Alan Yang: Asian Americans in Hollywood Have 'A Long Way to Go'

During his acceptance speech after winning the Emmy Award for Writing in a Comedy Series on Sunday, Master of None co-creator Alan Yang brought up a subject that has received increased attention in the media this year: the underrepresentation of Asian Americans in television and film.

“There are 17 million Asian Americans in this country, and there are 17 million Italian-Americans," said. "They have The Godfather, Goodfellas, Rocky, and The Sopranos. We got Long Duk Dong. So we got a long way to go. But I know we can get there. I believe in us. It’s just going to take a lot of hard work."

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Yang's reference of Long Duk Dong — the name of the Japanese exchange student character in the classic 1984 film Sixteen Candles — was apt. Played by the Japanese-American actor Gedde Watanabe, the character's slight frame, nerdiness, and iffy command of English attracted widespread criticism for perpetuating negative stereotypes about Asian American men. 

Despite some progress, these stereotypes still persist three decades later — if Asian Americans appear in television shows and movies at all. TV programs created by and starring Asian Americans remain few and far between, and those that have aired have achieved only middling success.

Master of None may prove to be an exception. The series, which debuted on Netflix last year, has achieved widespread critical acclaim, not least for its candid portrayal of the challenges Asian Americans face in trying to break into show business. In the episode "Parents" — which earned Yang and fellow co-creator Aziz Ansari the Emmy — Ansari's Dev and his Taiwanese-American friend Brian (played by Kelvin Yu) commiserate about the strictness of their immigrant parents, only to reflect on the obstacles the parents overcame to achieve success in the United States. Eventually, Dev and Brian decide to take their parents out for dinner to learn more about their lives. Wrote the AV Club after its airing:

The episode shows instead of telling, giving both fathers flashbacks to their upbringings in India and Taiwan as well as their initial decisions to move to America so they could provide their sons with computers, guitars, the luxury of fun. “Parents” critically roots these experiences in the points of view of the two fathers, quite literally showing it through their eyes. We get to see how Dev and Brian see their parents, but we also get to see how their parents see them, and it’s the inclusion of those different perspectives that makes “Parents” feel so complete and piercing.

Not every new television show will become a popular, critical darling like Master of None. But the objective of Yang's remarks was aimed at something more basic: getting more Asian Americans to enter the entertainment industry at all.

"Asian parents out there: If you can just do me a favor, if just a couple of you get your kids cameras instead of violins, we'll be all good,” he said 

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Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.