Asian actors making their mark on US TV

Asian actors who have been getting attention for their TV roles include Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra (top), who is in Quantico, and Aziz Ansari (above), star of the critically acclaimed Master Of None. The hit sitcom Fresh Off The Boat - which star
The hit sitcom Fresh Off The Boat - which stars (from left) Forrest Wheeler, Ian Chen, Constance Wu, Randall Park and Hudson Yang - centres around a Taiwanese immigrant family living in the US. The last sitcom about an Asian-American family was All-American Girl, which aired 20 years ago and fared poorly.PHOTO: FOX
Asian actors who have been getting attention for their TV roles include Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra (top), who is in Quantico, and Aziz Ansari (above), star of the critically acclaimed Master Of None. The hit sitcom Fresh Off The Boat - which star
Asian actors who have been getting attention for their TV roles include Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra (above), who is in Quantico, and Aziz Ansari, star of the critically acclaimed Master Of None. PHOTO: FOX
Asian actors who have been getting attention for their TV roles include Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra (top), who is in Quantico, and Aziz Ansari (above), star of the critically acclaimed Master Of None. The hit sitcom Fresh Off The Boat - which star
Asian actors who have been getting attention for their TV roles include Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra, who is in Quantico, and Aziz Ansari (above), star of the critically acclaimed Master Of None.PHOTO: FOX
Singapore actress Elisabeth Ng based in New York.
Singapore actress Elisabeth Ng based in New York. PHOTO: ELISABETH NG

More landing major roles in hit shows, winning fans and critics

Asians made their mark on American television this year, taking on title roles and major characters instead of just playing the sidekick.

The success of Fresh Off The Boat, a sitcom about a Taiwanese immigrant family, led the way earlier this year, gaining the support of viewers and critics alike.

With Asians a rapidly rising minority in the United States - projected to rocket from 6 per cent of the population to 18 per cent by 2065 - and pressure from advocacy groups, Asian actors are being given the chance to tell their stories and even poke fun at themselves for a larger American audience.

"I'm pretty sure this is the best year we have had in history," said Mr Guy Aoki, co-founder of Media Action Network for Asian Americans, a non-profit advocacy group.

While there have been Asian actors on TV - Lucy Liu in Elementary, Steven Yeun in The Walking Dead and Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project - the last family sitcom about an Asian-American family was about 20 years ago, when comedian Margaret Cho starred in All-American Girl, which explored the culture clash between a traditional Korean mother and her Americanised teenage daughter.

GETTING THE RIGHT ATTENTION

When you get people to care about your character, you've done a good job.

MR GUY AOKI, co-founder of the non-profit advocacy group Media Action Network for Asian Americans

The show, aired on the ABC television network, did not appeal to critics and audiences at the time and was cancelled after the first season.

ABC has said that it has spent the last four to five years developing at least one show a year about an Asian-American family, before Fresh Off The Boat finally aired in February this year.

Since then, the network has launched two more shows with Asian leads: Dr Ken, which features actor Ken Jeong from the movie The Hangover, and Quantico, which stars Bollywood actress Priyanka Chopra.

The first was generally panned by critics, while the second has been a breakout hit for the network.

This is the first time a network has three prime-time shows starring Asian actors in one season, according to the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC).

On top of that, there is Filipino-American actor Vincent Rodriguez, who plays the male lead in The CW network's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Chinese-American Daniel Wu in AMC's Into The Badlands, and Aziz Ansari's critically acclaimed new Netflix show, Master Of None, which features Taiwanese-American actor Kelvin Yu.

Singapore actress Elisabeth Ng, 27, who is based in New York, said that while the roles she gets often require her to put on an accent or play a stereotype, she is also lucky to be "riding the momentum" this past year.

Timing is everything in the business and the emergence of Asian actors has a lot to do with incessant lobbying by groups as well as the realisation by networks that there is an appetite for diversity on TV, and not just from minority groups.

"There has been a lot of pressure behind the scenes, where we've been talking to the networks and explaining to them that this is what people want to see," said Mr Aoki.

Citing data from market research company Nielsen, Mr Daniel Mayeda, co-chair of APAMC pointed out that while Fresh Off The Boat is undoubtedly a hit with Asian Americans, a fact not to be overlooked is that 60 per cent of the show's audience is white.

The good news, too, is that Asian actors are increasingly grabbing roles that are not ethnically specific, signalling, perhaps, that Asian actors here have finally come into their own.

"There are more cases of parts written for white people and an Asian person walks in and gets it," said Mr Aoki, giving the example of actor Tim Kang, who plays Kimball Cho in crime drama The Mentalist.

Good Asian actors are showing networks and creators that they can generate a huge fan following, in fact.

Take, for example, the massive outcry directed at AMC when the network and its zombies apparently killed off Steven Yeun's character, Glenn Rhee, in The Walking Dead last month by having him devoured.

"Look how good our actors are... When you get people to care about your character, you've done a good job," said Mr Aoki.

Singaporean actress Ms Ng said: "I'm really glad that these shows have been successful because it proves that Asian actors can be commercially viable.

"I'm looking forward to a situation where I can be cast in more diverse and interesting roles, and not the token Asian girl."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 29, 2015, with the headline 'Asian actors making their mark on US TV'. Print Edition | Subscribe