It may be cliché to say that as Asian Americans, we’re often pressured to forgo our more artistic or creative passions for a stable career path. And yet this was even more the case for generations past, who had few role models and their sights set on a better future for their children. But some are finding a newfound freedom after a lifetime of raising families and paying the bills. Here, three stories of Asian American retirees who are using their sunset years to recapture dreams once left to the wayside.
In 1969, Dick Ling, a new immigrant from Taiwan, took the subway to Chicago’s Michigan Avenue carrying two portfolios: one for architecture and one for cartooning. He had crashed on his friend’s dormitory floor the night before, and he was looking for the Playboy corporate headquarters.
Not for what you might think — though he was pleasantly surprised by the gorgeous female receptionists and the artful mosaic of nude women on the wall. He wanted to draw cartoons for the magazine. Growing up in Taiwan, Ling’s dream was to be a cartoonist. He’d get in trouble at school for drawing epic spaceship battles on top of brand-new classroom desks. And he was very inspired by Western-style cartoons, from Bugs Bunny to Disney films, so his father, knowing his son’s passion for American comics, subscribed to Mad magazine — and occasionally Playboy.
Ling imagines the staff at Playboy must have been confused when he showed up unannounced at their offices. “The receptionist looked me up and down and asked, ‘How long have you been in Chicago?’” he remembers. “I said, ‘Second day!’”
The chief editor at the time was nice enough to sit down with him and take a look at his cartoons. Though there wasn’t a position open for a cartoonist, the editor admired his gumption and gave him three people to contact who might be hiring. One actually offered Ling a job as an apprentice at a photo lab, but it only paid $70 a week. Figuring it’d be difficult to survive on that kind of salary, he politely declined.
“To this day, I still wonder what would’ve happened if I had taken that job,” he says. Ling is now 70 years young. He smiles. “Would I even still be alive?”
For the next few decades, Ling would try and forget about cartooning and concentrate on his architecture career. It was what he had studied in school and what was allowing him to stay in America on a student visa. But dreams don’t die so easily. He kept coming back to cartooning, even if he was drawing on the side.
In the 1970s, he developed a comic strip called “The Woks” (later renamed “Potstickers”), which was a Chinese American version of Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts,” about a young boy named Chung, his younger siblings, his friends, a dragon and a philosopher named Buddha. He submitted to all the major syndicates in the United States but was met with rejection, as editors politely told him that their audiences weren’t interested. He finally sold it to TransWorld News Service in Washington, D.C., in 1977, but before they could distribute the comic strip, the news agency filed for bankruptcy, and he was never able to resell it.
More than 30 years later, after making a living for his wife and two kids as a licensed architect, Ling has retired and returned to his true love. He is now the editorial cartoonist for Orinda News, a community newspaper in Northern California.
Looking back, does he have any regrets? “Sometimes you take a step that’s right at the time, and you don’t know what the outcome will be until 15 to 20 years later,” he says. “But I think my decision was still correct if I wanted to better myself financially and raise a family. It was the safe route. Becoming a cartoonist during that time was really unknown territory. It would have been too scary.”
If there is still some truth to the cliché that Asian American youth are often discouraged from pursuing the arts and pressured into stable careers like medicine, law or engineering, imagine what it was like 40 years ago.
“At that time, we were taught that we have to bring pride to the family, especially the elders in our home country,” Ling says. “And I think that’s a very heavy burden. If you want to excel at the arts, you have to give 100 percent and be fearless, but sometimes that means you can’t be as responsible.” He shrugs. “Some people might think it’s sad that I decided to get the steady paycheck, but that’s the choice I made.”
It wasn’t just the traditional cultural pressures that were prevalent in that generation of Asian Americans. The landscape of the time period was entirely different as well. Sure, in the early ’60s, there was the groundbreaking film Flower Drum Song, an Asian American musical starring Nancy Kwan and James Shigeta, but it was also the era where Mickey Rooney’s bucktoothed yellowface portrayal of Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was seen as a laugh riot. Most Asians in the media were still depicted as villains, laundromat owners or untrustworthy foreigners. Bruce Lee wouldn’t emerge as a star until the early 1970s.
