Hardly Elementary: Spring 2015 Cover Story Featuring Lucy Liu

by Ada Tseng

Google “Lucy Liu,” and Liu herself will tell you that most of the information about her on the Internet is incorrect. She’s not Taiwanese, like many websites claim (her parents are from Beijing and Shanghai; they came to the U.S. separately for school and met in New York); she’s misquoted so often in interviews that she stopped reading her own profiles a long time ago; and maybe she’s not even born in 1968. She certainly doesn’t look it.

What is true about Liu is her extensive film and television résumé — from her breakout role in Ally McBeal, to the blockbuster films Charlie’s Angels and Kill Bill, to her current starring role on the CBS Sherlock Holmes reboot Elementary, where she plays Dr. Joan Watson. However, despite her high-profile successes, she takes special pride in her lesser-known creative projects, whether it be theater (her 2010 Broadway debut in God of Carnage, where she held her own alongside stage veterans Jeff Daniels, Janet McTeer and Dylan Baker), directing (her short film Meena tackles child trafficking in India), or visual art (since the mid-’90s, she had exhibited her work in galleries all around the world under an alias, until a few years ago, when her true identity was revealed).

For Liu, not only is working in all these different mediums a natural extension of the same creative impulse, she also believes that as an artist there is no separation between what you make and who you are. “I don’t leave my work at the door when I go home,” she says. “The way you progress in your life is how you progress artistically — especially as an actor, where you bring such complicated and personal experiences into what you do every day.”

Growing up in Queens, New York, Liu was a curious kid, and she points to that as one of her best attributes. (“To continue being curious as an adult is not easy,” she says, “but it’s such a great way to live your life.”) She grew up in what she calls a typical Chinese American immigrant household — Mandarin at home, Chinese school on Saturdays and parents who prioritized education above all. But as the youngest child of three, she was able to do more exploring than her older siblings, who were raised in a stricter environment. She quickly found a passion for acting. “I can’t think of anything I wanted to do before I started acting,” remembers Liu. “I dreamt about that more than anything.”

She did class plays in high school for fun, but they were never lead roles, and she was happy to be in the chorus. Her parents worked multiple jobs and not only didn’t understand the value of art but wouldn’t have had the time to attend her performances even if they did. “Most parents, especially Asian parents, aren’t going to completely grasp something that is intangible,” says Liu.

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In her last year of college, she went to a general audition for the play Alice in Wonderland. She went up to the announcement board to see whether she got cast and was surprised she was chosen to be Alice. “It was a new concept for me,” she says. “I didn’t see myself in the lead because I was so used to not seeing Asians in the lead role.”

After college, she pursued acting full force and began doing a lot of regional theater, as well as bit parts in film and television. Her big break came in 1998, when she was cast as Ling Woo in the second season of Ally McBeal, an hour dramedy that would win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series soon after she joined the cast. Ling, an unapologetically coldhearted client-turned-lawyer-turned-judge, was a character created specifically for her, and she became known for the most comically inappropriate zingers, like “My therapist told me to pay no mind to those who don’t matter” and “Are you sure he didn’t leave you just for being unattractive?”

An aspect of being one of very few Asian American women in mainstream media at the time was that everyone had an opinion about her character: Was Ling the ultimate dragon lady stereotype, was she hypersexualized, seen as “threatening” or “the other?” But Ally McBeal fans will take the nitpicking with a grain of salt. This was a show that featured characters with neck fetishes, dancing baby hallucinations, verbal ticks and gymnastic dismounts in the stalls of the unisex bathroom. Everyone was weird. Within the Ally McBeal world, Ling was funny, honest, clever, confident, unfazed by what others thought of her and perhaps, most important of all, respected.

Though she was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series for her role, Liu’s star only got brighter when she was cast as the third Charlie’s Angel, alongside Drew Barrymore and Cameron Diaz. At the time, she was a rare Asian American actress who was able to participate in cultural touchstones of American pop culture, whether it be hosting Saturday Night Live or voicing a character on The Simpsons, when Homer visits China. She even played herself in a Futurama episode called “I Dated a Robot,” where Fry downloads the personality of Lucy Liu onto a blank robot to make a “Lucy Liubot.”

Though Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, an action film starring Liu and Antonio Banderas, was a critical and box office failure, it was notable because she was cast in a leading role that was originally written as male. She made headlines again when she was selected to play the lead, a media mogul named Mia Mason, in the highly anticipated, albeit short-lived, ABC dramedy Cashmere Mafia, a series produced by Darren Star and hyped to take up the mantle of his mega-hit, Sex and the City. Years later, she’d break the mold once more as Watson in Elementary, the first time the classic Sherlock Holmes sidekick has been played by a woman — an Asian American woman, no less. Currently in its third season, Elementary, which co-stars Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock, has been well received by critics and viewers who find it to be a novel twist on a familiar story. For her role, Liu won the Teen Choice Award for Choice TV Actress: Action, was honored with a New York Women in Film & Television Muse Award (which gave a nod to her decade of work with UNICEF) and even received the Seoul International Drama Award for Best Actress.

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Despite her two-decade career in Hollywood — which also includes the films Chicago, Shanghai Noon, Lucky Number Slevin and the Kung Fu Panda franchise, as well as television shows like Southland, Ugly Betty and Dirty Sexy Money — Liu knows that her roles in film and television could never display a complete and well-rounded representation of her interests and passions. So visual art was always something she did on the side for herself. She has had art shows since the early ’90s, but for a long time, especially once she became famous, she exhibited under her Chinese name, Yu Ling. Part of it was that she wasn’t ready to be public with her art, and part of it was that she didn’t want people to come to her exhibits looking for the ass-kicking girl from those Quentin Tarantino action films.

She says it’s possible she would have continued leading her secret life, but one day, a book publisher visited her studio, thought her work would be great as an art book, and offered to publish it. It was the first time she was confronted with the suggestion to go with her celebrity moniker.

“At first, I thought it was really important and helpful for people to come in [to see my work] with a clean slate,” she says. “But in the end, it didn’t really matter. The editor said, ‘I think you should just own it,’ and I realized he was right.”

