Interview with the Curators of Jidai: Timeless Works of Samurai Art

Tanaka School, tachi koshirae with a design of dragonflies and family crest, 1800s. Wood, lacquer, iron, gold, and silver.
Tanaka School, tachi koshirae with a design of dragonflies and family crest, 1800s.
Wood, lacquer, iron, gold, and silver.

 

Currently on view in JANM’s lobby as part of this month’s Nisei Week celebrations, Jidai: Timeless Works of Samurai Art presents rare and historically significant samurai artifacts dating as far back as the Kamakura Period (AD 1185–1333) in Japan. We interviewed curators Darin S. Furukawa, an artist, educator, and samurai arts specialist; and Michael Yamasaki, founder of Japanese sword dealer tetsugendo.com and the only non-Japanese national to win the All Japan Sword Appraisal Championship, to get insight into this special display.

JANM: Can you both explain how you became such impassioned connoisseurs of Japanese swords and samurai artifacts? What is it that appeals to you about these objects?

Michael Yamasaki: My grandfather took me to see those classic samurai movies that most Issei and Nisei went to see at places like the old Kokusai Theatre in Los Angeles. Since then, I have wanted to own real Japanese swords and practice swordsmanship. I bought my first sword when I was 13, and that was just the tip of the iceberg—there was so much more to learn. The artistry and history grabbed me and has never let me go.

Darin S. Furukawa: I, too, can blame those old samurai flicks, along with parents who always filled the house with Japanese or Japanese-themed art. I was lucky enough to have Mike teach me about Japanese swords and fittings not too long ago (my knowledge base is still very much a work in progress), and I have found that these objects really speak to me. I feel the need to protect and preserve them. I actually feel ill when I see a piece that was treasured for centuries get destroyed by one generation’s neglect or misuse. That’s why I love to put on exhibitions like Jidai—to showcase not just the beauty of the objects, but also the care and dedication of the generations of responsible custodians who kept them in such excellent condition.

JANM: What are your favorite samurai movies?

MY: Seven Samurai and Kagemusha: The Shadow Warrior are two of my favorites, and of course the Zatoichi films for humor!

DF: Seven Samurai for the story. Ran for the visuals. Kill Bill: Volume 1 for Sonny Chiba, Uma Thurman, copious amounts of blood, and a great soundtrack!

Musashi Miyamoto, tsuba with a design of two sea cucumbers, 1600s, iron.
Musashi Miyamoto, tsuba with a design of two sea cucumbers, 1600s, iron.

JANM: From what I understand, Musashi Miyamoto (c. 1584–c. 1645) is a near-legendary samurai, considered Japan’s greatest swordsman. Jidai features a tsuba (sword guard) that was made by him. How did you get a hold of this item?

DF: Before I let Mike answer that, I just have to say that Miyamoto was so much more than a master swordsman. He was an artist, philosopher, strategist, and author of the Book of Five Rings (a martial arts classic that is a must-read for everyone). He was such a rock star that my son’s middle name is Musashi.

MY: This tsuba was in the hands of an old collector. It took much effort and enticement to get him to release this piece. Miyamoto’s sword guards, as well as anything that he made while in retirement, are very rare and have a special place in our efforts to collect and preserve Japanese samurai artifacts.

JANM: Another special piece in the display is a tanto (dagger) that was forged by a Japanese American while incarcerated at Manzanar. Please tell us what you know about “Kyuhan” Kageyama and how he came to forge this tanto.

MY: When I first purchased the tanto by Kyuhan, I had no idea who he was; in fact, it was hard to properly read his name, which is an adopted artisan’s name. From what I was able to glean, Kyuhan was a true Japanese sword enthusiast—a collector and a scholar, not just a hobbyist. He later became one of the more serious members of Nihon Token Hozon Kai—the first Japanese sword club in America, founded by Nikkei in Los Angeles. There has been speculation that the dagger was made with the same equipment used to make farming tools in camp. Of course, his work would have been done in secret, as it is highly illegal to make weapons in a federal prison. This just showed how important this aspect of his culture was to him.

