Fresh Off The Boat: Beyond racial stereotypes

Stars Constance Wu and Randall Park say working on the sitcom, Fresh Off The Boat, opened their eyes to the immigrant experience

The cast of sitcom series Fresh Off The Boat: (from right) Ian Chen, Hudson Yang, Constance Wu, Forrest Wheeler and Randall Park.
The cast of sitcom series Fresh Off The Boat: (from right) Ian Chen, Hudson Yang, Constance Wu, Forrest Wheeler and Randall Park. PHOTO: FOX

Fresh Off The Boat broke new ground when it debuted last year and became the first American sitcom in two decades to feature an Asian cast.

Not everyone has been happy with the popular show though.

Some critics could not get past the title, a term often used pejoratively about immigrants, while others think this adaptation of celebrity chef Eddie Huang's memoir about his childhood - which follows his Taiwanese- immigrant family as they try to fit into a mostly white Florida suburb - simply reinforces certain stereotypes about Asians.

But stars Constance Wu and Randall Park, who play Eddie's parents, continue to defend the series, which is in its second season and has been picked up for a third. It airs in Singapore on the Fox channel (Singtel TV Channel 330, StarHub TV Channel 505).

Speaking at an event for Emmy voters in Los Angeles, they say their characters are so much more than just stereotypes and that working on the show - one of the most-watched sitcoms in the United States this year - taught them things about the experiences that shaped their own Asian immigrant parents.

If a character does fall into stereotype on occasion, that's not all he is. And a lot of things we do actually don't follow stereotypes.

ACTRESS CONSTANCE WU, defending the sitcom Fresh Off The Boat from critics who say it reinforces stereotypes about Asians

Wu, 34, says the key thing to note is how deep and multi-layered the Huangs are. "If a character does fall into stereotype on occasion, that's not all he is," she says.

"And a lot of things we do actually don't follow stereotypes," she adds, pointing to her character Jessica, Eddie's mother, as an example. "I mean, she's a Stephen King fan. She loves Denzel Washington."

And these traits are based "on the real-life Jessica Huang, who loves Stephen King".

"So it's just fun to explore and we take ownership of the fact that we're Asian, but that this is an American story."

Jessica is often portrayed as a classic Asian-American "tiger mum" who is obsessed with her children's academic achievements and future job prospects, which is one of the stereotypes certain critics have decried.

But Wu says the show takes the time to delve into why she behaves this way, pointing to a flashback where an 18-year-old Jessica is forced to stop using her Chinese name because Americans will not learn to say it.

"For me, it elevates stereotyping because it shows the origins of the systemic behaviour that has made her behaviour a permanent part of her personality.

"And I think that's actually a beautiful thing because it shows the strength it requires to move to a different country, learn a different language, have your kids reject the culture that you grew up in and loved and to understand that they're having their own journey."

The Chinese-American actress says what happened to Jessica was also illuminating to her on a personal level. "Having another character look me in the eye and say, 'You know what, no one's going to learn your name', that's something that as Constance Wu, I've never actually experienced until that day on set because I've grown up with this name my whole life.

"It really hurt me and it made me realise that a tiger mum like Jessica gets her strength because, for so many years, people said they wouldn't learn her name, they wouldn't listen to her or treat her with as much respect."

The storyline also resonated with Wu's on-screen husband Park, whose parents are Korean immigrants to the US. "My dad's name is Hong Ki, but he goes by 'Harry'. But I had never asked my dad why he goes by Harry.

"So shooting this episode brought up a lot of good conversations between my folks and me and that's stuff we haven't seen on TV," says the 42-year-old, who previously had mostly supporting roles, including as North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in the satirical film The Interview (2014).

And if anyone thinks only Asians or Asian-Americans can identity with such themes, the show's creator, Nahnatchka Khan, reveals that she relates too.

The daughter of Iranian immigrants to the US, Khan, 42, says: "Having a name like Nahnatchka, I was used to people never knowing how to say my name growing up, and refusing to understand it. Like, 'We'll call you Nancy.' And that's not my name."

Since the show debuted, sitcoms such as comedian Aziz Ansari's critical hit Master Of None and Dr Ken featuring The Hangover actor Ken Jeong have made starring roles for Asian actors more commonplace in Hollywood - so much so that it can be easy to forget how far things have come.

Khan says: "It's crazy when you think about the fact that we just premiered last February. We kept hearing we were the first network sitcom to feature an Asian cast in 20 years and now you don't hear that anymore and it's been 15 months.

"So this amount of change and evolution in such a short time has been amazing. But I do feel like it's a zeitgeist thing - it was a matter of time and you feel like the dam breaks, but it's because people have been chipping away for years."

One person this development is not lost on is the oldest member of the cast, 77-year-old Lucille Soong, who plays the matriarch of the Huang family. The actress, who before this had small parts on series such as Desperate Housewives (2004 to 2012), says: "I've been acting since I was 23 and, in my lifetime, we never had a show like this."

And as Eddie's boombox-toting, hard-gambling grandmother, she is not exactly a stereotype either. "I'm not just a boring grandma - I'm mischievous, I steal things from the bank... it's funny. I like my character, especially with the boombox."

Wu and Park - who have been vocal in condemning Hollywood's "whitewashing" of roles originally meant for Asians as well as the racist jokes made by host Chris Rock at this year's Oscars - hope shows such as Fresh Off The Boat will help turn the tide for Asian actors and give the young performers Eddie (Hudson Yang), Emery (Forrest Wheeler) and Evan (Ian Chen), who play their sons, more opportunities when they grow up.

"I hope that shows like ours do change things for these guys down the road," Park says.

"And for young Asian-American girls as well," adds Wu.

• The final episode of Fresh Off The Boat Season 2 airs on Fox (Singtel TV Channel 330 and StarHub TV Channel 505) on Saturday at 8pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 13, 2016, with the headline 'Beyond racial stereotypes'. Print Edition | Subscribe