‘Fresh Off the Boat’ Hardly Alone

During Fresh Off the Boat‘s first season, I was asked by the now-defunct KoreAm Magazine to write on the ABC sitcom from the perspective of a seasoned observer. By this point though, enough ink had already been spilled on the show, with takes ranging from the disappointed to the celebratory, and every wonderful nuance in between. Not feeling like I had a ton to add to the chorus, I decided to use the opportunity to write about the show in the context of Asian American independent cinema.

Picture this: a Taiwanese American kid with oversized clothes and a hip-hop vocab. Unlike his cuter, more “decent” brethren, he just can’t make proper friends, let alone attract girls, and he certainly can’t impress his Mandarin-speaking parents whose immigrant entrepreneurism doesn’t gel with his half-baked street knowledge.

Sound familiar?

That’s the premise behind Jessica Yu’s 2007 family comedy Ping Pong Playa, a hit on the Asian American film festival circuit that was adapted from the parody video stylings of funnyman Jimmy Tsai. That it resembles in theme and genre ABC’s family sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, adapted from Eddie Huang’s memoir, has been completely unacknowledged, though I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

Instead, Fresh Off the Boat has been discussed in terms of its newness and novelty, as bearing the once-in-a-generation status as the lone representative of Asian Americans on television. The online conversation among Asian American commentators since the show’s February primetime debut has been formidable and significant. But that conversation has been limited by the anxiety of representation, as if Fresh Off the Boat was not just the only Asian American network show, but the only Asian American narrative, of the past 20 years.

The anxiety stems from two sources. First, there’s the pressure to support Asian American media, because if Asian Americans can’t support their own stories, then who will? This rests upon the assumption that nobody else is watching, so collectively, Asian Americans must. Second, there’s the opposing anxiety that since everyone else indeed is watching, we better be represented well.

Those anxieties have led to a number of articles about supporting-despite-not-liking, or enjoying-despite-the-stereotypes Fresh Off the Boat, and other responses trying to simultaneously make sense of a national history of racial baggage and one’s own personal, stubborn waverings of televisual pleasure. It’s an unwieldy task.

Yet that task has hijacked the conversation around the show, diverting attention away from issues of comedy, family and community, and instead on ratings and representation—two concepts that couldn’t be further removed from the creative impulse. Sure, certain stereotypes, like “ching-chong” accents or tiger moms, do matter and they can certainly be perpetuated. But we’re talking mainstream network television here: it’s doomed to compromise, and to obsess over those details is to miss the opportunity for other kinds of conversations.

The articles about Fresh Off the Boat I find the most meaningful have been personal accounts about how the show has brought Asian American families together or inspired individuals to think about identity in fresh ways. In other words, the most productive articles have been about recognition, not misrecognition.

81wQYMGP4tS._SL1500_Parallel Asian American works such as Ping Pong Playa have been generating these other possible conversations for decades. Watching Yu’s comedy again post-Fresh, I’m struck not just by the similarities in characterizations and themes, but by how liberating it is to enjoy the film without worrying how much my eyes are worth to a network, or how others’ eyes are watching the film. I’m free to enjoy it on its own terms and dig further into questions of Asian American masculinity and blackness, ethnic comedy, racial pride or parent-mocking.

Such questions arise because they constitute the joy of figuring out what the Asian American community can be for me. I can laugh and identify with smack-talking hoopster C-Dub’s on-and-off-court banter with his black friend JP Money without worrying about how white or black audiences might misread such scenes. I can nervously chortle at the film’s gag about getting a Ph.D. in Asian American studies without wondering how it perpetuates stereotypes of Asian militancy or Asian geekdom.

As a viewer, I’m emboldened by the semi-public space of Asian American independent media, where creativity is celebrated and audiences can be inquisitive about form, narrative and representation in ways they can’t when they’re worried foremost about what other audiences are thinking. A network show like Fresh Off the Boat is a lot easier to stomach when you know not everything is on the line because there are alternative forums for self-expression, like the Asian American film festival circuit.

