Back in September 2018, I did a review of a movie Baby Steps on 8Asians. The movie was written, directed and starred Barney Cheng. I was still so intrigued with the movie, that I got in contact with Barney and asked him to do this 8Questions segment for 8Asians.
Before we get to the questions, a little bit about Barney from his wikipedia page
Barney Cheng is a Taiwanese-American actor, director, writer and producer. Cheng was born in Taipei, Taiwan. His family emigrated to the United States when he was 12 years old and he grew up in Brea, California. He speaks Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese Hokkien fluently.
and from his own official site:
Barney Cheng landed on the Hollywood map as an actor in 2002 with his acclaimed performance in Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending. The New York Times described Barney’s comedic timing as “surgically precise.” The Orange County Register raved that Barney “steals every scene he’s in.” Barney accompanied Woody Allen to promote the film and to open the 55th Cannes Film Festival.
On to the questions:
1. How did you get the idea for the movie Baby Steps?
I came across a story about a gay couple from Israel. They wanted to have a baby, but since it was illegal for gay couples to hire surrogates in Israel, they flew to the U.S. to work with an American egg donor. They flew to India to transfer the embryos to an Indian surrogate. Nine months later, they traveled across the globe to pick up their baby. I was intrigued by the couple’s emotional and physical journey, and I could see that as a movie. Then I thought, “What if it were my life? What if I had a partner, and we decided to have kids?” Baby Steps was conceived.
2. You wrote, directed and starred in Baby Steps, how similar are you to the main character Danny?
Very different. The movie is fictional. I’m single and don’t have kids. However, the film is inspired by the relationship between my mother and me. She definitely evolved throughout the years. The more than 20 years of her evolution — coming to terms with my coming out to full acceptance — was captured in the 90-minute film!
3. What advice would you give a gay Asian American who wants to be a parent?
To be visible, open and out. It’s important to be proud of who you are and be a role model for your child. Being in the closet conveys a message of shame, and that would be detrimental to the child’s development.
4. I read that you showed Baby Steps in mainland China. What was that like?
The State Department under the Obama Administration hosted U.S. embassy screenings of the film in six cities in China. At the screenings, the staff at the American consulates handed out study guides to highlight American culture and LGBT marriage equality. After the screenings, I was surprised to learn that many Chinese audiences didn’t think that the story was plausible. It seemed like a fairy tale to many Chinese audiences. Many of them just couldn’t imagine coming out to their parents and getting the kind of acceptance that Danny received. They also couldn’t imagine living openly as gay people and having children as gay parents.
5. Who are your role models and influences on your work?
I don’t have specific role models for my work, but as a storyteller, I always aim to be authentic, real and truthful.
6. Compared with Danny, how supportive have your parents been in your career, life, and movies?
I remember when we were filming Baby Steps in Taipei, my mother would make me breakfast each morning to make sure that I was well-prepared for the long, hectic day ahead. We would have early 5 o’clock calls, and my mom would get up at 3:00 a.m. to make me breakfast. She didn’t have to say anything, but I felt that she cared. Taiwanese parents rarely say explicitly “I love you” or “I care about you.” They show through actions.
The movie was released theatrically in Taiwan. When we were promoting for the release, it was very important to me to be an openly out filmmaker and actor. One of the important themes of Baby Steps is being open and authentic, and our promotion campaign had to be consistent with that vision. My mom joined me on a TV talk show to promote the film. My mother openly shared her struggles of coming to terms with having a gay son. She invited all of her friends to see the film in theater. And my mother enrolled friends and relatives to join her at marriage equality rallies in Taiwan. Through Baby Steps, she “came out.”
7. Do you have any new projects in the works you can tell us about?
I’m developing a TV series called “Curated Lies,” and it centers around an Asian-American family in a wine country. I’ve recently finished filming a transgender love and acceptance video for the Asian-American LGBTQ community. It’s called A Love Letter. Please check it out: https://youtu.be/
8. Where can someone watch “Baby Steps” now?
All digital platforms. We recommend Amazon: https://tinyurl.com/yawje8ry
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Lawsuits against Harvard and well-known selective universities contending discrimination against Asian Americans have happened over the years, with the lawsuit sponsored by Edward Blum still in play and actively opposed by Harvard. In late 2018, another kind of lawsuit against Harvard was filed. The family of Luke Tang filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Harvard contending that the University was negligent in caring in for Luke, who committed suicide in 2015.