JANM: Besides these two artifacts, what else in Jidai should visitors be sure not to miss?

DF: The beauty of Jidai is that there’s something for everyone. For guests who are just looking for beautiful artwork, we have two cases dedicated to sword fittings. The sword guards, in particular, are spectacular, and show a wide variety of materials, techniques, and design motifs; there are rolling waves, peacocks, and a Christian cross that would have been hidden when mounted, as practicing Christianity was an offense punishable by death. For those interested in the martial arts aspects, we have 3 blades bearing test cut inscriptions (meaning they were tested on multiple human bodies). Those who are familiar with the way technology altered the battlefield should check out the amazing matchlock wall cannon, as well as a helmet that has three bullet test marks on it. In short, I’m sure all of our guests will find something they like, but they should take the time to explore it all!

The curators will give a public lecture about Jidai at 2 p.m. on Saturday, August 15, in JANM’s Democracy Forum. Attendance is expected to be high; doors will open at 1:30 p.m. and early arrival is recommended. Jidai will remain on view through August 30.

Marié Digby’s Colorful Pop Music Helps Launch JANM’s New Summer Night Concerts

Irish-Japanese American singer-songwriter Marié Digby is just one of the artists featured in JANM’s new Summer Night Concerts series, launching on July 30. Digby is a Los Angeles native who vaulted to fame after her acoustic cover version of Rihanna’s “Umbrella” went viral on YouTube. We conducted this email interview to learn more about her music and her perspective as an Asian American musician.

Marié Digby
Marié Digby
JANM: How would you describe your music to someone who has never heard it?

Marié Digby: I would say it’s like an apple! The skin is vibrant and colorful, the meat of the fruit is storytelling and emotions, and at the core is pop music.

JANM: Who or what are your biggest influences?

MD: I’m a kid of the nineties so most of my biggest influences are bands and artists from that era. I grew up on Björk, Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, Poe. So many amazing artists!

JANM: What inspired you to do your own acoustic version of “Umbrella”?

MD: I had just started uploading cover videos on YouTube. I was always on the lookout for new songs on the radio—preferably, heavily produced songs that I felt still had an amazing core structure, which I could then break down to just vocal and guitar/piano. When I heard “Umbrella” in my car for the first time, I knew it would probably sound great stripped down.

JANM: There’s a wonderful quote in your bio: “I love watching people, and songs come out of that. When I have an experience that moves me, I can’t sit still until I’ve written the song.” Can you give us an example of an experience that moved you to write a song?

MD: What’s funny is, when I have a really positive/happy experience, I rarely feel like the first thing I want to do is sit down with my guitar and write a song! It always seems to be the more tragic, heartbreaking, soul-shaking events. As an example, I once wrote a song about all of the different people I’ve seen and met who pass through Los Angeles, in the hopes of becoming a star. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking to see the transformations I often witness. This city from afar is full of hopes and dreams but when you’re actually in it, it can really eat you up alive.

JANM: Do you identify as an Asian American artist? Or, put another way, do you feel that your identity as an Asian American influences your artistic practice, and if so, how?

MD: I absolutely do! When I first started out, I never considered the fact that my ethnicity might play an important role in my being an artist. When I started posting videos, I noticed that the majority of the comments were coming from Asians, in all different parts of the world! I love being half Asian. I am so proud to represent not only my Japanese culture, but a quickly growing group of hapa kids in America.

JANM: Besides JANM’s Summer Night Concert, do you have any exciting plans or upcoming gigs you’d like to tell our readers about?

MD: The most exciting project on my calendar right now is a new album I’m creating with Tom Rothrock, who produced my first album, Unfold. We’ll be working on it later this fall. It will be my first full-length independent release, after making four other albums with the help of record labels. But I believe with the help of my amazing fans, it just might be my best album yet!

Marié Digby will perform as part of JANM’s first Summer Night Concert on July 30, along with Priska and headlining act Magnetic North and Taiyo Na. Kogi BBQ, Arroy Food Truck, and Frach’s Fried Ice Cream will be on site, along with a beer garden sponsored by JANM’s Young Professionals Network. Join us again on August 27 for an evening with Paul Dateh, Mike Gao, and Go Yama. All concerts are FREE.

