8mm Film Review: Try Harder

Before Try Harder came out in theatres, Number Two Son mentioned to me that he had a friend who worked on the marketing of the film, and so we decided to watch it together while he was home on winter break.  I once did college recruiting at Lowell High School, drove by it dozens of times, and attended the cross country meet that they sponsor, so I was anxious to see what this view of the students there would reveal.  I was pleasantly surprised – while there are things I thought could have been done differently, I  strongly recommend it.

The best aspect of the movie was that it engages the audience with the humanity of Lowell’s students.  Lowell students have the reputation that they are hardworking Asian robots. I really liked how Try Harder tell the stories of a diverse collection of students.  They show Asian students with stereotypically controlling parents but also show Asian American students who don’t have those kind of parents.  They follow an African American student and what she goes through in a majority Asian American school.  While they show students with tiger moms, they also tell the story of a student whose parents seem totally uninvolved.

What did I think could be have been better?  The film continually asserts that Lowell students don’t get into elite colleges because they are Asian, but as one study have points out, Asian students often apply to elite schools even when they are not likely to get in.  It is easy to see how peer pressure at a school like Lowell encourage that – I would have liked to have seen the documentary explore that.  In addition, the documentary seemed a bit dated, with the action taking place in 2017 through 2018.  I can understand the time to get it editted and released, but the some of the students shown could have already graduated by now.   It would have been good to see where they are now and how they were affected by the pandemic.

Overall, I definitely recommend this movie.  Some of things I mention above might make a good follow up documentary. Number 2 Son thought that it might also be interesting to take a look at other well-known similarly competitive and predominantly Asian public schools, like Stuyvesant in New York.

Try Harder can be seen on a number of digital platforms, including Amazon Prime and Apple TV.


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Asian American Segregation and Income Inequality in the San Francisco Bay Area

The Othering and Belonging Institute recently issued an update to their report on segregation in the San Francisco Bay Area using 2020 census data, and the section on the most segregated Asian American neighborhoods caught my eye.  Some of the poorest and historically segregated neighborhoods were on that list, such as urban areas in and around San Francisco Chinatown and Oakland’s Chinatown – not a surprise.  But other areas on the list were in Fremont in some very high income areas in surburbs! This disparity outlines the fact that of all US ethnic groups, Asian Americans have the highest income inequality.

You might be wondering why more heavily Asian Bay Area cities, including a number of Asian majority cities like Milpitas, Union City, or Daly City aren’t on this list.  The metric that this table uses is called divergence (explained here as one of many possible segregation metrics).  Divergence measures segregation in one area compared to a greater area which contains it.  For example, heavily Asian city of Cupertino (68% Asian ) would not seem as segregated using this metric since it is part of heavily Asian Santa Clara county (39% Asian).

The report mentions how zoning regulations have been used to enforce segregation, and those in Fremont, Asian American’s have been affecting by zoning regulations, as documented in Trespassers? Asian Americans and the Battle for Suburbia.   Despite that, Asian American in Fremont have managed to get a strong foothold in those areas to the point where it is an Asian American majority city.

Ironicially, the zoning manipulations used by predominantly white areas to promote segregation are being used by some heavily Asian American high income cities.  Cupertino has a reputation for restricting housing supply.  The city has joined a group of cities challenging a California housing law that tries to get cities to build more affordable housing.  I think that really demonstrates the differences in Asian American income – while some Asian American seniors are riding busses for money, others Asian Americans are working to block affordable housing.

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Michelle Kwan Gives Birth to Her First Child


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Soon-to-be nominated ambassador to Belize Michelle Kwan is a first time mom:

The two-time Olympic medalist announced the birth of her first child, a baby girl named Kalista Belle Kwan, on Instagram Wednesday with a sweet photo of the newborn.

“I’m overjoyed and tears of happiness are streaming down my face as I share the news,” the 41-year-old wrote. “I’ve always wanted to be a mom and, to me, she’s a perfect miracle.”

