“Crazy Rich Asians” and how Asians in American cinema and TV are finally coming into their own
When I was a little girl, one of my favorite shows on TV was “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.” Bill Bixby played Tom Corbett — the widowed father of a cute and precocious little boy named Eddie (Brandon Cruz).
The show delved into the father’s dating life and single parenthood, which was groundbreaking television at the time. The show ran from 1969 to 1972 and set a precedence. Much like the TV show “Julia,” it delved into issues of culture, ethnicity, racism, single parenting, and childhood concerns that many other shows of its day just didn’t do. (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0063887/?ref_=nv_sr_1)
One of the reasons I loved this show, other than the theme song, is the fact that I am Asian. I am half Korean and half… well, a bunch of other stuff. Growing up in New Mexico with a single Asian mother wasn’t easy. My mother, in a word, was marvelous. However, there was a lot of prejudice when we arrived there in 1967. So when this show aired, it became a beacon for me.
Eddie’s father didn’t raise him alone. He had a housekeeper by the name of Mrs. Livingston who just so happened to be Japanese. Mrs. Livingston was played by Miyoshi Umeki, a very talented and sought-after actress at the time. She was the only character I had seen on television that represented someone that was like me: Asian — a real Asian. She wasn’t rich and was the household help. However, she influenced me greatly. She was the heart and soul of the show, the conscience so to speak, and she offered advice, discipline, when needed, kindness, and unconditional love to the two men in her life. I always secretly hoped Eddie’s father and Mrs. Livingston would finally realize they were meant for each other, but sadly television censors didn’t see it my way. Her manners and the respect she showed others resonated with me, not to mention that she reminded me very much of my own mother.
As I grew older, I discovered that Ms. Umeki starred in the big screen version of said TV show. Not only did she star in that film, she starred in another big movie called “Flower Drum Song,” written by Rogers and Hammerstein of “Sound of Music” fame. I found it one night on late night TV. I couldn’t believe it; I’d never seen anything like it. A complete Asian cast! Asians who sang? Who danced? Who had money? I was ecstatic; I came to the realization that Asians could do more in entertainment than just be the help or the sidekick.
*Side note: Ms. Umeki even made history becoming the first Asian actress to receive an Oscar in a supporting role for her portrayal in the WWII drama “Sayonara.” (https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0880855/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm)
After Miyoshi Umeki’s sojourn in the entertainment world, I didn’t see much else about or for Asians until more recently. Oh sure, there was Kung Fu starring David Carradine, a very good actor in his own right, but he wasn’t Asian. In fact there were many Asian parts played by other ethnicities (think Mickey Rooney in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” or Joel Grey in “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.”)
I went back over to IMDb to see just what was out there over the decades for Asian movies and TV. There was “The World of Suzie Wong” (1960) starring Nancy Kwan and William Holden.
In the 80s we saw a grand epic movie called “The Last Emporer.” This was the first movie I had seen since “Flower Drum Song” that was about Asians, played by Asians. It was also set in such a grand scope, at least in my memory.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the “Madam Butterfly” adaptations; there have been several over the years in movies, TV, and on Broadway.
In the 1970s, the TV version of the movie M*A*S*H (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) aired on CBS and became a very successful show. This dramedy depicted doctors during the Korean war using humor. The doctors and nurses in the show would find themselves in strange and unusual predicaments, which made it very funny. Now, MASH is not one I felt should be added to the Asian list I was compiling because the main characters were all white; however, recurring actors of Asian descent did appear regularly. Remember “Nurse Kelly” anyone? So, I’m giving MASH an honorable mention. Also, this show helped me, as a Korean, understand my own culture, just a bit.
The next big Asian movie for me was “The Joy Luck Club,” premiering in 1993. Author Amy Tan’s book was made into a movie. This was a drama and a serious depiction of Asian mothers and daughters and how the generations and misunderstandings between them could affect them and all those around them. If you haven’t seen it, you must. Not only does it have a predominantly Asian cast, but the main characters were all women. Yes, it’s a story about Asian families; however, any ethnicity can relate to its message. I identified with it as a woman, daughter, and mother, but also because of my own upbringing in the U.S. and my mother’s old world Korean beliefs and values.
In 2000 there was the amazing “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” cinematically superior than the similar types of movies that came before it.
I can’t get away without mentioning Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, both of whom changed the landscape of martial arts cinema with their own brand of movies and made martial arts even cooler, if that’s possible. There’s also Anime, but I think that’s a whole other article. I’m sure there’s more movies and shows I am overlooking. However, hopefully you get the idea about Asians or the lack thereof in motion pictures and television.
Let’s jump to today’s films and TV shows: “Fresh Off the Boat” is now in it’s 5th season on ABC.
It is about a family, literally, fresh off the boat from Taiwan via Washington D.C. It’s funny and poignant. To be honest, I actually didn’t even want to watch it; I thought it would be filled with Asian stereotypes and sitcom tropes, and at first it was. However, it has gotten better. I discovered that I experienced some of the same school, friend and parental issues as the boy in the show.
A new movie on Netflix titled “To All the Boys I loved before” is reminiscent of a John Hughes teen romantic comedy.
The lead character is part Asian: her father is American and her mother, who has passed away, is Asian. She writes letters to five of her major crushes never expecting her letters to be mailed; however, they are and one of the letters is to her older sister’s boyfriend. Well, you know what happens next: mayhem, teen angst, and hilarity ensue. What I loved about watching this film is that I forgot I was watching a movie with Asians in it; it was just about a teenage girl coming of age and learning from her own mistakes. This time the message and the actors were universal; race and color wasn’t something I was even paying attention to. Now that’s saying something, not sure what, but maybe it’s something akin to progress when we don’t notice the color of the actors skin but the actual plot line.
This brings me to “Crazy Rich Asians.” The book written by Kevin Kwan was a big hit. It is one of a trilogy of books about the crazy-rich Asian characters and the drama surrounding their lives. Thankfully, the powers-that-be decided it needed to be made into a film. I can’t help but see some similarities with “Flower Drum Song.” Both movies are big budget films with a large Asian cast and are about a wealthy, handsome young Asian man and the woman he wants to marry and the woman the family thinks he should marry.
*Spoilers: I don’t want to give the plot away, but suffice it to say that things sort of work out and sort of don’t. I’m hoping for a sequel.
I attended the theater with my own children to see “Crazy Rich Asians.” My two daughters who attended with me found similarities with the grandmother and mother in the movie; who would have thunk? These found similarities are hard to express but are well known within the hearts of all those who are Asian. Honor, family, shame and respect are important in the Asian culture, and this movie shows these values in a way that everyone, especially Asians can appreciate. My personal opinion about this movie — it’s fun, funny, entertaining, emotional… and romantic.
It’s been a long while since “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” and Mrs. Livingston. Time has marched on, and Asian creators of motion pictures and the other artistic mediums they perform in is definitely growing. Asian talent is stronger, confident and finally coming to the surface in growing numbers — dare I say becoming more mainstream. My children have been able to see more representation of their culture and ethnicity on the big and small screen than I ever had. I, for one, am grateful to see more people like myself represented in the entertainment world. Asians are no longer relegated to playing bit parts, side kicks or supporting characters; they are standing on their own two feet firmly planted. Asians are starring in mainstream movies and TV shows and finally coming into their own and then some.