Asian American Media Milestones in 2016

"Future generations can look back at 2016 as the year that Asian American representation finally became a topic of conversation."

The year 2016 started off with whitewashing controversies, from Emma Stone cast as a part Native Hawaiian/Chinese American in Aloha and Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in a Shell, to Tilda Swinton cast in a Tibetan role in Dr. Strange. But Asian America clapped back with #whitewashedout, with some heavyweights like Margaret Cho, the Nerds of Color crew, and more leading the conversation.

In Hollywood and beyond, there were many milestones to celebrate. From the literary field to television, it seems that narratives about Asian Americans have finally burst open. There were voices pushing from the outside, as well as the inside, for better representation. Creatives continue to put forth quality and moving work. There were many noteworthy accolades, including a Pulitzer, MacArthur, Golden Globes and Emmys.

CAAM staff and community members shared their favorite positive milestones in 2016 for Asian Americans in media.

Television and Netflix


Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari’s Emmy Awards Speech

“I was in tears just watching Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari walk up to the stage to accept their Emmy for Best Writing for a Comedy Series. All of the recognition Master of None has received this year after an incredible premiere at the end of 2015 has been well-deserved, and it’s just so inspiring to see two Asian American creators win the Emmy for writing such a candid and emotional episode about the relationship between second-generation kids and their immigrant parents. It’s also been encouraging to see the huge response a series created and led by Asian Americans has received from audiences and critics. It shows that our stories are relevant, our voices are important, and our creators and talent deserve opportunities that have traditionally been unavailable to us.” —Traci G. Lee, writer/producer and managing editor, NBC Asian America

Fresh Off the Boat Goes to Taiwan

“The best part of 2016 was Fresh Off the Boat got to GO TO TAIWAN! No one’s ever done that before, we had a really great time, and I basically ate everything.” —Hudson Yang, actor, Fresh Off the Boat

Asian American Shows on TV and Netflix

“This was a strange year for Asian Americans in media, full of unpleasant and weird moments that felt like flashbacks to earlier and darker eras of Hollywood. At the same time, it’s amazing to think that we’ve arrived at a point where television viewers can now regularly tune into five separate shows depicting very different Asian American families — from Netflix’s Master of None, featuring the real-life parents of star Aziz Ansari, to CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, showcasing the antics of the extended Filipino American fam of Vince Rodriguez III’s Josh Chan; from Mindy Kaling’s single mom on Hulu’s The Mindy Project, to Ken Jeong’s multiethnic Park clan in Dr. Ken, to the post-immigrant parents and kids of Fresh Off the Boat. It’s the first time we’ve been able to look around and see ourselves reflected in such amazing diversity, and as we huddle at home with our own clans, that should warm our hearts.” —Jeff Yang, writer, media consultant, and dad of Hudson Yang

Kourtney Kang’s New NBC Comedy About Growing Up Mixed Race

“I was particularly pleased to hear when NBC approved a new comedy created by Kourtney Kang, Nahnatchka Khan, and Fred Savage. While the title of the show has yet to be disclosed, it’s been said that it is based on Kang’s life, as it follows the only girl of the only mixed race family in the Philadelphia suburbs, and how she deals with the issues of race and gender. I consider it a positive milestone, as it shows that the TV industry is starting to understand how valid it is to see different kinds of Asian American families onscreen, beyond Fresh Off the Boat. It also is progressive in the matters of acknowledging and shedding light on the ever-growing number of mixed race families that exist in the United States, especially as we approach the 50th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia this June.” —Lauren Lola, author and CAAMFest screening committee member

Ali Wong’s Baby Cobra

“Ali Wong’s Netflix special Baby Cobra was a great milestone. Not only was it hilariously entertaining in Ali’s smart and raunchy way, but she she filmed the special while she was 7 months pregnant. That was a statement in itself. She’s normalizing pregnant women and mothers. They’re not these delicate reproductive goddesses. They work and tell filthy jokes and do what they want. It’s gratifying to see how far she’s come since we put her on the cover of Hyphen magazine in 2007.” Melissa Hung, founding editor of Hyphen

Asian American Women Comics

“In addition to Ali Wong’s hilarious Netflix special Baby Cobra (can anyone look at a dolphin the same way ever again?), I’m glad to see other Asian American women comics getting more attention. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s Tess Paras went viral with her ‘Make Your Face Great Again’ video, and Jenny Yang took on Bon Apetit’s Columbusing of pho with her parody video channel Bad Appetite magazine.” Grace Hwang Lynch, freelance writer and HapaMama blogger


Expanding the Conversation: Asian Americans in Media panel. Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images
Expanding the Conversation: Asian Americans in Media panel. Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images

