8Books Review: “I Love You So Mochi” by Sarah Kuhn

Sarah Kuhn’s new YA novel I Love You So Mochi is an utterly delightful book about self-discovery, romance, family relations, and good eats. Kimi is at the end of her senior year in high school when she receives an unexpected plane ticket to Japan — from grandparents she’s never met. In Japan, she goes on adventures where she learns about her family, her passion, and, of course, there’s a very cute boy.

I’ve loved Sarah Kuhn’s work since I first picked up Heroine Complex, the first in her series of books about kickass Asian American superheroines, the kind of thing I wish I’d had growing up. I Love You So Mochi is no different.

It’s fun-loving, heart-warming, and investigates the complexities of Asian Mom Math. In addition to the whirlwind of Kimi’s love life, there’s also a moving exploration of family bonds, as Kimi gets to know her grandparents for the first time, and starts to understand what’s been left unspoken between herself and her mom, and between her mom and her grandparents (I don’t want to give any details away, but tbh I teared up a bit).

And there’s always a line that makes me laugh out loud. In this case:

What. Is this extremely handsome piece of mochi trying to flirt with me?”

You have to read the book for it to make sense, but it’s worth it — an ideal summer read.

8Books Review: “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous” by Ocean Vuong

Named one of the most anticipated books of 2019, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is Ocean Vuong’s novel debut. In 2016, Vuong’s poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, earned national recognition, winning the T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry and the Whiting Award. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous sings with Vuong’s poetic voice, snipping the narrative form into bites of elegant prose.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is written as a letter from a queer Vietnamese son to an illiterate Vietnamese immigrant mother; the novel is in English–a language out of the mother’s command. The premise itself is sentimental, and when compounded with the tender vignettes of Vietnamese matriarchy, poor immigrant lives, and deep war histories, the novel pushes emotional boundaries in a way that I found deeply Vietnamese. Vietnamese language and storytelling consistently play with words and imagery. Simple wording can give way to florid descriptions that toy with serious subjects like death, while also providing dissections of words (see Vuong’s surgery of the word nhớ). This novel exemplifies the importance of specificity.

As the neoliberal impulse of universalism continues to assert itself with the rising representation of minority voices, Vuong is able to capture the minutiae of a Việt American queer experience with subtlety. As a queer Việt American, I finished the book with dozens of dog-eared pages, sometimes frustrated that I wasn’t able to flag both sides of a page. Tiny details sparked memories from my childhood I hadn’t even stopped to consider: “…her breath a mix of Ricola cough drops and the meaty scent of sleep…”, a search for oxtail at the butcher, “bahgeddy” or spaghetti, Cool Ranch Doritos with jasmine tea. Amidst these were new threads: a gay hate crime in Vietnam to the recent Pulse shooting in Orlando, a death of a young lover to death of family, links of our collective Vietnamese history to contemporary Việt Nam burial customs

For those of us who read Vietnamese, Vuong inserts a gift in his spelling of Ma. The Vietnamese language has a variety of words for mom, but the Vietnamese Americans I know fall into two main camps, me or má. Vuong does not shy from using Vietnamese within his novel. He maintains the language of his mother and grandma throughout, adding the appropriate accents where necessary. His use of Ma for his mother then is a deliberate choice, hinting to the close assimilation of Việt Americans, but also Ma in Vietnamese means ghost, a choice that will overshoot many but those of us who understand this significance deeply.*

I highly recommend picking up a copy of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous as soon as you can. Enjoy the richness that Vuong brings, the specificity that he captures brilliantly, and the nuance that his minority voice adds to American histories. Vuong’s writing captures joy and grief in stark relief and I look forward to his burgeoning career. I leave you with a particularly beautiful image that the main character recalls early in the novel (no spoilers):

You once told me that the human eye is god’s loneliest creation. How so much of the world passes through the pupil and still it holds nothing. The eye, alone in its socket, doesn’t even know there’s another one, just like it, an inch away, just as hungry, as empty.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

*I later found out Vuong gave this away in his New York Times interview! Still claiming this (and the entire novel) as something for us Viet kids–which Vuong also openly declares in the same interview.

***

Timmy Pham lives in New York City and once said he would be happy with rice and ruốc as his last meal (read the book, you’ll get it).


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.

