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6 asians in fashion on what 'crazy rich asians' means to them

Soo Joo Park, Siki Im, Turner, Mai Quynh, Paolo Roldan, and Jane Kim-Smith talk representation and moving the needle forward.

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Aug 22 2018, 3:42pm

I put out my first magazine when I was nine years old.

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These were the days before I had my own computer, let alone any editing or design tools, but I had eight sheets of crisp white paper from Kinkos, neatly folded in half, with one staple down the middle, and my handwritten articles lining both sides of the pages. The magazine was called The Environment News and my articles -- and accompanying hand-drawn illustrations -- extolled the virtues of recycling, composting, and saving endangered species. I printed a dozen copies to hand out to friends and teachers at school. They were a hit. Energized, I went home and declared to my parents that my goal was to become a magazine writer. They had other thoughts.

“You also like to ride your bike, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to become a professional cyclist,” my father said. “Besides, have you ever seen a Chinese person working as a full-time writer? What kind of life would that be?”

More than two decades later, my father’s words came rushing back as I sat in a crowded theater in Los Angeles to watch Crazy Rich Asians on opening night. The film, based on Kevin Kwan’s book of the same name, is the first studio movie starring Asian-Americans in lead roles since The Joy Luck Club was released in September 1993. In its opening weekend, Crazy Rich Asians surpassed expectations to debut at number one at the North American box office, topping big budget entries from A-listers like Mark Wahlberg and Jason Statham, and becoming the first romantic comedy in three years to open to over $20 million. The film was so successful, that its UK release date was moved up from November to September, hoping to catch the groundswell of support and buzz that’s greeted both the film and its talented cast.

The success of Crazy Rich Asians has renewed calls for diversity in film, and, much like the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag from a few years ago (though perhaps less politically charged) has empowered Asians across the world to speak up and demand recognition — and a seat at the table.

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The film’s impact can be measured in more than just dollar signs, too. For many Asians, myself included, the movie is the first time we are seeing ourselves reflected on screen, not as a caricature or in a supporting role, but as regular people - slightly flawed, but unflappably cool.

My parents weren’t sure what kind of life I would lead if I pursued writing. But if the success of Crazy Rich Asians has shown us anything, it’s that life doesn’t always follow a script. Some things happen overnight, and other things take time. If you’re willing to be patient, willing to put in the work, and yes, willing to get a little crazy, you’ll find that life -- and success -- is much sweeter when the fruits of your labor are ripe for picking.

Here, six Asians working in fashion — makeup artist Mai Quynh (Vietnamese-American), model and L’Oréal Paris global ambassador Soo Joo Park (Korean-American), model and Givenchy muse Paolo Roldan (Filipino-Canadian), NYC-based stylist Turner (half-Vietnamese, half-Caucasian), NYC-based menswear designer and CFDA Member Siki Im (Korean), and creative marketing VP Jane Kim-Smith (Korean-American) — discuss what Crazy Rich Asians means to them, and how they’re using it to start conversations in their industries.

Where did you watch the movie? What was that experience like?
Mai Quynh: I saw it by myself on opening day at the 11am matinee. I never read the books but I knew I had to support the movie. And I knew I wanted to support it by seeing it in a theater and not just waiting for it to come on TV or on Netflix.

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Jane Kim-Smith: My friend rented out a whole theater in Battery Park for his half-Japanese and half-American girlfriend to celebrate her birthday, during what he called, a “historical movie weekend.” It was so amazing to watch it with a diverse group of friends. Once the movie wrapped, we all stuck around to chat about various parts of the movie and how good it was.

What did you think of the film?
Kim-Smith: Much like other Asian-Americans I’ve talked to about this film, I think we’re just all excited and charged by the fact that we have representation on the big screen, in a way that’s not stereotypical, or told through a white person’s narrative and direction. I got emotional in the middle of the film, unrelated to any scene, just because I couldn’t believe that I was finally watching a movie in a regular (non-indie) movie theater where the entire cast of the movie was Asian. And it wasn’t a movie where it was “explaining” why it was that way - it just was, and that was that.