Expanding the Conversation: Asian Americans in Media Event

“On November 2, CAAM held a forum in Los Angeles with Comcast and NBCUniversal, as well as their diversity and inclusion talent development program, NBCUNITips, with the following panelists: actress Sandra Oh, NBC executives Craig Robinson and Karen Horne, filmmaker Grace Lee, and TV producer Rashad Raisani, hosted by MSNBC Anchor Richard Lui. The conversation was insightful, funny, and serious. It was a unique event that brought together people who cared about the same issues, and connected all of us to a broader conversation.” —Sierra Lee, Sierra Lee, CAAM Development Manager

Riz Ahmed

“Riz Ahmed has been quietly making waves over the years in critically-acclaimed films like Four Lions and Nightcrawler. This year, the Pakistani-British actor/emcee’s film career blasted off into a galaxy far, far away, appearing as Rebel pilot Bodhi Rook in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. That’s pretty legit. But the real revelation was Ahmed’s star-making turn at the center of the HBO limited series The Night Of. His nuanced, heart-wrenching transformation as Naz, a Muslim American college student accused of of a vicious murder, is, hands down, one of the best performances of the year. —Phil Yu, Blogger, Angry Asian Man

Asian American Stories Became a National Topic

“This isn’t necessarily a milestone, it’s more of a change in temperature. For a long time, Asian American voices piped up about greater representation in film and television but they were largely ignored with figurative pats on the head. After #OscarsSoWhite coupled with Chris Rock’s lame jokes and the whole Ghost in the Shell whitewashing noise, people in places of power started to take some notice. It’s just a start and it remains to be seen if this results in any empirical change. I’m cautiously optimistic, but with the pushback of a new political climate, I think it’s even more important for folks to speak louder and fight even harder to be seen and heard onscreen and off. This country belongs to all of us, so let’s stand up tall and let our thoughts, jokes and humanity resonate far and wide.” —Patrick Epino, Executive Producer, National Film Society; Producer/Director, Awesome Asian Bad Guy

“It is 2016 and Asians are still being whitewashed. We still lack representation in the media but some progress has been made this year—our voices have been louder and together, we have raised awareness about this issue. Most notably, Asian-American actors such as Constance Wu, BD Wong, and Margaret Cho have spoken out against whitewashing and have been very vocal about the lack of Asian American visibility. Future generations can look back at 2016 as the year that Asian American representation finally became a topic of conversation. By having more people speak out, we have also shattered the perception that our community is “quiet.” Hopefully in 2017 and beyond, our community will continue to reach more milestones. Will there finally be an Asian American lead?” —Bonnie Tang, founder of #StarringConstance Wu, high school senior

“In a volatile election year where the idea of what it means to be ‘American’ was often debated, I’d like to remember 2016 as a year where Asian Americans and our stories became more recognized as part of the greater American narrative. Some of these achievements include Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang taking home the Emmy for their Master of None episode about the immigrant experience, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Vietnam War narrative The Sympathizer winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Stephanie Murphy becoming the first Vietnamese American Congresswoman. These examples, among many others this year, will hopefully inspire others to follow their passion in fields that aren’t necessarily typical in our community. Although we took a large step back in many ways, there are still many examples of those inspiring to walk a few steps forward, one step at a time.” -Bao Nguyen, filmmaker (Live From New York!, Nước 2030)


Jeff Chang We Gon' Be Alright

We Gon’ Be Alright by Jeff Chang

“‘You went to college on the continent to become Asian American.'” Thus begins Jeff Chang’s essay, “The In-Betweens: On Asian Americanness,” a beautifully moving essay in a book full of them. Tackling topics ranging from #OscarsSoWhite to diversity on college campuses, his collection of essays, We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation, is provocative and necessary — and even more urgent now than it was when it was published back in September. The centerpiece essay, reported from on the ground in Ferguson, is a must read. But it was his final essay, on becoming Asian American, that left me speechless. Like Chang, I grew up as an Asian American in Hawai‘i, where we were just referred to as “locals.” Like Chang, I was privileged enough to get a good education and move to the continent, where I had to reckon with the fact that I was now considered a person of color. Like Chang, I didn’t know how to deal, but slowly learned that I had a decision to make. If art’s job is to make us feel less alone, then this piece is one of the most powerful works of art I encountered this year. And as the year came to a close, darkly, I found myself returning again and again to this book, reminding myself that you are not alone, for there is work to do.” —Christopher Makoto Yogi, Director/Screenwriter/Editor

Viet Thanh Nguyen and the Pulitzer Prize for The Sympathizer

“Viet Thanh Nguyen has soared to the top of the American literary scene this year thanks to his celebrated novel, The Sympathizer. Narrated from the perspective of a communist Vietnamese spy, his novel has earned the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for fiction (among other Awards)The name of refugee Viet Nguyen is now alongside a select few Pulitzer writers of color such as Jhumpa Lahiri (2000), Toni Morrison (1988) and Alice Walker (1983). A sharp critic of both American and Vietnamese culture, Nguyen is entering the national arena at a time when rationality, empathy, and diverse perspectives are most needed. To understand more of Nguyen’s work, one should also read his collection of short stories, The Refugees, where he further explores the complexities and unresolved issues pertaining to memory and identity among Vietnamese Americans, as well as his thoughtful academic book titled Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, in which he highlights that forgetting selected moments in history is intricately linked with national identity formation. Throughout his work, Nguyen sends the powerful message that to be ambivalent in relation to a dominant narrative about what the United States stands for (ie.: Fighter of the free world and the American dream), is essential in order to imagine and strive for a more ethical society.” —Isabelle Thuy Pelaud, Professor
Asian American Studies Department, San Francisco State University

