SFTV in Conversation: Janet Yang and Amplification of Asian Americans

SFTV’s first Presidential Fellow and Emmy-winning Chinese-American producer Janet Yang (“The Joy Luck Club,” “Empire of the Sun,” “High Crimes”) recently led a panel for the SFTV In Conversation series. The discussion focused on the long journey that Hollywood has taken to advance Asian American representation in entertainment so that we can more authentically reflect the overall audience in 2021’s America. While some high profile Asian-diaspora-centric films have done well in the box office and been embraced by critics in recent years, such as “Minari,” “Crazy Rich Asians,” “The Farewell,” much remains to be done.

Korean-American filmmaker Andrew Ahn’s feature directorial debut “Spa Night” – a coming-of-age drama about a closeted Korean-American teenager in Los Angeles – won awards at Sundance and the Film Independent Spirit Awards. But he still recalls being asked to write a white character into the film to increase the chances of landing more funding. “That was very disheartening for me. ‘Spa Night’ was so much about the Korean-American experience and Koreatown. I really wanted to define the Korean-American community within itself and not in relation to or in contrast to ‘whiteness.’ So that was tricky.”

Ahn had spent years trying to suggest making certain characters Asian on his projects but never got very far … until he directed the 2019 drama “Driveways.” The script had not specified the ethnicity of the two lead characters – an 8-year-old Cody and his mother Kathy – when Ahn suggested making them Asian to add more layers to the story. To his surprise, producers James Schamus and Joe Pirro agreed. “This is a sign of the changing times,” he indicated, as the industry is finally responding to the desire for content made by people of color for people of color.

This reminds Yang of her days trying to get “The Joy Luck Club” made in the 1990s. The drama about the complex relationships between four Chinese-American women and their Chinese immigrant mothers was the first Hollywood film in 32 years to feature a majority Asian cast. One of the white executives expressed doubts about the commercial viability of the project because “There aren’t any Americans in the movie.” Her response was very matter-of-fact: “They are Americans, they just don’t look like you.”

Originally from Malaysia, “Crazy Rich Asians” co-screenwriter Adele Lim came to the U.S. at 19 years old and spent most of her career writing in television. She is optimistic about the abundance of opportunities available today, especially with the proliferation of streamers faced with high demand for top-quality content. “The difference now is there’s an openness and hunger for it [minority-led projects] because the executives can now see that it works. With the boom for content now, there has never been a better time for content creators.”

Indian-American writer Devanshi Patel (“Black-ish,” “God Friended Me”) started out doing stand-up comedy in New York and got her start in writing with FOX’s Writers Fellowship program. Through her years in the writer’s room, she recalls getting push back when suggesting Asian-led storylines. “It was a little easier getting an Asian character into a show if it was an ancillary character or giving us [Asian characters] a voice in one episode. But when you want to make an entire show with an Asian cast, it’s a lot harder.”

Lim thinks the difference with the Asian-American community in Hollywood is that they are used to keeping their heads down and not wanting to be the “problem child.” She shared how her thinking had changed. “And then you wake up one morning and realize ‘Then, who is speaking for us?’” Even though hardship and inequities often plague immigrant families through many generations, she doesn’t want that to be the focus all the time. “You want to lead and create from the place of joy. Not that struggle isn’t an important part of our cultural stories, but personally, I don’t want that to define us.”

With the explosion of Asian content on streamers in recent years and the embracing of Asian storylines in mainstream Hollywood productions, Patel hopes that we can finally stop telling stories that are focused on stereotypes. “Hopefully with the increased Asian content, it will open the doors to more stories that humanize Asian characters.”

To hear more from top industry talent, check out SFTV’s upcoming event calendar.

Top image: Still from the live ‘SFTV in Conversation: Janet Yang and Amplification of Asian Americans’ event. Clockwise: Andrew Ahn, Janet Yang, Devanshi Patel, and Adele Lim

Su Fang Tham is a story analyst and freelance writer specializing in filmed entertainment. Based in Los Angeles, she is also a contributing writer for Film Independent and CineMontage, Journal of the Motion Picture Editors Guild.