Emil Guillermo: Is "Fresh Off The Boat" historical or the taming of Eddie Huang?

February 4, 2015 4:45 PM

Eddie Huang, producer, chef, memoirist, former lawyer, all-around bad dude, and self-proclaimed "human panda," was born in Washington, D.C. on March 1, 1982. 

He was in diapers when I was well into my television news career, the first Filipino American on one of the big three network affiliates in San Francisco. I know the struggle of being an Asian American in the white mainstream media. And I know what it's like when you don't fit the mold for mass consumption.

That's why I admire the hell out of what Huang has done. He's a real Asian American male living larger than life, or larger than life usually allows us, especially in the media.

If you saw the debut of his "Fresh Off the Boat" on ABC, then you know it's smart and funny, way more than your average network sitcom. 

Plus, it's full of Asian Americans. Real enough? We'll get to that in a bit. Let's say it's a bit better than the Asians you'd find at Madame Tussauds.

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The ensemble cast includes Randall Park (Kim Jong-Un in "The Interview") as Louis, Eddie's dad, who plays the striving restaurant owner. It's not just some take-out place in D.C.'s Chinatown; it's a franchise steak joint in suburban Orlando. Louis is married to Jessica, Eddie's mom, played to comic perfection by Constance Wu. And then there's 11-year-old Eddie, played by Hudson Yang, who could become multicultural America's post-hip-hop "Beaver Cleaver."

Just from an invisibility standpoint, the arrival of "FOTB" deserves a massive fist pump.

Through the years, we haven't had much representation.

The first Asian I ever saw on TV was a Filipino guy in 1959 named Poncie Ponce (real name Ponciano Hernandez, a Filipino American born in Maui). He played Kazuo Kim, the cab driver in ABC's "Hawaiian Eye." (Any Connie Stevens fans out there?) 
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I was just four, but it made an impression on me. I learned it wasn't really that cool to be Filipino or Asian on TV. Not in Hollywood. And certainly not on the news.

There was another Filipino on that show named Leon Lontoc, who usually played a storekeeper, but ended up as Gene Barry's driver on the network show, "Burke's Law." Lontoc was typical of the Asian American actor. His character list includes "Chief Watu Watu" in the sitcom, "McHale's Navy." He's been a Chinese grocer in "Ironside," a houseboy on "Mission Impossible," and on "Bonanza," he was Ah Yee. Maybe he was Hop Sing's buddy?

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It doesn't really get any better. A short list of Asian Americans in sitcoms includes the late Filipino American actress Sumi Sevilla Haru, who appeared in "M*A*S*H" and "The Beverly Hillbillies." She was also the SAG-AFTRA leader who in her later years fought for better roles for Asian Americans. And let's not forget the legendary Japanese American comic actors, Jack Soo in "Barney Miller," and Pat Morita, who before the "Karate Kid" was on "Happy Days." 

Forgive me if I left out anyone. But can you see why it was a big deal when comedian Margaret Cho burst on the scene in 1994's "All American Girl"?  

Asian Americans went from bits in your white fried rice to the whole damn main course. 

Unfortunately, the show was a product of the times and indicative of a society still struggling to deal with the notion of a multicultural America. "All American Girl" was off the air by 1995. Thirty years after the Civil Rights Act, Asian Americans were still relatively invisible. And most of society had no problem with our lack of inclusion.

Now 20 years after Cho's cancellation, 50 years after the civil rights law, "Fresh Off the Boat" gives us a whole new Asian American family on TV.

It's not better than getting more family reunification provisions in immigration reform, but it's close.

"FOTB" passes the invisibility and representation tests.  We're back in prime time.  And there's still an ethnic flavor. We're not coincidentally Asian, like Mindy Kaling's "The Mindy Project," or Lucy Liu's Watson in "Elementary," or Aziz Ansari in "Parks and Recreation."  

At its core, "FOTB" is still the story of the modern Asian American family. 

That's not to say there aren't some problems in translation from Huang's book.

Huang's memoir is all-Huang, all the time. A sitcom is still a sitcom. It left me with a lot less Huang than I was expecting.
 
If Huang served up real cheddar in his book, "Fresh Off the Boat," the sitcom version is pure Cheez Whiz.  Processed cheese product.

Eddie is Orange Juice--with pulp--versus Sunny D smooth.

Street vendor taco versus Taco Bell.

Eddie is the former; ABC's "FOTB" is a lot more of the latter.