So there may have been glimpses of the American Dream, but when it came to the arts, lack of support (Ling didn’t know any other Asian American comic artists at the time) and lingering anti-immigrant sentiment suggested that your average paying American wasn’t interested in Asian American stories. And even if there were Asian American talents, it would have been extremely rare for one to be able to make a decent living at it.
“I was lucky if I got one acting job every six months,” Stephen Woo remembers, back in the 1970s when he was trying to make it as an actor. Woo grew up in California on movie sets, introduced to the entertainment industry by his uncle, actor Walter Soo Hoo. Stephen worked as an extra to make money through college, mostly in war movies or films with Chinatown scenes, though when he started pursuing acting more seriously, he was constantly frustrated with the limited and stereotypical roles that were available.
“My agents would send me out on these auditions for kung fu masters and Chinatown bandits,” he says, “and I’d think, ‘I’m not going to get this. Why can’t I just play a normal person?’”
While he was still struggling to make ends meet, he fell in love with his future wife, Barbara, who told him that she’d only marry him if he got a “real job.” So he gave up his SAG card, started a business in marketing and telecommunications, raised two beautiful daughters and didn’t look back — until he retired.
In 2014, he decided to give it another shot, just for fun. But this time, he’d include his wife in the process. “I started using all my marketing and sales skills to market us as a husband-wife acting team with 2Woos.com,” he says. Within a week of Barbara retiring, they had a Skype audition for the reality program Freakshow and booked the gig. Soon, the 60-something duo found themselves filming a scene in Venice as a suburban couple who is invited over to their neighbor’s house to meet a bunch of “freaks,” including the tallest man in the world, the shortest woman in the world, a red-bearded woman, a man who’s in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the most body piercings, and a performer who can swallow 27 swords at one time.
“It’s an irresistible industry,” says Barbara, who grew up in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and loved musicals as a kid (and was even in a high school production of Flower Drum Song). But she never, ever imagined herself as an actress. Now she loves it.
“One day, I could be a nurse, the next day I could be playing Harry Shum Jr.’s mother [in the Wong Fu Productions short Single by 30]. Another day, we could be doing a Maroon 5 video [for the hit song “Sugar”] or we could be on the set of Pitch Perfect 2, the only seniors with a whole cast of youngsters dancing under a bridge.”
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Stephen was in the Ed Sheeran music video “Sing”; they hung out with Nicole Richie in her reality show Candidly Nicole, playing members of her homeowner’s association; they’ve been in Buzzfeed videos and Funny or Die sketches. In contrast to the old days when Stephen struggled to book one gig every six months, the couple now average a job a week and are constantly traveling from place to place for last- minute auditions.
“I see kids now, and they’re so open to trying new things,” says Stephen, of the Asian American online creators they often work with. “They can write and direct their own stories, use YouTube to reach millions of people overnight for free. In some ways, I envy them, and I wish I were 30 to 40 years younger so I could be a part of that. But I actually used to be really timid and shy for an actor. Now I have more life experience and more confidence. So we’re doing our own thing, which is pretty good, too.”
It’s natural to wonder what could have been. When people have to give up their dreams for their families, it’s often described with some cynicism — the idea that the passion of youth must eventually make way for the practicalities of adulthood and “the real world.” But for some people, this view is short-sided and overvalues the priorities of an individual pursuit versus a happy and comfortable home life.
Richard Liu, 66, was a trombone player in the Taipei Municipal Symphony Orchestra when he was a young man. “I had a lot of dreams,” Liu remembers. He grew up in a farm in a mud house and remembers not even having electricity when he was in high school. They’d use oil lamps and steal the light from their neighbors. That said, he was an extremely resourceful child and loved music.
“Because we didn’t have any money, in elementary school, I’d make my own instruments,” he says. “In the fifth grade, I made my own erhu [Chinese violin].” He created it out of bamboo from his backyard. “One day I couldn’t find it and turned out someone had used it to make a fire!” he remembers, laughing. “I cried when I found out.”
