One of K-pop’s Biggest International Fansites Is Run From A Laptop in Los Angeles

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Published in LA Weekly

At a performance at KCON earlier this month, Tiffany Hwang, one of nine members of the popular K-pop band Girls’ Generation, recognized a fan in the audience. It was Oanh “Soy” Nguyen — who was particularly noticeable because she’d recently dyed her hair Sailor Chibi Moon pink.

Hwang happened to know that Nguyen’s favorite Girls’ Generation member is her bandmate Yuri, so she brought over Yuri, who waved, flashed Nguyen a heart hand sign and blew her a kiss. The moment lasted less than 30 seconds, but for a die-hard fan it was a dream. And because Nguyen is the founder of Girls’ Generation’s international fan site, Soshified, it was a moment she was quickly able to share with her 176 staff volunteers, 300,000 fan club members and 280,000 Twitter followers, who appeared to be just as excited about it as she was.

Nguyen, 24, works in Burbank as a community manager and strategist at Frederator Networks Inc., which is Hollywood producer Fred Seibert’s animation studio. The majority of her free time outside work is devoted to running Soshified, an international fan community she started in February 2008, when she was 16. The name Soshified is a nod to Girls’ Generations’ nicknames SoShi and SNSD.

Growing up in Florida, where there wasn’t a large Asian-American community, Nguyen watched marathons of Vietnamese-dubbed Asian TV shows to find stories she could relate to. Her love for Korean dramas led her to K-pop, and she was soon captivated by Girls’ Generation, which came up in an industry dominated by boy bands like Super Junior, TVXQ and VIXX.

Nguyen remembers finding a TV series called Girls’ Generation Goes to School online, but she could only track down English subtitles for one episode. She tried joining the Girls’ Generation fan site that had translated the show, but membership was restrictive. So she decided to subtitle it herself. She asked a Korean-American classmate to stay after school with her to translate as she timed and edited new English subtitles into the videos.

“I wasn’t trying to start my own site,” she says. “They just weren’t subbing the videos fast enough, and I figured if I wanted to understand the show, other people probably wanted to understand it as well.”

These days, fan-subbing is commonplace — popular Asian drama sites like Viki and Dramafever rely on the work of passionate fans for subtitling — but back then, Nguyen and her team were making it up as they went along. As their community grew, they pursued bigger projects such as crowd-funding gifts for the band members’ birthdays or anniversaries.

In 2010, when Girls’ Generation was one of many acts to perform at a Hollywood Bowl concert hosted by their record label, SM Entertainment, Nguyen not only helped get 300 Soshified members seats together but also matching glow-in-the-dark T-shirts they all wore as a sign of solidarity. It caught the attention of SM Entertainment, which later contacted Nguyen to help organize Girls’ Generation’s official U.S. fan meet-up, which attracted more than 2,000 people.

“I was very passionate, I had a lot of free time, and I wanted everyone to know about Girls’ Generation,” she says. “I started posting daily about them. I’d email K-pop sites like Soompi and Asianfanatics to tell them to check out the group, and I think Soshified did a lot for Girls’ Generation internationally.”

In 2013, Soshified led a voting campaign that successfully won Girls’ Generation a YouTube Music Award, beating out more well-known acts like Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and Psy.

“People like to complain that K-pop groups always dominate these online vote-based awards,” says Reera Yoo, a writer who has contributed to KoreAm Journal and Hallyu Magazine. “Their fans rally together and vote over and over again. Other fan clubs could do the exact same thing, but they don’t.”

Nguyen thinks most American pop acts don’t have the same type of fan loyalty. “In American pop music, the word ‘fan’ is used more casually,” Nguyen says. “You can be a fan of multiple things, and the focus is more on the music and the craft. That’s not to say Girls’ Generation isn’t about the music, but even if they have a bad single, you still support them.

“I don’t think I’m obsessive,” she continues. “But I’m not a casual fan. I’m committed to helping the community grow and helping the artists become whatever they want to be.”