Apparently, even Huang sensed that based on what he wrote in New York magazine last month. 

eddiehuang.jpg"My story had become an entertaining but domesticated vehicle to sell dominant culture with Kidz Bop, pot shots, and the emasculated Asian male," Huang wrote. "I got upset when they dressed Randall like a Fung Wah bus driver or Hudson like an And-1 yard sale or Constance like the Crocodile Hunter with kitty-cat heels. We couldn't go out like this!"

But Huang eventually was able to--as Filipino American composer Robert Lopez might say--let it go.

Especially after "the scene." That would be when the show dealt with Eddie being called a "chink" in school. It's a topic fitting the tradition of sitcom morality dilemmas. Jeremy Lin gets called a "chink" in real life, and the situation starts a ruckus. The epithet moment in "FOTB" is worthy of the Sitcom Hall of Fame. It makes the show not so much about our authentic Asian-ness, but more about how our universal family stereotypes can help us find common ground with others.
 
It got to Huang.

"After 18 months of back and forth, I had crossed a threshold and become the audience," wrote Huang. "I wasn't the auteur, the writer, the actor, or the source material. I was the viewer, and I finally understood it. This show isn't about me, nor is it about Asian America. The network won't take that gamble right now....The only way they could even mention some of the stories in the book was by building a Trojan horse and feeding the pathogenic stereotypes that still define us to a lot of American cyclope. Randall was neutered, Constance was exoticized, and Young Eddie was urbanized so that the viewers got their mise-en-place. People watching these channels have never seen us, and the network's approach to pacifying them is to say we're all the same. Sell them pasteurized network television with East Asian faces until they wake up intolerant of their own lactose, and hit 'em with the soy. ...It doesn't sound like much, but it is."

Homogenized Asian American on TV is better than no Asian American at all.

And that's how Eddie Huang got on board with his sitcom-self. "FOTB" is sanitized for America's protection. Plus, I'm sure he's getting paid.

If he's down with it, so am I. And I'm not getting paid. I'm just glad a real void has been filled. 

Recently, my TV viewing hasn't had much in terms of Asian sightings.

In the most watched TV show ever--the Super Bowl Halftime show--- there was an Asian American up there with Katy Perry. But who knew the rogue #leftshark was Asian American Bryan Gaw until he took off his damn shark head.

On my staple shows, "House of Lies" does have a skateboarding Asian American internet company owner.

On "Girls," Lena Dunham outs a "gaysian" in her writer's workshop. It's the Asian male stereotype Hollywood loves. 

On "Shameless," another gaysian performs oral sex on a Westboro Baptist-type minister in order to shame him on social media. I guess that makes the Asian American character heroic?

And just for good measure, this week on the NBC soap "Days of Our Lives," another gaysian sighting, a Japanese American comes out to his mother and grandfather.

It's no different from the old Three-Network days. We're just flecks of updated stereotypes (from emasculated male to gay male) sprinkled across a new landscape of a thousand channels.

If you want unadulterated Eddie, on Vice's food channel, Munchies, you can still catch him in all his "Huangderful-ness." "Huang's World" is foodie Eddie as the Asian Kardashian. It's his memoir in reality TV form for those who want the mainline BaoHaus experience.

For the Velveeta "melting pot" sitcom experience, that would be "Fresh Off The Boat." But there's a lot of upside. It takes some time for a show to find itself. If "FOTB" grows and develops, it could become a multi-season hit, an enduring milestone for Asian Americans, and an antidote to the Ah Yee and Hop Sing images in TV's past.

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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.
The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF's views or policies.


Posted by:Emil Guillermo

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the views or policies of AALDEF.

3 comments

1. Right on Emil...great that you always tell it like it is, despite the fact that some will disagree.
Posted by: Corky Lee | Feb 6, 2015 9:58 AM

2. Thanks Emil for the memories of Asians coming so far on TV with so little. "You don't have to pretend to be someone else in order to belong," so says Eddie Huang. I'm with him on that and with Corky and Emil on FOTB. Whatever run it has, it's better than no run at all. After all, it's now a 2015 audience and not a 1995 one. Would love it if FOTB gave a guest cameo to Margaret Cho while the Huang family was watching "All American Girl" and mocking 1995 TV culture. That would be a first!
Posted by: sjx | Feb 7, 2015 5:07 PM

3. Here's a video that humorously yet truthfully captures what Asian American actors face today: http://youtu.be/qOwBGPkY0ZU
Posted by: Ann | Feb 8, 201510:27 AM


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