In my sophomore year of college I moved into an apartment with a close friend from high school. Managed by an elderly Chinese couple who didn’t speak any English, the apartment was passed to down to us from a girl I knew who had lived there for a year and had acted as an informal interpreter for the older couple. When S. and I moved in (after a long, non-communicative “inspection” by the managers), we weren’t surprised to find out that the rest of the tenants were unassuming, untroublesome-looking Asians and Asian Americans—a lot like us, I guess.
A short time after we settled in, S. and I realized that a previous tenant had forgotten to cancel several of his subscriptions. To our shock and then joy, we discovered that we had become the unwitting beneficiaries of the daily San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, assorted magazines, and a steady stream of gay porn catalogs. Thanks to a mysterious Quentin Lee, over the course of the year S. and I became incredibly well versed in Bay Area politics, cultural events, and celebrity gossip (mainly involving Sharon Stone, who at the time was married to the Chronicle’s VP Phil Bronstein), as well as up-and-coming adult film stars and the latest models of butt plugs. (I blush even now writing that.) The porn catalogs sometimes came with a little refrigerator magnet with a picture of a smirking nude young beefcake (always a Twink, we learned, never a Bear), which we slapped on the freezer and gigglingly admired every time we passed by. For two recovering Catholic girls, it was all, I must say, a very valuable part of our Berkeley education. From time to time we thanked Quentin out loud for these gifts, but we always wondered—especially since at least one other tenant had passed through the apartment after him—how he never came to realize that he was still paying for extra subscriptions of the Chronicle et al. after all these years. Maybe he was too rich to care, I thought, and we’d shrug and forget about him until the next glossy catalog arrived for us to pore over with our friends. At the end of the year—an eventful year that included a lot of musical theater parties, chemical experimentation, and the horrible sexual assault of an Asian girl in our building by a white frat boy she didn’t know who knocked randomly on her door and forced his way into her room—I moved out of the apartment and left for Seoul, and that was the end of the era of Quentin Lee.
Or so I thought. Over the next decade, I started to see Quentin Lee’s name start popping up in entertainment-related news. This Quentin Lee was a film director who was getting a lot of buzz in the blossoming Asian American film scene. Suspecting that he was our Quentin Lee, I rooted around and discovered that he was indeed a Cal alumni (ten years before S. and me) and had started to build a solid reputation directing quirky, off-beat films typically featuring young, gay Asian male protagonists—hardly the stuff of mainstream Hollywood, and all the more kudos to him for it. (One of his feature-length films, Ethan Mao, apparently includes a crucial scene in which the main character is outed to his family through the discovery of his gay porn stash—a serendipitous detail that brings me back full circle to sophomore year.) His adventurous oeuvre—ranging from (and I quote) “werewolf coming-of-age dramas to sex-romps to teen hostage films to experimental video art”—was regularly featured at the prestigious San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF), and late last year Angry Asian Man linked to a disturbing 6-min. film that Lee had directed for the Vancouver Asian Film Festival. This short film, titled “Today Has Been Weird,” was made for just $500 and matter-of-factly depicted a story inspired by a young Asian American Xanga blogger named Simon Sek Man Ng whose final entry on the last day of his life (which, hauntingly, still remains online) gave police the clues to arrest the murderer of Ng and his sister:
In addition to drawing attention to racial tensions against Asian immigrant communities across North America (again bringing me back to sophomore year, with the shocking rape in our apartment building), “Today Has Been Weird” is also, as my friend V. described it, “so awful and yet also a story so incredibly steeped in our modern culture of self-surveillance.” So, so true. Anyway, over the years, even though I had never met Quentin Lee in person, I’d grown to feel a special, almost familial connection with him (hey, we even share the same last name), and I couldn’t help feeling proud of our former “benefactor” for making a name for himself, and for doing it his way.
Of course, coincidences never cease. Last fall, my wonderful therapist J., who has always been trying to get me to talk more about my own relationship to Asian American-ness, mentioned that her next-door neighbor’s son was dating a young woman named Ellie Wen whom he’d met at Stanford and who was producing an indie film based on a script she and her mother had written together. J. and her neighbors, a devoted circle of friends from an affluent Chicago North Shore suburb, were rallying around Wen’s project and eagerly following its progress. The film was called White Frog and was set to premiere some time in the spring. “You should look it up,” J. said. She wanted to know what I thought about the film, since Wen had also grown up in California and was Asian American too (which, I suppose, to many non-Asian persons from the Midwest, might seem to yield far more commonalities than it actually does–more on this later).