“Life in Camp” Display Offers Insight into Food Services in World War II Camps

Henry Sugimoto, Our Mess Hall (1942), oil on canvas. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of Madeleine Sugimoto and Naomi Tagawa.
Henry Sugimoto, Our Mess Hall (1942), oil on canvas. Japanese American National Museum, Gift of Madeleine Sugimoto and Naomi Tagawa.

 

After a bustling final weekend, Hello! Exploring the Supercute World of Hello Kitty has come to an end. JANM is now in the process of de-installing that show in preparation for the next two exhibitions on our schedule—Sugar/Islands: Finding Okinawa in Hawai’i—The Art of Laura Kina and Emily Hanako Momohara, opening July 11, and Before They Were Heroes: Sus Ito’s World War II Images, opening July 14.

Common Ground: The Heart of Community, our core exhibition telling the Japanese American story, remains on view during this time. And if you happen to be in the museum on a Tuesday, Thursday (afternoon only), Saturday, or Sunday, you can also see a special temporary display in the Hirasaki National Resource Center. Building on the theme of “Life in Camp,” the display focuses on mess halls and food services in the concentration camps where 120,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated during World War II.

Specially selected items from JANM’s extensive permanent collection comprise this exhibit. Featured is an evocative 1942 painting by Henry Sugimoto titled Our Mess Hall. A multigenerational group—an elderly woman, two mothers and their children, and a young man—is seen dining at a large table. The mothers try to feed their children, one of whom refuses his food, while the young man hungrily gulps down a bowl of rice. This close-cropped scene is punctuated by two signs prominently hung on the wall behind them—one reads “No second serving!” while the other reminds them “Milk for children and sick people only.”

The painting captures the busy, crowded feel of a mess hall, while reminding viewers that strict rations were in effect. This fact is reinforced by artifacts installed in a nearby display case, which include facsimiles of actual daily menus distributed in the camps, along with memos reducing rice allocations in response to serious shortages. Also included are a bowl and utensils salvaged from various camps.

In addition to the Sugimoto painting, the exhibit features a 1944 still life by Sadayuki Uno and a photograph of Japanese American farm workers at Manzanar camp, taken by Ansel Adams in 1942. Taken together, these artworks and artifacts offer an authentic look at the distribution and consumption of food in the WWII camps.

Minha Park Searches for “Elusive Snow”

First & Central’s celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month concludes with this post. It has been a pleasure to spotlight diverse, Los Angeles–based, Asian-American artists who deal with themes of history, language, and identity in their work. We hope you’ve enjoyed this series as much as we have.

Minha Park, A Story of Elusive Snow (2013), still from HD video
Minha Park, A Story of Elusive Snow (2013), still from HD video

 

Born in Seoul, South Korea, artist and filmmaker Minha Park moved to Los Angeles to attend graduate school at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). She now divides her time between L.A. and Seoul.

In A Story of Elusive Snow (2013), completed the year she graduated from CalArts, Park explores her new life in L.A. and her longing for South Korea, or what she calls her “motherland.” She particularly misses the phenomenon of snow, which she refers to as if it were a friend—“Not her voice, or her image. I miss her physical presence.” She finds however that L.A., being the land of special effects magic and wish fulfillment, offers many unique opportunities for conjuring an experience of snow.

A Story Of Elusive Snow ( 2013 ) 9min excerpts from Minha Park on Vimeo.

This delightful video work tracks Park’s wistful journey to find snow, incorporating vintage Hollywood movie scenes and well-known L.A. landmarks along the way. In addition to evoking longing, nostalgia, and playfulness, A Story of Elusive Snow also expresses Park’s feeling of being a stranger in Southern California—a feeling symbolized by the incongruence of snow on Hollywood Boulevard.

The video ends with manufactured snow overflowing from a Hollywood souvenir mug, a moment that is both joyful and absurd. In the artist’s own words, “Could [the protagonist] ever get her snow? In the last scene, the souvenir cup with the Hollywood logo can’t contain the snow that she made. Her personal longing for snow thus collides with a fundamental human desire for elusive magic and illusion.”

