Asians, Onscreen and Off: The Role of Storytelling in stopping Anti-Asian Hate
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-Asian hate crimes have risen at the staggering pace of 600-700% across major Canadian cities. In the US, cases such as the tragic shooting of six Asian women in Atlanta have left Asian communities angry, scared, and grief-stricken. Many have spoken out against these horrific events, but for those in the media industries, part of their message has to do with the importance of media representation in attitudes toward Asian communities.
“Stories shown on the screen can influence how people think, feel, interpret and perceive the world around them. Films and media have the ability to open the minds and perspectives of its audiences. The erasure of people of colour in media communicates to BIPOC communities that they don’t matter, they are not valued and they don’t exist in society,” says Barbara Lee, founder and president of the Vancouver Asian Film Festival (VAFF).
Traditionally, Asian representation in the media has fluctuated between invisibility and harmful stereotypes. In recent years, since the release of Crazy Rich Asians, Hollywood has experienced a boost in Asian faces on screen, and many saw it as a major improvement. University of British Columbia professor Mila Zuo, however, warns against celebrating visibility alone. “Asian media representation is important with regard to the reduction of hate crimes and racism, but it’s not simply about visibility,” she says, “As we know from racist representations of Asians in Western media, from Fu Manchu to the Dragon Lady, inclusion in Western media does not necessarily lead to equality. We have to think about the nature of the representation.”
One emblematic stereotype would be the concept of the Model Minority, which depicts Asians as a successful group of people that other minority groups should strive to mimic. Despite the seemingly positive connotations, the Model Minority stereotype can actually prove quite harmful in complex ways. Greg Chan, an instructor at Kwantlen Polytechnique University states that “The perpetuation of the Model Minority Myth—the perception that all Asians are ‘Crazy Rich’ educational superstars who come from an insular community—has cast Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) as an unsympathetic minority in need of no one’s help or support.” In an age where hate crimes can have Asians requiring very immediate and urgent help, this myth can be dangerous.
Kim’s Convenience, a leader in the Canadian media landscape
Luckily, complex, authentic representation does exist. Many, for example, have championed Kim’s Convenience for its contributions to Asian representation in the media. “I can’t count the number of times I’ve been approached and thanked for my part in the show,” says Andrea Bang, one of the show’s leading stars, “I feel so honoured and fortunate to have been on something that has made people feel seen, and entertained them in the process. But this is just one story in the colourful tapestry that makes up Canada. There needs to be more!”
Unfortunately, Kim’s Convenience came to an abrupt and premature end this year, the network citing the departure of the show’s creators as the main reason. Having brought the character of Janet Kim to life for several years, Bang explains what the experience was like: “It’s sad and angering about the cancellation of Kim’s. I’m so grateful for the 5 seasons we got but I do wish the Kim’s had a proper farewell. It’s all just really sad that the first Canadian comedy featuring a lead Asian cast ended this way, with no closure for its characters.”
Chan, who teaches the play Kim’s Convenience (the source material for the TV show) in his courses, says, “Asian representation matters now more than ever, and Kim’s Convenience beautifully captured the nuances of an immigrant family whose business is an unofficial community centre for its neighbourhood. It’s ironic that we’re losing a big-hearted show that models diversity when we need it the most.”
When authenticity onscreen rhymes with adequate representation in decision-making roles
The authenticity in stories about Asians rely heavily on those in key decision-making roles, where Asian representation has been as scarce, if not scarcer, than onscreen. “I don’t think we should only be talking about onscreen Asian representation, we should be looking behind the camera as well,” says Bang.
Despite the diverse onscreen image of Kim’s Convenience, there were still few Asians behind the camera in lead decision-making roles, outside Ins Choi, the show’s co-creator and the creator of the original play. “From what is being reported, Kim’s Convenience had no AAPI succession plan,” speculates Chan.
“Ins Choi was the creator and showrunner almost entirely responsible for giving authentic voices to the characters, who are largely based on his life story. What a lonely position for him to be in – especially given the pressure to honour the show’s cultural impact.”
Therefore, though some Asian creators are finding their place in decision-making roles, these cases can still be limited. In turn, productions might be heavily reliant on individual creators, putting a burden of representation on them, while the system remains closed to more diversity across the board.
As part of a more systemic approach, “policies towards funding Asian representation by Asian makers are vital, as the financial barriers to entry are often so high,” says Zuo. “While it is easy to pay lip service to issues of diversity and equity, it is often much harder to see how finances flow directly into supporting Asian representation. This is why grants and fellowships are so important in committing to an ethos of serving underrepresented filmmakers.”
“Since its inception, VAFF has advocated for greater representation of Asian Canadians and people of Asian descent in front and behind the camera and we believe this can only be achieved through Asian media ownership and Asian representation in key decision-making roles,” emphasizes Lee.
“Operational and sustained funding is critical for VAFF to continue to assist creators from the Asian Canadian communities to reclaim their stories, strengthen their voices and provide professional development as well as business support for these communities to be finally seen and heard.”
And when it comes to the media makers and creative talent, Bang urges everyone to “work from a place of antiracism [and to] question whether something you’re making is adding to the conversation or taking away from it. We grew up in a systemically racist world, so I do think it’s important to question our own biases, contributions and way we do things.”
Along with this critical self-reflection, it is also important to keep in mind why better representation matters, especially during the current wave of anti-Asian hate. “The media does have the power to humanize and educate,” says Bang, “I’ve heard of a lot of fans becoming friends through the show. That is the power of the medium, spreading love versus hate.”