When I went home and looked it up, I discovered that the film had some seriously big names attached to it. The playwright David Henry Hwang was one of the executive producers, and the actors involved read like a Who’s Who of Asian Americans in Hollywood—the inimitable Joan Chen, BD Wong (the original M. Butterfly of Hwang’s play, among many, many other roles), Harry Shum, Jr. (from Glee), Booboo Stewart (from the Twilight franchise), and super-hot Lady Deathstrike Kelly Hu. (Other famous non-Asian teen heartthrobs also seemed to be involved, whom I know nothing about since I am not a tween.) 24-year-old Ellie Wen, in addition to writing the script with her mother Fabienne, was president of her own production company, Wentertainment Productions, and was listed as the film’s co-producer alongside mega-producer Chris Lee, former head of Columbia/TriStar pictures. The soundtrack was entirely composed of music by Asian American pop, dance, and hip-hop artists, and the director of White Frog was none other than—you guessed it—Mr. Quentin Lee. He had hit the freaking big leagues.
I was bowled over. Of course I started following the film, trading notes with my therapist, all the way up until its world premiere at the 30th annual SFIAAFF a few weeks ago. Perhaps partly since Joan Chen was this year’s SFIAAFF honoree, and partly because of Lee’s own close relationship with the festival, White Frog kicked off the fest as the inaugural feature. (To come full circle, here’s the SF Chronicle article on the event.) Asian American blogs as well as a few gay culture sites ran previews of the film and interviews with Lee and the actors, and the day after the sold-out screening, glamorous red-carpet photos of the cast and crew started making their rounds online. Considering the trials and tribulations that Asian Americans historically have had to overcome in the world of mainstream entertainment, including the racially insensitive casting of Miss Saigon that DH Hwang and BD Wong led high-profile protests against back in the ‘80s, the way that White Frog has been supported and feted—both by the Asian American community and by fans all around the world—is a remarkable story on so many levels. And of course, as a long-time watcher of Quentin Lee’s career, I’m truly inspired by his trajectory from quirky, experimental queer filmmaker to firmly established veteran of Asian American cinema. It’s quite a story.
. . .
There are still other stories, too. Life is full of funny little ironies. Of the few close friends with whom S. and I shared our treasured stash of gay porn back in the day, one of them went on to become an award-winning filmmaker herself, via the same prestigious UCLA directing program that Quentin Lee had graduated from. Another one of our friends embarked on a very brief but surprisingly successful stint in the gay porn industry. S. herself passed through countless, radically different careers before ending up in New York as a pastry chef, including a short period as a college instructor in Asian American studies. It was as if each of us, in different ways, had absorbed a little bit of Quentin Lee within those apartment walls.
As for me—well, after college, I moved back to Korea to teach for a year, got married in a tiny impromptu ceremony in England, and then moved to South Africa for graduate school. A month after we’d settled in, I got a desperate phone call from my mom in California. “Your dad and I lost all our money in the business,” she said. “We’re selling everything and moving to Chicago.” “Wait, what?!?” I cried. I had just seen them before we left for Cape Town, and things seemed to be fine–they were operating a small smoothie store near Laguna Beach and living in a comfortable retirement community. I had no idea they were in so much debt. “Why didn’t you tell me this when I was at home?” I yelled at her. “We didn’t want to burden you–you’re just a child!” she replied, her own voice rising. I was beyond furious. I couldn’t believe that my parents had kept all of their financial problems a secret from me, their only daughter, in some totally misguided effort to “protect” me from reality.
As I began to uncover in bits and pieces, my parents—a former nun and an ex-Korean War colonel—had been plagued with financial difficulties ever since they’d arrived virtually penniless in the U. S. in the early ‘70s, with no real support system to show them the ropes of the American financial system, gain access to the mainstream labor market, borrow wisely, invest their savings, or plan for retirement. While there were prosperous times in the ‘80s when their liquor store business was booming, they were hit hard by the L.A. riots, by repeated break-ins, and—most damaging of all—by a trusted employee who embezzled all their earnings. In a story that fills me simultaneously with shame and overwhelming love, they never turned him in or took him to court because they still considered him “family”—instead, they let him load his truck one last time with goods from the store and then sent him on his way, never to return. After an inheritance from a great-uncle that came through for my dad just before the IMF crisis, we all thought that was a sign of better things to come. With that money my folks bought a Juice Stop and moved into Leisure World, and the rest was history, I had hoped. But apparently that, too, ended up being just another hollow American dream. All this time, throughout my entire childhood and adolescence, I was powerless—and too young and too ignorant—to help them. Looking back on all of this, none of which I could understand while it was happening, I was overcome with guilt, anger, and sorrow.
