Game Changer Spotlight: Jeff Yang

As part of the Asian American & Pacific Islander Heritage Month collection, X1 Asian American Film & TV will highlight various Game Changers, influential Asian Americans across entertainment.

The following interview is with Jeff Yang, an American writer, journalist, businessman, and business/media consultant who has written about Asian American issues for almost three decades. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, and CNN. Yang co-hosts the They Call Us Bruce podcast with Phil Yu (Angry Asian Man), an unfiltered conversation about what’s happening in Asian America. He is also the dad of “Fresh Off the Boat” star Hudson Yang. Follow him on Twitter at @originalspin

Image Credit: Jeff Yang

From a publisher of a seminal Asian America magazine in the ‘90s, to being a cultural pundit and writer for CNN and the Wall Street Journal, to hosting your own podcast (They Call Us Bruce), to being the dad of a young actor on a major network TV show – how’s life been lately? 

Jeff Yang: Life has been complicated…and amazing. It’s one thing to see the things you’ve aspired to and worked toward come to life; it’s another to see them come to life in no small part because of a show starring your son. Obviously, our lives have been transformed over the past five years “Fresh Off the Boat” has aired, not least because we’ve had to move to LA from our native New York. But the world has been transformed now too. In the 1990s I used to have to brainstorm for hours with my staff members at A. Magazine to try to come up with a prominent Asian American to feature on our cover. If the mag were still around today — talk about being ahead of your time — we’d be trying to winnow down choices from enormous lists. It’s a beautiful and inspiring thing to watch the world wake up to our culture’s talent.

As a cultural critic and writer, how do you see the landscape changing for APAs in mainstream media, especially post-“Crazy Rich Asians”? 

JY: It used to be that when an Asian was put in the spotlight, it was seen as an exception to standard operating procedures — there was a tacit limit of how many of us could be on a list, in a cast, on a poster, on a programming schedule. We were forced into a position of scarcity, where we saw ourselves as being in competition with other Asians for the single slot available, in part because we were seen as only being of interest to other Asians (if even that). If only 3 or 4% of the nation would be excited by seeing a performer or work, while the overwhelming majority of audience members would prefer to see a better-known white star, why even bother to cast Asians other than for “very special Lunar New Year episodes” or as sidekicks and backdrops to suggest inclusivity? 

But “Fresh Off the Boat” proved there was both a real Asian audience and an even bigger non-Asian audience for even relatively unknown Asian performers and unfamiliar Asian stories.

Then “Crazy Rich Asians” upped the ante further by aggregating a cross section of the relatively best known and rapidly rising Asian talent in Hollywood in one story that ONLY had Asians onscreen…and people loved it. Every single one of the CRA actors is now on a path to stardom, because the truth was that stars don’t make Hollywood, Hollywood makes stars. 

But the work that really seems to have put a nail in the idea that no one wants to watch Asians onscreen is actually “Searching,” the small-budget indie thriller that starred John Cho and Debra Messing. Without the benefit of enormous promotional budgets or a wide release, and solely on the strengths of its acting, premise and the resourcefulness of its creators, it became one of the most profitable movies of 2018 — and it made a lot of its box office “in Asia.”

That’s where the future of entertainment lies. And if we can unlock the way to make stories featuring Asian American talent consistently do well in Asia, you’ll see the dam finally break for good.

Image Credit: Jeff Yang

Do you see any potential obstacles or setbacks for APAs in Hollywood? 

JY: Well, racism and xenophobia? Those haven’t gone away, and we see the outlines today of what things might look like if we end up in a true economic or military conflict with an Asian country. It doesn’t look too different from the ‘60s when we were at war with Vietnam, the ‘50s when we were at war with Korea, the ‘40s when we were at war with Japan.

So that’s a lurking fear for us. If Trump manages to start a hot conflict with China or North Korea, the subterranean veins of hate will likely erupt again, as they have time and again. It’s not a deep well to mine. Many Latinos in this country have got to be wondering what happened between everyone loving J.Lo and a third of the country wanting to abandon Puerto Rico, build a wall and cut off all aid to Central and South America. It didn’t take a lot.

What are some films or TV shows and/or filmmakers that have inspired you? (They don’t have to be all Asian or Asian American.)

JY: I’m constantly inspired by Justin Lin and the career he’s built, while also keeping close to his desire to uplift the visibility of Asian Americans and develop Asian American stories. “Warrior,” inspired by a treatment from Bruce Lee and developed for television by Lin, is a miracle—a thoroughly entertaining and absolutely disruptive work of genre fiction that leverages the tropes of the Western category and imbues them with Asian American specificity and sophisticated layers of conversation about race, identity, class and belonging.

On that note, Jordan Peele is the one that broke the wall around the white-dominated genre category with “Get Out,” while showing how horror can be uplifted with social comment. Ava DuVernay has been a dynamo in Hollywood, living her credo of diverse inclusion and disruptive social justice in all of her professional successes, and remains a true inspiration for me in all she does. Malcolm Lee and Will Packer are the men who can’t lose money — they’ve consistently created solid, crowd-pleasing films starring black casts that fuel a core black audience, but that [have] every potential to cross over (as “Girls Trip” demonstrated).

If it seems like a lot of my most inspirational figures are coming from the black community, that’s not a coincidence: Black creators and advocates paved the way for all underrepresented groups to rise, in Hollywood and across entertainment. That’s something the Asian American community does too little to acknowledge and celebrate.

Image Credit: Jeff Yang “They Call Us Bruce” podcast

What’s in store for upcoming episodes of the They Call Us Bruce podcast? 

JY: We are incredibly excited for both the slates of upcoming AAPI film, TV and other works that are coming out and that we’ll feature as well as the 2020 elections that are looming — Phil Yu (aka Angry Asian Man) and I have always seen our podcast is at the intersection of cultural and political identity, so we have a lot to do in the months to come.

We’re also in the process of organizing a live podcast series that’ll hopefully take place in the late summer. And we hope to tour the country in the fall as well.

OK, this is a proud dad question – Hudson has literally grown up in America’s households. How has it been to witness Hudson’s success and how do you keep the family grounded? 

JY: It’s been amazing—and a little scary. There are people out there who’ve seen so much of my son’s growth and evolution and been party to his maturation, and we’re still surprised when random people recognize him and quote lines at him and do his Eddie body roll dance. But Hudson is first and foremost a kid, and an Asian American kid at that. Family is really at the center of his world and we do our best to make sure he has friends, school and activities outside of the Hollywood scene. And he’s 15 and 6’2 now so…he’s on his way to adulthood fast, hopefully with the right lessons in his heart. 

Image Credit: Jeff Yang

I know you are a hardcore East Coaster and moved over 5 years ago to Los Angeles because of “Fresh Off the Boat.” How are you holding up with no seasons? Or LA traffic? 

JY: I’ve actually gotten a lot more accustomed to LA over the past five years than I ever imagined I’d be. The weather doesn’t suck and it’s nice to be in a place where there’s such a widespread Asian creative and cultural community. But traffic is death, yes.

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