It’d be easy to dismiss her and her team as mere fangirls, but part of the reason behind Soshified’s success is the legitimate talent within the club. Their latest T-shirt design was done by an artist that works at Marvel. A Soshified poster was designed by a member who does graphics for Pixar. As for Nguyen, she’s basically developed through Soshified the skills to run her own media and production company. One of Nguyen’s proudest accomplishments is that Soshified raised more than $100,000 from fans for various charities over the years, including aid for Japan’s 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami relief and for the Korean Retinitis Pigmentosa Society.

“Growing up, it was weird to be a fan,” she says. “But now, people understand that I’m not just a weird outcast who loves this girl group. They think it’s cool that I’ve created this international community.”

Now Nguyen’s the one with fans — including the girls of Girls’ Generation.

Audrey Fall 2015 Cover Story: Constance Wu

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Constance Wu has had one surreal year. As Jessica Huang on the hit ABC comedy Fresh Off the Boat, Wu not only jumped from a relative Hollywood unknown to a Critics’ Choice nominee for Best Actress in a Comedy Series, she took a character — who could well have been, at best, annoying and, at worst, a hideous cliché — and made her possibly the funniest, most quotable, gif-worthy part of the show. We talk to Wu about how she’s like Jessica (and how she’s not), the most difficult scene to shoot and why she’ll always speak her truth, for better or worse.

Story by Ada Tseng
Photos by Jack Blizzard

 


 

Constance Wu says she can tell if someone is lying to her. “I study behavior,” says the 33-year-old actress who shot to fame earlier this year for her role as the strong-willed Taiwanese immigrant mother Jessica Huang on ABC’s family sitcom Fresh Off the Boat.

“I don’t just listen to the person’s words,” she explains. “I watch how they act, and I have a pretty good gut feeling for when people are being authentic or if they’re trying to push forward an agenda or image. And when it doesn’t come from a sincere place of honest, humble goodness, I can tell, and it turns me off.”

She’s talking about Adnan Syed, whose 1999 murder conviction was recently re-investigated in the podcast Serial. When Fresh Off the Boat, loosely based on celebrity restaurateur Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name, was shooting its first season back in late 2014 (this was before they knew they’d inspire a fanbase passionate enough to ensure them a second season, which premieres September 22), members of the cast and crew were captivated by the other Asian American story that had taken the country by storm. Serial was a podcast that singlehandedly brought the audio storytelling medium into the mainstream, as listeners debated and obsessed over whether they thought the likeable Syed was serving a life sentence for a murder he did not commit. But Wu wasn’t buying his good-guy persona.

“Oh, he’s guilty,” she says, without a doubt in her mind. “I know he’s probably fooling a lot of people, but he’s not fooling me.”

“She’s extremely assured in her beliefs,” says Randall Park, who plays Jessica’s optimistic and good-natured husband Louis on Fresh Off the Boat. Park, who followed the podcast just as closely, is less inclined to assume Syed’s guilt, but he admires his co-star’s conviction. “There’s something really comforting about people who are so confident and so sure, and Constance is very confident in a lot of ways.”

It’s a trait she shares with her on-screen persona, who, despite initially not fitting in with her new clique-ish Caucasian neighbors in Orlando, Florida, knows who she is and is unapologetic about it. Wu remembers meeting the real Jessica Huang for the first time before they started shooting the show: “She yelled in my ear at dinner, ‘My sons tell me I need to be quieter because I’m too loud. You know what I told them? I told them they need to get used to it.’” Wu laughs. “I was like, ‘High five to that.’”

 

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Showrunner Nahnatchka Khan remembers when Wu first came in to audition. Khan and the other producers, Melvin Mar and Jake Kasdan, immediately thought Wu was too young to play the mother of three preteen boys. “But when she got into character, she transformed herself,” says Khan. “She was so funny, and she really elevated the mom character and made it her own.”

Park thinks Wu shares a lot of similarities with her character. “She’s a really tough, strong person, and she’s very opinionated, which is very Jessica,” he says. “But also like Jessica, deep down, she’s very warm, and she holds the people she loves really dear.”