Kwan said her “journey to motherhood” was “challenging” and included a “very long labor,” but she said she’s glad she “never gave up.” She wrote, “I had a hard time picturing what she might look like yet it seems like she’s been in my life forever.”

While many are curious who the father of the baby is, she doesn’t mention it. Kwan was previously married to Clay Pell.

Congratulations to Michelle Kwan on becoming a mom !  I’m sure she’ll be super busy as a mom and as an ambassador.

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US Mint to Produce Anna May Wong Quarter

The US Mint will produce a quarter in 2022 featuring pioneering Asian American Actress Anna May Wong.  The quarter is part of the America Women Quarters program.  On th web site for the Anna May Wong coin it says:

Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American film star in Hollywood. She left a legacy for women in the film industry.

Wong appeared in more than 60 movies throughout her career. In addition to her roles in silent films, television, and stage, she landed a role in one of the first movies made in Technicolor. She achieved international success despite racism and discrimination.

Other featured women in the series are Maya Angelou, Dr. Sally Ride, Wilma Mankiller, and Nina Otero-Warren.

(h/t:  PL)

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First Cambodian American mayor in U.S. takes office

I grew up in Massachusetts, so I was really interested to learn about Lowell, Massachusetts city councilor becoming the first Cambodian Amerian mayor in the United States:

Sokhary Chau, a city councilor in Lowell, Massachusetts, was unanimously picked by his council peers to assume the legislative body’s top post on Monday. He also became the city’s first Asian American mayor. …

Located on the Merrimack River near the New Hampshire state line, Lowell was an early center of America’s textile industry, drawing waves of European and Latin American immigrants over generations.

Today, the city of more than 115,000 residents is nearly 25% Asian and home to the nation’s second-largest Cambodian community.

“As a proud Cambodian American, I am standing on the shoulders of many immigrants who came before me to build this city,” Chau said Monday before a crowd that included his wife and two teenage sons.

Chau recounted how his father, a captain in the Cambodian army, was executed by the communist Khmer Rouge in 1975 during the country’s civil war.

He said his mother, who died last year, managed to keep her seven children alive for four years, surviving “landmines, jungles, hunger, sickness and uncertainty” to deliver them safely to the U.S.

If you’ve never watched the film, ‘The Killing Field,‘ you must – which I feel is one of the most important films ever made. I’ve personally been to Cambodia and seen the killing fields and memorials.

I never realized that Lowell had that many Cambodians, let alone, Asian Americans. Congratulations to Chau on making history.

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Pixar’s Turning Red to go straight to Disney+, skipping theatrical release

COVID-19 strikes again and disrupts yet another theatrical release. Pixar’s ‘Turning Red’ is heading directly to streaming:

“The animated film will be released exclusively on Disney+ in March, Disney announced Friday, becoming the third straight Pixar movie to forgo a theatrical release amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Like its predecessors Soul in 2020 and Luca in 2021, Turning Red will be available to Disney+ subscribers at no extra charge.

“Disney+ subscribers around the world enthusiastically embraced Pixar’s Academy Award–winning Soul and the critically-acclaimed Luca when they premiered exclusively on the service and we look forward to bringing them Pixar’s next incredible feature film Turning Red,” Kareem Daniel, chairman of Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution, said in a statement. “Given the delayed box office recovery, particularly for family films, flexibility remains at the core of our distribution decisions.”

That’s really too bad, since I really wanted to see Pixar’s first film featuring an Asian American as the lead character in the theater.

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Miss America Makes History, as First Korean American from Alaska Wins the Title

Last week, the Miss America Organization made history in its 100th anniversary by crowning the first ever Korean American, Miss Alaska Emma Broyles, as Miss America:

“The newly crowned Miss America has made history, becoming both the first Korean American and the first Alaskan to hold the title in the competition’s 100-year history. …

Broyles, 20, said her grandparents immigrated from Korea to Anchorage about 50 years ago, before her mother was born.

