Activist voices bring change, from Hollywood’s ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ to the boardroom and voting booth

NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES — A Singaporean family walks into an upscale London hotel, but is turned away by a snooty manager who refuses to serve them. A short time later the family returns to the lobby with a surprise: They have just bought the property.

So begins Kevin Kwan’s international best-selling novel “Crazy Rich Asians” and its new $30 million film adaptation. It’s a memorable, funny scene depicting an Asian family’s experience with discrimination — a moment that is likely to resonate with many Asians in the West.

Expectations are high for “Crazy Rich Asians,” which opened Aug. 15 and is tracking to earn $26 million within the first five days of its debut. With an all-Asian cast, an Asian director and an Asian screenwriter, it has been billed as a barrier-breaking film that could shift public attitudes and shake up Hollywood.

A still from the film “Crazy Rich Asians”: Based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel by the same title, the movie has struck a chord with Asian-Americans. (2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

The big screen depiction of wealthy, individualistic and outspoken Asians comes amid signs that a group long known for being seen but not heard in America is finding its voice. Asian-Americans are increasingly vocal on both sides of the political spectrum, particularly on issues that affect them — from affirmative action to immigrant rights. In business, they are pressing for more representation in the boardroom. And Asian voters could cast deciding votes in swing states during the U.S. midterm elections this autumn.

“There’s a whole new generation of Asians who are not going to be meek and who don’t mind speaking their minds,” Kwan told the Nikkei Asian Review during an interview in Los Angeles. “And social media has changed all that also. Everyone is much more engaged in expressing themselves, whether they’re Asian or not. The culture has changed.”

When Kwan wrote “Crazy Rich Asians” — a romantic comedy about a Chinese-American economics professor who travels to Singapore with her boyfriend, one of the titular crazy-rich Asians — he was looking to fill a gap in the Western market with a story about contemporary Asians.

After Hollywood became interested in adapting his book, Kwan found himself at the center of something much bigger: a movement to democratize an entertainment industry that has historically passed on films led by women and people of color.

Hollywood is overwhelmingly white, both on-screen and behind the camera. A July study of 1,100 popular movies by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that Asian characters comprised just 4.8% of speaking film roles, despite making up 5.7% of the U.S. population.

Kwan, who was born in Singapore and raised in a suburb of Houston, Texas, says his stories struck a chord with Asian-Americans who saw “a truer portrayal of themselves” in his books and in the film than they had ever seen before.

“They’ve never seen an all-Asian cast behaving normally — not behaving like some weird stereotype of what Asians are supposed to be, but just cool people with real problems,” he said.

Since “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993 — the last all-Asian Hollywood film to focus on the lives of everyday Asian-Americans instead of martial artists, geisha or androids — an entire generation has grown up without seeing themselves represented on screens in mainstream popular culture, said Jeff Yang, an author and Asian activist.

But the buzz around “Crazy Rich Asians” has opened the doors wide for a flood of forthcoming Asian-focused projects in film and in television studios including Netflix, Amazon and Apple.

The cast and crew of “Crazy Rich Asians” pose for photos at the film’s world premiere in Los Angeles on Aug. 7. The movie has been billed as a barrier-breaking production that could shift public attitudes and shake up Hollywood. (AP)

Yang thinks “Crazy Rich Asians” will transform Hollywood. “The rise of Asian-Americans as an educated group with overwhelming representation in the digital space and on social media — these are things that help to make a really fertile ground,” he said.

Yang thinks the first signs of a shift came in 2015, when the ABC network picked up a show called “Fresh Off the Boat,” the first television sitcom focused on an Asian-American family in 20 years. Yang’s son Hudson, now 14, plays the lead character, a Taiwanese-American hip-hop aficionado born to immigrant parents.

When “Fresh Off the Boat” was in development, “there was this cadre of executives — all of whom were Asian-American women — who were basically running the show at ABC,” Yang said. The Asian-American showrunners, plus Asian executives in the company’s casting, comedy and advertising departments, were pulling those strings behind the scenes, he noted.

“It’s that factor of having had a generation of Asian-Americans grow up in that span … and getting into positions of power, that made it possible for this show to sort of squeeze through the needle and get made,” Yang said. ABC representatives say the show has been a strong ratings performer and view it as one of the cornerstones of the channel’s fall lineup.

“Crazy Rich Asians” was produced at Warner Bros. Entertainment, whose CEO, Kevin Tsujihara, is an American of Japanese descent. “When you see a revolution, you don’t see all of the hard work behind the scenes that is necessary to set the stage for a revolution to happen,” he said.

The bamboo ceiling

In 2015, Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, griped that Asians were taking over the nation’s top technology companies. “When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think … a country’s more than an economy. We’re a civic society,” Bannon said during a “Breitbart News Daily” radio program. He spoke in response to comments from Trump, then a presidential candidate, who suggested that highly skilled immigrants should be allowed into the country.

Bannon’s statistics about Silicon Valley were wrong, and he was even further off the mark when it comes to the broader U.S. business community. Asian-Americans make up only 3.1% of the 5,440 Fortune 500 board director seats, according to the Ascend Foundation, a nonprofit pan-Asian group in North America for business professionals. A separate Ascend study covering 2007 to 2015 found no major progress toward increasing the share of racial minorities at the executive level.

“By 2015, despite being outnumbered by Asian men and women in the entry-level professional workforce, white men and women were twice as likely as Asians to become executives and held almost [three times] the number of executive jobs,” the report read. “Asians were the least likely among all races to become managers and executives.”