But where did that leave us all now? And how the hell did Chicago figure into their new plans? We didn’t know anyone in Chicago. As it turned out, my mom had found an ad in the Korean newspaper about a nursing home community that was run by Korean Catholics. She gave them a call, and with her disabilities and my dad’s age, they were immediately accepted. But first they had to get rid of pretty much everything they’d ever owned.
So at the age of 22, I found myself marooned in a foreign hemisphere, newly married and still a student with barely any savings and no worldly possessions or inheritance to my name. It was a staggering moment of utter and complete loss. I don’t know how I got through the initial aftermath after discovering the news–amnesia works wonders, I guess. Fortunately, my fellowship managed to cover living expenses for the rest of our stay, and at the end of the year we too moved to Chicago and got jobs and ended up providing for my folks for a while, before I re-entered school and a whole lot of other life shit happened before my parents and I emerged again into the sunlight, where we thankfully still find ourselves today.
So what does this all have to do with Quentin Lee and White Frog? Well, when my therapist told me about White Frog, she mentioned it as a way of reaching out and making a connection between her world, which now included Ellie Wen, and mine. When I looked up the film and learned more about Wen herself, I immediately felt pride for all the reasons I’d already mentioned, but this news also inadvertently struck an ambivalent emotional chord in me that I wasn’t quite prepared for. (And no, I haven’t discussed this with my therapist.) By all counts, Wen appeared to be a remarkable young woman, a stellar student leader from Harvard-Westlake Prep School in L.A.—with its $30,000 a year price tag and an incredibly successful record of producing movie stars, film directors and producers, governors, NBA players, and David Henry Hwang himself–and of course Stanford, where she immersed herself in the entertainment business before founding Wentertainment Productions a year after her college graduation. Her fellow Harvard-Westlake alumni Hwang, who also got his English degree at Yale around the same time as Ellie Wen’s mother Fabienne, took on the role of her mentor, and when he signed on to become the executive producer of White Frog, many prominent figures in the Asian American film industry naturally wanted to become involved with the project, including Quentin Lee.
For all my folks’ financial crises, they were unwaveringly committed, like so many Asian immigrant parents, to my education, and soon after their liquor store business collapsed we moved into a tiny apartment across the street from one of the top public high schools in southern California. Like most public schools, there were rich kids and poor kids and everyone else in between, but the district that the school was in veered towards the much richer (and Asian American) end of the spectrum. At the time, I was shockingly ignorant of class difference, and many, many of my good friends were Ellie Wens: bright, charismatic, talented, super-driven – and also, importantly, prosperous and well connected. My best friend at the time was the most cultured person I had ever met, and she generously lavished her allowance on me, taking me out to theaters and expensive restaurants every weekend and introducing me to a glamorous, exciting world I had no access to on my own. During our senior year, her family moved into an enormous custom-built mansion on a hill overlooking Newport Beach, even though she was about to go away for college and never live there again. After another friend informed me that she was given the choice by her parents to either go to college or become a Taiwanese pop star, I spent an entire afternoon with her poring through CDs of our favorite artists so that she could send a mixtape to her father’s contacts in Taiwan to give them a “feel” for the style she wanted her new group to have. Years later, I would see her face–and the face of another fellow alumni who became an even bigger Taiwanese pop star–plastered all over storefronts across Chicago’s Chinatown.
Coming of age in this affluent community certainly inspired me and gave me the tools and the will to succeed in my own way, but as the years passed my class ignorance fell away from my eyes like scales, especially when I realized early on that I had no material cushion to fall back on. Unlike many of my friends, I had no room to fail, and therefore no room to risk (well, aside from, you know, going back to grad school for a degree in the humanities–but, you know). So a few weeks ago, when I read Hyphen’s interview with Fabienne Wen that said this:
While Fabienne Wen doesn’t have Asperger’s [like the main character in White Frog], she knows what it is to be stifled.
“Pretty much everyone thought, ‘Why bother?’,” says Wen. “…I never dared pursue my dreams. Getting a script made into a movie in America? I might as well buy a lottery ticket…”
It appears there wasn’t a need to buy a lottery ticket. They just needed to talk and soon enough, someone listened.
my feelings of ambivalence kicked into high gear. On the one hand, Wen is absolutely right—the fact that an Asian American mother-daughter team could write and produce a movie with high-wattage stars and wide mainstream appeal is an amazing American-dream story that should be fully embraced. It’s an awesome achievement, both for them and for the Asian American community at large. However, my beef is with the way that this story is framed here, which deceptively elides the real truth: not just anyone in this country can “just…talk” and get someone in the right position to listen. That has never been true, and unfortunately never will be—even, and perhaps especially, within the minority community.