“Although my mom is full Korean, she was born and raised right in Anchorage, Alaska,” Broyles said.

The Miss America Organization “believes Emma is the first Korean-American to win the crown,” spokesperson Matt Ciesluk said in a text message to the AP.

Her mother is a special education teacher at Service High School in Anchorage, the same school Broyles attended.

Broyles has chosen the Special Olympics for her social impact initiative. Besides her mother’s position, her older brother, Brendan, has Down syndrome and competes in athletic events with Special Olympics Alaska.

“I’ve seen firsthand the impact that Special Olympics has on the families of people with intellectual disabilities. And I know how important Special Olympics is to our community here in Anchorage and here in Alaska, as well as the communities all over the country and all over the world,” she said.

Broyles said she looks forward to working with Special Olympics to promote inclusion, compassion and open-mindedness through sports.”

Broyles is currently a junior at Arizona State University studying biomedical sciences and voice performance and plans on attending medical school.

As part of winning the $100,00 scholarship, she’ll be taking a leave from school to travel across the United States on behalf of the Miss America Organization.


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President Biden Nominates Michelle Kwan for Ambassador to Belize

This past Wednesday, President Biden nominated decorated figure skater Michelle Kwan to be the US Ambassador to Belize:

“Ms. Kwan, 41, joined Mr. Biden’s campaign team in 2019, long after making a transition from athletics to the political arena. She was named the country’s first public diplomacy envoy in 2006 and spent a decade traveling on behalf of the State Department to meet with children around the world.”

The last time I saw and interviewed Kwan was when she first launched ‘AAPIs for Biden’ back in October of 2019, when Biden was first running for the Democratic nomination.

When I first heard the news, I was a bit surprised, since I always thought Kwan would appreciate a role that had a more flexible schedule and be closer to home and her brother and parents who still reside in Los Angeles as far as I know. I do wonder if she does have longer-term political ambitions and sees this as a stepping stone to elected office? I hope so.

If you don’t recall, Kwan did graduate with a Master’s degree from Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and had served as the first U.S. diplomacy public envoy by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (under the Bush Jr. administration). In a statement, Kwan stated:

“I am honored to be nominated by President Biden to serve as ambassador to Belize, and if confirmed, I will be very proud to serve my country,” Kwan said in a statement provided by the White House. “Belize is full of incredible history and culture, and has been a tremendous partner to the United States. I look forward to working with the Belizean government on economic issues, to put an end to this pandemic, and to address regional migration.”

I’m curious as to how Kwan was selected to be ambassador to Belize. I had to search in order to learn exactly where Belize was and how large, etc it was:

“Belize is a Caribbean country located on the northeastern coast of Central America. Belize borders Mexico to the north, Caribbean Sea to the east and Guatemala to the south. It has an area of 22,970 square kilometres (8,867 sq mi) and a population of 419,199 (2020) … Belize has a small, mostly private enterprise economy that is based primarily on agriculture, agro-based industry, and merchandising, with tourism and construction recently assuming greater importance.”

I think the most I knew about Belize was that it was a great place to go SCUBA diving. I think I’ve heard or seen some friends on Facebook go diving there. Best of luck to Michelle in Belize – I will have to try to visit!

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Ivy League Olympians Chloe Kim and Nathan Chen prepare for Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics

When I read about these two Olympic athletes who are favorites for gold in the 2022 Beijing Olympics, I was struck by a number of the similarities in their lives and mental approaches.  Figure skater Nathan Chen is a favorite, having recently dominated the world championships.  Chloe Kim became a household name with her victory and subsequent interviews and tweets after her Snowboarding win in Pyeongchang in 2018 at the young age of 17.

