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Representation Is Not a #Trend

May 25, 2019

August 27, 2018. Constance Wu on cover of TIME Magazine. Photo courtesy of TIME. Photo copyrighted to TIME.

By Janice Cheng

The recent rise of Asian American exposure in mainstream media is not only a rushing wave of empowerment to an overwhelming population of the West, but is one that cannot go addressed without acknowledging how it really is all so political. The longing for this kind of representation isn’t such a far-fetched desire for a first generation Chinese Canadian, like myself. With that said, Asian Canadians fall behind in representation on the mainstream. However, we seem to proudly support and identify with the boom of Asian American recognition since they have the advantage of their pop culture powerhouse that is Hollywood. The success of this has thrived because it is decades overdue. Representation is not just another trend.

My parents are Hong Kong natives who made the move to Vancouver in the early 90s to start a family. They weren’t the stereotypical Asian “dragon parents” that I read about in books, or watched on screens. They did not hover over every move I made, but rather gifted me with the trust and independence to grow freely and most importantly, in a country that could nurture it. My entire identity, since childhood, has floated between the tug of my Canadian social and moral values, and the pull of my Hong Kong heritage that I always felt guilty of not knowing enough of.

Last year, in 2018, a buzz began—and rightfully so—when an all Asian cast was announced for NY Times Bestseller Crazy Rich Asians by Singaporean American author Kevin Kwan. Finally. What a revelation. This is a story of Asians and Asian Americans who were consciously casted to reflect the true diversity of Asian people, and thankfully resisted to become another whitewashed film, with someone like Emma Stone playing the role of a part Chinese woman. Asian American characters are extremely marginalized in popular culture. So, seeing Asians banding together to play roles beyond the brainiac or the uncool, and unreduced to the token Asian, was an uplifting moment to say the least.

Two weeks after Crazy Rich Asians released, my best friend and I went to see it expecting some empty seats, but we found ourselves packed like sardines in a sold-out theatre. Isn’t it just another cheesy rom-com? Yes, the storyline was one that reflected the classic fairytale, the comedy was light, and colours were bold. But what tugged on our heartstrings was how we saw a bit of ourselves, from childhood to family relations, in front of us on the big screen. The strong male leads exemplified masculinity with vulnerability, and the strong successful female leads exuded a, rarely portrayed, financial and emotional independence. Surely, this story does not reflect the average, middle-class first-gen Asian American or Canadian, but the success and outpour of support for this film opens gates for many Asian American-led projects to follow. This was around the time Netflix released To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, fuelling the momentum of powerful and productive Asian American leads in Hollywood, but also follows the success of Black Panther, another historic film of representation. Growing up in the lower mainland of British Columbia, Canadian-born Asians are considerably invisible in our national mainstream media, disproportionally representing the population of our community. The lack thereof is reflected in Canada’s one Asian-led sitcom, CBC’s Kim’s Convenience. This is an embarrassment, as it does not nearly suffice in a nation that preaches resilience and strength in diversity. Last year made me realize how much I unknowingly longed to feel represented, and how much we should all demand for more.   

Now in my early twenties, I recognize that my Canadian identity and Hong Kong ethnicity is a coexisting blend and blur of the two, instead of one or the other. We cannot move forward as a society if we stay bound by familiar and outdated labels, or by any labels at all. Constance Wu, the female lead of Crazy Rich Asians, expressed that the fact that her film exists is enough, because the social value outweighs the monetary. I suggest that in 2019, our opened minds and sparked conversations do not fade, but remain valiant from last year’s steps forward. I take pride in my country that celebrates multiculturalism, and that is so globally admired for our unity through differences. For those who share similar lived experiences, we must continue this dialogue for future generations, and engage to have our stories, struggles, and internal debates of being Asian Canadian, properly heard. This is about more than just a movie. This is political. Representation is not a trend.