Chow Chop Suey: Food and the Chinese American Journey joins the circle of books traversing the history of Chinese food in the United States, specifically the peculiar beast that is chop suey. Mendelson takes a historical journey into its origins, as a food consciously produced for a white audience during a time of Exclusion, and into the expansion of Chinese food in the United States beyond that. Her volume joins a growing bookshelf, including Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, Andrew Coe’s Chop Suey, and Yong Chen’s Chop Suey, USA.
Mendelson’s is a bit more academic in bent. The first 100 pages, for good reason, are dedicated to a concise and thorough summary of Chinese American immigration history, with only the occasional reminders that this book is a bit more food-oriented than your average history.
The latter half takes you through the specific history of Chinese American food, which as she explains, is deeply related to the overall history of Exclusion (a term typically used to encompass various legislative acts that banned Chinese from immigrating and stipulated what fields they could work in). She takes particular interest in the idea of translation, namely the difficulties of translating Chinese food to an American palate both in terms of flavors, cooking styles, and then lastly, literally in cookbooks.
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A few years ago, I was lucky enough to produce a one hour special for the super talented Dwayne Perkins called Take Notes. (If you want to check it out, it’s on Netflix). It was a fun and great project to work on. That’s why when director/producer Quentin Lee and I were trying to figure out our next project, doing a stand up series featuring Asian Americans made sense. Comedy InvAsian is what came out of those conversations.
Comedy InvAsian, a six-part live stand-up series featuring some of the country’s top Asian American comedians as well as talented newcomers, each performing one-hour specials. Our first season includes Paul Kim, Atsuko Okatsuka, Kevin Yee, Joey Guila, Robin Tran and Amy Hill.
I decided to ask them all 8 questions. First up, Kevin Yee. (Who it should be noted once was in a 90’s boy band. Check out this REALLY interesting article in Cosmo).
Kevin Yee and his original satirical songs have been making people laugh across America and beyond. He is a former member of Quincy Jones’s boy band Youth Asylum and toured in many Broadway productions. In addition, he has been featured in articles in The Atlantic, Out, and The Guardian, and showcased at comedy festivals across the U.S.
But his bio doesn’t do justice to the unique stand-up he does. To get a glimpse, watch this video (Please note, this video is probably not be appropriate for work)
1. On a scale from 1 to 5, how would you rate your childhood and why? (With 1 being the perfect All-American childhood and 5 being completely and utterly traumatized.)
Would anyone answer 1? I’d like to meet that person. They’re probably super fucked up. I’m in the middle, a 3. I’m a product of divorce, I was super awkward, but I feel like everyone’s childhood should be a little fucked up. That’s what made me strong and gave me the ability to deal with what I deal with on a daily basis.
2. Tell us about the moment you knew you wanted to be a comedian/actor.
I’ve been a performer since I was a kid, first paying job was when I was six, so I can’t really say there was a specific moment where I knew I wanted to be a performer. Or if there was I was too young to remember. I was always an actor singer and dancer so it was a natural progression from it being a childhood hobby to becoming my bread and butter. Becoming a comedian was a little different though since it was more recent. I had been a Broadway actor for many years and been able to pay my bills and live well. I honestly thought I’d do that for the rest of my life, but I became really burnt out. I was doing major dance musicals eight times a week for years on end. It became more of a job than a passion and I knew it had turned into someone else’s dream. I also felt like I had gone as far as I could. I was always the chorus boy, or auditioning for the gay best friend, the Chinese takeout guy, but I was never given the lead role, never able to step into the spotlight. I was getting frustrated that I didn’t see a real place for me in the entertainment industry besides being the “diversity.” So becoming a comedian was my way of building that place for myself. I had been writing these weird songs since I was a teenager and I knew I had something fun in them, so a few years ago I sold my stuff and moved to L.A. to pursue comedy full-time.
3. How did your parents react?
My dad isn’t in my life but he was never fond of me being a performer when I was a kid. My mother is not a stage mother at all and seems to always trust me with whatever decisions I make.
