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10 Asian-Americans Killing It In Film and Music

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We have come a long way from the days of African-American actors playing “nanny” roles and Asian-American actors being cast all too often as to kung-fu masters or Yakuza mobsters. In other ways… not a damn thing has changed! In 2016, not a single actor of color was nominated for an Academy award, sparking the #OscarsSoWhite protest on social media. Chris Rock, who hosted the Oscars that year, made pointed remarks about the outrageous lack of diversity. But true to form, Rock went on cracking jokes about people of Asian descent, referring to Asian-American children as accountants and smartphone makers, and adding “If anyone is upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phones, also made by these kids.”

The unspoken wisdom in Chris Rock’s joke is that while the focus has been on black representation in Hollywood, we continue to ignore the more glaring absence of people of Hispanic, American Indian, and South Asian and East Asian descent (who continue to be stereotyped as nerds, gang members, and hookers). In this edition of WAX, Nicole Kirichanskaya sheds a light on 10 actors and performers of Asian descent who are beating the odds in the entertainment game.



Jhene Aiko is one of the fastest-rising females in R&B music, and for good reason. On top of being stunning and fashion-forward, Aiko has the vocal range to make any song hypnotic, and the backbone to challenge a male-dominated industry. Her singing is sweet and soulful, her lyrics and music have a quiet intensity that is a welcome break from the more evocative songs in the R&B canon, although we do love those as well. Aiko’s father is African-American and her mother is Japanese-American, a mixed heritage that serves her well both here at home and, increasingly, around the world.



Lewis Tan, an English-Chinese model and actor, is perhaps known to some for a cringe-inducing Hollywood controversy around the pick for lead actor in the martial-arts superhero Netflix/Marvel Studios series Iron Fist. In the original story, Iron Fist is one half of an intrepid ass-kicking duo with Power Man (aka Luke Cage), one of the first interracial action hero pairings in comic books. When news broke that Iron Fist would be recast in the movie version of The Defenders, many fans held the hope that Tan would land the lead role, in a welcome departure from its usual white male portrayer. Well, that didn’t happen as Tan, the initial runner-up for the part, ended up in the minor role of– you guessed it, Zhou Cheng.



James Chen, a Chinese-American, is a native New Yorker, which seemed like a great background to prepare him for one of his biggest roles yet, playing the supporting lead character Ning in the movie Front Cover. Front Cover stormed the world of indie films with its thought-provoking portrayal of love story between two young Asian men, the one American and openly gay, the other Chinese and extremely closeted. Chen has also starred in the TV series Law & Order: SVU, and Blue Bloods, as well as Hollywood productions such as The Amazing Spiderman and We Need To Talk About Kevin. He continues to break boundaries as an actor.



Jake Choi is also a born and raised New Yorker, something that no doubt helped him channel the commanding sensibility and complexity of his top-of-the-ticket performance in the indie sensation Front Cover. Choi played the part of Ryan in the movie, an out and proud stylist who finds himself re-assessing his views on love and China when he finds himself falling head over heels in love with visiting popular Chinese actor Ning (played by James Chen). Choi, a Korean-American, has starred in acclaimed productions including Younger and Hawaii Five-0. He continues to work as an actor and fashion model, shuttering stereotypes and breaking hearts (just kidding!) along the way.



Eric Nam is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most charismatic young performers in the entertainment industry today. Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Nam took undergraduate classes in international studies, before going on to complete a graduate degree as a business analyst. But his stellar academic performance did little to quell Nam’s childhood ambition of becoming a singer. Today, he is one of the hottest K-pop stars in the world. And just recently, Forbes magazine included him in its annual 30 under 30 Asian list. Nam was named among South Korea’s “Men of the Year” in 2016. Fluent in English, Korean, Spanish, and Mandarin, he’s a founder of a non-profit promoting Asian-American talents.


Dae Kim

Only very few words can aptly describe Daniel Dae Kim or his career thus far, so we’re going to stick with ‘awesome’ on both accounts. Kim has been on not one but two hit television series, Lost and Hawaii Five-0, and is also a stage actor. Most recently, he played the role of the King in the Lincoln Center production of The King and I. Kim has been a strong source of inspiration for Asian-Americans since he and his co-star Grace Park quit Hawaii Five-0 after they became aware of their white male cast members getting more money for equal work, ironic considering the show is set in Hawaii, the state with the largest Asian-American population.



Ali Wong, a 30-year-old native San Franciscan actress and stand-up comic, has already exceeded many expectations in her blossoming career, most notably with her latest outspokenly raw and uproarious Netflix comedy special, Ali Wong: Baby Cobra. Wong, who is half-Chinese and half-Vietnamese, was heavily pregnant during in her recent live stand-up performances, a condition that did not make her any less viciously funny when delivering her signature thought-provoking jokes about interracial dating, sexual activity, growing up in an immigrant family, and other all-American staples. In addition to her movie acting stand-up career, Wong is a widely acclaimed scriptwriter, including for her work on the popular ABC show Fresh Off The Boat.



Mindy Kaling’s resume is as impressive as she is. Having worked on some pretty well-known TV shows such as The Office and, of course, The Mindy Project, the 2015 FOX/Hulu romantic comedy that she wrote and co-stars in. Kaling has always been fascinated with the entertainment industry, particularly comedy, and it looks like her childhood fascination paid off. Having gone from being an intern for the Conan O’Brien’s show, to starring and producing in her own series, Kaling has also published several best-selling books, including the 2015 Why Not Me? In March, The Mindy Project was renewed for a sixth and final season, set to premiere this month.


Malaysian-born musician and songwriter Yuna has already won the hearts of so many American fans, and continues to do so after releasing three successful English language albums. Having gone to school to become a lawyer, Yuna shifted her career track to follow her passions and we’re glad she did. Yuna’s popularity with the American music industry rose quite rapidly after her song Lights and Camera was featured in the film Beyond The Lights. Yuna has collaborated on several hit songs with artists including Usher (“Crush”) and Jhene Aiko (“Used To Love You”). Gifted with an enthralling vocal range and commanding stage presence, Yuna is helping break American stereotypes of Muslim women, and we’re right here cheering her on.



Ryan Potter may not be the most familiar name quite yet, but you will definitely recognize Hiro Hamada, the character he voiced in the groundbreaking animated film Big Hero 6. Like Hiro, Ryan Potter is bi-racial (half-Japanese, half-white) and was the first actor to voice a biracial character in Disney animated movie history. In addition to his work on Big Hero 6, its upcoming sequel Big Hero 7, and the related Big Hero 6 animated TV series, Potter is a trained martial artist. With his growing fan base rooting for him, Potter is currently auditioning for the role of  Tim Drake, one of the many Robins in the DC Universe. Should he land the part, Potter will be the first American actor of Asian descent to take a lead role in the Batman series.

We have such a long way to go when it comes to representing full diversity in American media and entertainment, but it is a little reassuring to see the insane amount of talent the celebrities listed above (and so many who weren’t mentioned) have and the work they are continuing to do. Here’s hoping that the day we see an Asian-American superhero or James Bond will be here sooner than we think.

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Nicole Kirichanskaya

Nicole Kirichanskaya is a proud daughter of Ukrainian immigrants and a born-and-raised New Yorker. In her freelance writing for publications including WAX, Nicole explores the world of fashion, beauty, pop culture, entertainment, and diversity in media. She also keeps her own blog, Fashionable Brainiac.
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