Fresh Off The Boat lead actor defends hit sitcom

Randall Park (centre) stars as the father in Fresh Off The Boat, with his sitcom family (from left) Forrest Wheeler, Ian Chen, Constance Wu and Hudson Yang. -- PHOTO: FOX
Randall Park (centre) stars as the father in Fresh Off The Boat, with his sitcom family (from left) Forrest Wheeler, Ian Chen, Constance Wu and Hudson Yang. -- PHOTO: FOX

The last time there was an Asian family on network primetime TV in the United States was in 1994 with All American Girl starring Margaret Cho.

Fresh Off The Boat once again puts an Asian family front and centre. Pressure? "None at all," deadpans its 41-year-old lead actor Randall Park, chuckling.

After the show was picked up for a 13-episode first season, he "started to understand how important this was to a lot of people and the historical significance of it really started to set in".

Speaking to Life! over the telephone from Los Angeles, he says: "It was a lot of pressure for sure to represent a lot of people, but it's an honour to take up that challenge."

He plays Louis Huang, a Taiwanese emigrant who relocates his family from Washington DC to Florida to open a steak restaurant in 1995. Louis has a formidable wife, Jessica (Constance Wu), and three boys, Eddie (Hudson Yang), Emery (Forrest Wheeler) and Evan (Ian Chen). The show is airing here on Fox (StarHub TV Channel 505, Singtel TV Channel 330) and the finale is on May 24.

The show was criticised for perpetuating Asian stereotypes such as high-achieving kids and tiger mothers. In defence, Park says: "It's tough to avoid every single thing that could possibly be a stereotype. The problem with stereotypes is they dehumanise people. They simplify people and cultures."

He says the characters are more than one-dimensional. "The mum is very tough on her kids, but you also see that she really loves them and cares for her family. What's more important than being non- stereotypical is being human and telling real stories."

The pilot episode drew 7.94 million viewers, making the show the second highest-rated comedy premiere behind The Odd Couple starring Matthew Perry. The numbers for Fresh Off The Boat have been going down subsequently despite getting the thumbs-up from critics. It has a score of 75 on the aggregating website metacritic.com, indicating it has received generally favourable reviews.

Cho has praised the show. She told news website Salon: "I think it's great. I'm really proud and excited and I think Fresh Off The Boat exists in the right time." Ironically, one of the show's most vocal detractors is restaurateur Eddie Huang, whose Fresh Off The Boat: A Memoir (2013) inspired the sitcom.

"The network's approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane," he ranted in a piece for New York magazine, referring to the show's creator Nahnatchka Khan, who produced and wrote for the MacFarlane animated series American Dad!. moo goo gai pan is the Americanised version of a Cantonese stir-fry dish.

Park says he understands it might be difficult for Huang to see his story getting changed and the darker and rawer aspects of it being excised from the small screen. Huang told the New Yorker that his memoir was about specific moments in his life, "such as kneeling in a driveway holding buckets of rice overhead or seeing pink nipples for the first time".

But Park adds: "This is a family sitcom and it's inspired by his story, but it's definitely not his life.

"Ultimately, Eddie does understand the significance of the show on a bigger level, people in general being able to see a different perspective on TV."

The show's perspective is one that Park himself is intimately familiar with. The son of Korean emigres, he was born and raised in Los Angeles by a mother who worked as an accountant and a father who owned a one-hour photo store.

Married to actress Jae Suh Park with a 4½-year- old daughter, he says: "I can understand that willingness to do whatever it takes to make sure my kid has the best life possible."

At the same time, he also identifies with the character of Eddie, having grown up in a slightly earlier era with "awkward moments and experiences with racism here and there".

The biggest thing they have in common is a shared love of hip-hop music and culture. "There was a real sense of power, confidence and strength that came from the music that really spoke to me, especially when I felt like an outcast as a kid."

The outcast kid has since grown into an actor whose career has been gaining traction in the last few years. Park also played North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in the controversial comedy The Interview (2014) and he has been cast as Minnesota governor Danny Chung in the acclaimed comedy series Veep.

Throughout his career, he has been playing stereotypical Asian bit parts such as lab technician or IT guy. "It's been hard work and in the past couple of years, it has been really fantastic and a dream come true to be involved in such great projects."

He laughs when he says his parents were against him going into acting. "I understand why now. The odds are against us, not just for Asians, but for any actor. There are a lot of rejections and very few opportunities," he says.

"My parents definitely did not come to this country for me to be a failure and they definitely thought I was going to be a failure in acting. But it was my dream, it was really important to me to pursue the only thing I loved to do."

bchan@sph.com.sg

Fresh Off The Boat airs on Fox (StarHub TV Channel 505, Singtel TV Channel 330) on Sunday at 9.50pm.