4. If you weren’t a comedian/actor, what would you have been?
I always wanted to be a newscaster. When I was a kid I always had a fascination with the news. I think I just like the art of crafting stories. But now the news is a little much: it’s all about the outrage and ratings. I think it would give me hives working in that environment.
5. How funny are you in real life?
I think my friends would say that I am weird and that my blunt honesty makes them laugh. I’m very much a realist. But I don’t walk around trying out jokes on unsuspecting baristas….
6. This isn’t a question, but a statement. Make me laugh.
I can forward your information to my agent and you can negotiate a private concert if you want. Otherwise, I’m not on the clock. So. Sorry. Not sorry.
7. Tell us about your worst troll or heckler and how you responded.
I’ve been trolled a lot online, but I usually ignore it since confrontation isn’t my thing. The only time I’ve ever been (knowingly) heckled was in a small town in Tennessee. Because I sing songs I couldn’t hear a drunk heckler at the bar yelling homophobic slurs at me over the music (and neither could the rest of the audience who were happily dancing and singing along). When the song ended I finally realized what was happening, but before I could respond some of the other local comedians had surrounded him and were forcing him to leave. The heckler’s wife was so embarrassed and was the one who finally pushed her husband out the door. It was nice that those comics had my back. It’s different than a few years ago when I would be facing that kind of hatred alone. Now people are standing up for this gay Asian, which is beautiful to finally experience.
8. What advice would you give to young Asian American comedians/actors?
I usually tell performers a lot of the obvious things like work hard, educate yourself, don’t give up etc. I get that people get famous in an instant on social media nowadays, but success is so much better when you earn it, so work for it. Be a jack-of-all-trades. Also, listen to the universe because it usually guides you if you let it. In my experience you will come across a lot of locked doors, but you just have to keep pounding or try another door. You aren’t going to be right for everything and that sucks, but then occasionally you will be and that will feel cool. And then specifically for Asians, this is maybe a weird one, be kind to your fellow Asian performers. I get that it feels like there are not as many opportunities so it’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at another Asian performer as your competition and not as your friend. “If he gets the job then I don’t”. And it’s true. I get it. I struggle with it myself. We all need to eat. But it puts us all in a weird cycle that gets us nowhere. How can we fight for the Asian community to have visibility if we’re all working individually? In my eyes the Asian performers who are truly succeeding are the ones spending their energy strengthening the community, building opportunities, and encouraging and supporting other performers. So find those Asians and join those communities and build opportunities for each other.
Kevin Yee will be performing on Sunday, February 12, 2017 at 7:30 pm at the Japanese American National Museum. Click here to buy tickets.
Follow me on Twitter @ksakai1
Dr. Ken, Season 2, Episode 14: “A Day in the Life”
Original airdate January 20, 2017.
Through early morning fog I see
Ken is featured in part of a ten-hour documentary on healthcare in America–an interviewer and camera operator follow him around for a full working day. He’s excited about the attention, but a combination of grouchy Damona, camera-shy Allison, confused Clark, and unappreciative patients shows Ken in what he thinks is an unflattering, uninteresting light. He questions his happiness as a physician, and considers giving standup comedy another go.
Visions of the things to be
When this show is at its stupidest, it’s so stupid it’s painful. The entire first act is spastic and unfunny. If you’ve seen three episodes of this show, you know what I mean: cartoonish, wacky, cheap, unimaginative, and laughed at far too enthusiastically by the studio audience. If the characters weren’t so likable and the actors so good, Dr. Ken would be impossible to watch every week.
The pains that are withheld for me
You can see it coming twenty minutes away: this was going to be a rehash of some of the best episodes of M*A*S*H, where war documentarians capture the 4077th first at its goofiest and most irreverent, then at its heroic, life-saving best. At first the mimicry is annoying, but then Ken tells the interviewer that as a kid, he always wanted to be Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H, and suddenly the episode isn’t a rehash but a tribute. The episode pivots here, and you can predict the manipulative heart-touching moments from Ken, Clark, Allison, Pat, Damona, and Molly. And darn it all if it doesn’t work anyway. Yeah, I teared up, and yeah, I felt played by the direct, pregnant glances Pat gives the camera when he’s caught having serious unspoken thoughts about Damona, but yeah, it still does the job. Those punks.