In terms of similarities, other than both being Asian American and being the children of immigrant parents, they are, amazingly enough, Ivy League students, with Kim attending Princeton University and Chen attending Yale.  Chen says that some of his fans were puzzled with his choice, but an injury when he was 16 made him think about what happens after his skating career.  Chloe Kim had deferred enrollment but began attending Princeton in 2019 after an injury.

Being in a place where they could just be students was helpful to both.  After being recognized everywhere at Princeton, things settled down and she felt like just another student:

“In the beginning, I was super uncomfortable and I think a lot of [students talking about her] were also fans of mine. I just wanted a normal college experience. I don’t want to be Chloe Kim. I just want to be Chloe, the student, your peer who does the same classes. But honestly, that only lasted for a couple of months. And then it was good to go.”

I can see how that would happen. I went to an Ivy where there was also a celebrity attending at the same time. After a few months, no one really cared after a while. There was also royalty there but they managed to keep a low profile.  Nathan Chen probably went through the similar experiences as Chloe Kim.

Some notable differences – Kim says that a challenge for her was that there were no role models in her sport to look up to – no one looked like her.  Chen says he was inspired be people like Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan.  Chen continued to compete while in school while Kim took time of while she recovered from an injury.  She returned to competition after 22 months, and it was difficult:

I’m not going to lie. I was so nervous at my first contest back. I was nauseous. I was about to throw up before. I was so nervous because 22 months is a really long time. And I kind of forgot what it was like because I got so accustomed to my chill college life, where I go to class and hang out with friends. I definitely kind of forgot how nerve-wracking it is.

Both are on leave from school while prepping for the Olympics.  In response to her difficulties growing up while being a famous athlete, Chloe Kim has joined with other female athletes Alex Morgan, Simone Manual, and Sue Bird and started Togetherx, aimed at amplifying women’s voices in sport.



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The New Yorker Documentary: ‘Inside Andrew Yang’s Doomed Run for Mayor ‘

Back in January 2021, former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang announced his candidacy for mayor of New York. Yang had garnered a lot of media attention during his run, especially on his signature platform issue of Universal Basic Income (UBI). Thus, at his mayoral launch, Yang was considered the front runner due to his high name recognition.

The New Yorker recently debuted their mini-documetary (34 minutes) online, The Andrew Yang Show:

“The Andrew Yang Show,” a new documentary directed by Sara Joe Wolansky and Gareth Smit, goes behind the scenes to witness how Yang’s outlook and temperament changed as he experienced the highs and lows of political fame.

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I did not and could not easily follow too closely the mayoral campaign. I was excited about the possibility of an Asian American becoming mayor of the largest city in the United States thoughYang, although initally a front runner in the race, garnered fourth place, and he quickly conceded that he would not make it through the Demcratic Party primary.

The mini-documentary itself is fairly interesting to me as I didn’t see a lot of media coverage of the race. I did feel that it doesn’t go into the details or provide enough analysis in my opinion as to why Yang had such a poor showing at the polls.

Eventual mayoral winner and former police captain  Eric Adams had a deep history in New York City as well as capitalized on New Yorker’s increasing concerns about the rise of crime in New York:

The turning point in the race came with the Times Square shooting of May, 2021, when three bystanders were injured after someone opened fire, following a dispute, on a busy street. “It was at that point where the conversation really shifted toward public safety,” Elizabeth Kim, of Gothamist and WNYC, says. The focus was now on Eric Adams, a former N.Y.P.D. captain, who had campaigned on public safety. Yang tried to pivot to the crime issue and went on the offensive against Adams. He even campaigned with Kathryn Garcia, the former sanitation commissioner, ostensibly to promote ranked-choice voting. But their partnership was not enough to stop Adams, who won the Democratic primary and eventually beat the Republican candidate, Curtis Sliwa, in the general election.

I suspect that Yang didn’t do well since voters were looking for someone with any experience in local or political office. Yang did speak out during all the hate crimes being commited against Asian Americans and supporting the #StopAsianHate movement, but that alone wasn’t enough to garner more support. Yang was still primairly known for his presidential signature policy issue, UBI, but tailored for New York City.