“As a boy growing up in Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri and Michigan, I listened to the Osmonds and the Jacksons, watched The Six Million Dollar Man and Rootsand Saturday morning cartoons, read The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown, and never considered that Asians or “Asian Americans” (I hadn’t even heard the term) were not to be found anywhere in these, yet carried a lingering insecurity of identity whose source I had not yet named. In 2016, things have changed significantly, but we are not there yet. This year, our own Viet Thanh Nguyen was the first Asian American to win the Pulitzer Prize for a novel* (for The Sympathizer), and was nominated for a National Book Award to boot (for his nonfiction Nothing Ever Dies). I just finished reading The Sympathizer, and was rapt with its elegance, prose poems of the immigrant experience scattered like rose petals, beauty strung between violences, like life itself. This year, I felt that Asian Americans were finally getting hold of the means of representation, in Nguyen’s phrase, and making ourselves seen. The path from insecurity is not really in attaining identity or self, though that’s part of it. It’s in finding our common humanity, or rather, helping to create it. I think this is what’s happening, with milestones like this and even tragedies like 11-9. We’re finding we can no longer deny each other, whether through war or election. What’s left is to love all that we truly are, and love, radiantly. (*Jhumpa Lahiri and Vijay Sheshadri had won for short stories and poetry, respectively.)” Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer.

MacArthur “Genius” Gene Luen Yang

“The author and illustrator of many great graphic novels, including American Born Chinese, won a pretty big award this year. The previous year, he was anointed the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature by the Library of Congress. These  recognitions not only allows him to continue to create great works, but to reach an even broader audience through education and awareness.” —Momo Chang, CAAM Content Manager

Elda Rotor of Penguin Classics Books

“I’m grateful that Elda Rotor is the vice president and publisher for Penguin Classics Books. 2016 saw a larger recognition of her work as one of the few publishers of color with profiles in CNN Philippines, Wall Street Journal and on public radio. Because of her work, Penguin Classics has brought in more Filipino literature into its line, including Noli Me Tangere (introduced the year she was hired) and El Filibusterismo by José Rizal, and the collected poems Doveglion by José Garcia Villa. And soon to be published next year are works by the lauded Filipino writer Nick Joaquin. She changes the landscape by giving classic Filipino literature a global platform and in doing so changes our perspective of our own identity as Filipinos.” —Marissa Aroy, filmmaker, Delano Manongs


S. Leo Chiang at the Asian American documentary filmmakers meeting at #GettingReal16. Photo by Neelanjana Banerjee.
S. Leo Chiang at the Asian American documentary filmmakers meeting at #GettingReal16. Photo by Neelanjana Banerjee.

The New Asian American Documentary Network

“Positive moment: Organizing and convening Asian American documentary filmmakers at the International Documentary Association’s Getting Real conference, out of which the Asian American Documentary Network was born. We now have 110 members and are still growing!” —Grace Lee, filmmaker, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs

CAAM-funded Filmmaker Jason DaSilva’s Accessibility App

“I’m always excited to hear about CAAM-funded filmmakers who are making an impact beyond their film. This year Jason DaSilva, whose documentary When I Walk earned an Emmy, was recently awarded the 2016 Ruderman Prize in Inclusion from the Ruderman Family Foundation for his AXS Map–an online database and mobile app that allows users to find, rate and share accessibility information on businesses and buildings throughout the United States. Congratulations to Jason, as well as all of our other CAAM Funded Filmmakers who continue to be recognized for the amazing work they do.” —Davin Agatep, CAAM’s Media Fund Manager and Project Manager for Memories to Light

Connecting Japanese American and Muslim American Stories

“In my documentary film, Good Luck Soup, I explore the post-WWII experience of my family, and their struggles to assimilate into American society after leaving the internment camps. During Q&A’s and conversations after nearly every film festival and private screening of Good Luck Soup, present-day Muslim Americans are referenced in comparison to the Japanese American community of the 1940s. This is an important conversation to have, especially for the Japanese American community, as we must support and stand in solidarity with the Muslim American community. However, I feel the conversation focuses upon the wrong comparison. The similarities that I see are not between Japanese Americans of the 40s and Muslim Americans of present-day, rather, the similarities that I see are between the American public of the 40s and the present-day, and the use of fear to rationalize crude, racist and hateful gut reactions towards people who are not considered ‘American’ because of how they look, pray and culturally associate.” Matthew Hashiguchi, filmmaker and Assistant Professor, Georgia Southern University