Wu has a knack for making Jessica Huang an over-the-top, disciplinarian mother whom you actually cheer for. Despite the character’s stern exterior, Wu always invokes humor and vulnerability, whether Jessica’s micromanaging the employees at Louis’ restaurant, taking the children’s afterschool education into her own hands, chasing down hooligans who have disrespected her husband and hitting them with her car (or as Jessica says, “You hit my car with your bodies”), or pummeling her son Eddie with a stuffed bunny as a lesson against date rape. In short, Wu’s Jessica has the power to deflate Eddie’s straight-A-earning pimp walk with a single disapproving stare, and yet surprise everyone weeks later with a gif-worthy pimp walk of her own.

“In a lesser actress’ hands, the character could be very unlikeable,” says Khan. “But there’s an honesty in her performance, so you always know where Jessica is coming from, even if you don’t agree with her. Constance can also switch gears within a scene and go from being very loving and supportive to angry and sad and make it seem so effortless. So once we realized she had all these levels she could play, we started writing towards that.”

Wu didn’t always have such control over her emotions. “As a kid, I was so emotional, to the point where it was crippling,” she remembers. “When I was around 4, my family used to reward me if I went through one day without crying, because it was a huge accomplishment. I didn’t like that about myself, because it was embarrassing.”

Even now, she sees her sensitivity as a mixed blessing in terms of her work as an actor. She remembers actually breaking down in tears while filming an episode where Jessica is remembering how she never got the Sparkle Time Beauty Horse toy she wanted as a kid, despite how hard she had worked.

“I wasn’t trying to be funny,” she says. She remembers while filming the scene, she kept pressing her knees together, looking down and rubbing her hands really slowly, which is what she does in real life when she’s trying not to cry. “It was just upsetting me so much, and I was like, ‘I can’t cry! This is a comedy!’” She laughs. “Jessica’s not Constance; she’s not going to get super weepy at the steakhouse.”

 

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Wu grew up in Richmond, Virginia, which she describes as a genteel type of Southern city. “Historically, it was the capital of the confederacy, and it has a long tradition of debutante balls,” she says. “But even though they’re conservative, they speak from a point of education, which is really valued. And there was the Southern hospitality and manners. People there were very welcoming and polite.”

A second-generation Taiwanese American, Wu is the third of four daughters. Her father is a biology professor, though she emphasizes that he went into the sciences for passion, not for profit. (“He’s so obsessed with science that he breeds his own orchids and clones them for fun,” she says.) Her mother was a computer programmer, and her sisters are all accomplished. (“They’re all very smart,” she says. “My oldest sister has a J.D., my second oldest sister has a Ph.D. in policy analysis, and my younger sister is getting a Ph.D. in comparative literature.”) It’s no wonder that Wu, who studied at The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute and graduated from State University of New York Purchase College’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts with a degree in acting, is extremely well-read. References to Franny and Zooey and Hamlet roll off her tongue. She once directed a magical realism short film with puppets called “My Mother Is Not a Fish,” the title being a play on one of the chapters in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. She even spent a summer in a Buddhist monastery in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, because her college self wanted to “go to the woods and live deliberately” like Henry David Thoreau.

 

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When Wu first read the pilot script of Fresh Off the Boat, she actually related to Eddie’s 12-year-old character (played by Hudson Yang), because she remembers trying on different personalities when she was younger to see what fit best: She wanted to be an opera singer. She was a cheerleader for a year. She even went through an emo phase (still in it, she jokes). But once she started performing in plays, she gradually came to believe that acting was her calling, even though she hates it when people overly romanticize the life of a Hollywood actor. “It can be such an ego-driven industry, but in our work, you can’t be afraid to not be the hero and not be a saint,” she says. “It’s the dirty, ugly stuff that gets me going. Being glamorous or pretty or sweet or cool is not even on the table. I don’t even participate in it. It weirds me out, almost.”

