'East of Main Street: Taking the Lead' Is a Refreshing Look at Asian-Americans in the Media

HBO's 'East of Main Street: Taking the Lead' is a sympathetic portrayal of Asian-American actors, but even the upper-tier ones don't feel as if they've made it yet.

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May 8 2015, 12:17pm

Even though we're right in the middle of AAPI Heritage Month, it's been a pretty annoying week of TV out here in Asian America. Floyd Mayweather danced away our best hope of an Asian guy in boxing's top spot (and, since they've never had an identifiably Asian cast member,

SNL cast

a white woman

as Pacquiao); the Chinese-themed Met Gala showcased some questionable fashion; and, to top it off, The Mindy Project got the machete.

But then, they're all annoying weeks, so it's refreshing to watch HBO's East of Main Street, Jonathan Yi's documentary series about contemporary Asian-American life. Released in annual installments since 2010 and partly available on YouTube, the series takes an admirable run at the 110-percent futile task of conveying the experiences of some 19 million Asian-Americans in interviews: immigrants, adoptees, artists, children, a gay minister, a trans man. The tent gets bigger.

Last Wednesday I ironed a cardigan and shuffled over to a fancy studio in Chelsea to attend the premiere of the latest episode, "Taking the Lead," which focuses on Asian actors, the perfect excuse for an invite-only Manhattan media shindig: the HBO logo projected onto exposed brick, DJs, press walls, reserved seating, event coordinators with twirly-corded earpieces. The catering was deep. All this hoo-hah, just for us Asians? I was honored. A publicist greeted me and thanked me for wearing a red shirt because it made me "stand out," and I chose not to assume that she'd have trouble telling me apart otherwise—that's how honored I was. I ordered free cocktails until showtime.

Trailer to 'East of Main Street: Taking the Lead' (2015)

In just over 41 minutes, the film's earnest and sympathetic interviewees deliver familiar laments about Asians in the media: 1) There are barely any, 2) The few available roles are mostly small and stereotyped, and 3) The so-called " Bamboo ceiling" excludes Asians from lead roles and the highest levels of success. Which is the only kind of success that'll satisfy their parents—Asian artists often fight not just against industry indifference but strong parental discouragement. (When I asked the actress Katarina Zhu's mother how she felt about her daughter's work, she said, "I feel torn—I'm really proud of her for pursuing her passion, but as a mother, I wonder how she's going to make a living." Shifting on her plush white leather bench, she added: "But this event does make it more meaningful.") The film drew squalls of laughter and applause from the audience, collectively appreciating that if we can't be stars on TV, at least we can complain about it on TV.

Afterward, while eating a dozen samosas more or less simultaneously, I wondered if "Taking the Lead" wasn't a bald misnomer. None of the audience members I spoke to even recognized any of the actors except Lucy Liu and Aasif Mandvi, and all the others are best known for secondary roles: Lost's Daniel Dae Kim, Silicon Valley 's Jimmy O. Yang, Desperate Housewives' Lucille Soong, etc. And the only recent Asian leads have been John Cho in the swiftly cancelled Selfie, and the talented Randall Park and Constance Wu in Fresh off the Boat, a network sitcom that even the author of the memoir it's based on, VICE contributor and host Eddie Huang, blasted as "an entertaining but domesticated vehicle to sell dominant culture with Kidz Bop, pot shots, and the emasculated Asian male."

"I don't think we're there yet," the director Jonathan Yi admitted during the discussion panel. "I haven't seen the Asian-American experience that's not somewhat orientalized or specialized in some sort of way." Later, Yi told me that "Taking the Lead" focused on three tiers of actors—successful celebrities, not-quite-famous working actors, and hopeful novices—but that even the upper-tier actors hadn't felt like they'd made it. In fact, most Asian actors are rather desperate and uncertain, and perhaps this accounts for all those stab-worthy Asian characters, from the Donger to Han Lee.

Jimmy O. Yang at the premiere of 'East of Main Street' in New York City, May 6, 2015. Photo credit: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images. Courtesy of HBO

I asked Jimmy O. Yang whether he had qualms about playing a character who speaks broken English in Silicon Valley. "I did have an accent," he said. "I moved here when I was 13, and I went to school with guys like that, I was a guy like that. Jian Yang was me ten years ago. Real people have accents. I don't judge them. I just try to play the role as realistically and truthfully as possible."

Along the same lines, Mandvi said, "The important thing is to just keep working. Sometimes you may get roles that aren't what you want to be doing, but you try to find the humanity in it, you try to make it your own." He added that there were better roles available these days, with the caveat that Asian actors should still write their own content, too: "It's important to tell those stories, and tell them as part of the American story."

Aasif Mandvi at the premiere of 'East of Main Street' in New York City, May 6, 2015. Photo credit: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images. Courtesy of HBO

HOT 97's Miss Info championed a similar approach of measured, tactical compromise for Asian artists. "When you do something that is non-inclusive, but really good, sometimes the audience will come to you," she said. "But if you can find a middle ground of doing something that's authentic to you, but also welcoming to people who don't have that experience and don't owe it to you to do the work to understand you, I think you can transform pop culture."

Some people might make squeaking noises about how Asian media representation is far from the most pressing racial issue in America right now. But obviously we don't have to choose between Ferguson and Hollywood, and Asians shouldn't be nudged aside yet again and persuaded that even our problems are second-class. "The racial dialogue is not separate," Mandvi said. "The stuff that's happening in Baltimore and Ferguson affects Asians and South Asians and Muslims and Jews... I don't think you can parse out institutionalized racism and say, 'That's what black people deal with.' As minorities and immigrants, as anyone who's on the other side of institutionalized racism, you can't say what's happening in Ferguson is not our problem."

The right to not get murdered by cops, the opportunity for stardom—both fall under the headings of equality and dignity. We have to have it all. Sometimes we can get it catered.

East of Main Street: Taking the Lead is available on HBO Now and HBO Go through May 31.

Jenny Zhang contributed reporting to this piece.

Tony Tulathimutte is the author of Private Citizens, a novel forthcoming from William Morrow in 2016. Follow him on Twitter.

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