Don’t ask Ali Wong what it’s like to be an Asian American woman in Hollywood. “I don’t know, you tell me! What’s your experience?” she joked with a roomful of core CAAM supporters during an intimate meet and greet benefit in January. Clearly, it’s a question she’s heard many times before. And it’s easy to understand why people would be curious. Ali Wong is now a household name; With her sold-out stand up tours, Netflix comedy specials and romantic comedy film Always Be My Maybe, and now her book Dear Girls, her image is so recognizable that a woman can walk into a Halloween party with just a pair of cat-eye glasses and a pillow stuffed into a tight black and white striped dress—and everyone will get the gag. While Wong’s electric routines sometimes draw from her Chinese and Vietnamese background, they also riff upon her experiences as a sexually empowered single woman and now, a wife and working mom. They are in short, commentaries on contemporary life.
But not too long ago, Wong was just a kid growing up in San Francisco and performing skits in Chinatown, where her father grew up in a studio apartment with no running water. Raised by a chef and a seamstress, Wong’s father made it to U.C. Berkeley, becoming an anesthesiologist who also painted in his free time. Each year, he took his family—including youngest daughter Ali—to the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (now CAAMFest), which exposed her to a diversity of Asian images and narratives on the big screen. One of the films which left a lasting imprint on her was Alice Wu’s 2004 Saving Face.
“That movie still really sticks to me. It was so authentic and such a seemingly simple story. It was so personal,” Wong recalled at the CAAM benefit. In many ways, Wong exemplifies the power of growing up Asian American with ample exposure to stories featuring familiar faces and cultural touch points. “There were a lot of films like that I saw growing up that had a huge impact on me because I didn’t have to go through this struggle to believe that Asian Americans were capable of creating great art. I knew it.”
When she arrived at UCLA, she plugged into an Asian American theater troupe where she met Always Be My Maybe co-star Randall Park, whom she counts as a friend and mentor. (Wong was an early writer for the groundbreaking ABC family comedy Fresh Off the Boat, in which Park played goofy dad Louis Huang).
“I’ve known Ali for a long time, and it’s no surprise to me that she’s become such a success,” Park told CAAM. “Aside from being talented, she is so hard working and focused. It’s been such a joy seeing her blow up.”
Now, Ali Wong is the performer that many Asian American girls aspire to be. Does she see herself as a role model? “I don’t know. Parts of me,” she says. “Maybe my work ethic is something to aspire to.”
Not that she has a color-blind or rose-colored outlook on the world. Having majored in Asian American studies at UCLA, she is interested in examining race—just not as the only thing she talks about. She jokes about her penny-pinching ways, as well as sexuality and mental health. Among her role models are Eddie Murphy and Chris Rock.
After college, Wong developed her comedic instincts doing open mics at hole-in-the-wall places like San Francisco’s Brainwash, a laundromat-meets-café-meets performance space that operated in the gritty South of Market neighborhood. If Wong has a key to success, it’s not statement eyewear or a baby bump, but her willingness to confront failure. “I’m very comfortable with people thinking that I’m bad and no good. That’s just how I was raised. Because my father was like that,” says Wong. “From the beginning I was very comfortable with bombing, because you have to try. You can’t succeed or fail unless you try.”
And smart phones and the internet make this an empowering time to be an emerging performer. “Everybody’s armed with a camera in their pocket right now. You can showcase your talent, and hone it and reflect on your craft,” she explains.
Right now, Wong is obsessed with the grungy-sound and skater style of Los Angeles musician Deb Never, whom she describes as “immensely talented, but she also offers up a much needed option for what Asian American beauty and femininity can be.” Stand up comedian Sheng Wang and painter Joseph Lee round out Wong’s list of Asian Americans to watch.
But back to the topic of being an Asian American woman in entertainment. Wong understands why she gets asked that question so often. “When Asian American women ask me that, I can tell they’re really looking for advice,” she theorizes. “What I feel like is happening is that they’re seeing their race and gender as a handicap. And if you think that way, that will become your reality.”
With three stand up shows addressing the evolution from her single days, to pregnancy, miscarriage and childbirth, to working motherhood, what’s next for Wong? First of all, sleep. Then she’s looking toward writing children’s books with her husband, Justin Hakuta.
This is the first in a series of profiles of influential artists that CAAM will be presenting throughout our 40th anniversary year.
Check CAAMForward.com for more of our featured storytellers and check out artist Resi Baskhoro’s custom illustrations of these creators who are shaping the future of Asian America.