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Her book, Lucy Liu: Seventy Two, consists of 72 abstract ink and acrylic paintings that are inspired by the Jewish mythical concept of the “72 Names of God.” However, instead of the three-letter Hebrew words, Liu creates images inspired by Chinese brush painting and calligraphy. “I liked how the [72 Names of God] chart looks similar to how Chinese characters are presented in boxes,” she says.

“I also love the idea of ink and its permanence,” she continues, contrasting the medium with paint on a canvas. “You can see the image’s history because when you make a mark, it stays. It’s like people and how the choices you make and the scars you have shape you as a person.”

This was a departure from Liu’s previous artwork, which included photographs, collages and larger-scale paintings. But unfamiliarity with a particular type of art doesn’t deter Liu from experimenting with it; if anything, she’s drawn to trying new things. She’s currently working with silk screens, another medium she’s discovering for the first time.

“Part of what I enjoy is just learning the art and its history,” she says. “I didn’t study it professionally, so I like working with someone I know who can teach me. And then I use my imagination to take it to another place. It keeps it fresh, naïve and different.”

Lately, she’s also been throwing herself into the world of directing. Her first directorial effort, the 2011 PBS short film Meena, was based on a child sex-trafficking story in Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. It was an extension of the work she had been doing with UNICEF, addressing children’s issues, including education and nutrition. (Coincidentally, the latest film project she’s been attached to is Evan Jackson Leong’s Snakehead, also about human smuggling, but a story that takes place closer to home, in New York’s Chinatown.)

Last year, she upped her game, taking over the director’s chair for the first time on Elementary, for a second season episode called “Paint it Black,” featuring Sherlock and his estranged brother Mycroft (Rhys Ifans). At the time of this interview earlier this year, Liu had spent her holidays working, planning and creating a shot list for the second episode she was asked to direct — this time, a season three story that will be more challenging to helm because she also has more scenes in it as an actor. “It’ll be a lot more running around,” she says. “I will get my exercise in for sure.”

Liu believes that in directing, she may have finally found an outlet that combines all her artistic passions. “I’m really going on all pistons when I’m directing,” she says. “There’s something so magical about it. You’re in that time-space warp where you’re not even sure how you got there, and you’re so present at every minute that it feels like a maximum heightened state.” She laughs. “It’s like an exam. You cram in as much as you possibly can, everyone’s asking you a ton of questions, and you have a very short time to complete it.”

Though Liu loves to organize and feels comfortable leading the crew, who are all rooting for her to succeed, she admits she’s not the best planner when it comes to future career goals. “I try to be as in-the-moment as possible, which can be good and bad,” she says. “But I’ve been working with the same team of managers for 20 years. I couldn’t do this by myself. You might have an idea or inspiration, but you allow your team to create this world for you.”

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That’s not to say that working in entertainment is always easy — even if you are successful at it. At the end of the day, Hollywood often still doesn’t know what to do with a Chinese American actress, and unfortunately actors can’t always control the types of roles that they’re offered — or if they’re even offered any.

“You live in a limbo-ish world,” says Liu, of the actor’s lifestyle. “It’s an amazing place to grow, and it also can be very frustrating. But isn’t everything?

“It’s not just about being invited to the [Hollywood] community,” she continues. “It’s about living and breathing in it and finding your own space. You have to believe that you have something to offer, before anyone else even sees it. That’s kind of what this business is about. No matter what anyone says to you, whether it’s encouraging or discouraging, you have to listen to your inner voice. Especially if you’re doing art. No one else can do it for you. It’s important to stand behind yourself, because the only thing you can guarantee is yourself.”

To that end, she’s currently working on creating her own official website, which she hopes to launch later this year. She envisions it as a place where she can display all of her art, with proper descriptions she’s writing herself, so she can give her fans insights into her true self — not just the persona we see on film and television. Soon, we won’t have to depend on Google to learn all we want to know about Lucy Liu.

 

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KoreAm Journal Dec/Jan 2015 Cover Story: Randall Park

The Los Angeles native has long entertained fans with scene-stealing spots on television, film and the web. Now, with two major studio projects to his name, the actor talks candidly about working in the industry, diversifying roles and playing the long game.

 

story by ADA TSENG
photographs by JACK BLIZZARD
Every once in a while, Randall Park is approached by fans who recognize him, but it’s rarely for the same reason. It could be for his prolific work in commercials (Chase, Verizon, HBO Go); for his one-time cameo as “Asian Jim” in NBC’s sitcom The Office; or for his recurring part on the HBO show Veep, where he plays Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ nemesis, Governor Danny Chung.

Among a smaller group, Park may be recognized for his work on Nickelodeon’s action-comedy series Supah Ninjas; Wong Fu Productions’ popular YouTube videos; or the web series IKEA Heights, a comedic melodrama filmed guerilla-style inside a Burbank, Calif., IKEA (one of many Park has done for Channel 101, an online outlet for short films).

Despite a diverse range of acting and creative projects, the lack of one defining high-profile role in Hollywood has kept Randall Park largely under the mainstream radar.

That may soon change. In The Interview, Sony Pictures’ big-budget comedy starring James Franco and Seth Rogen, Park plays North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, in an eclectic role unlike any he’s played before. Furthermore, one could say Park’s most high-profile project to date is the much-anticipated ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, a show set to premiere Feb. 10 that is based on the bestselling memoir by Taiwanese American restaurateur and author Eddie Huang.

Park, who plays Huang’s immigrant father on the sitcom, has mostly avoided doing accents in his acting career (“It’s never been a strength or something I loved to do,” he says), but in both The Interview and Fresh Off the Boat, the actor has the challenge of turning accent-inflected characters “foreign” to most mainstream audiences into complex, relatable individuals.

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When Park first saw the script for The Interview, he couldn’t believe there was going to be a big-budget Hollywood comedy about a tabloid television show host (Franco) and his best friend and producer (Rogen) who receive a rare invitation to travel to North Korea and interview Kim Jong-un, only to be enlisted by the CIA to assassinate the dictator during their visit.

The premise for the comedy seemed like such a risky move. Even more unbelievable: how smart the script was, says Park.

“It was not only smart, but extremely sensitive in a weird way,” Park elaborates in a sit-down interview with KoreAm at his home in Los Angeles. “[In] any movie where you have the white protagonist going into the Asian world, you run the risk of having an Oriental fantasy scenario. But the people [the characters] meet in North Korea are driving forces behind the story. At first, you’re seeing things through [the men played by] Seth and James, but at a certain point, you start seeing things through the eyes of the North Korean characters.”

