Khmer influence growing in Hollywood after artists find successes
The success of The Cleaning Lady – an American TV series which stars Cambodian-French Hollywood actress Elodie Yung – sheds some light on Asian immigrants to the US, yet a significant representation gap of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) exists both on screen and behind the scenes.
To drive change, Television Academy Foundation in partnership with the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE) will present The Power of TV: Advancing AAPI Representation, a free, open-to-the-public virtual event on July 27.
The online forum will gather current AAPI industry leaders and panellists including actor Cooper Andrews (The Walking Dead); The Cleaning Lady creator and executive producer Miranda Kwok; and Kenny Tsai, senior vice president of current programming at Universal Content Productions.
With the aim of promoting diversity in television, panellists will examine media representation for the fastest-growing racial group in the US. They will discuss their individual career paths to success and the challenges they faced when advocating for inclusivity. It is hoped their stories will pave the way for developing potential strategies to achieve equity within the industry for the AAPI communities.
Michelle K Sugihara, an executive director of CAPE, a nonprofit organisation which has worked for over 30 years to create opportunities for AAPI success in Hollywood through storytelling to create a better world, will moderate the discussion.
“Conversations like this are important to humanise the discussion around representation and the harmful effects of stereotypical narratives,” said Sugihara.
“We’re grateful to the Television Academy Foundation for recognising the importance of all voices, both behind and in front of the camera,” he added.
Established in 1959 as the charitable arm of the Television Academy, the foundation is dedicated to preserving the legacy of television while educating and inspiring those who will shape the industry's future of diversity.
Cris Abrego, chair of the Television Academy Foundation, believes it is ever more important for the television community to commit to full, authentic, and equal representation for AAPI talent in the wake of increasing discrimination and violence against the AAPI communities.
Portrayals of the AAPI communities in a broad and inclusive manner continue to fall short in the entertainment industry. According to a 2021 USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative report, most portrayals fall into the categories of silenced, stereotyped, tokenised, isolated, or as sidekicks or villains.
The Cleaning Lady is one breakthrough series that cast an Asian woman as the sole lead of the action drama. Creator and executive producer Miranda Kwok in April 2022 told deadline.com that she initially thought that the series would land in the cable rather than streaming.
“Warner Bros. said, ‘Let’s try network first because there’s a greater appetite for diverse stories. Fox was actually the first network we pitched. They scooped it up immediately and, again, embraced that it was a Southeast Asian character,” she explained.
Yung, whose Cambodian father fled to France to escape the Khmer Rouge regime, returns in season 2 of the series in 2022-23. She revealed that it is her first time that she felt completely seen as a person and as an actress.
“We had a lot of conversations to make it authentic,” said the actress, who is also an energetic patron of the Cambodia International Film Festival (CIFF).
“To have – for the first time on broadcast TV – a lead character that is Cambodian, really it felt like I’m seen fully. It’s part of my roots. I’m also French but I feel like I have a little banner and I’m proud of that,” she added.
According to a 2021 Pew Research Centre report, the Asian population in the US is projected to surpass 46 million by 2060.
The Cambodian population in the US reached 339,000 in 2019. A Pew Research Centre fact sheet showed that just 13 per cent of Cambodian-Americans and 10 per cent of the Asian-American population were living in poverty in 2019.
Fifty-eight per cent of adult Cambodians and 72 per cent of all Asians are English proficient, making the language barrier one disadvantage for some Asian immigrants to the US.
It was certainly the case for his parents, said the son of Cambodian genocide refugees, Kevin Ung, a Television Academy fellow and a film director.
“It wasn’t easy for them because they came here with nothing and were unfamiliar with the language and culture. But they were resilient and were able to build a life here,” he told The Post.
He remembers his father telling him that people like them can’t work in Hollywood because of the way they look, but Kevin was tenacious and became a director.
“There is a problem of representation in American media that I hope to change. Asians are still portrayed using harmful and stereotypical representations,” he added.
Documentary filmmaker David Siev returned from New York to his rural hometown in Michigan, where his family owns a restaurant. His mother is Mexican-American, and his father was a Cambodian refugee in the 1970s.
His documentary Bad Axe was conceived and centred around his family’s struggle to keep the business going amid Covid-19 shutdowns and restrictions, growing violence toward Asian-Americans, and the Black Lives Matter protests.
Bad Axe was one of 65 films from nine countries that recently screened at the 22nd DC Asian Pacific American Film Festival.
“You really get to see what it takes as a family to build the American dream. And then what it takes to keep that same dream alive in the face of one of the most uncertain times in recent history,” he explained.
Despite the struggles he faced as an Asian following his dream of becoming a prominent film director, Ung considered himself lucky to belong to a beautiful, rich culture and is happy to embrace it as something that makes him unique.
“My culture innately shapes how I approach things and being Cambodian, I am aware that I have the opportunity and privilege of featuring more Cambodians in Hollywood,” he told The Post.
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