As a teenager in the military, he was in a band, and once he finished his service, he was accepted into the Taipei Municipal Symphony Orchestra, where he played trombone for 10 years. But because the job only required him to work at night, he experimented with many different things during the day to make money for his family. At first, he and his wife, Mary, ran a noodle shop. Later, they turned it into a flower shop. He was even a reporter for a couple years.
In 1980, the Lius decided to bring their young children to California. And though he would still play with a band when he first arrived in the U.S., he eventually gave up his music for over 30 years in order to concentrate on building a landscaping business.
That said, he doesn’t see his choice as a difficult sacrifice at all. “Our family is the center of our lives,” he says. “And now, our kids are like our friends. We can talk to them about anything, and we’ve already achieved everything we ever dreamed.”
Liu’s unique designs were such a success that he was featured on CTS-TV, a Chinese television station, in a story about overseas Chinese who had become successful abroad. In addition to their company, Beautiful Landscape, Liu and Mary opened up a nursery, Rosemead Gardens, to provide other professionals with the tools to create gardens for their clients.
About six years ago, Liu decided to retire and revive his passion for music, though this time, he decided to teach himself the saxophone and clarinet. He’s constantly playing music, whether it’s performing at local concerts around Southern California, weddings, cultural events or even at home, where he can jam with his friends for up to seven hours, not realizing how much time has flown by.
The great thing about returning to one’s passions after building a stable base is that artists like Ling, Liu and the 2Woos now have the freedom and flexibility to pursue their dreams on their own terms.
For Liu, his artistry extends past his music. He used his landscaping skills to turn a 350-year-old California live oak tree in their backyard into a five-story treehouse using found items.
“He turns trash into treasures,” says Mary, describing the antique headboards he bends into lounge chairs, the branches he finds on hikes that he turns into banisters, and abandoned metal furniture pieces he uses to create an overhead wine glass holder in the treehouse bar. (Yes, there’s a bar in the treehouse.) He and his wife often throw parties for friends and family — which now include three adult children and six grandchildren — in their backyard, where he and his band plays. Even now, living out his musical dreams inherently involves his family. Forty years ago, he’d write his wife poetry every day, and she’d go to all of his shows; now he plays her the saxophone every day, and she’s still his biggest fan.
Similarly, Ling doesn’t need the approval of national syndicates anymore. He loves his gig at Orinda News because it allows him the creative freedom to cartoon about whatever he wants. Every month, he publishes a single-panel comic series called “The Wobblers,” where he makes lighthearted observations on everyday life. He doesn’t feel the pressure to represent Asian Americans (as he did when he first created “The Woks”). He’d rather make harmless puns about national holidays, make fun of Kim Jong-un’s haircut, or joke about the older generation not understanding how to text or young people and their selfies. He just wants his comics to bring a smile to people’s faces.
As for Stephen, he now often acts as his own agent. “The Internet has done for acting what it’s done for travel and real estate,” he says. “It’s good to have a travel agent or real estate agent, but you don’t need it. When I left the [acting] business, it was controlled by big studios and unions, but now, I submit ourselves for everything, not just Asian specific roles. And many times, we’ll get [cast], which is very cool.”
“And it’s different now because we don’t need it,” says Barbara.
Stephen agrees. “When I was younger and I didn’t get a job, I’d get really depressed because I had to pay the rent,” he says.
“But now,” Barbara continues, “if we don’t get a job, we’ll laugh about it. Now we watch commercials really diligently, and if we see an ad for a TempurPedic mattress that we auditioned for and lost to a younger couple, we’ll say, ‘What? They think those youngsters can bounce better than us?’”
Because at this point of their lives, the pressure’s off, and it’s all about having fun. “I’m so happy that at the last phase of our careers, we’re doing something we enjoy, and we get to do it together,” says Stephen. “I’d hate to retire and do nothing. Instead, this is all new to us; the more we do it, the better we’ll get, and we’re constantly learning, growing, meeting new people and having new experiences.”
This story was originally published in our Fall 2015 issue. Get your copy here.