CAAMFest37: Joy Luck Club Anniversary Screening – Q&A

https://caamfest.com/2019/movies/joy-luck-club/

It was my great honor and pleasure to attend this year’s CAAMFest37’s
25th anniversary year screening (the film actually came out in September 1993) of The Joy Luck Club, with many of the actors present:

“Come join us as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of THE JOY LUCK CLUB, one of the most decorated Asian American films in cinematic history. Written by Amy Tan and directed by Wayne Wang, THE JOY LUCK CLUB paved the way for decades of Asian American films including last year’s summer hit, CRAZY RICH ASIANS. This free, indoor screening in the heart of Chinatown will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience with many special guests and talent in attendance. “


There was a Q&A session prior to the screening of the film, given that the film screening started after 8PM. In attendance were:
Executive Producer Janet Yang, actresses Lisa Lu (most recently know for her role in Crazy Rich Asians as Shang Su Yi, Nick’s grandmother and the matriarch of the family)

actress Tamlyn Tomita:

actress Rosalind Chao:

as well as actress Kieu Chinh:

Actor Michael Paul Chan and casting director Heidi Levitt are included in the group picture above.

I think one of the more interesting questions was why The Joy Luck Club didn’t spark an explosion of Asian American media – it looked more like an anomaly rather than a movement.

The rise of China, the explosion of technology – especially the Internet, and the growing Asian American population in the United States, has contributed to larger interest around Asian and Asian American stories and help lead to the recent success of blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians.

If you were too young to have seen the film or don’t quite remember the film, here is the trailer:

CAAMFest37: Love Boat: Taiwan – Q&A after SF Premiere

It was my great honor to attend the San Francisco premiere of the documentary Love Boat: Taiwan at CAAMFest37:

“Fearless, inventive and outspoken are a few words to describe CAAMFest37 Spotlight Honoree Valerie Soe. From the 80’s to now, Soe’s films and video installations have been a benchmark for Asian American feminist activism and experimental storytelling. CAAM will proudly showcase Soe’s newest documentary, LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN; a feature-length documentary, looks into of one of the longest running summer programs in the world.

LOVE BOAT: TAIWAN revisits the program’s participants and explores the history and popularity of this well-known program, sponsored by the Taiwanese government, which takes place every summer in Taiwan.”

Ever since writing my blog post about my experience on the Love Boat in the summer of 1993, I had always hoped a documentary would be made about this iconic program. So I’m glad that as a producer, an interviewee (very brief interview …) and archival video footage provider of the trip, I was able to experience the San Francisco premiere of the film to a a sold out theater and see the crowd’s enthusiastic reaction to the documentary.

Afterwards, there was Q&A with the Producer/Director Valerie Soe, as well as interviewee Kristina Wong, and others involved in the film, including yours truly.

The film has one more film festival in Taiwan to “premiere” in May, then plans for distribution are still up in the air, but Soe will probably be making the film festival and college tour of the film in the near future before hopefully wider distribution plans.

If you haven’t seen the trailer yet, here’s you chance to see what the documentary is all about:

I’ll be sure to blog about the documentary’s wider release – hopefully online – in the future.

Netflix’s ‘Always Be My Maybe’ Coming May 30th Starring Ali Wong and Randall Park

I’ve only seen comedian Ali Wong as a stand up comic, either live in San Francisco or her two Netflix comedy specials, Baby Cobra and Hard Knock Wife, so I’m eager to see Wong as well as Randall Park co-star in the Netflix original romantic comedy film, ‘Always Be My Maybe,”:

“Everyone assumed Sasha and Marcus would wind up together except for Sasha and Marcus. Reconnecting after 15 years, the two start to wonder … maybe?”


I’ve always been a fan of actor Randall Park and have been following him ever since July 2008 when I first spotted him in a Wells Fargo commercial. I think the last romantic comedy I saw Park in was ‘The People I’ve Slept With.” Other well known actors of Asian American descent include Daniel Dae Kim and another star who you can see at the end of the trailer.

Looking forward to May 30th to seeing the film!

BTS Takes Over America & the World

I hate to admit it, but I hadn’t listened to one song or seen one of their music videos before BTS made their appearance on ‘Saturday Night Live’ on Saturday, April 13th, 2019 – the first ever for a K-pop band.