I realize and I can see
The MVP goes again to Jonathan Slavin, with Dave Foley getting the honorable mention. I hated this episode until I liked it, and I hated it for putting me through that. Listen: I don’t mind stupid. But there’s smart stupid and there’s stupid stupid, and the show too often and too easily settles for the latter when it’s so clear that it’s capable fo the former. Still, if a show makes me cry when it’s trying to make me cry, it’s clearly an intentionally realized vision. 3.5 of 5 zucchini muffins.
Note: The following was written as a letter to students, and they were assigned to write a response essay to agree, disagree, or qualify the positions presented in this position paper.
On Saturday, January 21st, 2017, I will be in Washington D.C., our nation’s capital, to participate in the Women’s March. Their mission is to “send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women’s rights are human rights”. The March follows the nonviolent principles of Dr. King. The Women’s March is inclusive and allows anyone who believes that women’s rights are human rights to participate.
As stated above, the Women’s March’s key message is that women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights. The history of our country and of human civilizations around the world has been tragically fraught with discrimination, oppression, and violent abuse of women in every imaginable way. When one person is mistreated or disrespected, that lowers the respect for all people, because if someone else can be devalued and hurt, the same can be done to you. Women make up over half of the human population on the planet, so the mistreatment of women is the mistreatment of half the human population, and since women’s rights are human rights, it opens up the doors to the mistreatment and devaluing of all people. We have to treat others the way we want to be treated, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but also because the way we treat others paves the way for how we can and will be treated. If we don’t stand up for equal rights and respect for everyone, then, male or female, we all lose. So the Women’s March is a march for the rights of everyone, girls and boys, women and men.
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Chinese New Year is coming a little early this year, on Saturday, January 28th, which will be the Year of the Rooster. Like last year, the NBA recently released a new commercial that features Brooklyn Nets guard Jeremy Lin and Golden State Warriorsguard Stephen Curry wishing you a happy Year of the Rooster:
“Red envelopes aren’t the only things that will be full of surprises this Chinese New Year. Make room for the NBA as Steph Curry, James Harden, Jeremy Lin, and Anthony Davis usher in the Year of the Rooster. Enjoy games from January 27th through February 12th to celebrate the season.”
For those of you who don’t know, according to Wikipedia:
“… a red envelope, red packet, lai see (Cantonese), ang pao (Hokkien) or hong bao (Mandarin) is a monetary gift which is given during holidays or special occasions such as weddings, graduation or the birth of a baby. Outside of China, similar customs exist across parts of South East Asia and many other countries with a sizable ethnic Chinese population.”
For those who celebrate, have a Happy Chinese New Year!
Fresh Off the Boat, Season 3, Episode 11: “Clean Slate”
Original airdate January 19, 2017.
Microsynopsis: The Huangs are pleased to realize that for once, they are set to begin the Chinese new year with the much-desired clean slate, with no unsettled debts, disputes, or grudges, but with a day left in the old year, Jessica is worried that she’ll find some trouble to stir up, so she asks Emery — since he gets along with everyone — to stick with her and make sure she doesn’t get into an argument with the dry-cleaner, from whom she needs to pick up her new year’s dress. Eddie is assigned to take care of a visiting cousin, whom he doesn’t consider worth his time or energy. Eddie’s stunned to discover that the cousins have something in common. Evan, stuck with a bad haircut, is dismayed to learn that the angry letter he wrote to his barber and planned to mail after the lunar new year has been mailed. Louis tries to help him intercept the letter before it’s delivered to his favorite barber.
Good: It’s really nice to see Emery get a central role in the A story; and I can’t remember when he last featured with Jessica as his own person, and not half of a pair of brothers. I said near the end of last season that Forrest Wheeler was emerging as the best actor of the three Huang boys, and a lot of it shows in this episode.
