Mamma Mia – Finding Representation in the Theater Community

Theater is another one of the mainstream entertainment arenas where finding Asian (or even minority) representation remains difficult. With the exception of dedicated Asian companies (like East West Players), it’s rare to find an Asian American in the cast of a musical or play, and when you do it’s hard to avoid the discrimination like the kind Diana Huey faced as an Asian American Ariel in the touring Broadway cast of “The Little Mermaid“.  That’s why I think it’s important to find Asian American representation in theater, even if it’s just a local production, like San Jose Stage’s “Mamma Mia, which opened on June 1st, and runs through July 7, 2019.

While none of the main characters are portrayed by an Asian American actor, Mike Wu plays the role of Pepper, one of the workers at Donna Sheridan’s Taverna and a friend and best man at Sky’s wedding, a role he reprises after performing the same role in Pacific Conservatory Theater’s production of “Mamma Mia” in 2018.  The San Jose Stage production also features Vinh Nguyen in the cast as part of the ensemble. 

Mamma Mia” is a always a fun production, showcasing many of the songs of ABBA.  San Jose Stage’s version is probably a little raunchier than most I’ve seen, so you may want to skip having the little ones attend this version (they do show a dildo on stage and mimic sex acts).  San Jose Stage is in its 36th year of productions, and you can find tickets at www.thestage.org

Before leaving I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that for the first time, Cosette from Les Miserables is being played by a person of colorAmara Okereke is staring as Cosette in the show at the Queens Theater in the West End in London.  This follows the historic introduction of Aisha Jackson as Anna in Frozen in NYC’s Broadway production.  And with these milestones, there’s hope that we’ll see more representation in theater.

Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II

Washington DC is full of monuments, but this is one that I have only heard about a recently.  The Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II was completed in 2001.  The idea was conceived by the Go for Broke National Veterans Association, which would later be renamed The National Japanese American Memorial Foundation.  The organization raised $13 million to construct the monument which honors Japanese Americans who fought for the United States during World War II.

The included picture is Golden Cranes, a bronze sculpture by Nina A. Akamu.  Also on the monument are the names of the Japanese Americans veterans who died fighting for the US in World War II, along with quotes from a number of prominent Japanese Americans.  There was some controversy over a quote from Mike Masaoka, but his quote was retained.

The National Park Service now is in charge of the monument.  The memorial is located at the intersection of New Jersey Ave, Louisiana Ave, and D Street NW.

<photo credit:  Cliff via the Creative Commons License 2.0>

PBS: ‘‘An American Story: Norman Mineta’’ Airing on May 20th

Back in May of 2018, I had the great honor of screening the premiere of Norman Mineta & His Legacy: An American Story and meeting Mineta at CAAMFest36.

The documentary is scheduled for national broadcast on PBS on Monday, May 20th at 9:00 PM. Please check your local listing to be sure.

I hope you can catch this important documentary.

8Books Review: “American Sutra” by Duncan Ryuken Williams

American Sutra: A Story of Faith and Freedom in the Second World War by Duncan Ryuken Williams revisits Japanese American internment through the lens of Buddhism.

Williams begins as World War II breaks out and Japan becomes an enemy of the United States. He examines the Japanese Buddhist communities in Hawaii and the mainland, how Buddhism’s role in the community impacted the decision making around who was interred and in what sequence, how Japanese Christians fared in comparison, how internees found ways to adapt Buddhism for strength and survival, how Japanese Americans fighting in the war petitioned for their own priests and proper death rites, and countless individual stories.

This is an academic book, so it’s not for the faint of heart, nor is it what I would suggest as an introduction to the history of Japanese American internment (if you’re here, reading this, I can only assume that you don’t need such an intro), but what it does offer is a detailed, thoroughly researched, and thought-provoking new angle. Religion offers an important lens, understudied and under acknowledged. Williams offers multiple views on its role, from Buddhism being another way in which Japanese were identified as alien, to its ability to offer solace to a Japanese American soldier being tortured in the Philippines.

And though covering a dark chapter in American history, Williams pitches this as a hopeful saga about American multiplicity, religious freedom, and offers a timely call for inclusion over exclusion.

Having a Hard to Pronounce Name: Does it Make a Difference?

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.

Continue reading “Having a Hard to Pronounce Name: Does it Make a Difference?”

Ellen DeGeneres Surprises McDonald’s Pranksters Pushing For Asian American Inclusion

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.