In that sense, it must have been a surreal several months since Fresh Off the Boat debuted in February to both critical and ratings success, when Wu quickly went from being a relative unknown (the Logo TV web series Eastsiders may have been her most high-profile credit prior) to a nominee for both the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Actress in a Comedy Series and the Television Critics Association Award for Individual Achievement in Comedy. Now she’s not only having to navigate being recognized by fans but walking red carpets and posing for glamorous photo shoots (the shoot for this story included).

Wu only recently hired a publicist, who is encouraging her to step out of her fashion comfort zone in edgier looks. This past April, pre-publicist, she had gone by herself on a press tour to promote the show’s airing in Taiwan, and she remembers getting off the plane wearing pajamas and glasses, not realizing her hosts would show up wearing suits in 90-degree weather and handing her flowers. She was mortified.

Her fish-out-of-water experience continued, as she remembers feeling a little bit like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation as she did interviews in her American-accented Mandarin and navigated the slightly spastic world of Taiwanese talk shows. (“They do these sound effects live as they’re taping. It’s not done in post-production. There’s a DJ putting in laugh tracks and fart noises as you’re doing the show.”) She remembers a cheesy promo she was asked to shoot where she had to dust a house, look at the camera and say, “Do you know how to be a good mom?” One memorable moment of the tour involved her learning how to make Taiwan’s prized Din Tai Fung soup dumplings, which she realized was a big deal because there were photographs of Tom Cruise doing the same thing in 2013. (“It looked like I was holding two testicles,” she jokes, of having to hold up one soup dumpling in each hand for the cameras. “They were like, ‘Smile!’”)

Though it wasn’t necessarily her style, she went along with it. She figured she was already there, and Wu isn’t one to worry too much about her public image. “There’s this saying that you can’t cheat an honest man,” she says of her philosophy that extends to her sometimes controversial opinions. “But I stand by what I say, and if you conduct yourself to a standard of dignity that you stand behind at all times, then you can’t really slip up.”

This ability to distance herself from press hoopla and Internet chatter was helpful when Fresh Off the Boat, as the first network television show about an Asian American family in over 20 years, struck a nerve within the Asian American community, many of whom had plenty to say — good and bad — about the show almost a year before it premiered, even when all they had seen of it was a three-minute trailer of the pilot.

She found some of the early criticism constructive, but most of it irrelevant: “When I was younger, I was more insecure, but now I can say, ‘Yeah, you know what? You’re right. I could’ve done better. Next time, I’ll do better.’ But other times, I’ll read something and think, ‘This poor person. They’re just bitter and bitchy.’ And you feel sorry for them.

“I honestly think that all of that is deeply rooted in our experiences of shame,” she says, of Fresh Off the Boat’s critics. “Their fear that we were going to be exploiting the very things that other people have made us feel ashamed of and giving them a free pass to hit on these old wounds. I was the yelling [immigrant] mother, and the gut response was that I was going to be a stereotype — even though there are yelling mothers in Italy, Greece, Colombia, everywhere.”

But Wu believes in confronting these false assumptions head-on. “I was talking to a guy friend the other day, and he said when he was a kid, these bullies would make fun of him and call him gay,” she remembers. “And I was like, ‘So? Why is being gay an insult?’ It’s like if someone accuses me of being tall. It’s not true, but I’m not insulted by it. And he was like, ‘It’s different in the South. You don’t know.’ And maybe it is, but the way that we stop that is by not letting it be something that’s insulting.

“In the same way, there are going to be some people who are mad that the character has an accent because, from a Hollywood metric, a Chinese accent is something to be used as humorous fodder,” she continues. “But why are we using their metric? I don’t even dignify that metric with a response. I didn’t exploit the accent. I based my accent purely on character work and the truth of a real person.”

She says sometimes interviewers will ask her to do the accent, but she refuses. “I don’t care if it makes me seem like an asshole,” she says. “It’s not a party trick. I’m not going to do it just to make you giggle. If they want to laugh [at the accent], that’s their business, but I’m not responsible for catering my performance to other people’s idiocy. That’s like kowtowing to the Hollywood metric again, being too PC at the risk of your own authenticity. And if you have to sell out the very colors of yourself to be accepted, then I don’t want to be accepted.”