In a 2005 book, author Jane Hyun described this phenomenon as the “bamboo ceiling.” In an interview, she said Asian cultural mores do not always align with Western expectations of what defines a leader. It is also difficult to find sponsorship within companies that have few Asian-Americans at the top, said Hyun, whose book was titled “Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians.”

Thirteen years after her book was published, Hyun says there is more awareness of the problem, but “if you look at the C-suite and all that, from a pure numbers perspective, there is work to be done.”

Change will come when companies realize that it will be good for business, she suggested.

“I think if companies really want to grow — and grow in a global sense and be attuned to what’s going on outside of the U.S. — I think it’s going to be very difficult for them to be successful without understanding Asian people, Asian culture, and understanding the nuances of what that brings,” she said.

Pinnacle, a pan-Asian corporate board initiative launched by Ascend, has already gotten the ball rolling on boardroom representation. With support from members like Arun Nayar, CFO of Tyco Ireland; Irene Chang Britt, former president of Pepperidge Farm and other established business executives, the group is bringing visibility to the boardroom bamboo ceiling.

Anna Mok, Ascend Pinnacle co-founder and executive vice president, says that in focusing on the boardroom, the initiative is targeting “a very influential part of shaping the tone and strategy for the company.” Pinnacle does this by providing a network, now some 200-strong, for Asian-American board executives to share opportunities with each other. The group has also hosted two summits to discuss strategies to bring diversity to the corporate boardroom.

New battlegrounds

In early July, Trump officials rescinded affirmative action guidelines adopted under the Obama administration that encouraged universities to consider race when selecting students. The rollback of the guidelines, which were designed to encourage racial diversity in student populations, was celebrated by some Asian-Americans. “This is a triumphant moment for Asian-American communities,” said one nonprofit group, the Asian American Coalition for Education, after Trump rolled back the policies.

Affirmative action has become a surprisingly contentious issue for the Asian-American community. A group called the Students for Fair Admissions has sued Harvard University’s governing bodies on behalf of Asian-American applicants, accusing the school of systematically limiting the number of students of Asian descent. The case is set to go to trial in October and could go to the U.S. Supreme Court.

A group called the Students for Fair Admissions has sued Harvard University’s governing bodies on behalf of Asian-American applicants, accusing the school of systematically limiting the number of students of Asian descent. (Getty Images)

It is an issue that has divided Asian-Americans. Those who want to end affirmative action policies see them as elevating other ethnic groups at the expense of high-performing Asian students. Others believe the policies help promote Asian-Americans overall. Either way, mused Yang, himself a Harvard graduate, the furor over this issue is “further proof that Asian-Americans aren’t quiet.”

Issues close to home like affirmative action and Trump’s immigration policies have Asian-Americans mobilizing for action as the U.S. heads to elections in November that will determine whether both houses of Congress remain Republican. With Asian populations growing in states such as North Carolina, Arizona and Nevada — traditionally conservative states that have recently shown signs of voting Democratic — they could become a decisive force in the midterms and beyond.

But according to Taeku Lee, a professor of political science at University of California, Berkeley, there is a “troubling pattern” of a dramatic drop-off in turnout by Asian-American voters during midterm elections. In 2014, for example, only 27% of eligible Asian-Americans voted. There are reasons to believe this year might be different, however.

The Trump factor is one of them. A 2018 poll of 411 registered voters who identify as Asian, conducted by the Asian American and Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Fund, found that 70% of Asian-Americans felt angry at the White House, and 69% felt disrespected by the Trump administration. These are “two emotions that are good signals of political engagement,” Lee said. The same survey found that 65% of Asian-Americans believe it is more important to vote this year than it was in 2014.

Once a group that largely voted Republican, Asian-Americans began gravitating left in the 1990s. Strikingly, Asian support for Democratic candidates has increased more than any other racial group in the same 20-year span.

Republicans, Lee said, “have effectively ‘pushed’ Asian-American voters away” with anti-immigrant candidates who appear hostile to racial and ethnic minorities. (However, the Asian-Americans who want to end affirmative action have allied themselves with Republicans, who oppose the policies.)

U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration policies have Asian-Americans mobilizing for action as the U.S. heads to elections in November. (Getty Images)

Lee says that one district to watch is Orange County, California, long a Republican stronghold, where four Congressional seats are up for grabs. “There are signs that demographic change is chipping away at this bedrock,” Lee said, noting that Asian-American residents now make up one in five. “The litmus test here may be California’s 39th district,” he said, where Republicans have put up an Asian American woman candidate, Young Kim, against Latino Democrat Gil Cisneros.

Despite the fact that Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing immigrant group in the U.S., neither of the major political parties have wooed the Asian vote “with anything resembling the same energy, enthusiasm and money that they dedicate to other segments of voters,” Lee said. “Given the rising tide of Asian-American voters, parties and campaigns that continue to neglect this segment of voters do so at their own peril.”

Young activists such as Amy Gong Liu, a student at Columbia University and first-generation Chinese-American immigrant, may force the parties to pay more attention to Asians. She is an active member of numerous political clubs on campus and helped canvass neighborhoods to campaign for Hillary Clinton during the 2016 elections.

“I was always frustrated with [my parents’] political apathy,” Liu said. Her father became a citizen when she was a junior in high school, and her mother gained her citizenship only a year ago. She recalls arguing with them, calling on them to naturalize and become politically engaged.

“But the one thing they said to me that has always stuck with me, is: ‘We worked so much we couldn’t care [about politics], but we worked so that you could,'” she said. “It shows that there are a lot of structural barriers for Asian-Americans about what it means to care, and what it means to act.”

Camilla Siazon contributed to this report.