Remembering Asian and Pacific Islander Veterans: US Army Profiles

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 442StoryCorp’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.

Wong Fu Productions First Season of Yappie (Young Asian Professional)

I first learned about Wong Fu’s ‘Yappie’ scripted web series on this NBC Asian America article about Wong Fu Productions & Yappie:

“With more than 3 million subscribers on YouTube now, and 500 million-plus views, Wong Fu Productions — created by college friends Wang, Wesley Chan, and Ted Fu — has ambitious credits to their name that includes multiple web series (including a YouTube Red series starring “Glee” alum Harry Shum, Jr.), music videos, and two feature-length films (their most recent one hit Netflix in 2016).”

Wong Fu became a viral YouTube sensation back in 2006 with their first original waaaay back in 2006 with ‘Yellow Fever.’ I think my favorite Wong Fu video though has to be the VERY well produced and HILARIOUS (at least to me) ‘Asian Bachelorette.’

Yappie is self described as:

“”Yappie” is a single-camera comedy that explores the social and racial issues related to the contemporary Asian American experience from the perspective of Andrew and his bubble of friends who are all “yappies”[a slang word to describe a “young Asian professional who acts like a yuppie.”].

Asian Americans are an often overlooked minority in the US for a variety of reasons, and we’re creating a show to examine and share these causes and their effects on an entire generation.”

I watched all five episodes as the episodes were released and really enjoyed the series. I think Yappie does try to explore, often in a humorous way, the typical arguments around the whole Asian American dating dynamics and inter-racial issues around that have been around since the beginnings of the Internet (if you remember USENET news and soc.culture.asian.american, then you know what I am talking about …)

Also, the first season does dig into the awkward social stratus of where Asian Americans are found among our multi-cultural society within the United States. We’re definitely not treated like whites, but not like African Americans, Hispanics or Native Americans.

As someone who is way more politically involved than my fellow Asian Americans, I feel as though Yappie also exposes how apathetic Asian Americans can be in living in their own bubble – especially as portrayed in Yappie, which takes place in LA / Southern California. I think Asian Americans have a different kind of experience elsewhere in the U.S., especially in states with not a lot of Asians or other minorities.

Below, after the break, are all five episodes of the first season of Yappie.

Continue reading “Wong Fu Productions First Season of Yappie (Young Asian Professional)”

Sherry Chen, Falsely Accused, Wins Case but still has not been Restored to Her Job

Image courtesy of NBC News.

Back in 2015, I had watched on 60 Minutes and also read with dismay Chinese American Sherry Chen’s story:

“On Monday, Oct. 20, 2014, Sherry Chen drove, as usual, to her office at the National Weather Service in Wilmington, Ohio, where she forecast flood threats along the Ohio River. She was a bit jet-lagged, having returned a few days earlier from a visit to China. But as she headed to her desk, she says, she had no reason to think it was anything other than an ordinary day. Then her boss summoned her.

Once inside his office, a back door opened and in walked six agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The agents accused Mrs. Chen, a hydrologist born in China and now a naturalized American citizen, of using a stolen password to download information about the nation’s dams and of lying about meeting with a high-ranking Chinese official.

Mrs. Chen, 59, an adoptive Midwesterner who had received awards for her government service, was now suspected of being a Chinese spy. She was arrested and led in handcuffs past her co-workers to a federal courthouse 40 miles away in Dayton, where she was told she faced 25 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

“Why,” Mr. Zeidenberg said he asked, “if she’s a spy, is she coming back from China and telling her colleagues that ‘I met this guy in China and this is what he wants to know’? Why is she telling the guy in China, ‘Here’s my boss’s phone number’? Why is she asking for a password over email? Why would you do that?”

Mr. Zeidenberg says the prosecutors listened. On March 10, the day after their meeting, they dismissed the charges.”

I actually got to meet Chen in Palo Alto where she was a guest for a talk on “A Seminar on Trade Secrets and Economic Espionage: Legal Risks in Advancing Technology between the U.S. and China.” Although I’m an American-born Taiwanese American, I have worked for two Chinese companies, so I am acutely aware of the possible discrimination against Asian Americans. In fact, I remember finding out that one of my Mom’s church friend’s siblings was Taiwanese American scientist and falsely accused spy Wen Ho Lee.