 

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Before Fresh Off the Boat, Wu admits she didn’t put a lot of thought into the politics of Asian America in the media. She had prided herself in making her own living and not depending on her parents financially after college, so she didn’t have the luxury of being picky about her roles. But nowadays, contributing to the goal of achieving greater representation and more nuanced roles for Asian Americans is a responsibility and opportunity she takes very seriously.

“I’m really interested in supporting talented Asian filmmakers,” she says, though she’s not shy about stating that there are some projects that speak to her and others that don’t. (“I have a very strong sense of what I think is quality, courageous work,” she says.) She recently reached out to a couple filmmakers whose projects were selected for the 2015 Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Labs, including Christopher Makoto Yogi for his feature I Was a Simple Man, and Yung Chang, the critically acclaimed documentary filmmaker (Up the Yangtze) who is working on his first narrative feature, Eggplant. She is also excited about a feature script by writer-director Jennifer Cho Suhr called You and Me Both, which was the recipient of 2015’s Tribeca All Access Grant.

“I’d rather do that kind of movie for free than do a supporting, thankless role in a big budget Hollywood movie,” she says. “So these are the choices I’m trying to make now. That doesn’t mean that I’m only going to do Asian American films, but I’m trying not to take supporting roles. Because I think we should tell Hollywood, ‘No, we’re not just going to be your checklist so you can pat yourself on the back and say you hired an Asian in the second supporting role. I’m going to make you hire me in a leading role. Because we can carry a story, even though you think we can’t. And the only way we’re going to prove that is by not legitimizing their preconceptions.

“Once you’re not trying to cater to this white Hollywood idea of cool, you accept your own level of cool,” she continues. “It’s why Empire is such a success. They’re embracing their own legacy.”

And then comes that glimmer in her eye that seems so Jessica Huang. “Asians have our own level of cool,” says Wu. “We’re good at everything.”

Cue the pimp walk.
Styling by Sarah Kinsumba 
Hair by Derek Yuen, Starworks Group 
Makeup by Tamah, The Wall Group 
Manicure by Kait Mosh 

 

This story was originally published in our Fall 2015 issue. Get your copy here

– See more at: http://audreymagazine.com/audrey-fall-2015-cover-story-constance-wu/#sthash.xTyoCg3t.dpuf

The Road Untraveled: It’s Never Too Late to Chase Your Dreams

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.”


 

Landscape architect-turned-saxophonist Richard Liu

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.

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Reaching 50 Years, East West Players Soldiers On

timdang

 

Tucked inside the Union Center for the Arts in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo District sits the David Henry Hwang Theater, home to East West Players, the country’s first Asian American theatre organization that is celebrating a milestone 50th year.

A lot of history has been made at East West Players, as the framed posters lining the wall by the theater’s interior staircase illustrate. There’s one of Hwang’s 1988 Tony Award-winning M. Butterfly, revived in 2004; a 2000 production of My Tired Broke Ass Pontificating Slapstick Funk starring John Cho; and actor George Takei in a 2005 production of Equus.

Those who grew up with East West Players know that the posters only tell part of the story.

Decades before the theater would be named after him, Hwang spent much of his childhood hanging around rehearsals, since his father did the company’s accounting and his pianist mother provided musical accompaniment. Takei’s portrayal of a tortured psychiatrist in Equus partly inspired his decision to come out publicly as gay. And Cho’s onstage love interest in My Tired Broke Ass Pontificating Slapstick Funk, an “anti-romantic” comedy by Korean American playwright Euijoon Kim, was played by none other than Cho’s future wife, actress Kerri Higuchi.

The esteemed company has always been more than just a showcase for art and emerging talent—it’s created 50 years of community.

Cul-Stage-AM15-EWP1East West players’ very first production, Rashomon.

