“Kids Table” is one of the newest entries in the stable of Asian American-centered online entertainment, a five episode series that follows a group of Chinese American friends and their conversations over dinner at the “kids table.” They fight, they make up, but most of all they eat while dishing about what it means to be Chinese American. It’s the perfect holiday binge for twenty somethings who are stuck at their own family’s “kids tables” and want the feeling of solidarity that only good internet content can give.
The web series uses the comfort of the sitcom format to openly explore matters of identity. Part of this is explicit—in the first episode they joke about who is a “good” or a “bad” Asian, citing things like a stable job and a Chinese significant other, which would net them positive points. They also tackle subjects like whitewashing and commodification. One of the best conversations centers around a mala peanuts, and whether it’s okay for such a product to be sold at Whole Foods. Who made the product? Who is the intended audience of the product? Does it support or hurt Chinese American—and more broadly Asian American—communities? Should we support the product by buying and eating it? These are the kinds of questions the series engages with, and it’s easy to follow because the cast and the setting always stay the same.
By addressing these concepts in the roundtable format, the web series becomes valuable twofold: Chinese Americans get to see these kinds of affable discussions about stereotypes in the US that happen so often behind closed doors, with close friends, but never are captured on screen. With nearly 5 million Chinese Americans in the US as of 2015, this show has the potential to go straight to the heart of so many. “This felt like the true story we both really connected over, that we wanted to tell for other people like us,” co-creator and co-director Vivian Huang told VICE.
But non-Asians also get a glimpse into an Asian friend group, in a way they might never get to otherwise. In this sense it’s also educational. This web series comes at a time where Asian American films are finally having their moment—Pixar made a Chinese centered short film “Bao,” and Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before both redefined the romcom genre, respectively raking in millions in the box office, and becoming one of Netflix’s most watched and rewatched original films. But Asian American visual media has been booming online much longer, and a more accurate progenitor for “Kids Table” would be the work from Wong Fu Productions, an indie digital production company co-founded by Philip Wang and Wesley Chan. Their work has amassed more than 3 million subscribers on Youtube, and their shows are helmed by A-list talent.
Without the pressures that wide release films might have to appeal to the “mass market,” web productions can be more explicitly framed around identity. Wong Fu Productions made the popular web series “Single By 30,” a romantic dramedy on Youtube Premium about two high school best friends who made a marriage pact. It stars Glee’s Harry Shum Jr. and Youtube famous musician Kina Grannis—both of whom were in Crazy Rich Asians—and often jokes in a way that makes you feel like part of the Asian ingroup. Wong Fu also regularly goes viral with comedy sketches like “Asian Bachelorette,” which calls out the lack of Asian representation in the form of a Bachelorette parody with nearly all Asian contestants. Even these comedy sketches are rich with talent, boasting names like Ki Hong Lee (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and Maze Runner) and famous Youtube vlogger Alex Wassabi.
Co-creators, writers, and directors Vivian Huang and Adina Luo originally wrote “Kids Table” as a feature but converted it into a web series because “the ensemble nature of the story lent itself well to something more episodic,” Huang said in a Q&A after a Los Angeles screening. Much like Wong Fu's work, this format was also “more accessible to the general audience,” Michelle Kwong, the Director of Photography, added.
This accessibility helps “Kids Table” successfully marry the personal and the political. Huang and Luo's focus on dialogue makes each character feel real while representing a range of opinions and identities—this range extends from "Constance to Justin, with Constance being someone who is very conscious of how she represents her Asianness,” Luo said, to Justin being more of a westernized goofball. Thanks to the ensemble, Chineseness ends up being part of each of their personalities, rather than a substitute for one. It feels personal, like bitching about appropriation with your best friend or getting a hug from your chosen family. “All of the characters are a sublimation of the people around us,” Luo said, “It was based on the things we went through and saw others go through.”
You grow fond of Anna, the woman who wants to start her own card making creative business, and gets pushback from her friends who mean well but make her feel bad about her decision. This scene is both a projection of the Asian tendency to prioritize financial stability, but also a demonstration of the way this cultural expectation can result in unintentional pain. By episode three, you realize Constance’s privateness is endearing and you cheer along with her friends as she embarks on a romantic relationship. Where Justin and Jonathan were at first annoying, you realize they cut through any scene that’s too lugubrious with their easy charm and stupid jokes. They’ve also clearly taken on a more Western or stereotypically American affect.
It’s the perfect show to watch with your closest friends during the holidays, after you’ve spent a few hours laughing at memes on Subtle Asian Traits, or thumbing through pics of Michelle Yeoh, the Shib Sibs, and screenshots of “Bao” on the “Kids Table” instagram. You'll have "JALA"—the bop in the opening credits, which literally translates to "extra spicy"—stuck in your head until the New Year.
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