As Asian Americans become more and more prominent in American culture, it’s increasingly important not to gloss over difference. On the one hand, while an Asian American figure achieving success is certainly great news for the community at large (see for instance Jeremy Lin!), the danger is that all of Asian America (which, let’s face it, still appears homogeneous to outside viewers, if it appears visible at all) can get umbrella-ed under that one story—just as my therapist, though well intentioned, did with Ellie Wen and me, even with her in-depth knowledge of my own personal history and presumably Wen’s as well. In a very recent article in Time magazine about Asian Americans and affirmative action, Eric Liu reminds us:
…[D]iversity comes in many forms. The ethnic and socioeconomic diversity within Asian America is usually overlooked in the media. Great numbers of Asian Americans do not fit the model minority or “tiger family” stereotypes, living instead in multigenerational poverty far from the mainstream. Their situation argues for the consideration of class in affirmative action, so that all people who lack social capital can get a fairer shot at social mobility. It also reveals how the current debate is too narrowly focused on the elite.
Of course, one of the best ways of ensuring awareness of intra-diversity is for reporters, artists, and storytellers to continue relaying narratives about these different experiences that cut across class and ethno-cultural backgrounds. As a director, Quentin Lee has been doing this pretty much throughout his career; when asked on Gay.net whether his portrayal of gays and Asians has been intentional or coincidental, he responded:
In North America, if you’re a minority you pretty much have to deal with your identity one way or another. It’s the damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t dilemma. When I first came out in college at 19, I made a vow to myself to be totally out and will not let anyone put me down— either because I am gay or Asian or both. As an immigrant [from Hong Kong], I knew early on that I had to work extra hard to overcome the discrimination or the gap with the mainstream that you might face. So I’ve pretty much stuck to that philosophy. But which filmmaker or person in the industry doesn’t work hard?
So in a roundabout way to answer your question…Yes, I’ve intended to make movies about both gay and Asian people because if I don’t make them I can’t expect others to make films about us. At the same time, I strive to make every movie as universal as possible so people of all ethnicities, genders and sexualities will enjoy [them]. And I hope my movies are good examples of the universal in the specific.
The movie White Frog itself (which I still need to see) seems to be very much about the “universal in the specific,” a story about an Asian American teenage boy with Aspergers’ whose seemingly perfect family is hit by a tragedy, though it is also—as Lee himself frames it—very much a typical (though no less complicated) coming-of-age narrative. The eponymous White Frog of the film refers to a Vietnamese delicacy in which a frog is trapped in a coconut for days in order to absorb its complex flavors of the fruit. Symbolically, therefore, the white frog stands as a kind of ironic “power animal” for the main character, as well as for all the Asian Twinkies trying to assimilate into the dominant “white” culture, all the gay Twinks trying to blend into hetero culture, all the have-nots trying to hobnob with the haves, and—really—anyone who’s ever felt the pressure to project something that they’re not (admittedly everyone, but definitely some more than others). As corny as this sounds, I’m grateful to Quentin Lee for giving voice to so many “white frogs” throughout his career, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of his older films and other projects he takes on in the future. (And lest this be overlooked, this goes for the rest of the inspiring team behind White Frog, too!) At the same time, I hope that there will be more room in the media for representations of Asian American stories and voices that fall even further outside the “mainstream,” so that the very real complexities of Asian American experiences of all kinds—even the seemingly less glamorous, successful, and/or newsworthy—can be honestly acknowledged and rendered truly visible to the public eye.
White frogs of the world, unite indeed!
. . .
Update 3.23.12: I decided to be bold and get in touch with Quentin and share him this link, and he gleefully re-posted it on FB, Twitter, and his personal site. Even his dad has since weighed in. :) I love the internets. Thanks, Quentin!
. . .
Another update 3.26.12:
Whew. This piece still has legs. Last week I’d linked to it on a comment I left on the Hyphen article, and its author Ken Choy wrote me:
I enjoyed your blog post. It was entertaining.