Nearly 15 years ago, “you really couldn’t be an Asian American actor without having something to do with East West Players,” remembers Stefanie Wong Lau, the company’s former marketing director who went on to co-found Artists at Play, an independent Asian American theatre company. “I can’t count how many times [Asian Americans] would contact us and say, ‘I just moved here, and I was told I need to come by and meet people.’”

Consider that more than 75 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islanders in acting unions in Los Angeles had worked at East West Players, according to a 2006 interview Tim Dang, the company’s current producing artistic director, gave the Los Angeles Times.

Indeed, its alumni consists of a notable roster of Asian Americans, including many Korean Americans, such as Daniel Dae Kim, James Kyson, Ki Hong Lee, Jacqueline Kim and C.S. Lee, who recently returned to the stage to perform Animals Out of Paper, Pulitzer Prize-finalist Rajiv Joseph’s play about a world-renowned origami artist.

Today, East West Players has the distinction of being the longest-running professional theater of color in the U.S. Back in 1965, a group of nine Asian American artists, frustrated with the lack of non-stereotypical roles for Asian Americans in Hollywood and influenced by the American Civil Rights movement, formed the troupe, holding rehearsals in the Bethany Presbyterian Church in L.A.’s Silver Lake district. There were few Asian American playwrights at the time, so the company staged European and Japanese works (its very first production was Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon, the source material for the award-winning 1950 Akira Kurosawa film).

Cul-Stage-AM15-EWP2John Cho, center, in Ikebana.

It wasn’t until the 1970s—the company had moved into a 99-seat black box theater in Hollywood by then—that developing original works by Asian American playwrights became a tangible goal. Korean American founding member Soon-Tek Oh penned the first original productions, includingMartyrs Can’t Go Home, a play about the Korean War.

In 1998, East West Players moved into the 240-seat mid-sized equity house where it is based today. It boasts an average 10,000 audience visits per year and annually produces a full season of original Asian American works, as well as re-stagings of plays and musicals. Its 50th anniversary season, currently underway, included the world premiere of intercultural comedy Washer/Dryerand The Who’s Tommy, a classic rock musical based on The Who’s 1969 double album rock opera which opens May 7.

Many veterans of East West Players have gone on to form niche production companies, including Cold Tofu, a comedy improv and sketch group; here-and-now theatre company; Lodestone Theatre Ensemble, which spun out of Oh’s Society of Heritage Performers, a Korean American ensemble that staged provocative works dealing with themes of sex, drugs, violence and religion; and Artists at Play. Since 2011, the latter has specialized in bringing to Los Angeles Asian American plays that have already found success around the nation.

East West Players’ reputation as the premier Asian American theater in the country is built on a long legacy, and one of its challenges has been persuading the broader theater community to let go of the boundaries separating “ethnic” theater from “mainstream American” theater.

Though crossover productions exist, including Allegiance, a musical starring Takei about Japanese Americans in U.S. internment camps set to open on Broadway later this year, Dang feels there is still a long way to go before mainstream theater begins to truly reflect the experience of people of color—who, by 2042, are expected to outnumber non-Hispanic whites. Dang recently launched a diversity initiative called “The 51% Preparedness Plan,” which challenges mainstream theaters to diversify their personnel to include 51 percent women, youth or minorities over the next five years.

Cul-Stage-AM15-EWP3Daniel Dae Kim in Golden Child.

“I think TV and film are getting the message really quickly and starting to have a lot more people of color onscreen,” Dang says. “They’re realizing this is the way they need to do business now. But theater is behind the curve.”

Another challenge to the established theater group is the fact that young Asian American talent, plus their audiences, is increasingly flocking to the digital medium.

Over the last several years, many theaters whose mission was to promote Asian American artists and storytellers have either scaled back operations or shut down completely. Thus, for a company that created the Asian American theater scene five decades ago and continues to lead it, seeking new ways to stay relevant and attract new audience members is a priority.