While the film has drawn the wrath of North Korea’s government (which declared it “an act of war”), leading to at least one revised scene, a canceled theatrical release date and speculation that North Korea was behind a recent cyberattack on Sony’s computer networks, the storyline’s context did not go ignored.

“It’s something we talked a lot about,” says Rogen, who also co-produced, co-directed and co-wrote the film, in a phone interview with KoreAm. “We wanted to make sure we made that distinction—that we villainized the regime that rules North Korea, but not the North Korean people.”

The film’s North Korea scenes (shot in Vancouver, British Columbia) depict the social and militaristic fabric of the regime, with actors playing soldiers and armed bodyguards for Kim, including a female communications officer and the visitors’ tour guide, played by Korean Canadian actress Diana Bang.

When Rogen and Evan Goldberg, the film’s co-producer, co-director and co-screenwriter, were searching for someone to play Kim Jong-un, there weren’t a lot of obvious candidates for the role. They knew of Park from small roles in their friend Nicholas Stoller’s films, such as Neighbors, a comedy which also stars Rogen and in which Park plays an AT&T representative who insults Zac Efron’s character, and The Five-Year Engagement, where Park plays Ph.D. classmate Ming, in a part intended to last only a couple lines but which grew when Park’s improvised scenes made the final cut.

Rogen and Goldberg needed someone who could do more than just comedy. They needed someone who could turn a real-life North Korean dictator into a multidimensional, if unpredictable, character—charming one minute, capable of bombing America the next.

“We knew that, ideally, we’d get the audience to a place where they like him, but we weren’t sure if we’d be able to do it,” Rogen says. “And then with Randall, the problem, if anything, became, do they like him too much?”

Though Park is known for his crowd-pleasing comedy chops, it was his dramatic side that Rogen found most impressive; somehow, Park was able to make his character seem both evil and sympathetic at the same time.

“On his very first day, we’re filming a scene where [Kim Jong-un] is at a banquet, screaming, and we thought, ‘Wow. Thank god Randall’s unbelievably talented,’” Rogen says.

“More than any other project I’ve ever done, this gave me the most range of emotions to go through,” Park says. “I got to be scary!”

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For years, those familiar with his work saw Park as an example of how difficult it was to be an Asian American actor in Hollywood, in that a clearly talented actor who not only created great work but also showed versatility could still be hard pressed to land a high-profile role in Hollywood.

But 2015 could be the year that Park’s narrative changes.

“It’s not just that he’s paid his dues and has gradually ascended the ranks—even though he certainly has,” says Brian Hu, artistic director of the San Diego Asian Film Festival. “I think Randall’s been lucky to have never had to be the ‘it’ guy. He’s never failed to live up to anybody’s expectations and has simply stuck to his craft and honed it to the point where he’s become pretty hard to ignore.”

To prepare for his role in The Interview, Park gained 20 pounds and binged on news about North Korea. His research included studying Kim Jong-un’s mannerisms in the HBO documentary seriesVice, when former NBA basketball player Dennis Rodman traveled to North Korea in early 2013 to meet with the North Korean leader.

The trip was a media punchline at the time, but it gave The Interview script sudden credibility. The screenplay was written several years prior to the visit, so when Rodman buddied around with Kim, reportedly a big American basketball fan—and ended up liking him—it unexpectedly paralleled the film’s fictional storyline, in which Kim finds a shared connection with Franco’s character, Dave Skylark (including a taste for margaritas and Katy Perry’s music).

Park, who read the entire script before his audition, came prepared for every scene featuring Kim—good thing, because the producers auditioned him in each scene.

Park’s portrayal of Kim was more vulnerable than the producers envisioned, an acting choice Park made after noticing in the documentary that the North Korean leader was “almost shy” when he meets Rodman for the first time.

Playing a fictionalized version of a real-life dictator required treading a fine line, Park says. “I didn’t want to make [Kim] a one-note villain, but then, you think, ‘Does the real Kim Jong-un deserve that kind of portrayal?’

“But at the same time, a lot of people who watch this movie might not see the difference between Kim Jong-un and a regular Asian guy they see on the street in America,” Park adds. “So I didn’t want to do Asians or Asian Americans wrong by being a caricature, but I also didn’t want to humanize him to the point where people empathize with this guy who’s responsible for so much craziness.”

The result was a nuanced performance he’s really proud of. “I feel like [Rogen and Goldberg] are true masters of their art,” says Park. “For me to be in one of their movies is insane. It’s so great.”

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It’s been an incredibly long road on the acting trail for Park, who has had his share of stops and starts in the industry. He had been doing theater for almost a decade before he landed his first regular gig on Nick Cannon’s improvisational MTV comedy show, Wild ‘n Out, in 2006. While Park has been working as an actor for two decades, it’s hard to pinpoint a breakthrough role. “There have been a lot of things that put me out there but didn’t break me out,” he acknowledges.

“It’s been a very slow, steady progression. I don’t think it’s unusual, but it’s not written about that often because it’s so boring,” Park adds, sitting on a tiny baby seat in the home he shares with wife Jae Suh Park and their 2-year-old daughter, Ruby. (“It’s Ruby’s favorite,” he says, of the polka-dot chair. “Mine too.”)

“People love overnight successes, but mine was really that kind of bluecollar [grind]: start from nowhere and slowly build,” Park says.

Park, 40, was born and raised in Los Angeles, the second son of a mother who worked as an accountant at UCLA and a father who owned his own one-hour photo store. As a kid, Park liked making funny videos, but he never entertained dreams of working in Hollywood. “I always wanted to do something more creative, but it was nailed in my consciousness that it wasn’t possible,” Park says. So instead, acting became a hobby of his he was passionate about.

At UCLA, the English and creative writing major wrote plays. He and two friends started an Asian American theater group called Lapu the Coyote That Cares, known as LCC. (The name is an amalgamation of the three founders’ nicknames: Park’s was “CareMoose.” “Like Care Bear, but Moose,” Park says.)

Twenty years since its founding, LCC Theatre Company has become the country’s largest Asian American collegiate theater group.