Terry Chatkupt Revisits His Parents’ Past

First & Central’s celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month continues, as we spotlight diverse, Los Angeles–based Asian-American artists who deal with themes of history, language, and identity in their work.

Terry Chatkupt, Post, 2011, HD digital video.
Terry Chatkupt, still from Post, 2011, HD digital video.

 

Thai-American artist Terry Chatkupt makes highly visual and evocative video works, often reveling in landscapes and their effects on individual psyches. Abstract pieces like Wayfinding and Post traverse iconic sites like the Los Angeles River and Southern California’s freeway interchanges, setting them into motion like extended dreams. Videos with narratives like Haunt, Lost and Found, and Transferase are also firmly embedded into specific landscapes, whose mysterious qualities help the artist tell psychologically loaded stories.

Early in his career, Chatkupt made several works that explored his family’s immigrant history. Among these is the short 2007 video Untitled (Conversation), featured below. In it, a slideshow of vintage photographs taken by his parents shortly after they immigrated to the Midwestern United States is accompanied by a recorded telephone conversation between Chatkupt and his father. Chatkupt asks his father about the Vietnam War and how it informed their decision to settle in Missouri in the early 1970s.

Untitled (Conversation) from Terry Chatkupt on Vimeo.

The images we see are of a young Thai couple and their child, adrift in a new environment that is no doubt markedly different from their native country. Chatkupt’s mother is often seen standing alone in the midst of a stark plain or plaza, dressed in the styles of another era. Meanwhile, his father’s description of the spotty nature of government communications regarding the war heightens the sense of displacement evoked by the photographs. The anxiety of the historical events that he talks about adds a certain tension to the anticipatory faces of the young couple, even as they attend eagerly to their new baby and their new lives.

Explore more of Chatkupt’s work—which also includes photography, installation, and public projects—on his website or on his Vimeo page.

Mountain Brothers Broke New Ground for Asian Americans in Hip Hop

The Mountain Brothers (Peril-L, CHOPS, Styles)
The Mountain Brothers (Peril-L, CHOPS, Styles)

 

Most people I know of Asian descent who came of age in the 1990s have a deep appreciation for hip hop music. One of the most visible examples of this is chef and iconoclast Eddie Huang, whose boyhood is the subject of the hit ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat.

Based on his bestselling autobiography of the same name, the sitcom repeatedly emphasizes young Eddie’s identification with hip hop as empowering music for outsiders. As Huang’s generation came of age, they began making music of their own, and today, there are many successful Asian American hip hop acts.

Back in the early ’90s, however, it wasn’t so easy for musicians of Asian descent to gain acceptance in the field. The hip hop genre was heavily coded as African American, and Asians were perceived as not fitting into the culture. Attempts to perform or compose beats were typically disparaged—by audiences, by music producers, and by industry executives.

In 1996, a trio of Chinese-American students at Penn State University entered a national singing contest sponsored by Sprite, and won. Their slick rhymes expressing their love for the soft drink wound up on the radio as a 60-second commercial. Executives at Ruffhouse Records—known for producing albums by The Fugees and Cypress Hill, among others—liked what they heard and approached the group for a deal.

Mountain SelfThe Mountain Brothers—CHOPS (Scott Jung), Peril-L (Christopher Wang), and Styles Infinite (Steve Wei)—named themselves after a group of noble bandits depicted in a classical Chinese novel. They soon became the first Asian American hip hop group to sign with a major label.

Unfortunately, the group’s path was a rocky one. The record label saw their ethnicity as a disadvantage, and even suggested that they satirize their heritage onstage by wearing karate outfits and playing a gong. Although their music was critically acclaimed, it was difficult for them to get gigs if they did not initially conceal their Asian identities. After releasing only two albums—Self: Volume 1 in 1999 and Triple Crown in 2003—the group disbanded.

Today, the Mountain Brothers are considered important pioneers who paved the way for the many Asian American hip hop acts who followed. Although two of the members have since left music to pursue other professions, CHOPS continues to have a successful career as a producer and composer, working with artists like Nicki Menaj and Kanye West.

