Asian stars are rising — Latest TV breakthroughs look like the real deal

Courtesy of ABC

By Jae-Ha Kim
New York Daily News
April 13, 2005

Once relegated to playing houseboys, prostitutes and extras on “M*A*S*H,” Asian-American actors are now appearing on prime-time television not as exoticized versions of reality, but as real people.

Sandra Oh, superb in “Sideways,” is a star in the new medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” which has kicked “Boston Legal” to the curb and taken the prime slot after “Desperate Housewives” on Sunday nights at ABC.

Or turn on ABC’s other hit drama, “Lost,” and you’ll notice not one, but two Asian regulars. Korean-American actors Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim (no relation to each other — or me) portray a married Korean couple stranded on the creepy island with a crew of folks including a pregnant woman, an Iraqi hottie, a fat dude, an African-American father and his son, a dog and a hobbit (or at least a guy who played a hobbit in “Lord of the Rings”).

Even with the hobbit there, the Korean characters are the outsiders. They look different and speak Korean to each other. It took several episodes before we learned that the wife spoke fluent English, a tidbit she was hiding from her husband.

You’d think having two Asian-American actors on the hottest show of the season would make Asian-Americans ­— particularly those of Korean descent — happy.

But there’s a funny thing about Asian-Americans. We’ll champion our own till the end, and insist Asian-American actors get equal time in the media. When Jonathan Pryce, a Caucasian actor, was cast as an Asian character in the 1990s’ “Miss Saigon,” it caused an uproar in the Asian-American community, as it should have.

But sometimes Asian-Americans will pick apart the very people who are breaking down the barriers. Some members of the Korean-American ­community are unhappy because the male character, Jin, is domineering and harsh with his wife. Others are upset because Daniel Dae Kim, who speaks fluent Korean, doesn’t have the right Korean accent.

You heard me: Kim — who was raised in Pennsylvania from the age of 2 — is getting flak because his dialect doesn’t reflect the character’s homeland. Critics are lucky the producers didn’t stick Pat Morita in the role. Wax on, wax off, indeed.

The Accentgate criticism got so intense that Kim even apologized for the accent on a Web site.

“I’ve read some really harsh criticisms of [my Korean accent] on some sites, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find them a little hurtful,” Kim wrote on www.danieldaekim.org/jin.html. “For those of you who think my Korean’s not good enough [especially you folks from Seoul], I apologize and can only ask for your patience. I’m deeply committed to working as long as I need to develop the ‘standard’ Korean pronunciation. I will say, though, that my friends and family from ­Pusan have had absolutely no problem understanding me, and I’ve also gotten my share of compliments — thank you!”

Now I’m not going to pretend to be a linguist, but I am from Seoul, and I say his Korean is very good. More importantly, his role is one of the more intriguing ones on “Lost.” Yes, he’s a bit of an ass. But so was Archie Bunker. And he made for great television, just like Jin.

We live in a time when the media tell us who we are. What “Lost” has done is tell the world what Asians aren’t.

We aren’t all martial arts experts. We aren’t all college educated and over-employed. We’re not always the model minority. We don’t all own dry-cleaning businesses. And just as importantly, we’re not all nice.

While television is an area where Asian-Americans are making strides, the big screen is still territory that is not fully explored.

Bai Ling is more famous for her itsy-bitsy dresses on the red carpet than her work in films such as “Anna and the King.” Jet Li is good, but Hollywood doesn’t want to see him kiss anyone. And none of the gals from “The Joy Luck Club” seem to be acting anymore. “Memoirs of a Geisha” — due in theaters this winter — promises a predominantly Asian cast, with Ken Watanabe, Gong Li, Michelle Yeoh and, in the starring role, Zhang Ziyi. But it also promises an exoticized film about how Westerners often view Asian women — subservient geisha girls. And the fact that Zhang and Gong are Chinese and Yeoh is Malaysian hasn’t been lost on some fans who believe Japanese actresses should play these parts.

With Steven Spielberg’s name attached as an executive producer of the picture, it will get a lot of publicity, as did the martial arts films “House of Flying ­Daggers” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

But it’s parts like Jin on “Lost” that will get Americans to notice that actors of Asian heritage can do more than karate-chop their way through martial arts films.

Although I like those just fine, too.

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