Following his undergraduate years, Park obtained his master’s degree in Asian American studies at UCLA, thinking he might want to become a history professor. When he realized academia was not for him, Park worked a day job in graphic design, a skill he picked up creating flyers for LCC shows. All the while, Park continued to participate in low-budget theater on the side for fun.
In 2002, Quan Phung, a television executive then working for Fox, pulled Park aside after one of his comedy sketch shows and told him he should consider acting as a career. “He said, ‘I gotta introduce you to some people,’ and that’s what got me thinking, ‘Maybe I can do this,’” Park says.


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Thus, Park began doing stand-up and improv in clubs around Los Angeles, but years went by with few signs of progress. Not only was he not landing parts, he was barely getting any auditions.

“I was working part-time jobs and just struggling,” Park recalls. “I was pursuing [acting], but always having one foot out the door because it was so hard.”

Four years into his decision to pursue acting full-time, Park nearly gave up: “I thought, ‘My parents are right; this is not a viable career path,’” Park recalls.

There was a brief stint in which Park considered architecture but couldn’t pass his physics prerequisite class. “I had been out of school for so long that I was out of practice!” Park says with a laugh. “So, in part, that kept me stuck, but in a good way, because I kept at [acting], and at a certain point, there was no turning back.”

If he merely waited around to be offered roles, Park probably would have had no choice but to accept small parts. However, by writing his own comedy sketches, stand-up routines and short films for the web, Park got a second wind and eventually found his unique voice and style.

Soon, others filmmakers took notice and started casting him. Nowadays, even if Park is in a small, supporting role, he tends to steal every scene he’s in.

Melvin Mar, co-producer of Fresh Off the Boat, remembers casting the actor for a scene in 2014’s Sex Tape, the Jason Segel/Cameron Diaz film directed by Jake Kasdan, his co-producer on the sitcom. “We were looking for a guy who could do one scene with Rob Lowe and just kill [it],” Mar says. They flew Park in one day to shoot, and by lunchtime, Mar knew he wanted him to star in their next TV project.

In his own scripted work, Park usually plays the eccentric lead, whether it’s the doctor who saves dying patients with his healing bodily fluids  (Dr. Miracles); a struggling restaurant owner who puts drugs in his Chinese food to compete with the chain P.F. Chang’s (The Food); a scientist who accidentally gets conjoined to his father (Siamese Dad); or a cop who catches criminals with the help of his crimefighting baby, played by Park’s real-life daughter, Ruby (Baby Mentalist)Some of these short films have drawn an online cult following.

“Grounded absurdism became my thing—taking dumb things really seriously,” Park says. Yet, there’s the sense that he’s just a big softie at heart. “Looking back to the plays I wrote with my theater group, everything I wrote seemed to always end with people hugging each other,” he says, with a laugh.

In the world of Randall Park shorts, love is more important than anything else. “I think I believe that in real life, so that must translate,” Park says. (Fans of Park’s online work will know many of his web series co-star his wife, who plays the love interest his character is trying to win over.)

Within Asian American entertainment circles, Park is beloved. Hu tells KoreAm that any time he receives film submissions starring Park, there is a guaranteed comedic payoff. (Park was a regularKoreAm columnist for three years, where he wrote candidly about work and family, and has been a popular choice to emcee Asian American galas for his quick wit and self-deprecating humor.)

“I think he really thrives on that very subtle, awkward humor, but it comes from an endearing, innocent place that people can relate to,” his wife says. “I always feel like he can say more with just a shift of his eyeball than most actors or comedians can do in a monologue.”


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The true test of Park’s mass appeal may be the upcoming debut of Fresh Off the Boat, shot at Los Angeles’ Fox Studios. The show takes place in the 1990s and chronicles the misadventures of 11-year-old Eddie Huang (played by actor Hudson Yang) as he and his family move from Washington, D.C., to Orlando, Florida. Park plays Eddie’s Taiwanese immigrant father Louis Huang, who is banking on the hope that his new steakhouse restaurant, Cattleman’s Ranch, will build his family a better life.

The show’s three-minute trailer has already generated a wide spectrum of reactions from Asian Americans—some more wary than others regarding the show’s themes on cultural dissonance and the pitfalls of assimilation.

Yet, Wall Street Journal columnist and culture writer Jeff Yang (incidentally, Hudson’s father) calls the show a “game-changer” for Asian Americans, saying the show’s diverse roster of writers (including Kourtney Kang, Sanjay Shah, Jeff Chiang and Ali Wong) keeps the humor provocative and authentic.

Park understands why Fresh Off the Boat has generated so much excitement, worry, hope and skepticism. While there have been other recent groundbreaking television shows starring Asian Americans—Sullivan& Son, Supah Ninjas, Selfie—never before has a U.S. sitcom on network television portrayed an all Asian American cast, with the exception of All-American Girl,the mid-’90s show starring Margaret Cho that tanked.

Park says he was shocked the Fresh Off the Boat pilot was even picked up. “You just don’t expect that from this industry,” he says. “People won’t invest in an Asian American family.”

The show nearly lost Park from the cast at a pivotal time: the actor wanted to back out of the role because he felt it should go to a Taiwanese actor. “After the pilot got picked up, it all came into perspective for me, and it just didn’t feel right. Plus, the accents, and having to play an immigrant, even though I wasn’t one,” Park says. “I called Eddie Huang in a panic, and he said, ‘Come over, let’s talk about this.’”

According to Park, who has since learned some Mandarin to hone a Taiwanese accent, Huang told him that he was the only one who could play the part.

“I still felt weird about it, but as I was talking to [Huang], I thought, ‘I must be doing this for a reason,’” Park says. “You think about your entire life, and [wonder], why did it take me so long to get here? Why did I have to build so slowly to get here? I think going on this journey made me better. It made me a stronger performer, more confident and more humble, and it made me understand things for what they are.”

If it seems unusual an actor would do so much soul-searching about a role, it’s because Park feels a great deal of responsibility toward a community that has always supported him in the past.

“Why did I go into Asian American studies? Because these issues are important to me,” Park says. “I looked at all my experiences and thought, ‘Maybe I am the right one for the job.’ And as long as Eddie’s cool with it—because I’m playing a version of his father— then I’m just going to try my best.”

