By Terry Watada
It was 1980-something when Lane Nishikawa, playwright and actor, came to Toronto to stage his one-man play, Life in the Fast Lane. I can’t remember how I met Lane but I agreed to produce his play to present something different, something that spoke to young Japanese Canadians instead of the mainstream White community.
The play itself is a series of set pieces on Asian American [AA] life – with a definite emphasis on the younger generations. Thus Life included monologues about honouring the Issei, a meditation on Buddhism and how it fit into an AA context, and dating Asian American women. Interesting for me were his comments about show business.
“We compliment everybody” was his tag line. The point being AAs were on TV in great numbers – as news reporters and anchors, in movies as sidekicks or exotic love interests and in television programs specifically with Asian themes. Thus he landed on Shogun, starring Richard Chamberlain and based on James Clavell’s 1975 novel about a 17th Century British trader in Japan. It was a big deal at the time. The problem Lane saw was the fact despite being wonderful that so many AA actors worked in the series, “Anjin-san was still the star”. Richard Chamberlain played the central character, Anjin.
Fast forward to 2016 and diversity and exclusion are the watchwords of the day given the Oscar debacle. For two consecutive years, African American actors were shut-out of acting nominations despite a wealth of roles. In all the furor, however, there was nary a mention of Asian American actors or others of colour for that matter.
Oh AAs are better represented on television than the 1980s: Ken Jeong and Suzy Nakamura star in Dr. Ken; Lisa Liu is Dr. Watson on Elementary; Ming-na Wen is a key player on Agents of Shield as well as Chloe Bennet (happa) as Skye; and Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park as the intrepid detectives Chin Ho Kelly and Kono Kalakaua respectively on Hawaii Five-O. All well and good but Dr. Ken suffers from a lack of wit, plagued instead by mediocre plots, stock characters and predictable lines that are supposed to be funny but not. Reminiscent of the 1990 series All American Girl starring Margaret Cho, a role that made her into an addict. Dr. Watson (a name to hide her Asian identity but I won’t quibble) always plays second fiddle to Holmes and both wither in the onslaught of the BBC show Sherlock. She is also the stereotypical Asian doctor figure. Ming-na Wen, Chloe Bennet, Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park are kung fu fighting Asians. Does everybody know a martial art? Never mind the Asian scientist stereotype played by Masi Oka in both Hawaii Five-O and Heroes.
Then there is the Goldbergs, an above-average sitcom with a clever premise – a contemporary adult looks back to life as a 1980s teenager through his video tapes. In a recent episode, Adam (the central character) decides to go to his school dance with his best female friend, Emmy. Complications arise (and presumably the humour) when his out-of-town girlfriend, Dana, suddenly appears on his doorstep. She of course expects to go to the dance as his date. Two dates! What to do? Of course, he opts to take them both by trying to find a solution in an episode of the Brady Bunch. What happens is unimportant.
What was so distressing was the fact that Adam’s best male friend, Dave Kim (played by Kenny Ridwan), is not called upon to take the best female friend to the dance. Even if he knows her. At the dance itself, Dave Kim is nowhere to be seen. He doesn’t have a date so why not take Adam’s friend? I will grant you Asian males were not thought of as legitimate males back then and perhaps Dave Kim’s parents would not have allowed him to attend, but really? This smacks of racism, exclusion at the least.
Anachronisms abound in today’s television programs. Murdoch features a female doctor/coroner with an African Canadian assistant. The show even features lesbian characters in a sexual relationship with nary an angry word said by anyone, especially the police. Could Canada be that much farther ahead of the Americans?
Surely, the Goldbergs could give Dave Kim a girlfriend. Reminds me of George Takei as Hikari Sulu on the starship Enterprise. In the complete run of Star Trek, not once was there a romantic interest for Sulu. I mean even Spock had a lover or two and he “didn’t even want one” as Bob Matsueda, San Francisco stand-up comic, once observed.
When all is said and done, no matter what the subject matter, no matter what characters the AAs play, no matter the billing on opening credits, I guess what Lane Nishikawa said holds true even in these enlightened times: “Anjin-san is still the star.”