After a suicide attempt his freshman year, Luke Tang was hospitalized. While he was there, he signed a contract with Harvard saying he could return if he received mental health counseling. He was able to return for his sophomore year even though, the lawsuit alleges, Harvard personnel knew that he had not received the required mental health counseling.
Since his death, his parents have set up a foundation in his name to raise awareness of signs of depression and other mental health issues, especially as it affects Asian Americans. In addition, a short documentary called Looking for Luke was produced by the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds to educate and to destigmatize seeking help for mental health problems. In the trailer above, the fact that Luke committed suicide is hidden for a long time and only told to one of his friends six months after his death. My personal experience with the issue of mental health in Asian American families is that any problems are hushed up, considered a shame on the family that is not to be discussed openly, and likely not to be dealt with directly. In particular, this article on Filipino Americans and mental health really resonated with me and other family members. Our family, like many others in Silicon Valley, have known Asian American students who have committed suicide.
Harvard was required to respond to the lawsuit by January 9. I haven’t been able to find the actual lawsuit text or any response since then (if someone has link to any of those, please include it in the comments). At the same time, the Luke Tang foundation is granting scholarships to students who have overcome psychiatric problems and welcomes donations.
By Timmy Pham
There are many things to love about Rina Ayuyang’s Blame This on the Boogie, but one that stands out to me is her waxy, crayon depiction of skin tone. In her first autobiographical comic, Ayuyang captures snippets from her life growing up as one of few Filipino Americans in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to the struggles of motherhood and postpartum depression in sunny California. Drawing from the vibrant colors of Hollywood musical cinema and flashy television, Ayuyang crafts a beautifully scrappy look into a unique and relatable (for me at least) Asian-American experience.
But back to the art for a second. Asian-American graphic novelists have been the rise, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang from 2006 was the first graphic novel by an Asian American I read and fell in love with. More recently, I was thrilled to read and witness the success of Thi Bui’s graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do. Both illustrators present clean story-lines with equally distinct coloring and lines. Blame This on the Boogie provides an entirely different approach. Ayuyang’s stories bleed into one another, with no clean panels to guide the reader, and her colors are pure and stacked. It is a strong and well-executed choice that echoes her love of dance and sport. As a darker-skinned Viet boy, I grew up avoiding the brown crayon, reserving it for trees and ground, but Ayuyang artful layerings of yellow, red, orange, and brown all help lend the full range of tone and dimensions to her depictions of herself, her family, and the racial diversity of an American experience. Cheers to that.
Content-wise, Blame This on the Boogie reflected back much of what I knew as the child of immigrants. Living room dance parties, a hungry acceptance of new American culture (yay football–though I grew up in Seattle and therefore am obligated to grimace at her love of the Steelers), and the fascination with American pop-culture that bleeds onto the internet (Ayuyang stans Kym Johnson and Hines Ward’s partnership in Dancing with the Stars) all reflect a familiar experience of a blended Asian-American world amid loud visiting titas. Give this graphic novel a pass through, the ballet sequence at the end (as is customary with Hollywood musicals) is a treat.
(Editor’s Note: Check out more of the gorgeous interiors over at Drawn & Quarterly)
Timmy Pham lives in New York City and only recently trained himself to read on public transportation without getting a headache.
Image courtesy of Shirley Wang, vis-a-vis WBUR.
If you haven’t listened (download the MP3 here) to or read this story, ‘My Dad’s Friendship With Charles Barkley,’ you must – it’s such a heart warming story and made me cry, about a friendship between two people from completely two different worlds – NBA basketball star Charles Barkley and Chinese American Ph.D. immigrant Lin Wang (told by his daughter Shirley Wang) who randomly met at a hotel when both were traveling for work and became close friends:
“”I was on a business trip,” my dad said, “and stayed in one of the hotels and was walking in the lobby, and I saw Charles Barkley.”
“I was in Sacramento speaking at a charity event,” Barkley said.
“So, I just went to say hi and take a picture with him,” my dad said.