Park is aware how much of a gamble Fresh Off the Boat is. Despite top-notch talent behind the scenes—the show’s creator is Nahnatchka Khan (American Dad, Don’t Trust the B—— in Apartment 23) and its executive producers’ credits include New Girl (Kasdan) and Bad Teacher(Mar)—it’s absent of any established stars.

The big question is, can an Asian American story draw enough viewers to keep it on air?

“Every Asian [American] could watch, but if nobody outside the community watches, then the show will probably get canceled,” Park says. “That’s one of the challenges of making a show like this. It chooses to be mindful of the community that it represents, but it has to be entertaining for everybody.”


randall park 1Shirt and jacket by AZUL by Moussy, jeans by Neuw, shoes by Baco Bucci
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Regardless of how well The Interview and Fresh Off the Boat perform with audiences, Park has already gotten farther than he ever expected. Back around 2002, when Park first decided to pursue acting against the wishes of his parents, he didn’t imagine success as a hit TV show or a starring role in a film.

“I just wanted to be a working actor, to be able to pay my rent and get by,” Park says. “I figured I’d make my own projects on the side and that would be my real creative outlet.

“And if I could have a family one day, to be able to take care of my family. That’s all I wanted,” Park adds.

Using Park’s own definition of success, he’s already made it. “I’d say five or six years ago, there was a day when I looked at myself, and thought ‘Oh my God, I’m actually doing it. It’s amazing,’” he says.
What was that moment? One might venture to guess it was the Supah Ninjas’ pilot getting picked up as a series. Or Park’s involvement in Get Him To the Greek, the 2010 film project he worked on with Nicholas Stoller, who would eventually recommend him to Seth Rogen.

“No, it was before that,” says Park. “It was when I got married. After I got married, my life started coming together in a lot of ways.”


randall 4Jacket by Supremebeing, shirt (talent owned)

* * *
One December afternoon, on the set of Fresh Off the Boat, Park—decked out in ’90s gear for his part, including a checkered gray polo shirt, jean shorts that hang to his knees, athletic socks hiked up mid-shin and a jade necklace—talks about meeting Louis Huang in Orlando for the first time. Eleven episodes into shooting, all of Park’s initial reservations about the show have melted away.

“He gave us a tour, we went to the old Cattleman’s Ranch—which is now a Hooters, by the way—and his old coworkers, employees or even people who worked nearby would all stop and want to shake his hand,” Park recalls. “He was so personable. You could see how much people in the community loved him.”

Little does Park know he could be talking about himself. The off-screen dad (who, following a daylong KoreAm cover photo shoot after filming all week for the sitcom, still had time to take his wife and daughter to Disneyland), may just be what America, more specifically, Asian America, needs: an on-screen dad who chases his dreams, makes us laugh and slowly and surely earns the love and respect of his community and beyond.

___
styling by REICHELLE PALO
grooming by LINA HANSON
This article was published in the December/January 2015 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the December/January issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).

ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat Stirs Controversy: “People Are Both Criticizing It and Praising It as This New Hope”

The cast of Fresh Off the Boat

By Ada Tseng

The term “fresh off the boat,” frequently abbreviated as FOB, describes Asian immigrants that have recently come to the U.S. but not yet assimilated into American culture. For Asian Americans born and raised in the U.S., especially in the 1990s — when the new ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat takes place — it was often used as an insult, based on the premise that if assimilation is the No. 1 goal, it was in your best interest to separate yourself from the FOBs, their Nautica jackets, their uncool accents, and anything culturally distinct that you would be horrified if your white friends knew about.

The controversial name of the show comes directly from its source material: celebrity restauranteur Eddie Huang’s best-selling 2013 memoir Fresh Off the Boat, which tells his own gritty, second-generation, Taiwanese American story. A lover of hip hop, where the term “fresh” has a positive connotation (think Fresh Prince of Bel Air), Huang uses the term as a source of pride: In the show, 11-year-old Eddie (Hudson Yang), who has recently moved with his family from Washington D.C.’s Chinatown to the very white suburban neighborhood of Orlando, Florida, learns very quickly that while fitting in (bringing Lunchables instead of Chinese food to school) is necessary for short-term survival, the ultimate goal is to learn how to stand up for yourself and, like young Eddie says, eventually “change the game.”

The Year of the Night Market

By Ada Tseng

Ramen burgers, kimchi fries and pho tacos. Stinky tofu. Spiral-cut fried potato skewers sprinkled with a variety of seasonings. And balls — lots and lots of balls: curry fish balls, fried yam balls, takoyaki squid and octopus balls, kimchi fried rice balls with DMZ sauce, gourmet rice balls with honey Sriracha, crispy tofu balls covered with Vietnamese green crisped rice and spicy orange aioli. Truly, the wealth of options at an Asian American night market can be overwhelming for an attendee. After all, we only have one stomach.

Last October’s OC Night Market — the latest extension of the 626 Night Market that has since branched out from Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley (home of the 626 area code) into downtown Los Angeles and Orange County — was filled with over 200 vendors competing with each other for the attention of 60,000 potential customers. Sometimes that involved shouting Korean BBQ menu items from a loudspeaker or flashing eye- catching disco lights; sometimes it took three half-naked Asian girls encouraging onlookers to buy delicious Vietnamese coffee. But the most effective and envied form of attraction was a long line of customers, signifying the food must be worth the wait.

Though many Asian countries have their versions of outdoor food markets — from Singaporean hawker centres to Korean pojangmacha — the term “night market” was popularized in Taiwan, where these nighttime food markets still remain a key attraction for foreign tourists visiting the country, eager to experience the noisy atmosphere, crowded food stalls, mouth-watering smells and cheap eats that you consume on the spot (or while walking in search of your next snack). According to Taiwan’s government information site, food bazaars that operated at night in ancient China were originally called ghost markets, and contemporary-style night markets began to appear in Taiwanese cities during the turn of the century, when the government actively set aside blocks of streets for permanent night markets.

For Asian immigrants and their second-generation children, night markets elicit fond memories. “I always remember visiting the night markets with my family and friends to eat all different kinds of food,” says Jonny Hwang, the founder of 626 Night Market, who was born in Taiwan but immigrated to the U.S. when he was a child. So when his family relocated to Alhambra, a suburb of Los Angeles with a large Chinese and Taiwanese immigrant population, he wondered, why didn’t they have one?