On Thursday evening, May 14, JANM will present a rare panel discussion with all the original members of the Mountain Brothers, moderated by sociologist Oliver Wang. Come and learn more about the band’s history and what the members have been up to lately, and hear their views on the past and future of hip hop music. Tickets are still available here.

Listen to some of their classic tracks here.

Audrey Chan Deconstructs Chinatown’s History and Culture

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! To celebrate, First & Central will spend the next few weeks spotlighting works by diverse, Los Angeles–based Asian-American artists who deal with themes of history, language, and identity.

Audrey Chan, Chinatown Abecedario: A Folk Taxonomy of L.A.’s Chinatown (2012), HD video with voiceovers in English, Cantonese, Spanish, and Mandarin, TRT: 14 min.
Audrey Chan, Chinatown Abecedario: A Folk Taxonomy
of L.A.’s Chinatown
(2012), animation still.

 

To kick things off, we are pleased to present a video work by Audrey Chan, a Chinese-American artist and writer. Through playful animation and witty word play, Chinatown Abecedario (2012) sketches out what Chan calls a “folk taxonomy” of the old L.A. neighborhood, in which each letter of the alphabet inspires a miniature historical vignette:

Anna May Wong ate abalone with artists on Alameda.
The punk plucked pipa under the pagoda.
Utensils of an underclass utopia were unearthed from under Union Station.

These vignettes whimsically weave together the multifaceted elements that make up Chinatown’s history and character—early Hollywood stars, the first Asian American art gallery, the restaurant scene, the 1970s/80s punk rock scene, and the razing of the first Chinatown, located at the present-day site of Union Station. Through free association, they conjure a complex ecosystem that is sometimes at odds with itself. The words are recited in four of the most commonly spoken languages of L.A. (English, Cantonese, Spanish, and Mandarin), reflecting the many cultural influences that seep into any immigrant community.

Chinatown Abecedario: A Folk Taxonomy of L.A.’s Chinatown from Audrey Chan on Vimeo.

Chinatown Abecedario was commissioned by the Chinese American Museum as part of its 2012 group exhibition, (de)Constructing Chinatown. As curator Steve Wong wrote in the exhibition’s catalogue: “Chan’s perspective is influenced by Émile Durkheim and Claude Lévi-Strauss, who propose that the process of learning draws upon the knowledge and beliefs within a local culture, thereby creating a set of ideas that are passed on within a community.”

Visual Communications Evolves with the Times

Founded in 1970, Visual Communications (VC) was the first nonprofit organization in the country dedicated to supporting the creation, presentation, and preservation of media works by Asian Pacific American people. On the eve of the 31st edition of their Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, taking place April 23–30, we checked in with Francis Cullado, VC’s Interim Executive Director, and Milton Liu, VC’s Director of Programs and Artist Services, about the state of Asian Pacific American media arts today.

Fresh Off the Boat panel at the 2014 Conference for Creative Content (C3), with with moderator Amy Hill (actor), Randall Park (star), Nahnatchka Khan (showrunner), Melvin Mar (executive producer), and Samie Kim Falvey (Executive Vice President, Comedy Development, ABC).
Fresh Off the Boat panel at the 2014 Conference for Creative Content (C3), with
moderator Amy Hill (actor), Randall Park (star), Nahnatchka Khan (showrunner), Melvin Mar (executive producer), and Samie Kim Falvey (Executive Vice President, Comedy Development, ABC). Photo courtesy Visual Communications.

 

JANM: The world of media arts has changed so much since 1970, and of course, VC has evolved along with it. What would you say are the most significant developments or changes that have occurred at VC in the last 10 years or so?

Francis Cullado: Widespread technological advances have empowered more people to become creative artists. At VC, we’ve developed our programs to utilize new technologies and processes to create digital stories. Gone are the days of expensive media, and with greater accessibility, we can create programs to capture and nurture digital storytellers.

