For Lent, I’m giving up real life for acting
It’s a new day for Filipino actors and showbiz aspirants.
When the Asian American stars of “Everything Everywhere All At Once” (EEAAO) were raking in their well-deserved SAG-AFTRA acting awards Sunday night, I was off-Broadway doing my one man show at Frigid.NYC (get tickets here to see it live or streamed to your home: https://www.frigid.nyc/event/6897:338/)
I tell my friends that for Lent, I’ve given up real life and become an actor. Just for the next 40 days or so.
It’s kind of exciting to play roles that wouldn’t have been there for someone like me more than 40 years ago when I considered acting for real.
Instead, I went into news, a business where the bad actors are always the stars.
But here we are, more than four decades later and Asian Americans exist on stage and screen in much greater numbers.
A lot of it is because the writers, directors and producers have changed as well. I’m in a play written by noted African American writer Ishmael Reed.
People understand that the stories we tell ourselves better reflect the world we live in and the people who live in it.
The other project, “Emil Amok: Lost NPR Host…,” is my one one-man show I wrote myself, telling an Asian American Filipino story, my story.
As a journalist and arts practitioner, for me, it’s inspiring to see something so original and Asian American like “EEAAO” get top honors as a runup to the Oscars.
It means there’s finally recognition for Asian Americans in our proper roles telling our Asian American stories. And it’s not just artistically sound, it’s commercially viable.
That’s no small thing. Note, you didn’t see this with either “Crazy Rich Asians” or “Fresh Off the Boat” on TV. But now, we’re finally seeing the awareness.
Most everyone has talked about the main stars Ke Huy Quan and Michelle Yeoh, the first Asian actors to win in their respective SAG-AFTRA categories. But the one for Cast in a Motion picture gave James Hong the opportunity to speak.
At 94, Hong is the Asian character actor you all know by face. He seems to have been in everything requiring an older Asian man.
He mentioned his very first role in the Pearl Buck classic, “The Good Earth.” But in 1937, the Chinese were played by whites.
“The leading role was played by these guys with eyes tape up like this and they talk like this because the producer said the Asians were not good enough,” Hong said as he pulled his eyes and showed off Hollywood yellowface of old. Then he said, “But look at us now.”
But I have to say, my favorite Asian character actor was always Victor Gee Keung Wong, who died in 2001 and would have been 96 if he were alive today.
I thought of Victor as I saw Hong give his acceptance. Victor was Old Chong in “The Joy Luck Club.” He played Janitors and grandpas. He was in Eddie Murphy’s “The Golden Child,” and with John Lone in “Year of the Dragon.” He suffered through the indignities of a “Big Trouble in Little China,” playing Egg Chen. But he rose as Chen Pao Shen in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor,” with Lone, Joan Chen, and Peter O’Toole.
I met Victor in San Francisco at the public TV station. He was a TV journalist before there was mobile hand-held video, and I was a high school intern. Victor was the most eclectic Asian American man I had ever met, with ties to the Beat generation and the civil rights war protest movement. For TV news, he took a film camera and created the photo essay. It looked like the style Ken Burns uses for photos in documentaries. Only Victor was doing it first in San Francisco. As his gopher, I used to mount his pictures on black cards on easels before big studio cameras that would zoom in and pan on the subjects.
And then Victor got into character acting.
Next thing I knew, I was in TV news, sometimes covering film, and I was seeing Victor at the movies.
As I do my thing on stage, I think of Hong, and Victor.
They were the first showbiz Asians, the character pioneers. Victor died in 2001, but thank God, Hong is still with us to have lived through the evolution of racism in Hollywood film.
He’s seen it all. And now, Asian Americans are emerging.
People are noticing us finally. That’s no small thing. When Asian Americans barely show up in real life, you figure, it should be easier to show up in the pretend world. But it hasn’t been until now.
I’m in my last week of shows (Friday 3/3, and Saturday, 3/4) for “Emil Amok: Lost NPR Host Found Under St.Marks at the Frigid.NYC festival in New York. If you are in the area come see it live like these Asian Americans who caught I last week.
And if you aren’t in New York, get a ticket to stream it live from the comfort of your home in California, Hawaii, Paris, wherever.
It’s a story about my father. And how if he’d gotten lucky, I’d be about the same age as Victor Wong and James Hong.
Really. It’s not too late. That’s why they’re my acting heroes. Also Filipino American Alex Havier, who had a speaking role in the 1943 classic, “Bataan.”
To see where his story and mine merge, you’ll have to come/see my show.
(TICKETS HERE) https://www.frigid.nyc/event/6897:338/