are on August 17th when Warner Bros Entertainment will be releasing the hotly anticipated Crazy Rich Asians, the first theatrical release with a principally Asian American cast by a major studio since Joy Luck Club... 25 years ago. While the storyline stirs up mixed feelings, I am amazed by this milestone and look forward to watching AsAms get a real swing at a major movie budget.
When I sit back and take it in, it is almost as if after decades of silent darkness, AsAm representation suddenly had its Big Bang moment, sending a shifting, pulsating creative energy of dark hair, brown eyes, and perfect English hurtling across the galaxy of mainstream media.
Oh, how things have changed! Whether it is ramen, poke, or Filipino/Korean/Taiwanese food, Asian cuisine—in all its wonderful soupy, bone-in, aromatic glory—is having a moment right now in America.
Yet, biases remain.
In one fun moment during David Chang’s Ugly Delicious, Eater editor, Serena Dai, alludes to a familiar narrative of fear or confusion towards Asian restaurants, paraphrasing mainstream sentiment as often being “We love Chinese food and Chinese food is great, but it’s dirty and gross [a referral to the facilities, people or ingredients].”
Regardless of popular opinion, I continue to love and fully trust the integrity of dishes from classic NYC Asian restaurants (including dim sum from Oriental Garden). From my NYC vantage point, I have observed that this narrative of fear and confusion is constantly being challenged by both incumbents and younger AsAm entrepreneurs—a generation more comfortable straddling the cultures of America and its respective heritages—as they build restaurants that pay homage to traditional foods while offering contemporary design and service.
A list this short is limiting and tragically insufficient but here is a sampling of NYC restaurants that aren’t afraid to push boundaries, reimagine culinary narratives, and profoundly put to rest any such legacy concerns:
Momofuku Restaurant Group: From humble beginnings as a noodle bar, David Chang’s restaurant empire launched Asian-inspired cuisine into the national consciousness while also providing innovative takes on Western classics.
Da Dong: The first US location of the famed roast duck chain from China. Elegant, resplendent, and a delicious example of a non-AsAm-driven chain bucking the old Chinatown image.
Nom Wah Nolita: With artsy murals gracing the walls, Nom Wah Nolita is the chic, modern outpost of Nom Wah Tea Parlor, the oldest dim sum restaurant in Manhattan.
Lumpia Shack: Filipino spring rolls and more in a compact, natural space reminiscent of a popular cabin getaway.
Win Son: Popular Brooklyn restaurant serving Taiwanese classics such as fly’s head and minced pork over rice in a New American ambiance—all with a proper dose of culinary flair and interpretation.
Char House: Located in Manhattan Chinatown, Charhouse serves up American classics accented with Asian flavors (steak with XO sauce on the side, anyone?).
Ho Foods: Cozy and modest spot that is all business when it comes to Taiwanese beef noodle soups.
Preconceptions of Asian food are not limited to restaurants. For the average citizen, the Tai-Pei brand could be considered the quintessential Asian packaged foods brand. It has it all: the slanted fonts, an Asian sounding name (which happens to be the capital of Taiwan), and a menu featuring popular Chinese American dishes, such as Beef and Broccoli.
Personally, while Tai-Pei is not for me, I want everyone at the grocery store to have a choice and image of Asian cuisine other than Tai-Pei et al. or foreign imports. Because while Tai-Pei may represent Asian culture to some, its flavors, profile, and emotional tones never fully represented how I viewed myself or the food I grew up eating as an Asian American. The essence of that person—a kid growing up in Ohio eating rice and noodles; playing street hockey in the neighborhood; watching The Price is Right with cornfields in his backyard—is a bit harder to define (let alone find in stores), so I created it: the Nomz brand.
For those unfamiliar, Nomz is a local food brand that primarily crafts wholesome Asian noodle soups for busy individuals. Along with being delicious, convenient, and clean, Nomz in a smaller way represents a personal journey to capture the Asian American experience that I and others felt, one that we got to define on our own terms while sharing our traditional food and narrative with all. Much like the arc of AsAm actors who have gone from being asked to adopt a contrived Asian accent to representing a cool Korean American who likes to get stoned and eat burgers, I am excited by a future where food brands can be viewed as authentically Asian or AsAm without being a take-out container covered in dragons, slanted font, or “foreign” characters.
Quantity is better than nothing, but it is ultimately continued quality that changes a narrative. I look forward to watching these storylines bloom and take root in American culture; America is its strongest when it is an inclusive place that integrates the best of diverse ideas, values, people, and cultures. Our country has greater problems than PoC representation in popular culture, but that does not mean that we should ignore it. Far too often the shine of AsAms is missing from the most influential institutions, but I know that magic is everywhere—and those who believe in themselves often discover it. It has been a personal joy to watch AsAms venture out in search of that magic. To those pushing uphill and those supporting them behind the scenes, I applaud you.
Still, we know it takes a village. For readers who feel similarly, I hope you support Asian American-led projects because this is how we ensure that these narratives flourish. By supporting creators—Asian Americans or otherwise—whose stories resonate with yours, you are helping their mission take hold. Perhaps one day, even dashingly handsome British secret agents may look slightly "different"—and there will be nothing remarkable about it.
Written by Tony Wu
Edited by Krystie Mak
About the contributor: Penn grad from Ohio, Tony Wu is a co-founder of Nomz, a local food brand crafting wholesome Asians soups for busy individuals. He loves noups ("noodle soups"), Asian American data and hitting the game-winner in pick-up basketball (it never happens).