As CBS Sunday Morning described the sensation:

“One of the most popular Korean pop groups in the world is the boy band known as BTS (for “Beyond the Scene”) – the first Korean act to sell out a U.S. stadium; the first K-Pop group to present at the Grammy Awards; and the first Korean pop band to be featured on Time Magazine’s Most Influential List. Seth Doane interviews the group’s members – seven young men between the ages of 21 and 26 who consider themselves family, who’ve trained, composed music and grown up together, and who all live in the same house – and goes behind the scenes in a Seoul rehearsal studio.”

I have to say that I’m quite taken by their dance moves and kind of like their K-pop sound. Take a look at their performances from SNL:

and their second performance:

I really like the official music video of ‘Boy With Luv

BTS is taking the U.S. by storm, as well as the world, as they kick off their extended world tour in May in U.S, Brazil, England, France, and Japan.

Penguin Classics to Publish Editions of Four Asian American Novels

In honor of Asian American Heritage month, Penguin Books is publishing four Asian American novels in their Penguin Classics imprint. The four books include America is in the Heart by Carlos Bulosan, The Hanging on Union Square by H.T. Tsiang, East Goes West by Younghill Kang, and No-No Boy by John Okada. It’s sad to say that I haven’t read any of them even though America is in the Heart has been on my to read list for decades. I had heard of No-No Boy but not the other two books.

All four were originally published over 60 years ago.  This cover from No-No Boy is from a University of Washington Edition published in 1976, nineteen years after the novel first appeared in 1957.  The classics editions will all have new forwards and afterwards by contemporary writers and are scheduled to be released on May 21.

(photo credit:  Nancy Wong,  licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International)

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.

8mm Review: ‘Happy Cleaners’

Happy Cleaners (2019)
Hyanghwa Lim, Charles Ryu, Yun Jeong, Yeena Sung. Written by
Kat Kim, Julian Kim, and Peter S. Lee. Directed by Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee

If it seems (and it does) that new Asian American filmmakers keep making the same film about generational tension, cultural identity, and familial values, I suppose it’s because we continue to deal with these issues, or because there are as many ways to work through them as there are immigrant families: my half-Japanese experience in Honolulu isn’t like someone else’s Taiwanese experience in Southern California, and they are both stories worth telling.

For these reasons, I came away from Happy Cleaners encouraged, because if nothing else, the film’s familiar conflicts for new generations of Asian Americans mean we’re still coming over, still adding color and flavor to a country that appears alternately to have come a long way in embracing us and to have regressed so we’re not being embraced at all.

Happy Cleaners is owned by the Choi family in Flushing, New York, and despite the family’s hard work, the struggling dry cleaner may find itself without a lease in a few months, thanks to a weasely new landlord from the Weasely Caucasian Landlord multipack they must sell at Movieland Costco. Daughter Hyunny is some kind of medical professional, and college-aged son Kevin (backward baseball cap, one earring in each lobe) works in a food truck with aspirations of opening his own truck on the West Coast.

Arguments abound. Kevin fights with Hyunny. Hyunny fights with her boyfriend Danny. Dad fights with Mom, and Mom fights with everyone. Chances are you’ve seen this all before, if not in a movie then for sure in real life. Graduate from college first and then you can do whatever you want. My family will never accept you if you continue to work as a janitor. Do you want to end up like me, married to someone who can barely support his family?

I admit I said, “Oh, this again” more than once during the first act of the movie, but the film won me over with very good acting by all four principals and solid filmmaking everywhere else. There are a few self-aware shots, but mostly the camera work is well done. Lighting and sound quality put this well above most other Asian American indie films I’ve seen. Mostly, the directors don’t overdirect, the actors don’t overact, the writers don’t overwrite, and the soundtrack doesn’t oversoundtrack, although the Food Network style sound effects and cutting-board close-ups get a little out of hand more than once.

The use of language in this film sets it apart even from other Korean American movies. I appreciate the writers’ willingness to give us full-on Korean through much of the film, including what the movie’s Kickstarter page calls “a mix of Korean and English … we warmly label ‘Konglish’.” There’s nothing wrong with the Korean-accented English dialogue we usually get (it’s one of my favorite accents), but it’s great to hear the family speak the language these families speak.