For instance, the issue of accents sported by young Eddie’s immigrant parents is one of the most vexing and controversial aspects of Fresh Off the Boat that has drawn Asian American ire. But here’s the thing: Unrealistic, even minstrel-ish Asian accents are a feature of indie Asian American cinema, too—only, in that space, there is frank conversation about the context of production: a limited acting pool (especially for older characters) or intra-Asian (mis-)casting.

The result has been feature after feature where parents speak in wonky accents and children talk back in offbalanced English that awkwardly attempts to capture the linguistic code-switching of the Asian immigrant household. I call these the “1.5 generation Asian American films,” a reflection of the fact that Asian American cinema has arrived but not quite emerged on the wider film stage. Like 1.5 generation immigrants, these films don’t seem fully Americanized because of circumstance—but we get and accept it because, as members of the community, we understand that assimilation is a luxury that not everyone has access to. This is a type of cinema that’s accented in ways that are sometimes indecipherable to both earlier or later generations of Asian Americans, but that represents a fuzziness of identity that we should be proud to embrace.

If we’re simply drawing a line from Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, which aired in 1994, to Fresh Off the Boat, these broad-brush representations of Asian American cultures and families on network television can be maddening. But if we draw the line from Ping Pong Playa (or Sarba Das’ Karma Calling, Chris Chan Lee’s Yellow, Kevin Wu’s KevJumba, or Leslie Tai’s Superior Life Classroom, all indie productions) to Fresh Off the Boat, the sitcom is liberated from the “rep sweats.” That’s because the show can be appreciated as just one of many cultural accents dotting a history of self-representation.

Fresh Off the Boat is hardly alone if we look beyond the mainstream—if it sinks, we’re buoyed by the sea of stories from independent media makers just below the surface.

Linda Lin Dai at Shaw Brothers

This essay was commissioned by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image for the impressive Linda Lin Dai retrospective they mounted in 2011. The essay can also be found at the ACMI website here.

With the impact of Communist ideology on Chinese cinema after 1949, “the star” being replaced with “the film worker”, it was up to the overseas Chinese to continue the glamour and celebrity of 1930′s Shanghai. Singapore and Hong Kong-based studios like Hsin Hwa, MP&GI, and Shaw Brothers had their own training schools and publicity teams to develop stars with the flair and charisma of the pre-revolution generation. Amidst the prima-donnas and the girls-next-door, one star shone brightest: Linda Lin Dai.

Born Cheng Yueru in Guangxi, but renamed Lin Dai in Hong Kong, the star known throughout Asia and beyond as Linda was the goddess of the Mandarin-speaking world. In Taipei, perhaps the biggest market for Chinese cinema, Lin Dai had a film amongst the top ten money-makers every year between 1956 and 1966 – including four of the top ten films in 1957, and three in 1961.

Even after her tragic suicide at the age of 29, Lin Dai continued to cast her spell and score big box office returns with posthumously-released films. She was critically acclaimed too. In a span of six years, she won four best actress awards at the Asian Film Festival, a feat that earned her the nickname “Movie Queen of Asia.”

When Shaw Brothers attempted to break into the western market, Lin Dai’s films were the ones chosen for export. When co-producers around the world asked MP&GI to borrow an actress for overseas work, studio boss Loke Wan Tho picked Lin Dai. And when Shaw Brothers needed a face for the inaugural issue of their fan magazine Southern Screen, of course it was Lin Dai’s. In fact, she graced four of the first 15 covers of the widely-circulated magazine.

Off screen, Lin Dai was known for getting her way in the industry at a time when actors were considered the property of individual studios. On screen she was a softer, sexier, and more effortless version of that same persona, her characters ranging from plucky heroines with a verve for life, to tragic figures undone by their own ambitions.

Whether in comedy, opera, romance, or thriller, Lin Dai was the feisty one: the troublemaker in a chaste world, a firecracker when everyone else was a cardboard cutout. She excelled at comedies, especially the ones she did for MP&GI. But today, Lin Dai is best remembered for her work with Shaw Brothers, thanks in large part to Celestial Pictures’ recent digital restorations.