Additionally, Yang admitted (which was confirmed by voting records) that he had never voted in  the New York mayoral races. To me, that would be an issue. I have voted in every single election I’ve ever had the opportunity to after college (during college, I wasn’t too sure if I was eligble to vote in the state of New York or in Massachusetts). Personally, I think in a democracy, if you don’t vote, you might as well move to an authoritarian country. In a democracy, freedom and rights come with responsibilities, including voting.

I also think that being mayor is actually a harder day-to-day job than being president (aside from having to deal with any military/national security decisions or national disasters). As mayor, you are directly accountable to the citizenry you represent. The mini-documentary did show some of Yang’s self-inflicted wounds, where Yang could have been more prepared and better versed in the local issues concerning New Yorkers.

In the final round of ranked choice voting in the primary (the first time New York City ever implemented the system, I believe) before Yang got eliminated, he got 14.8% of the vote:

I don’t know much about Kathryn Garcia or Maya Wiley, but from briefly reading their Wikipedia entries, it looks like they definitely both had more experience rooted in New York City government and Democratic politics (in a VERY Democratic city).

If you’re interested in learning more about Yang’s run for mayor, you should definitely give this mini-documentary a look.



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‘Try Harder’ Documentary – Theatrical Release (and limited ticket giveway) this Weekend in NY, LA & SF Bay Area

The last Debbie Lum documentary I saw was back in 2013 at CAAMFest, ‘Single Asian Female,’ exploring the desirability of Single Asian Females (SAFs), in particular by non-Asian men and following a San Francisco Bay Area white man, Steven, who winds up going to China to find a wife. I enjoyed the documentary despite finding the Steven a bit odd to say the least … Well, now Lum’s new documentary ‘Try Harder’, a look at San Francisco’s Lowell High School, is making its theatrical release after making it through the film festival circuit, where it won the following honors:

  • WINNER – 2021 Doc Edge Film Festival
  • Official Selection – 2021 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival
  • Official Selection – 2021 AFI DOCS
  • Opening Night – 2021 CAAMFest
  • Official Selection – 2021 DOC NYC

The film summary:

“San Francisco’s Lowell High, one of the best public schools in the country, draws high achievers–nearly 70% Asian Americans–from across the city into a fiercely competitive universe. The camera follows seniors through the hallways and into classrooms as the pressure intensifies to impress admissions officers at elite universities with their report cards, test scores, and overall awesomeness. The students proudly own their identity as nerds and tell their stories with candor and humor despite the stress. Will they achieve their dreams? What happens if they fail?”

I saw the documentary at an early virtual screening event and enjoyed it – not a surprise given that it is 96% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes (with 28 reviews as of this writing).

Continue reading

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Pixar’s ‘Turning Red’ Official Trailer

Earlier in September, we blogged about a new Pixar Asian-led animated film ‘Turning Red’ was coming out in March 2022. The official first trailer has been released recently:

“Disney and Pixar’s “Turning Red” introduces Mei Lee (voice of Rosalie Chiang), a confident, dorky 13-year-old torn between staying her mother’s dutiful daughter and the chaos of adolescence. Her protective, if not slightly overbearing mother, Ming (voice of Sandra Oh), is never far from her daughter—an unfortunate reality for the teenager. And as if changes to her interests, relationships and body weren’t enough, whenever she gets too excited (which is practically ALWAYS), she “poofs” into a giant red panda! Directed by Academy Award® winner Domee Shi (Pixar short “Bao”) and produced by Lindsey Collins “Turning Red releases on March 11, 2022.”

There was a teaser trailer released earlier, but the above is the first official one. This trailer provides a lot more context and information as to what the film is about. I’m excited to see the film, especially to see how my nieces might react to the film.


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