“I was just sitting at the bar,” Barkley said. “And me and your dad were the only two people in there. And we just sit down and started talking.”
“He’s a super nice guy,” my dad said.
“And, before we know it, we looked at each other, like, ‘Yo, man, I’m hungry. Let’s go to dinner,’ ” Barkley said. “It turned into a two-hour dinner. And then we actually went back to the bar and just sit there and talked for another couple of hours. And the rest is history.”
My dad and Barkley saw each other again in the bar the next night. And the night after that. At the end of the third night:
“Certainly, I told him I had a good time talking with him, hanging out with him,” my dad said. “He said the same thing to me, and he left the phone number. He said, ‘Whenever you’re in Atlanta, New York City or Phoenix, check out with me. If I’m in town, we’ll hang out and have a good time.’ “”
The story goes on to cover how their friendship grew, how Wang attended Barkley’s mother’s funeral and later, how Barkley attended Wang’s funeral.
What was interesting to hear from Barkley was that he didn’t have that many friends that he he’d want to spend time with:
“Your dad is one of the happiest people I’ve ever met in my life,” Barkley said. “I’m not just saying that — I mean, think about it: It’s fun to be with your friends, you know? ‘Cause, I don’t have that many friends that I want to be around, to be honest with you. I mean, you know a lot of people. But when you go spend time with your friends, it’s a whole different animal.”
“It gives me great memories and great joy to know that I was a friend of his,” Barkley said. “Just hearing about him at the funeral — what he had accomplished and what he was trying to help other people accomplish, just made me even — I wished he bragged more about himself.””
I imagine being famous, it must be pretty difficult to be true friends with someone, always concerned about alternative motives, etc.
Charles Barkley’s Eulogy at Lin Wang’s Funeral
It’s an incredibly heartwarming human story, and could see many of the attributes of Lin Wang in my father’s immigrant story and life.
Half Gods is a fascinating set of intertwined short stories spanning Sri Lanka and America, charting a story about family, survival, and home. Akil Kumarasamay’s debut collection is captivating and engaging. Two brothers, named after characters in the Mahabharata, lie at the center. Yet they are not the center. A grandfather wrestles with his life in New Jersey, while other remained in the chaos of war. A father looks for a son, disappeared in Sri Lanka’s war. A woman seeks solace in an unlikely, and yet likely, place. We get to see slices of individual’s lives, where the past haunts and guides them. An unraveling of who they are, more than plot.
This is the kind of collection that would be fascinating to read again. The writing is deft and intricate and yet deeply honest in the longing, loneliness, and comforts of humanity. In my first read, there was a single paragraph that struck me. It is not a turning point in a character’s life, yet says so much about living in the diaspora. A second would surely highlight another.
…All were parts of a childhood you had not care for, and now thinking of your son, who would never have to listen to cassettes of bhajans and deal with people he conversed with only in formalities, people who would drop everything to pick you up at an airport, hospital, cook meals when your mother was ill, all because they too traveled that same distance separating one part of the world from the other, you feel as if something dear has perished.
When I was an undergraduate, a Filipino American classmate once asked me why I was pronouncing my last name wrong. What? I was pronouncing my name wrong for the first 20 or so years of my life? Apparently so, and my parents never bothered to correct me, leaving our last name constantly mispronounced. But what’s in a name really? According to this article and others, quite a lot, especially if names are “hard” to pronounce.
Fayeza Hasanat’s debut short story collection, The Bird Catcher and Other Stories, is set in the Bangladesh and the United States. It is filled with questions about identity and belonging, about those who are seeking answers under the weight of expectations–their own or otherwise.
A favorite discusses a talkative grandmother who wrestles with the idea of home, herself an immigrant, residing with her children in the U.S. Several others turn on gender dynamics, and those who are between genders or missing some traditional aspect associated with proscribed roles for men and women. Many take dark turns, faced with life on the edge.
Hasanat’s writing is a bit flowery to my taste, but her concepts are intriguing and her characters vulnerable, and their experiences of feeling out of place honest.