So it was with great pleasure that I had read about Chen getting back her old job that she had cherished so much:

“Yet the National Weather Service terminated her from employment doing the job she loved at its offices near Cincinnati, Ohio.

Determined to stand up and speak out, Sherry challenged the termination decision through the Merit Systems Protection Board, an administrative system meant to protect hard-working public employees such as her. On April 23, the decision was issued that ordered she be returned to her work on behalf of the public and be given backpay.

In the 118-page opinion, the judge also found:

Ms. Chen asserts that she is the “victim of a gross injustice.” After reviewing the evidence and testimony in this matter I believe Ms. Chen’s assertion is correct . . . It was, however, extremely evident by their demeanor, that both [decision-makers] were simply digging their heels in when it came time to support the decision they had made. . . . In short, [they] seemed more concerned about being right than doing the right thing. Based on the unyielding nature of their testimony, I would not have been surprised if they rejected that 2 + 2 = 4.”

The Commerce Department has planned to appeal the ruling, so she still does not have her job back.  Several Asian American organizations released this joint communique condemning the appeal.

There are legitimate cases to prosecute when it comes to Asian Americans and espionage for national or commercial means, but with the increasingly mostly economic rivalries between the United States and China, the U.S. must ensure that the proper due diligence is applied before more innocent Americans are wrongfully charged and terminated.

CAAMFEST36: Opening Night Film & Gala Red Carpet Premiere of ‘An American Story: Norman Mineta’

One of the things I have really enjoyed after having moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1999 has been attending the San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival, which is now known as CAAMFest, now its 36th year.

This year’s opening night premiere was a documentary – AN AMERICAN STORY: NORMAN MINETA – about groundbreaking elected official and civil servant, Japanese American Norman Mineta – the first Asian American elected to San Jose, California City Council, first Asian American elected to be mayor of San Jose (first Asian American mayor of any major city in the continental United States), first Asian American Congressman elected in the continental United States, first Asian American to serve as a cabinet member to serve a President (AND also both in a Democratic and Republican administration). AND first Asian American to have an airport named after him (Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport).

Prior to the documentary’s premiere, Claudine Cheng and Willie Brown presented Norman Mineta with the APA Heritage Award for Lifetime Impact:

After watching the documentary, I realized that although I had kind of known about many of Mineta’s accomplishments, seeing his story told in its totality was amazing. (This slightly differed from my experience watching a documentary about Patsy Mink, another amazing Asian American, but someone I knew nothing about until a CAAMFEST screening). Mineta is a truly ground-and-glass-ceiling-breaking Asian American that all Americans should learn about.

The San Francisco Chronicle described the documentary and Mineta as:

“His life in politics, skillfully captured by director Dianne Fukami, stands in stark contrast to the current White House occupant. As a 10-term U.S. representative from Silicon Valley, Mineta kept his ego in check while passing seminal legislation, notably a bill granting reparations to Japanese Americans like his family who were incarcerated during World War II. His motto was “If you don’t care who gets the credit, you can do many things.””

After the screening, there was a Q&A session with Norman Mineta and the filmmakers:

There’s an effort to build upon documentary and develop educational material around Norman Mineta’s story, known as The Mineta Legacy Project. This reminds me of what Fred T. Korematsu Institute is doing since its inception. And after the Q&A, there was the annual gala party, held again at San Francisco Asian Art Museum, where I had the great honor to meet and get a photo with Mineta himself:

The gala is always a festive scene at a great venue:

The Fred Yamamoto Scholarship Fund

A friend of mine, Steven Lee, who is a Palo Alto resident and involved in city government is helping to raise a scholarship fund in memory of Fred Yamamoto and provided a prepared statement:

“As a 3rd generation Chinese-American and a Palo Alto Human Relations Commissioner, I was strongly in favor of the committee’s recommendation to name a school after Fred Yamamoto, and was disappointed by both the opposition raised by certain members of my Chinese-American community as well as the decision by the school board not to name a school after Fred Yamamoto. We have to move forward, however, and I am committing myself to be part of the larger and continued discussion, which this incident exposed, that we disparately need in this community, to listen certainly, to educate and correct unconscious biases or historical prejudices when necessary, and to ultimately take action when needed to keep Palo Alto a truly safe, welcoming and inclusive community, where no one is unfairly judged by their name, ethnicity or their other identities, even when such action may be deemed “controversial” or “divisive” by those who oppose such action.”