I’m sure many of the WF family particularly Ellie and Quentin will get a kick out of being referred to as elite. I pointed out that both have contributed much to the API community. I first met Ellie when volunteering together. Both have put in a lot of work to get into a.position to ask the “right people.” But they’ve also spoken to a lot of the “wrong people” as well. I don’t think being an engaged and communicative person is limited to the elite. I also don’t think just because talking to one person doesnt work that should cause one to be quiet. To take an example in my arena of entertainment, its my belief that if APIs continued the dialogue that was sparked 22years ago with Miss Saigon and had effective communicators to carry on that dialogue, APIs would have been in a different position to talk about the Racebending in Last Airbender.
I also think its easy to rail against the media and frame them as elitist and myopic. I can only speak for myself and say that i write for 5 sites and have 5 blogs of my own. I don’t have the facilities or finances to support writing about all topics. And I do believe these stories are being told by media but don’t you think it’s equally incumbent upon the public to seek them out?
I ask that you consider the Act Up slogan Silence equals Death. To say that voicing oneself whether youre “elite” or joe blow won’t make a difference is to deceive yourself in thinking you don’t matter. In that philosophy one might not as well vote or even exist.
I think you minimized the merits of the film in suggesting that lee and chen’s reputation begat the opening slot at the film fest. And in calling them elite you degrade the complexity of who they are and what they’ve done. And to suggest that either i or the wf team are doling this “just talk” advice like some deceptive didacticism is to ignore the words that went before it. Multiple references here.) I for once don’t mince around in speaking up so I’ll say that its bullshit to suggest this story is an elitist manifesto for APIs to mobilizetold. It also espouses a barometer for whose story can be told based on whether its what, down and trodden enough…? At Hyphen we have 500 words to tell a story and while i think it would be interesting though irrelevant to focus on Q’s porn purveying or Ellie’s failures in this or other endeavors we’re giving a snapshot not a full biography.
Whoa. Obviously, I was really upset and pissed off that Ken had totally misread my post like this. So I replied:
Ken, thanks for your thoughtful reply, as well as for all of your own contributions to raising the profile of Asian Americans in the arts. I also agree with many of your points, especially the importance of working hard, speaking out, and not relying on the media to tell your stories for you.
I do, however, think that you’ve very much misread the tone of my piece. First of all, it is no way intended as a critique of any of those involved in White Frog. At all. In fact, I’ve pointed out several times in my essay how this film – both in its themes, the people involved with it, and in its place within the historical context of Asian Americans in the realm of entertainment – is something to be incredibly proud of and embraced (as it has already fervently been) by the Asian American community. Nowhere did I label Lee or Wen or anyone else “elitist,” point out anyone’s “failures,” or label the film itself an “elitist manifesto” (or for that matter your own piece as “elitist and myopic”). In contrast, I point out both Wens’ remarkable talents and praise the fact that the symbolism of the film – as well Lee’s own filmmaking career – clearly draws attention to the kinds of stories that tend to be relegated to the margins and ignored. At the same time, I make it very clear that even at this point in history, any Asian American story still unfortunately falls within this marginal realm, and that precisely because of this, it is critical to emphasize the complex shadings within this “story” (or more accurately “stories”), and to continually broaden and enrich the scope of what this story can potentially tell – including of those individuals who may not have the access and/or opportunity to tell it themselves.
As for Lee’s “porn purveying,” this remarkable – and personally formative! – coincidence is a crucial part of how I came to know this director at all, and obviously part of a larger and very deeply personal story which I wanted to explore at length on my own blog. Lee himself was both moved and amused by this story (and its crazy serendipitous connections) and shared it with his friends and family as soon as I sent it to him. I linked it here to add a different story to the one you tell here, precisely because I know that there are so many more things that can be said that cannot fit into 500 words or less.
I hope these comments help clarify some of the points you questioned earlier. I’d love to continue this dialogue if you like by email, since there is – as always – so much more to say. Thanks again for reading and giving thought to my piece – I really appreciate it.
I hope he — and anyone else who may have misinterpreted it the way he did — finally understands my point. If not, like I said, please do get in touch and let’s keep talking about this.
P.S. So grateful to my dear friends for their feedback through all this. Thank you guys so much.
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7.11.12: So very, very glad about the outpouring of critical responses in the last month to the overly sunny and homogenizing Pew Report on Asian Americans as the “fastest-growing” model minority (singular emphasized here) in America. There needs to be a constant pushback in the media against any kind of analysis that simplifies and reduces the incredibly heterogeneous communities of Asian Americans with a single broad stroke, especially one that reinforces deeply ingrained stereotypes, whether positive or no. I wrote the essay above with exactly these thoughts in mind, and I don’t want that crucial point to be missed.