If you need some last minute inspiration for your Thanksgiving extravaganza, take a look through Marvin Gapultos brightly-colored book of finger foods, Pulutan! Filipino Bar Bites, Appetizers and Street Eats. Now given if you don’t cook a lot of Filipino food (hi, me), you might not have fermented shrimp paste on hand which makes the pork meatballs with spicy coconut sauce temporarily out of reach. But you probably do (or your neighborhood run-of-the-mill American grocery store will) have the ingredients to whip up some spam mac’n’cheese.
Pulutan! is seriously flashy, with bold colored pages, and drink pairings for every dish. Organized by how you cook it (grilled, fried), the opening chapter introduces the concept of pulutan to novices (hi, me again). No recipe is longer than an open spread, so you know it can’t be all that complicated. The instructions are easy to follow once you’ve got all the ingredients on hand.
This a great story on a prank when two Asian American men noticed that Asian Americans weren’t being profiled in some of McDonald’s restaurant’s posters:
“Earlier this month, Jevh Maravilla and Christian Toldeo became viral superstars because of a mock poster they created and hung on the wall of a McDonald’s restaurant in Pearland, Texas. It featured themselves in an apparent advertisement for the fast food chain.
The image was so convincing that it had reportedly gone unnoticed by the eatery’s employees for 51 days before Maravilla tweeted about it Sept. 2. As of Monday, it had been liked more than 1 million times.”
Inspired by ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ for representation, Jevh and Christian were motivated to have themselves represented.
In mid September, day time talk show host Ellen DeGeneres in hosted Jevh and Christian and surprised them:
“She also revealed that the pair will be highlighted in a forthcoming McDonald’s ad campaign, and handed them each a check for $25,000 as “payment” for their commitment to diversity.”
Imagine making onto to national TV and getting a surprise $25k for a prank! I’m looking forward to seeing this at a local McDonald’s hopefully.
In November of this year, it will be Chopso’s one-year anniversary. It’s amazing to me we’ve made it this long. But we won’t be able to go on forever unless we continue to get support from our community. I can’t speak for my friend, filmmaking partner, and my partner in Chopso Quentin Lee but when I do anything for Chopso I always feel like this is our gift to the community. Something that has been needed for a long time, been tried a few times, but has never completely worked. And instead of waiting for someone else to try it again or hope we get more representation by the mainstream networks and studios, we went ahead and did it ourselves.
For those of you who don’t know, Chopso is a streaming service for movies, documentaries, shorts, and digital series featuring Asian stories and faces. I use the shorthand Asian American Netflix as a description of what the company is when asked by my friends. However, that’s not completely accurate. While Quentin and I were putting the company together, we realized pretty quickly that our audience was bigger than just Asians living in America and that Asians around the globe (especially those living outside of Asia and in English speaking countries) shared a lot of common experiences. So in addition to Asian Americans, we’ve made it a point to reach out to Asians around the globe — so that meant Asians living in Canada, UK, Australia, etc.
The first year of Chopso has been both the most challenging but also been one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had in my career. Some of the challenges include acquiring content and getting subscribers, things every streaming platform I’m sure has to go through. And with no outside funding and no major support from traditional Hollywood, we’ve had to do it all on our own.
Knowing that, I think you can guess one of our biggest challenges: getting noticed. With so many places to watch content nowadays, it’s sometimes difficult to rise above the noise. But I’m proud to say that almost every month our viewership and subscribers have gone up. We’ve made dents in social media and our following is growing all the time. We hope with more time and maybe with a marketing/advertising budget in year two we can grow even more.
The other challenge is something that continues to surprise me. The Asian American community largely ignores anything that hasn’t been done by the mainstream networks and studios. For example, when I talk to people about Chopso, most of what they tell they’d want to see on the site are the famous studio movies like Joy Luck Club or Crazy Rich Asians. Both of which are great, however, it completely ignores the fact that there has been and continues to be so much amazing Asian (American) content out there. Most of which has never been seen outside the Asian American film festival circuit.
We, as a community, need to do a better job of supporting Asian content from the students and youth who are making their first projects to the grizzled veterans making hard-hitting documentaries about our communities and independent movies featuring Asian actors and of course the studio movies. Only when we, as a community, can show that these movies have a viable market, will the studios and networks make more of them. This isn’t just a pipedream. Other communities of color have shown us that this is possible. Chopso was my answer to this issue. Yet, one year later, it’s also the reason that Chopso has not taken the huge leap that I had hoped it would take.