“There are tons of little businesses and good restaurants, but they all have Chinese menus and signage, so it can be very foreign and intimidating to outsiders,” he says. “Because so much good food is hidden, I thought a night market would be a great showcase for the talent and entrepreneurs in the area.”

Hwang had heard of a couple successful night markets in Vancouver, as well as previous attempts to start a night market in Southern California that didn’t work out. Assuming it had to do with the challenges working with health departments and government agencies, he and his partners went straight to different cities of the San Gabriel Valley with a night market proposal, figuring that if they had the government backing them, the entire process would be a lot easier.

At first, most of the cities in the area were not interested. “The people running their events recreation departments didn’t even know what night markets were, because they weren’t Asian,” says Hwang. “Which is kind of sad, because they serve a very Asian population. They were used to doing their Lunar New Year Festivals, so they figured they already had an Asian event.”

Pasadena was the only place that was interested, because they happened to have an initiative to attract more Asian businesses to the area. So the very first 626 Night Market was scheduled for April 2012, with plans to shut down a couple streets in Old Town Pasadena for the event.

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Hwang’s team was optimistic that they could get 8,000 attendees, but the Pasadena special events folks, who had years of experience planning signature events like the Tournament of Roses parade, tempered their expectations. As first-time organizers, they’d be lucky to get 500 people to attend, they were told. But come event time, Hwang says the team had mobilized hundreds of thousands of people — many of whom ended up stuck in long lines, trapped in walkways like sardines or unable to even get in.

“If we had gotten 8,000 to 10,000 people throughout the day, it probably would have been OK,” says Hwang. “But people were coming from Orange County and Riverside, and all the way from San Diego and Las Vegas.” The surrounding freeways and side streets were packed. A police chopper had to monitor the traffic jams and crowds from above.

Though it seemed like a disaster to attendees (many of whom blasted the event through angry Yelp comments), business-wise, it was a huge success. Vendors were happy because they all sold out, and most importantly, it proved that there was a huge demand for a night market. The 626 team learned a lot of things, and soon, the other cities that had originally shunned their proposal came knocking.

Though 626 Night Market was not the first night market in America — Night Market Philadelphia, for example, though not focused on Asian cuisine, began in 2010 — it has made the biggest impact.

“626 are the ones that really started this night market hype,” says Jeff Shimamoto of The Original Ramen Burger, whose ramen-bun burgers have been a fan favorite since his brother Keizo debuted it in New York in the summer of 2013. “Our type of food probably wouldn’t have existed in a regular food market. It’s when the Asian night markets started popping up that we were able to participate.”

Shimamoto now has a brick-and-mortar of sorts, offering The Original Ramen Burger at a take-out window in Los Angeles’s Koreatown. Tonight, he’s hanging out at the adjacent Lock and Key bar with his fellow night market veteran friends, Phillip and Carol Kwan of Mama Musubi (who specialize in a gourmet version of onigiri rice balls, a popular Japanese snack) and Matthew Hui of Fluff Ice (a Taiwanese-inspired snowflake ice that takes flavored ice blocks and shaves them into what they call “frozen cotton candy”). They’re celebrating the end of another busy and successful night market season.

Since 626 debuted, night markets have opened up in other areas of Southern California, like Koreatown and Little Saigon in Westminster. Hwang himself was contacted for advice or collaboration requests from groups who wanted to start their own night markets in San Jose, San Diego and St. Paul. There are now night markets in Seattle, Honolulu and New York, and the list goes on. Even the team behind Studio City’s Sportsmen’s Lodge 1st Thursdays Night Market, who Hwang remembers jokingly called themselves “the white night market,” wanted in on the action. Now, you might be thinking, isn’t a Caucasian night market just … a fair? Like every single county fair in America? But this was just an indication of how the term “night market” was catching on. It had looped back into the mainstream.

Benjamin Kang, one of the organizers of the KTOWN Night Market and the MPK Night Market in Monterey Park, California (both debuted in 2014), believes it’s a good time for night markets because Asian culture is trending more than it ever has in America. “All my white friends want to come to Koreatown,” he says, laughing, citing the Koreatown episode of Anthony Bourdain’s CNN show Parts Unknown, as well as the numerous Asian American chefs on mainstream TV cooking shows. “They’re always asking me what the best Chinese or Japanese restaurants are in L.A.”

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“I think the food industry revolves around the Asian population,” says Hui of Fluff Ice. “When all the Asian people think it’s cool, then the non-Asians flock to it. Because all the foodies on Yelp are Asian girls named Grace or Nancy.” He laughs. “The Yelp elite start reviewing all these places, and they become the definitive source.”

While 626 Night Market also had creative entertainment to go along with the food — Asian American performers, live art battles, eating competitions and the unveiling of the new Guinness World Record for the largest cup of boba milk tea — KTOWN Night Market made use of their Korean American showbiz connections, bringing together high-profile food celebrities, like the guys behind Seoul Sausage Company, who won Season 3 of the Food Net-work’s The Great Food Truck Race, as well as musicians like rappers Dumbfoundead and Shin-B. Six months later, KTOWN Night Market also hosted a Halloween Food Fest, where there were costume contests and carnival rides.

“Night markets in Asia are open all the time, so they don’t make a festival out of it,” says Shimamoto. “But here, they turn it into a big event, and that’s what makes it fun. We have concerts and beer gardens. And that’s why we get so many people concentrated at one time.”

The Kwans launched Mama Musubi at the first 626 Night Market in 2012. The brother-and-sister duo wanted to test the market and see what people thought about fresh Japanese rice balls. Would people get their gourmet version — with 24-hour braised Berkshire pork belly — or would they assume it was the same as the refrigerated kinds you can get at Mitsuwa supermarkets? Turns out, there was excitement for rice balls not only in the night markets but in non-Asian markets like the Altadena Farmer’s Market, where they are regulars. But though they work these markets and also cater, their ultimate goal is to launch their own store.

Similarly, The Original Ramen Burger started participating in night markets in Los Angeles because California foodies were asking for it. They do pretty well, but they see night markets as a transition into eventually running four to five restaurant franchises.

“There are two crowds of vendors at the night market,” says Phillip Kwan. “Vendors like us who have long-term visions of opening up brick-and-mortars. And others that make a comfortable living for themselves doing festival-type events.”