Back in March, there was some opposition to renaming a Palo Alto middle school in his name:

“Backlash to a proposed name for a Palo Alto middle school has provoked surprise and confusion among Japanese-American residents who don’t see the connection between Fred Yamamoto, the Palo Altan who was held in Japanese internment camps and later died in combat, and Isoroku Yamamoto, the reviled marshal admiral who ordered the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Tamie Yusa-Ogawa, a Mountain View native who now lives in the Los Angeles area, called the protest “racism, plain and simple.”

“Yamamoto is an extremely common name. I understand why these people don’t want a school named after Isoroku Yamamoto, but Fred Yamamoto shouldn’t lose out just because he has the same last name,” Yusa-Ogawa, a Los Altos High School graduate, told the Post.

Several dozen parents and residents, including many from Chinese communities, spoke out against renaming Jordan or Terman middle school after Fred Yamamoto at a meeting of the school district’s Recommending School Names Committee on Monday.”

When I had heard about this, I was completely dumbfounded, but not totally surprised. I know some first generation Chinese Americans that harbor anti-Japanese feelings due to World War II. However, first and foremost, Fred Yamamoto was born-and-raised in the United States and is an American of Japanese decent – and died in combat for our country. As far as I’m concerned, Yamamoto is an American hero.

I think a lot of Asians in Asia and Asian Americans still confuse or conflate race with nationality. Fred Yamamoto was not related at all to Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto. I’m sure most Americans don’t even know who Admiral Yamamoto is! My Japanese and Japanese American friends noted that Yamamoto is a very common Japanese last name.

To remember Fred Yamamoto, there’s an effort to establish a scholarship fund in his name:

“At the close of the 2017/18 School Year, we will use the donations to award and recognize a student (or students) who have demonstrated civic leadership, inclusion and service reminiscent of Fred’s spirit. (Depending on the sum raised, we might be able to keep the Scholarship active for more than one year.)

We believe this is an effort many in the community can come together to join: those who supported Fred’s nomination and those who opposed it.  For anyone who was inspired by Fred Yamamoto’s service and sacrifice and wants to work to keep his memory alive: Thank You!”

Please consider donating here:
https://www.gofundme.com/fred-m-yamamoto-scholarship-fund

8Asians Book Review: The Repatriation of Henry Chin

The Repatriation of Henry Chin, written by Issac Ho and read by Anthony Lee on audiobook, is about a future where the United States has been in an escalating trade war with China which eventually leads to the roundup of all Chinese Americans into “internment” camps—a la, the Japanese Americans during World War II.

This book is a powerful reminder of what could happen to us—as Americans—when we let our fears get the best of us. It’s scary to imagine an assembly center in this day and age at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Or just the idea that you can even lock up an entire group of people for no other crime than being the “wrong” race or ethnicity.

In the book, we follow Henry Chin, who was an ex-military guy turned pharmacist. He’s been trying to live low and raise a hapa daughter after a traumatic war experience in Panama. However, when they start rounding up Chinese Americans, he refuses to comply. He takes his daughter and together they make a run for Canada through the Angeles Crest mountains—with the help of Henry’s army buddy.

My one problem with the story—and don’t get me wrong, this should not deter anyone from reading it—was how Japanese Americans were depicted. There was one part early on when the narrator states that Japanese Americans were wearing Japanese flags to make sure everyone knew they weren’t Chinese. I have a hard time imagining Japanese Americans doing this on many levels. First, we would never wear Japanese flags. And second, we would never sit idly by and allow the government to lock up a whole group of people again.

The concentration camps during World War II scarred the Japanese American community. We still talk about what happened today. It is not hyperbole to write that if a group of Japanese Americans get together, the word “camp” will come up—multiple times. Personally, I’ve dedicated much of my working life to teaching other people about it. We—as a community—have made it a point to make sure it never happens again to anyone ever. After 9/11, Japanese Americans were one of the first groups to come to the defense of Muslim/Arab Americans. So, the idea that Japanese Americans would sit by and do nothing is crazy.

Regardless, The Repatriation of Henry Chin is an important reading for all Americans. I tell people all the time: Today they might be coming after someone else. But if you don’t fight for their rights, tomorrow they could be coming after you. So go out and get this book on Audible or anywhere else audiobooks are sold.

Please note that I received this title for free in exchange for an unbiased review.

Be sure to follow me on Twitter @Ksakai1.