I am most impressed by the writers’ delicate touch with conflict resolution. The fights themselves may be pyrotechnic at times, but the make-up scenes are gentle, sympathetic, and utterly believable. One-on-one, characters share a beer, or a bite of rice, or a whole meal, looking right at each other without overdoing the apologies, or sitting alongside each other, or nudging one another with a gentle toe. Physical proximity is an act of love, strong enough to heal the casual wounds of being in a family, something I’ve not seen much of in popular media. And props to the actors for not overdoing these excellent scenes. Shout-outs go especially to Charles Ryu as Dad and Yeena Sung as Hyunny.

Happy Cleaners is a well-made movie, a slight improvement on what seems to have become a genre: the Asian American Generations Movie. Despite my jadedness, I got teary at least twice, so everyone’s doing something right. A fraction of a bonus point for being set in Flushing, where a good chunk of the German-Italian-Irish side of my family lived.

7 out of 10. Check it out.

Happy Cleaners screens at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival Wednesday, May 8 at 9:15 p.m. The filmmakers will be in attendance.

It also screens at CAAMFest Saturday, May 11 at 2:40 p.m. and Monday, May 13 at 9:10 p.m. Director Julian Kim is scheduled to attend the May 11 screening.

Eating at The Kid’s Table

I read about the Kids Table from this article from Vice, so I decided to check it out. Mentioned as an Asian American story about friends, it has a lot that I could identify with. Although I am not Chinese American, the series has many things that resonated with me and probably will resonate also with other Asian Americans.

Although I am at an age where I definitely don’t sit at the kids table, our family gatherings and holidays usually end up with all of the young adults at one table and the rest of us non-young adults at other tables. My kids are at an age where they discuss many of the topics in the series at their kids table, such as trying out nontraditional non-safe careers – being a “bad Asian.” I did the same when I ate at the kids’ table.

While this series resonated with me, it had some shortcomings. Sometimes I felt the dialogue felt a little forced, and the ending seemed a little too pat. Still, I ended liking the characters and found myself wanting more after seeing the last episode.

The Kid’s Table will be shown at the 2019 Los Angeles Asian American Film Festival at this session on May 5, 2019.

8Questions with Brian Jian

Former 8Asians writer Brian Jian has just published his very first graphic novel, Broken Toys, Extraordinary Machines, so we’re asking him the really important questions (hint: it’s the last one).

1. Your book has a pretty intense plot. What was the inspiration?

I’m not quite sure! The “Cliff Notes TL;DR” version of that answer is “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon meets Wu Tang Clan.” 

2. I love that you dedicated Broken Toys, Extraordinary Machines to your readers. What do you hope they come away with?

There are so many options now for entertainment. For anyone to take time out of their day and spend it on anything I do, I’m extremely grateful. I’m just trying to tell a story that hopefully resonates with anyone who likes a good story, with characters who seem genuine and relatable.

3. Have you always wanted to create a graphic novel?

I was heavily into comic books and superheroes as a kid in the 80’s and 90’s (this was DECADES before this whole superhero staple in our entertainment diet). Becoming a comic book artist was probably my first career goal, but then school, college, sports, etc. got in the way. Next thing you know, 25 years have passed and I decided, “It’s now or never!”

4. What’s something you wish you’d know before you started the process?

Everything. I self published this book so it was all on my shoulders; from the drawing, writing, researching, editing, lettering, tech support. And copyrights! There was one page where I used the lyrics of a KRS One song (it fit nicely with the narrative of a scene I wrote) but thank god I looked it up and found out lyrics are copyrighted (not just the music) and you can’t print a line from Hey Jude or Hotel California without being sued. Who knew . . .

5. Ok, fun stuff. Broken Toys, Extraordinary Machines is being made into a movie. Who would you cast?

Most the characters in this story tend to skew older than the characters featured in most of the typical properties put out by our youth obsessed culture. That was completely serendipitous and not by design but I do like that it turned out that way.  My dream cast would include people like Don Cheadle, Idris Elba, Whoopie Goldberg. One of the main characters is a woman named Amaka who’s in her mid 40’s. I didn’t realize Gabrielle Union was in her mid to late 40’s! She’d be perfect!

6. What are you reading right now?

Just finished “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and just started “X” by Chuck Klosterman.

7. Where can people find your work? What’s next for you?

www.brianjian.com or instagram.com/jianbrian. I’ve already started writing/illustrating Broken Toys Extraordinary Machines Book 2!

8. And last–the classic, the most important–what is your favorite Asian comfort food?

Soup dumplings. What else?