Milton Liu: The media landscape has changed drastically in the last 10 years. Now, you can shoot a film on your iPhone and upload content directly to your YouTube/Vimeo page. Because of this, we’ve seen a surge of content that’s available through non-traditional channels, and a decrease in audiences for movie theaters and appointment television. For this reason, VC continues to focus on diverse year-round programs, such as the Armed with a Camera Fellowship for emerging artists and the Digital Histories program of short films created by senior citizens.

The Conference for Creative Content (C3), the premier entertainment media conference that happens as part of the annual festival, delves into a myriad of traditional and nontraditional topics with leading content creators and executives. For instance, past panels have included Sustaining Your Online Audience, Writing for Diverse Characters in TV, and Transitioning from Film to Video Games. Media continues to evolve and we understand the need for Visual Communications to remain at the forefront of this change.

Opening night at the 2014 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Photo courtesy Visual Communications.
Opening night at the 2014 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
Photo courtesy Visual Communications.

 

JANM: APA visibility in the media seems to be growing steadily, getting a big boost recently with the hit TV show, Fresh Off the Boat. What do you think are the important next steps for the community in terms of building and maintaining media presence?

ML: The next steps for the community are to keep pressing to have APAs not only in front of the camera, but behind it. Furthermore, the percentage of APA actors, writers and directors in TV and film still doesn’t come close to matching the percentage of APAs in the American population. Keep fighting to have APAs represented! People of color make up huge audiences that spend our money on film and TV—speak with your wallet!

FC: Keep supporting APAs in media, and keep demanding more! To quote our fellow staffer Abraham Ferrer, for every production highlighting Asian Americans “that crows about diverse casting, there are at least 20 more in which people of color simply don’t exist.” The discourse that Fresh Off the Boat has created and will continue to create has many complexities that revolve around race, ethnicity, and culture, and that’s great. But just because we’ve progressed to a point that is different from where we started, it doesn’t mean that it’s where we want and/or need to be.

For more information about Visual Communications and the upcoming Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, please visit vconline.org.

Chester Hashizume Helps Japanese Americans Explore Their Roots

Chester Hashizume. Photo: Carol Cheh.
Chester Hashizume, longtime JANM volunteer and consultant

 

Twice a year, JANM offers a workshop called Discovering Your Japanese American Roots, a primer on amateur genealogy specifically geared toward Japanese American patrons. This workshop is JANM’s longest running; it’s been offered since 1992 by Chester Hashizume, a Sansei information technology project manager by profession and genealogy hobbyist.

Born in Illinois and raised in New Jersey, Hashizume’s interest in genealogy began at a family reunion, when one of his uncles shared the beginnings of a family tree. Resources to help Japanese Americans trace their roots were not readily available, and so Hashizume embarked on a personal journey of discovery. He was able to find some information, including immigration records, at a Mormon Family History Center and at the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i. His most valuable resource turned out to be his mother, who was fluent in Japanese and knew relatives back in the home country. Through her, Hashizume was able to meet family members and gain access to some elusive village records during trips to Japan.

Hashizume moved to Los Angeles in 1988. Seeking to connect with the local Japanese American community, he checked out a 1989 JANM-organized Nisei Week exhibit that featured internment camp records on microfilm. At that time, the museum was still in its infancy, organizing pop-up shows while working to secure a permanent facility. Fascinated by the historical information contained in those records, Hashizume signed up to volunteer with JANM the following year. When the museum opened its doors in 1992, Hashizume began offering his workshop.

Examples and explanation of kamon (Japanese family crests)
Examples and explanation of kamon (Japanese family crests)

 

“I was a Japanese American with no Japanese language skills and no knowledge of my own background,” Hashizume explains. “I wanted to help others like myself.” Having already gone through much of the process of researching his own background, he now wanted to share his findings with others. He found it rewarding to help others go through the same process of discovery that he did.

Hashizume supplies each workshop participant with a binder full of helpful information, including: the basics of constructing family trees, where and how to conduct preliminary research, the unique characteristics of Japanese genealogy, the meanings and origins of Japanese names and family crests, and how to do research in Japan. Hashizume even includes a simple koseki (household registry) request form, written in both Japanese and English, that people can mail or bring with them to present to government officials in Japan.