Some vendors may have a full-time job on the side. Others might be there just for fun. “On the last day of the night market, there were these 15 Vietnamese ladies from Orange County [in the booth next to us],” remembers Shimamoto. “They showed up four hours before everybody else, and they were all perky and ready to go with all their juices. And they said, ‘We all go to the same church, and we decided we were going to come out here and try and sell some lemonade!’” He laughs. “And that’s great! Maybe they’re just doing it once a month for a little money. Or maybe they could become the next Mrs. Fields Cookies. Either way, they were just so happy to be there.”

Hwang encourages it all. “In the beginning, most of our vendors had stores, but we really encourage the ones who don’t,” he says. “It’s such a good platform for people to try new ideas for cheap. Just do it for one weekend. If it’s good and you like it, then do it again. Those are the types of food you can’t eat anywhere else. You have to go to our event to find them.”

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“Phil and I think that the model for starting a restaurant is going to start changing,” says Shimamoto. “In Los Angeles, you see a lot of restaurants come and go. But [working the night markets] is a way you lower your overhead and costs, and it’s a great way to get some exposure while retaining flexibility to work on other things, like food trucks or developing your brick-and-mortar.”

Even Fluff Ice, which already had a store in Monterey Park when 626 first opened, found that attending night markets is just a good way to network, advertise and grow your business. “There’s just so many layers of income you can get with a business like this, whether it’s night markets, school fundraisers or Hollywood catering,” says Hui, who has catered for How I Met Your Mother, Parks & Recreation, The Office and the upcoming film Paranormal Activity 5. They now have four locations in Southern California.

But these Asian American night markets aren’t without its skeptics. In Taiwan, you go to the night market because you’re craving certain foods, whether it be oyster pancakes, ba-wan (Taiwanese meatballs wrapped in gelatinous dough) or aiyu jelly drinks. You’re also expecting a certain atmosphere — makeshift stalls where you see and smell the food being prepared right in front of you — and a certain experience, a.k.a. cheap stuff, whether it be food, shopping or games.

In the beginning, that was the source of some of the disappointment for night market goers in America. It didn’t look right — health codes in the U.S. require covered canopies so it looked like a typical fair. It’s not cheap: there’s usually a cover charge of $5 to $10 just to get in, and everything, even a tiny plate, usually costs at least $5 (which adds up!). And there was a random mix of foods, both Asian and non-Asian, that weren’t necessarily what you thought of as “street food.” (One vendor at a recent KTOWN Night Market was serving up 100 percent grass-fed, organic, pasture-raised Australian bone-in lamb.)

“But I think that’s what makes us different in a good way,” says Hwang. “If you think about the night markets in Asia, it’s all the same foods. We always get a good amount of vendors that are new or tweaking their menu, and it’s exciting to see people experimenting with new things — whether it’s fusion foods like the ramen burger, pho tacos and new types of guabao [Taiwanese pork belly buns] — or if they’re bringing in traditional stuff that we never had before, like yam balls and chicken sausages. It’s a competitive marketplace, so you have to be creative. Don’t do the usual things, or if you do, figure out how you can do it differently.”

“You can’t be stale,” agrees Carol Kwan, who recently collaborated with the Shimamoto brothers to create a one-month-only specialty mash-up: the Mama Musubi 24-hour Pork Belly Ramen Burger. “It’s the same even if you’re in a restaurant. You have to innovate and keep creating something new to keep people coming.”

That said, for every food item that’s worth waiting for in the night market lines, there are many, many more that are underwhelming and overpriced. It’s also hard to tell whether something is innovative or just gimmicky, and with so many copycat renditions of almost the same idea (there’s a reason Ramen Burger changed its name to The Original Ramen Burger), it’s tempting to assume the latter.

But one can only hope that the truly tasty, fusion or not, rises to the top — that the prevalence of night markets are giving those gems a place to grow and a community of like-minded food fans a place to gather.

“One of the major pluses [of the night markets] is how it impacts the current and hopefully the next generation of Asian Americans,” says Christine Chiao, a food writer who’s contributed to LA Weekly and Sunset. “A regular or seasonal night market can be a platform for more than just the vendors. It can become a channel, too, for young Asian American attendees to seek and express their identity.”

So did Hwang ever imagine that the 626 Night Market he created would become such a cultural touchstone?

“Not really,” he says. “At first I really did it for fun, as a side thing, because I knew it’d be something that people would enjoy. I never thought I’d end up working full time to produce night markets.” He laughs. “Who goes to college thinking that? It’s surreal.”

 

 

 

Feature image: 626 Night Market at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California. Photo courtesy of DANNY LIAO PHOTOGRAPHY. This story was originally published in our Winter 2014-15 issue. Get your copy here. 

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Ameriie is Back: New Albums, New Novels, New YouTube Channel

ameriie

By Ada Tseng

Listening to Ameriie talk a mile a minute, it sounds like she’s working on a million creative projects at once. The singer and musician is most known in mainstream America for her 2005 hit single “1 Thing,” back when her name only had one “i.” (The second “i,” which doesn’t affect the pronunciation, was added in 2010 for a different “vibration.”) Since then, she’s released two albums — 2007’s Because I Love It, which was only released abroad, and 2009’s In Love & War, her first release under her own label, Feeniix Rising, which she created with her husband and collaborator Lenny Nicholson. And she has two more in the works (BILI, a nod to the initials of the earlier album Because I Love It, and Cymatika Vol. 1, the first of a trilogy in mind) that are scheduled for a 2015 release.

Ameriie is constantly planning, constantly thinking and constantly putting together vocals, chords, beats and drum riffs in her head, even if she encounters writer’s block and needs to go on a run to tempt inspiration to come. She doesn’t like to write down her ideas, because she feels like it loses some of the magic. (“If the idea is good,” she insists, “I’ll remember.”) And she’ll throw herself into each project. “I always record in the dark, and then I pace,” she says. “I go into a corner and face the wall, so it probably looks creepy.” But after she’s done, she’s on to the next thing. And when she’s not writing, recording or performing music, she’s working on her novels. Yes, novels, plural — one a young adult story and another that has a fantasy theme. She makes it a point to write almost every day, and her drafts and outlines are impressively organized on Scrivener, her choice of writing software she can’t stop raving about.