For example, while the leads in Washer/Dryer were Indian American and Chinese American, the supporting roles included a Caucasian neighbor and a gay African American best friend. In its casting call for The Who’s Tommy, East West Players sought out Latinos, Middle Eastern Americans and Native Americans.

“We need to practice what we preach,” Dang says. “And that means we have to open up and be more inclusive. There will still be an emphasis on Asian Americans, but Asian Americans don’t live in a vacuum.

“I’m on the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation, so it was a big thing to be proud to be Asian because we were so invisible,” Dang adds. “But if you talk to the younger generation, the thinking is different. They are individuals of many intersections. And I’m happy to see that we’ve progressed in a way that Asian Americans are comfortable being part of the [greater American] community.”

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All production stills courtesy of East West Players

This article was published in the April/May 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the April/May issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).

Cast these actors

Manish Dayal's Twitter profile photoDaniel Henney

Was asked to name 5 Asian American leading men who deserve more screen time in this PRI story: How many Asian Hollywood stars can you name? Right, it’s not easy

Listen to the story here

Cast these actors

Ada Tseng, long-time editor of Asia Pacific Arts and frequent contributor to Audrey Magazine — including the Haikus With Hotties feature, which is exactly what it sounds like — gets us ahead of the casting agencies with these five picks of Asian American men who deserve more screen time.

Manish Dayal

Manish Dayal's Twitter profile photo

The South Carolina-born Indian American actor is best known for playing Hassan Kadam in 2014’s The Hundred-Foot Journey, where he goes from clean-cut, small-town ingenue to slick, bearded, successful-but-frustrated culinary star. But what Hollywood should really do is let him use his real-life Southern accent in a film. Even his co-star Dame Helen Mirren called it “sexy.”

Daniel Henney

Daniel Henney

Credit:Phil McCarten/Reuters

The Korean-Irish American actor is already a heartthrob in Korea, and he’s shown he can carry an American film in the independent romantic comedy Shanghai Calling, but Hollywood seems to only know how to cast him as a supporting character. You can make him a cop; you can make him a villain; even if you make him wear glasses, no one will complain about him being a Asian nerd stereotype, because he’ll just look like a really hot professor.

Daniel Wu

Daniel Wu's Twitter profile photo

The Chinese American is another veteran actor who is already a star in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, but the closet he’s gotten to a Hollywood crossover is co-starring with Kevin Spacey in 2011’s Inseparable. But fall 2015 brings AMC’s martial arts drama Into the Badlands, Wu’s first starring role in an American TV series, which will hopefully make him a household name here as well.

Ki Hong Lee

Ki Hong Lee's Twitter profile photo

Before the Korean American actor set hearts aflutter as Minho in The Maze Runner, young fans around the world knew him from his popular YouTube videos with Wong Fu Productions. But with his role in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, he showed he could even play a heavily-accented Asian immigrant named Dong that looks like an offensive stereotype but turn it into a lovable, three-dimensional character, allowing us all to breathe a sign of relief that it was okay for us to continue to worship the show’s producer, Tina Fey.

Johnny Trí Nguyễn

If Hollywood is looking to cast a good-looking, muscular Asian American action hero, Johnny Trí Nguyễn is kind of a no-brainer. Already a star in Vietnam, the Vietnamese American actor got his start working as a stuntman in films like Spiderman 2 and Jarhead. Even Bollywood has come knocking.

 

Bullet Train Episode #004 Japanese Romance Simulation Games

Otome has been extremely popular in Japan since the mid-1990s, but American gamers are just starting to realize how fun it can be to live out a romantic fantasy in a virtual world. But what can we learn about love from Japanese romance simulation games? We talk to Voltage game producer Michael Nakada, otome fan Eugenia Fung, and psychiatrist Ravi Chandra to find out.

Click here to read the article

Check out me and Bullet Train producer Brian Hu on the KollabCast podcast, Episode 13.

And my segment with producer/editor Craig Stubing on Traktivist Radio Episode #8.

Hardly Elementary: Spring 2015 Cover Story Featuring Lucy Liu

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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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