Quynh: You didn’t sit there and dwell on the fact that it was an “Asian movie.” Everybody has crazy parents and aunts and friends. It’s so relatable.

Siki Im: I think it is exciting that a major studio invested in a movie that appeals -- at least on the surface -- to a minority group, and casted all minorities. Maybe to compensate for this and to have a bigger reach, the plot is rather light (in comparison to the masterful storytelling of The Joy Luck Club). It also showcases a small sub-section of Asians, though at least it’s showing them as rich, bold, and beautiful right?

Why do you think film is so important right now?
Kim-Smith: Because it’s been 25 Years since Hollywood put out a wide-release film with an all-Asian cast! I mean, do we live in 2018 or what? That exposure alone is important, but I also know that there are so many future screenplays and storylines that are ready to be green-lit based on the reception of this film. We needed this film to do well so that we would even have a fighting chance to get more of our stories told. And we have a lot of stories to tell.

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Turner: Since Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, I’ve been waiting for something totally unrelated to martial arts to come out in terms of an “Asian film.”

Paolo Roldan: I think this film is important right now because it empowers the Asian community. It gives Asians a voice, confidence, and a chance to show that there is an audience for films like this to be produced for the North American market. More importantly, hopefully this film will inspire us to give more respect and love for our own community. I heard a quote once about how you have to be able to first heal yourself, so you can then give your best to everyone else around you.

Many Asians say this is the first time they've seen themselves truly reflected in the mainstream media. Were there any Asians in fashion or entertainment that you identified with growing up?
Soo Joo Park: Growing up in America -- my family moved here from Seoul when I was 10 -- I really didn’t have anyone in the U.S. to look up to as a role model. I loved James Iha (guitarist for The Smashing Pumpkins), but he was more of an elusive, quiet rockstar. I didn’t know too much about him and there wasn’t much information out there, anyway.

Roldan: I had Ernie Reyes Jr ( Red Sonja, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and Dante Basco (Rufio from Hook), as fellow Filipinos to look up to. Lucy Liu, Devon Aoki, and Jackie Chan broke through, but they, for the most part, were limited in the roles they could play.

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Quynh: Tia Carrere in Wayne’s World. A lot of people would bring up martial artists to me, or Yoko Ono, or people in porn. When I saw Tia in this movie that was everywhere, I thought it was so cool.

Turner: I really loved Lucy Liu's character in Kill Bill. I can’t say I identified with her though, as she played a convicted assassin (Liu played O-Ren Ishii, the leader of an underground criminal organization in Tokyo) and well, I am not.

Park: Yeah, maybe Lucy Liu? But even in Ally McBeal, she played a specific character (cold-hearted, sexy dominatrix-type) that my pre-teen mind couldn’t wrap my head around. Looking back, I can’t think of more than a handful of Asian-American actors who played more than a very minor character, a Mortal Kombat-type fighter, or the Yellow Power Ranger.

What’s it like being Asian in the fashion industry? Do you still deal with misconceptions or challenges because of your ethnicity, similar to the characters in the film?
Park: When I began my career as a model, it wasn’t easy. There was a certain beauty that was celebrated as an “Asian beauty” in the Western world, and my face didn’t match that convention. My first model agent in California told me I would work best as a “cool, edgy Asian,” partially because of my penchant for indie music and alt-culture, but mainly because I didn’t have what he thought was a “traditional beauty.”

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Roldan: There weren’t very many Asian models when I first started, but I tried to use that to my advantage. I really saw the transition from there being just a handful of us, to seeing Asian models becoming staples, top models and icons. The struggle is definitely real though. From my own experiences, I experienced a lot of ignorance and negativity.

Quynh: Sometimes I”ll show up to set and people will be like, “Today we just want a nude nail,” and I’m like, “I’m not the nail girl. I’m the makeup artist.”