Bad: The freestyle rap battle is as bad a device as the dance-off or sing-off. It seldom works, and most of the time it’s embarrassingly cheesy. And the bad haircut thing (okay, I laughed once, but it was a very quick laugh and nobody heard me) is cheap. And really? Another TV show with the intercept-the-mail plot? It’s like the Huangs never watch television, or they’d recognize immediately that stopping the mail never works. This plot should have been retired when the Simpsons dropped the mic on it in 1991. Evan would have been far too young to catch that episode, but Louis should have seen it.
FOB moment: The seriousness with which the Huangs treat Chinese New Year is its own FOB moment, just as it was in last season’s episode. If the show continues for a few more seasons, I would like to see a Chinese New Year episode each year.
Soundtrack flashback: “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” by Pat Benatar (1980, sung as “Organize My Dress Socks” by Louis). “Jack & Diane” by John Cougar (1982, chimed by Honey and Marvin’s new, obnoxious wind chimes).
Final grade, this episode: The main story is a nice example of a premise created by circumstances but driven and resolved by characters. Rather than force humor from a “wouldn’t it be funny if?” position, the writers coax the humor from well-established characters, so when Emery leaves his mother in the car to be soothed by the sounds of National Public Radio, it makes sense and it’s believable. Better, the sentimental wrap-up, when Jessica says she wants to be more like Emery, is completely hard-earned by two years of consistent development of Jessica’s and Emery’s characters. There’s a certain other sitcom reviewed in this space every week that forgets far too often how to do this. The rest of this episode is kind of awful, but I love the Emery-Jessica stuff. C+.
Fresh Off the Boat, Season 3, Episode 10: “The Best of Orlando”
Original airdate January 17, 2017.
Microsynopsis: Louis wins a Best-of-Orlando Small Businessman of the Year award. Jessica is so proud, she invites nearly everybody she knows to the awards banquet (including her sister in D.C., who listens in via telephone), but Louis thanks everyone except Jessica when he gives his acceptance speech. Eddie and Emery join forces with Grandma to launch their own line of super-baggy clothing, “G-Pants.”
Good: I love these Eddie-Emery stories. It makes a lot of sense, now that they attend the same school, for them to spend more time together, and their interactions have always been super-interesting anyway. I also like the way Deidre, while still a neighborhood rival, is no longer the two-dimensional snobby villain. In the same way that Honey, once allowed to be a real person and not a stereotype, became Jessica’s friend, Deidre is slowly turning also into a real person. The dynamic works really well. I laughed aloud at the way the camera (and Louis’s gaze?) lingers on her when she turns around and Rollerblades away. I would never have guessed it possible to sashay on Rollerblades.
Bad: The writers set up a great premise that they couldn’t resolve in a satisfying, interesting way. Louis’s acceptance speech in the kitchen feels like pandering to the parents-watching-with-their-kids crowd, and while I wholeheartedly support real, guided family viewing for shows like this, the “I stand here not only as a result of that love, but in awe of it” is exactly the opposite of any kind of edginess, a disturbing trend this season. It’s so non-edgy it’s concave.
FOB moment: Grandma is a one-woman sweat-shop, keeping her hands on the sewing machine while Emery shoves candy into her mouth.
Soundtrack flashback: There’s an impossible-to-hear song in the segue from Eddie’s locker to the awards banquet. Other than that, I couldn’t find anything. Disappointing! EDIT: Thanks to Joz’s watching the episode with the captions, we now know that the song is “Award Tour” by A Tribe Called Quest (1994).
Final grade, this episode: This is a good day to praise the art direction of this show, which makes even mediocre episodes interesting to look at. The costumers must clap their hands with gleeful anticipation when they learn that Deirdre is going to be in multiple scenes — it looks like they have a field day with her whenever she’s on screen, and bizarre little touches like the palm tree made of pineapples or the bowl of wooden fruit make nearly every episode of Fresh Off the Boat impossible to confuse with other shows. Hard pass on the arc of the Jessica-Louis story, but I’m here for the silly Eddie-Emery story. C+.
Dr. Ken, Season 2, Episode 13: “Jae Meets the Parks”
Original airdate January 13, 2017.
Let him soothe your soul; just take his hand.