So how can you support us? First and foremost, we need more subscribers. For the price of a cup of artisanal coffee, you can watch a large selection of Asian-centric movies and shows on Chopso for one month. In addition, we need your help spreading the word about Chopso. Follow us on all the social media platforms, and then tell a friend or two or three or four. Go ahead and even tell an enemy two as well.
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And if you’re a creator, we need more amazing content. Hit us up and let us know what you have. We’d love to feature you and your work on Chopso!
Lloyd Suh’s new play, The Chinese Lady, takes us on a journey with the first Chinese woman to set foot in the United States. Her name was Afong Moy. She arrived in 1835 at the age of 14 and was put on display as “The Chinese Lady.” The cost of admission? 25 cents for adults, 10 cents for children. Co-produced by Ma-Yi Theater Company and the Barrington Stage Company, the cast of two–Shannon Tyo and Daniel Isaac–takes the audience on a journey through Afong’s life.
Afong (played by Shannon Tyo), we are told, comes from a well-off family, the youngest of seven, and has bound feet–making her a curiosity to New York audiences. Her family sold her into two years of service with American merchants. We are quickly introduced to Atung (played by Daniel K. Isaac), her translator, who we are told speaks both Chinese and English. Most of the speaking stays with Afong, with occasional interjections from Atung that bring warmth and comedy and humanity to these largely forgotten historic figures.
We follow Afong as she ages, but remains on display, even meeting President Jackson. Her optimism begins to waver, her clothes changes, and still she thinks about relations between the U.S. and China, between her and her audience. Towards the end, the play rapidly casts its audience through Chinese American immigration history via Afong–1882 Exclusion Act, the Geary Act, and on–before jumping to the present. This is an important lineage, but I felt this contemporary jump overly much and a bit didactic.
Still, Suh’s play seeks to dive into and through our constant conversations about identity and cross-cultural understanding and belonging and otherness, all the while weaving in our collective past. And that makes it worthwhile.
The Chinese Lady is playing at Theatre Row (410 W. 42nd Street) through Sunday, November 18. Cost: $30-$42.25. Tickets are available by calling 212-239-6200; or online at: www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/The-Chinese-Lady/ or through TodayTix at https://www.todaytix.com/x/nyc/shows/12360-the-chinese-lady#noscroll
Photo by Eloy Garcia
Asian Americans have had a long history with US Armed forces, as we have written about before. I grew up surrounded by Filipino American Navy Veterans and their families, and I lived the Navy Brat lifestyle. When looking for stories about veterans, I found this profile on prominent and historic Asian and American and Pacific Islander Army veterans. It is notable for acknowledging the long history of Asian American veterans and for having one particularly notable omission.
A description of Senator Daniel Inouye was not surprising – I definitely expected someone from the 442nd regiment to be included. Also not surprising was the inclusion of Senator Tammy Duckworth, who lost both legs in the Iraq War. I didn’t know about Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, who is still serves in the Hawaii Army National Guard.
The picture above is of that Edward Day Cohota. Born in China, he fought in the American Civil War. That surprised me – I didn’t know that there were any Chinese Americans who fought in that war! He went on to serve in the army for 30 years. Cohota thought his long years of service would grant him citizenship, but he didn’t get his papers completed before the Chinese Exclusion Act and never became a citizen, a story echoed today of what has happened with some current immigrants in the military.
Conspicuously missing was any mention of Major General Antonio Taguba. Taguba, as you may recall, was responsible during the Iraq War for compiling a report on prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison which was leaked in 2004. He was asked to retire in 2007. Lou Sing Kee, a WWI War hero, was not listed. I also learned that he was even mentioned (as Sing Kee) in a Stevie Wonder song called Black Man.
Despite a few omissions, I still think it is a list worth reading (see the other Chinese American who fought in the Civil War). For other Asian American veteran stories, I suggest checking out Koji Sakai‘s graphic novel 442. StoryCorp’s Military Voices project has many moving Veteran stories, such as this one that we that highlighted on a Memorial Day and this one on a past veteran’s day.