At Shaw Brothers, Lin Dai was queen. In Southern Screen profiles of younger actresses, Lin Dai was consistently mentioned as a role model, mentor, and standard of beauty. Her name, which conjures feminine beauty and classical literature, was synonymous with the studio and its growing stature in the greater Chinese market. Lin Dai’s celebrity was so great that in Shaws’ The Fair Sex (1961), she had a cameo as herself: the biggest movie star of them all. She was also cast in many of Shaw Brothers prestige pictures, such as their first foray into color, Diau Charn (1958), and Les Belles (1961). When Shaw Brothers wanted to revolutionize Chinese cinema, they relied on Lin Dai to be the face of the revolution.

In the late 1950s, Lin Dai was one of the few actresses in Hong Kong who could simultaneously work for multiple studios. For Shaw Brothers, MP&GI, and Yung Hwa, she made a number of rustic pictures starring as fishermen’s daughters or rural ingénues. However, by 1961, she found Shaw Brothers to be an ideal fit, and it was with that rapidly-rising, ambitious, and well-connected studio that she made her biggest films.

Linda Lin Dai The Kingdom And The Beauty

The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959)

The record-breaking success of Diau Charn and The Kingdom and the Beauty (1959) helped launch the extraordinarily popular huangmei opera cycle in Mandarin films. The latter film is perhaps the best of the bunch, thanks to Lin Dai’s award-winning performance, clever songs, and Li Han-hsiang’s deft direction. The regal but girlish Lin Dai fit Han-hsiang’s opulent, even excessive, vision of classical Chinese court life perfectly, and when he launched a project to make films about the “four great beauties” of Chinese history, he cast Lin Dai as two of them. In one of these films, Diau Charn, Lin Dai plays a maid who learns the power of her beauty. In the other, Beyond the Great Wall (1964), Lin Dai plays a concubine whose looks and musical ability drive men to war.

Throughout her career, Lin Dai also made a number of costume pictures for Griffith Yueh Feng, the best of which is the sublimely romantic huangmei opera, Madame White Snake (1962), which also features some of Shaw Brothers’ early experiments with special effects.

Linda Lin Dai Les Belles

Les Belles (1961)

Lin Dai excelled at another type of costume picture as well: the fashion extravaganza. In Les Belles, she sported costumes from around the world; most famously, and most daringly, a leggy can-can outfit. In Love Parade (1963), Lin Dai is a gynecologist who butts heads with her fashion designer boyfriend, before – as a prudish woman in a musical comedy must! – discovering her true talents as a runway model. Lin Dai was associated with cutting-edge fashion to such a degree that she was even credited as the costume designer of the picture. These two films, featuring Lin Dai’s liveliest performances for Shaw Brothers, showcased the comic actress at her prime. The near-silent comedy of missed connections which closes Les Belles is the pinnacle of joy in pre-martial arts Shaw Brothers films.

Today, the name Lin Dai not only conjures up extravagant images of silver-screen glamour, but also song. Long associated with musical films, Lin Dai, with uncredited dubbing by Tsin Ting, starred in two of the most memorable songstress films later in her career. One of Shanghai cinema’s most important legacies in Hong Kong popular culture, songstress films were melodramas about women risking romance and reputation to belt out torch songs in nightclubs. Lin Dai, so adept at capturing a woman’s anguish, so convincing as a character who balances innocence, sacrifice, modesty, and depravity, all while maintaining an audience’s sympathy, took the genre by storm.

With the two-part Blue and the Black (1966), Lin Dai took on one of her most memorable characters: a stubborn romantic who also serves up one of Chinese cinema’s most heartfelt ballads. Unfortunately, Lin Dai committed suicide before the film was completed and Shaw Brothers had to find a stand-in to “hide” her way through the picture, Game of Death-style. Predictably, the Lin Dai replacement had the star’s diminutive frame but not her explosive emotional charge. Though the two-parter was completed, the film remains, for Lin Dai fans, unfinished.

Perhaps a better way to remember Lin Dai is through the songstress film Love Without End (1961). As she sings the title song onstage for the last time, the audience is completely still. When the camera tracks back to reveal her husband’s face, we can’t help but feel his fear that even though the song sings of love’s immortality, this may be the last time we get to hear the tearful ballad in the flesh. “Forget not your tears, forget not your laughter. Forget not the sorrow of leaving…”