Molly introduces Jae to her family, and everything’s great until Jae says he’s dropped out of UCLA to pursue his art. This makes Allison uncomfortable and sets Ken completely off. Ken forbids Molly from seeing Jae. Molly stops talking to Ken. Damona learns that Pat has lied to her about being required to wear scrubs at Welltopia. In an act of defiance, she dresses up for work but gets locked in the stairwell. Pat is putting on a few pounds and orders a reluctant Clark to become his food police.
Some people call him an evil man.
Only two things this week really bug me. The first several minutes of the show look like they’re about to get out of hand with all the Parks overacting and overreacting, and when Ken and Molly have their fight, it’s begins as just the worst version of this fight we’ve seen in a hundred sitcoms. Also, guys know when other guys shouldn’t be trusted, and Jae is sneaky untrustworthy. I mean, not in a way that puts Molly in any danger, but in that way where he’s going to make a bad decision somewhere and Molly’s going to be the collateral damage. It’s that lotus flower, I tell you, and “sweets for my sweet.” Gag me with a rice paddle.
Let him introduce himself real good.
The episode gives every indication that it’s going to be like its recent siblings, but somewhere in that diagreement between Ken and Allison, while Molly is walking Jae to his car, it shifts into super believable, drawing on decisions made by actors and writers a year ago. There’s some depth here, some realization of characters who aren’t as shallow as they frequently want us to believe. Comic relief from Clark, Pat, and Damona is better than usual as well, especially from Clark, and even D. K. is pretty much right on. “Korean Footloose” is funny too, a nice little treat for us Gen Xers in the audience.
He’s the one they call Dr. Feelgood.
Last week’s episode was terrible. This week’s isn’t great, but it’s solid and respectable, not to mention pretty funny. What is it about fighting that brings out the best in these actors and characters? 3.5 ID badges out of 5.
Sonya Chung’s newest novel The Loved Ones is an intense look into love, loss, guilt, and reconciliation. Two families who share a last name find their lives intersecting. Charles Lee is the African American father in a biracial family. Hannah Lee is the daughter of Korean immigrants who babysits for his children and is present when a devastating event strikes the family. But The Loved Ones is not a simple linear tale, but rather jumps through time exploring inter-generational experiences and decisions. It is breathtaking to the end.
Chung explores desire and responsibility, reconciliation and its absence, race, family, and of course, love. She delves deep into the details that drive her characters, creating moving and nuanced portraits not only of the fulcrum relationship between Charles and Hannah, but of their families as well. Her punctuated writing style is eloquent and enthralling. It’s a novel that’s difficult to summarize, but well worth the read, as much about the beauty and heartbreak of the process as any kind of end or moral.
Dr. Ken, Season 2, Episode 12: “Ken’s New Intern”
Original airdate January 6, 2017.
Doctor, Doctor Help Me Please
Ken’s new intern is very affectionate, and although Allison at first claims she isn’t at all jealous, she becomes strangely competitive even though she knows she has nothing to worry about. The Welltopia gang learns during a weird karaoke session that Damona sang the vocals on the 1990 C+C Music Factory hit, “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” but the woman in the video was lip-syncing to her voice, and she never received credit for her work. Molly admits to her grandfather that her first date with Jae, which D. K. arranged, went really well, but she hasn’t heard at all from him since. D. K. and Dave agree to go to Jae’s grandfather’s barber shop to see if they can learn anything about Jae’s feelings for Molly.
I Know You’ll Understand
The supporting roles in this episode (Clark, Pat, Damona’s boyfriend, and Dave) are all well done, especially Pat’s, which I almost can’t believe I’m saying. In an otherwise over-the-top week, Allison has one really good moment, when she’s first confronted by Damona about whether or not she’s jealous. D. K. has a moment near the end when one is reminded that Old Korean Man Strength is not something to test, which is pretty funny if you’ve ever actually tested Old Korean Man Strength. I may have had unpleasant flashbacks. Molly’s really good in this one and probably gets the game ball, the only consistently good non-supporting performance.