Kim-Smith: I can count numerous times where my personality or character wasn’t what others expected and I would either be admonished to “tone it down” or just dismissed as “ that Asian girl.” I think most of my struggles working in the industry actually came from the numerous times I would have to explain the nuanced nature of “targeting Asian-Americans,” or having to address (or ignore) ignorant comments in emails or conversations. I think now with some years under my belt, I can do a pretty good job at anticipating and addressing ignorant comments, but it took me a little time to find my voice and be comfortable with making others feel uncomfortable.

How have you dealt with living up to or breaking away from Asian stereotypes?
Park: Making a name in fashion or in the entertainment industry is more difficult than “threading through an eye of a thin needle” (I’m celebrating my Korean heritage with a Korean aphorism here), and the fact that I am an outlying minority placed me in a quandary of either, “not being Asian enough,” or “being a specific token Asian.” One of the reasons why I bleached my hair was to break away from being typecast. Thankfully it suited me and I was able to go on to successfully work as a model.

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Roldan: I just made a choice to be stronger, and to not let the things that aren’t in my control bother me after the moment has passed.

Im: The fashion industry has many successful and talented Asians, especially working in design, so maybe that was the pressure I felt — to stand out and succeed. But I also believe that excellency, competence, and passion can overcome intolerance and ignorance.

Do you think Crazy Rich Asians will help to move the needle forward, in terms of Asian representation and more opportunities for Asians in the creative fields?
Kim-Smith: My hope is that this film inspires other Asian-American filmmakers, screenwriters, and creatives to want to tell their story, and to tell the stories of so many different, interesting characters and people that happen to be Asian. I hope that Hollywood sees that there is value (both in entertainment and money) in telling these diverse stories and continues to empower Asian-American creatives, both behind and in front of the camera.

Im: I think this film opens the door for many Asian actors, but also for people to see their Asian neighbors differently. Steven Yeun ( The Walking Dead) helped people see the Asian guy as more than a nerd, Justin Chon ( Twilight, Gook) made Asians edgy, Margaret Cho ( All-American Girl) gave Asians a sense of humor, and now Henry Golding is making Asians sexy, not just sleazy.

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Quynh: It’s opened my eyes to the community we have. When I first started, I didn’t even know makeup was a job, let alone know any Asians in the industry.

Park: Two of the largest accomplishments in my career are about breakthroughs in regards to my ethnic background. One is becoming the first Asian-American model to be a global ambassador of L’Oréal Paris. The other is being on the cover of Allure. The editor-in-chief, Michelle Lee, said that it was the first time since 2000 that they had a full Asian heritage woman on the cover. Here we are 18 years after. And in the world of Hollywood, here we are, 25 years after The Joy Luck Club premiered. It’ll take time for change, but I do appreciate that in mainstream Western culture and in this industry, a larger welcome mat has been placed out now for Asians and Asian-Americans.

How has the success of Crazy Rich Asians personally inspired you?
Turner: It definitely encourages me to support more Asian designers and talent through my styling.

Kim-Smith: I want to keep the momentum going, in whatever way possible. It’s pushing me to put in the extra effort to reach out, find and collaborate with other Asian-Americans who are trying to make it in the creative field, and especially in Hollywood.

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Roldan: I hope that this will teach the Asian community to respect each other as Asians. There is discrimination within our own community and we have to end this so that we can free each other of our old insecurities and negative acts towards our own people. Only with complete respect for your own can you gain full respect from other cultures. Surely finding acceptance and being heard in other communities is just as important as respecting your own.

Where do we go from here?
Im: I think it is imperative that Hollywood caters to and embraces other groups too, like the LGBTQ community. I also can’t wait for the next “Asian” Hollywood movie to be more like Birdman or Call Me By Your Name.

Park: Crazy Rich Asians isn’t the end-all be-all, and it shouldn’t be. There should be more films like this, that explore and encourage inclusivity.

Quynh: I hope the film inspires people to just go for it. The success of the film proves that everyone is capable — we are all very capable. Still, until you prove that you can do it, people will always have their opinions.

Im: It is always challenging to represent one whole group, as not everyone will be satisfied. Still, Crazy Rich Asians is a good start to move the needle of the experiences and landscape of the Asian community.

Tim Chan is the founder and editor-in-chief of Corduroy Magazine .

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