Audrey Magazine Winter 2014-15 Issue- See more at: http://audreymagazine.com/ameriie-is-back-new-albums-new-novels-new-youtube-channel/#sthash.BubZ2FUU.dpuf

Reshma Saujani’s Girls Who Code and the “Inspire Her Mind” Campaign

by Ada Tseng

In Reshma Saujani’s 2011 Ted Talk, she discussed the importance of encouraging more American youth to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers in order to create jobs and re-ignite our economy. Not only are twice as many degrees being earned in business and social science compared to STEM, she also pointed to a startling gender gap, especially in technology fields. While 58 percent of women earn bachelor degrees, only 25 percent of them are in STEM fields, and only 12 percent of computer science graduates are women, down from 37 percent in 1985. Research has shown that in a poll of fourth graders, two-thirds of both boys and girls claim to like math and science. However, by the time girls graduate high school, only 0.3 percent choose computer science as their college major.

“I think there are subtle things we do to girls that tell them that these fields are not for them,” says Saujani, who provided the voiceover for this summer’s “Inspire Her Mind” campaign, a cultural dialogue ignited by Verizon and MAKERS, a digital platform showcasing stories of trailblazing women from all walks of life. The commercial shows how parents discouraging their daughters from getting their dresses and hands dirty, telling them to be careful around electric tools (while passing them off to their brothers), can really have an effect on girls’ perceptions of what they think they can be.

Audrey Magazine Winter 2014-15 Issue – See more at: http://audreymagazine.com/girls-who-code-reshma-saujanis-nonprofit-encourages-girls-to-pursue-careers-in-engineering-and-technology/#sthash.5eDbY1yd.dpuf

Man From Reno’s Ayako Fujitani As a Mystery Writer

man from reno

By Ada Tseng

When her latest film Man From Reno won the top prize at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival this summer, Ayako Fujitani was initially confused. “Dave [Boyle, the director,] told me, ‘We won!’ and I said, ‘For what?’” she remembers. She laughs. “I had forgotten it was a competition! The project had come such a long way from the [initial] Kickstarter [fundraising campaign]. We had such a tough time even finishing the movie, and we were super happy to even get in the L.A. Film Festival. So when we won, we were super shocked and surprised, in a good way.”

This is the second time the hapa actress (born to Japanese aikido master Miyako Fujitani and American action star Steven Seagal) has worked with Boyle, the first experience being in his 2012 black- and-white indie romance Daylight Savings, in which she had a supporting role as Goh Nakamura’s ex- girlfriend. After that wrapped, Boyle was working on a crime film that started out as a pair of simultaneous mystery stories with vastly different protagonists, a Japanese writer and an elderly sheriff. The sheriff character, who’d eventually be played by Pepe Serna, came from an unproduced screenplay Boyle had written previously, but the Japanese writer Aki was a new addition and written with Fujitani in mind.

“I think she has a unique cerebral soulfulness about her that was perfect for the part of Aki,” says Boyle. “While the sheriff’s storyline is more of a traditional police procedural, Aki’s is a bit more emotional and character driven. She is the classic amateur sleuth, but she has secrets of her own that make her darker than your average heroine.”

Audrey Magazine Winter 2014-5 Issue – See more at: http://audreymagazine.com/get-to-know-actress-writer-and-filmmaker-ayako-fujitani/#sthash.6p6kduel.dpuf

‘Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One With the Universe’ by Yumi Sakugawa

yumi 2

By Ada Tseng

One year after her debut comic book, I Think I’m In Friend-Love With You, artist Yumi Sakugawa has released her second book, Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One With the Universe, complete with nine black-and-white, ink-illustrated metaphysical lessons about how to slow down, appreciate your surroundings, overcome your insecurities and feel more connected with the world around you.

“As a self-help junkie who used to read a lot of self-help books to get through periods of depression and extremely low self-esteem,” she says, “this book is my own way of contributing to the self-help genre, but in a more visual format that is very different from the usual style of self-help books.”

Audrey Magazine Winter 2014-15 Issue – See more at: http://audreymagazine.com/your-illustrated-guide-to-becoming-one-with-the-universe-by-yumi-sakugawa/#sthash.WIegveJY.dpuf

Kathy Uyen in How To Fight In Six Inch Heels

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By Ada Tseng

Growing up in San Jose, Calif., Kathy Uyen worked as an actress in Los Angeles for several years before she got the opportunity in 2008 to work on her first Vietnamese film, Passport to Love. Though she was quickly accepted in Vietnam’s show business world — she received a Best Supporting Actress award at the 2009 Golden Kite Awards (the Vietnamese version of the Oscars) — she still felt like a fish out of water.

“When I first moved to Vietnam, I’d go to [industry] events, and everyone would be dressed up in really beautiful gowns,” Uyen remembers. “And I’m coming from L.A.; we don’t wear gowns. But I had to get all these long gowns made in order to be respectful. I felt like this klutzy girl on the inside. Everyone was all properly posed on the red carpet, and I would just smile and pretend, even though I didn’t know what I was doing.”

After a few years, though Uyen had achieved a certain amount of fame and celebrity in Vietnam, she realized that roles for Vietnamese American women were still few and far between. Though her Vietnamese language skills had become more fluent, she still spoke with an American accent and found herself losing roles to Vietnamese locals. That’s when she decided to take matters into her own hands, come up with a story idea for a film she could star in, and pitch it to producers.

Audrey Magazine Winter 2014-15 Issue – See more at: http://audreymagazine.com/vietnamese-american-kathy-uyen-in-how-to-fight-in-six-inch-heels/#sthash.HYGG6mMg.dpuf

Crystal Kay Is Ready for her International Debut

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By Ada Tseng

Born and raised in Yokohama, Japan, to an African American military father and a third-generation ethnically Korean singer mother, Crystal Kay was constantly surrounded by music. She started singing commercial jingles at the tender age of 4 (“My mom’s friend who owned an advertisement production company would borrow me when they needed a child’s voice,” says Kay) and released her first single, “Eternal Memories,” at 13. Fifteen years and 11 albums later, Kay, 28, is looking forward to branching outside of her Japanese fanbase and introducing her unique sound to American audiences.

Audrey Magazine Winter 2014-15 Issue- See more at: http://audreymagazine.com/japanese-artist-crystal-kay-is-ready-for-her-international-debut/#sthash.ZS0fC7hF.dpuf