There’s a Timed Device Inside of Me
Damona, Ken, Ken’s intern, D. K., and Allison are just way too big, loud, and annoying. Krista Marie Yu has the performance of the week, but Jonathan Slavin delivers the line that best summarizes it all: “Okay, so this is starting to get weird.” There’s actually a sing-off. And a spit-take. And a joke that exists mostly for product placement.
I’m a Self-Destructing Man
It turns out that the Damona story is true, about someone else. The C+C Music Factory song was sung by Martha Wash of the Weather Girls, but her part was lip-synced in the music video by Zelma Davis, who performed vocals on other songs from the album. That’s Zelma Davis and Robert Clivillés in that casino scene. None of this is actually very interesting, but I don’t know what else to say about this bizarre 22 minutes of television. One of the worst episodes in two seasons. 1 JAMA out of 5.
Are Filipinos Asians or Pacific Islanders? That is a question we dealt with on 8asians a long time ago, and most questionnaires and surveys put Filipinos into the Asian category. The question does come up peridiocally, as the Fung brothers put out a video on the subject in 2014 and here on Quora in 2016. When the Adobo Chronicles, an Onion like fake news site, put out a story in 2015 that the US Census Bureau would reclassify Filipinos as Pacific Islanders, enough controversy ensued that the US Census bureau responded a month later saying that they would continue to classify Filipinos as Asians. The Adobo Chronicles was delighted, saying that they were happy that the US Census bureau follows them!
Still, not everyone follows the Census Bureau guidelines. The Wife was renewing her Registered Nurse license at the California Board of Registered Nursing web site when she didn’t find Filipino under the Asian Category. Turns out that Filipinos are under the Pacific Islander category, as shown in the screen capture above.
Looking over how the question has come up so many times in the past, two other questions come into mind. First, why do people really care enough about this question to bring it up so often, and second, why do so many people take the Adobo Chronicles as real news?
Fresh Off the Boat, Season 3, Episode 9: “How to Be an American”
Original airdate January 3, 2017.
Microsynopsis: Jessica and Louis spend the day at the Citizenship and Immigration Services building so Jessica can finally get her citizenship, but she is forced to explain her “criminal record” first. In explaining herself, she tells several stories–unknown to Louis–about her college days, when she was forced to pursue different options for remaining in the country. While they’re out of the house, Eddie, Emery, and Evan agree to take the minivan on an excursion, but get locked out while the engine is running.
Good: Each of us who are dealing with the results of the election this past November has to do it our own way, and part of my process has been to avoid political media (a huge lifestyle change) and political conversation. So please excuse me if I don’t bring it as strong as this episode deserves: I’m still in recovery. The episode, written by Fresh Off the Boat creator Nahnatchka Khan, is clearly a response to last year’s presidential campaign, the second time this season the show has taken this route, and unlike “Citizen Jessica” (episode 4), you kind of don’t see it coming. This one unfolds like just another crazy-Jessica-crazy-kids episode, but it ends with Jessica reciting the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America, completely free of irony, surrounded by other new citizens and their loved ones. I watched the episode four times and teared up each time.
There’s other stuff. The Eddie-Emery-Evan story is cute and funny. But by the time Jessica receives her pocket copy of the Constitution, you kind of forget that the other story even exists.
Bad: For once, the portrayal of teachers as idiots actually works, and it’s kind of funny. But c’mon. Wouldn’t it have been a lot funnier if the teachers were instead presented as hard-working, underpaid, and living in a strange world of caring about other people’s kids? Then Jessica could have had that moment of clarity when she realizes she can’t possibly be a teacher because she’s not that crazy. Or sympathetic. It’s a little quibble, but one I’ll keep bringing up because I have to stick up for my profession.
FOB moment: “I hereby declare, on oath, that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I take this obligation freely, so help me God.”
Soundtrack flashback: “Let Me Ride” by Dr. Dre (1992, super-censored in kind of a creative way). “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac (1977, sung by Jessica). “The Wacky World of Rapid Transit” by Del the Funky Homosapien (1991).
Final grade, this episode: Excuse me while I get a Kleenex. A.