“You have to go back to Japan,” Hashizume stresses. “This is how you really do research.” Japan, which for much of its history was a feudal society, has no central archive; koseki are maintained by townships and are still, to this day, updated by hand. The language and cultural barriers may seem daunting, but overcoming them is well worth it; Hashizume’s own trips back to Hiroshima and Ishikawa (his maternal and paternal prefectures of origin, respectively) were life-changing.

Additional spaces have been added to this weekend’s edition of Discovering Your Japanese American Roots! Visit janm.org to register.

Fresh Off the Boat Viewing and Panel Discussion Attracts an Avid Crowd

FOB Panel small

JANM’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum was packed full on Tuesday night for a special community viewing of the latest episode of the Asian-American sitcom Fresh Off the Boat. The episode featured a LGBTQ storyline, and the event drew many members of the Asian American media and LGBTQ communities. The viewing was followed by a panel discussion with writer and showrunner Nahnatchka Khan, guest actor Rex Lee, author/comedian D’Lo, and artist/organizer Erin O’Brien, moderated by filmmaker Curtis Chin. The event was organized by Jeff Yang, journalist and father of the show’s young star, Hudson Yang.

The episode, titled “Blind Spot,” kept everyone laughing. It revolved around a visit from mom Jessica Huang’s old college boyfriend, Oscar Chow. Jessica, oblivious to the fact that Oscar is now openly gay, wonders why her husband Louis feels absolutely no jealousy. Louis, for his part, is oblivious to the fact that the person Oscar really loved in college was him, not Jessica. Much hilarity ensues as the couple confronts one another about their respective “blind spots.”

L to R: Curtis Chin, Erin O'Brien, D'Lo, Rex Lee, Nahnatchka Khan. Photo: Richard Murakami.
L to R: Curtis Chin, Erin O’Brien, D’Lo, Rex Lee, Nahnatchka Khan.
Photo: Richard Murakami.

 

The panelists, who were all LGBTQ-identified, engaged in a lively and humorous discussion following the episode. Rex Lee, who played the character of Oscar Chow, said that his favorite thing about guest starring on this episode was getting to know the three child actors, who now send him tweets constantly. Erin O’Brien analyzed the gay subtext in Fresh Off the Boat and other popular shows, jokingly proclaiming that “everything has a gay subtext.” D’Lo, who has had roles on the LGBTQ-themed shows Looking and Transparent, expressed his preference for Fresh Off the Boat, which features people of color.

During the Q&A, one audience member called out the Oscar Chow character for being “stereotypically gay.” Lee responded that as a gay man himself, he felt he was able to play Oscar from the inside, rather than via external gestures. This drew applause from the audience, who for the most part seemed to appreciate a television show capable of showcasing both Asian and gay characters with light but intelligent humor. Audience members also approved of the show’s culturally authentic details, such as this episode’s reference to “white flower oil,” an herbal remedy commonly used by Chinese families.

Erin O'Brien makes an impassioned point. Photo: Richard Murakami.
Erin O’Brien makes an impassioned point. Photo: Richard Murakami.

Throughout the discussion, the panelists spoke most passionately about the hunger for media representation of LGBTQ people and people of color, pointing to the huge turnouts both for that night’s event and an earlier community viewing of the premiere episode of the show as evidence. It was noted that fans of the show comprise a highly diverse demographic that includes Hispanics, African Americans, Asian Americans, and whites. O’Brien asserted, “We really want to see ourselves on TV. And as cultural producers, we have realized that we have to do this ourselves.”

Loud hisses came from the audience at the mention of a recent article on the Deadline website, which offended many by asking if diversity in casting had gone too far, reducing the available roles for whites. (The site has since apologized for the story.) “To see more people of color on the screen, how is this not a great thing?” asked Nahnatchka Khan. Later, when complimented by an Asian American man in the audience for a joke in the episode that alluded to Louis’ “big bones” and thus countered stereotypes of Asian men as under-endowed, Khan responded, “You just have to be committed to the message.”

To watch the complete panel discussion online, visit JANM’s YouTube channel.