Playwright Yilong Liu Explores APIA and LGBTQ Identity

This Thursday evening, JANM hosts the latest edition of East West Players’ A Writer’s Gallery Reading, a semi-annual series featuring new work by Asian and Pacific Islander American writers. June is the First Fall, written by Yilong Liu and directed by Jeff Liu, follows a Chinese American gay man who returns home to Hawai‘i after a painful breakup. He must confront his sister, his father, and himself about an unspeakable past that separated them, and a tender family history that held them together.

Born and raised in Chongqing, China, Yilong Liu has an MFA in Playwriting from the University of Hawai‘i and is the recipient of a 2016 playwriting scholarship from East West Players’ David Henry Hwang Writers Institute (DHHWI) in conjunction with Asian Pacific American Friends of the Theatre (APAFT). His work has been produced or developed at Kumu Kahua Theatre, New York International Fringe Festival, New York Indie Theatre One Minute Play Festival, Stella Adler Studio of Acting, and Queens Theatre. We sat down with him via email to talk about his new play, and what it’s like to be a gay Asian writer.

Portrait of Afong Moy. Theatre Collection, Museum of the City of New York.

JANM: I’m intrigued that the inspiration for this play is a portrait of Afong Moy, the first Chinese woman to immigrate to America. Moy was “imported” from China by two enterprising traders, who put her on display as a publicity stunt to sell more exotic Chinese goods. The portrait shows her surrounded by said goods. What was it about this portrait that inspired you?

Yilong Liu: The first time I saw this picture, I was taking a seminar on Asian American theatre history in grad school. We were talking about the performative elements of her “exhibition” and how those were founded on exoticism. However, other than her being exploited and objectified, I myself as someone who was born and brought up in China, wondered how she was feeling personally as someone who also came to the US as a young adult, whose worldview had probably been largely shaped already in her home country. Because essentially, the immigration experience for someone who comes here at a younger age and those who are older can be very different. There is much complexity and nuance in the Asian and Pacific Islander identity spectrum that is often lost in the way outsiders look at us. The challenges faced by various APIA and API immigrant groups are not all the same, so it is important and necessary to encourage a deeper understanding.

On the other hand, I also find myself responding to this image on an emotional level. Having worked as a Chinese instructor in Hawai‘i, I was touched by many of my second-generation Chinese American students’ stories. Their fathers, or grandfathers, travelled great distances back to China to get married, then started the long journey of bringing their families to the US, but it would take years and years before they could reunite again. And when they did, unlike the kids, who would continue their education in American schools, the mothers usually stayed at home and weren’t able to speak any English. What was it like for them? What did they do when the rest of the family all went to school or work? What were they thinking, when they were sitting quietly in their rooms, just waiting for the ones who meant the whole world to them to get home? I kept thinking about Afong Moy when I thought about them.

JANM: LGBTQ stories are a major focus of your work. Were you out when you lived in China, and if so, what was that like? How would you compare the LGBTQ scene in China with the experiences you’ve had since you’ve been in the States?

YL: I was out to my friends and some of my cousins back in China. Being in a tight-knit society and a whole generation of only children have definitely complicated the coming out process for LGBTQ youth back home. More often than not, the kids’ coming out of closets are likely to put their parents into “closets” instead. The parents will go through the stages of confusion, anger, and fear, and eventually struggle with whether they should and if so how to “come out” to their own extended family members, friends, and colleagues, because of the way Chinese and most Asian societies function. Therefore, many kids don’t want to inflict the same kind of pain they have gone through on their parents. In June is the First Fall, although coming out is not an issue, we can still feel how the father, influenced by Chinese and American culture at the same time, is dealing with his mixed feelings about his son’s sexuality.

Playwright Yilong Liu

JANM: I read in an article that you have already been made aware of the paucity of representation of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in American media/arts—for the APIA LGBTQ community, even more so. What kind of reception are you experiencing to your work, which is a very rare foregrounding of issues faced by these communities?

YL: Coming from China, where LGBTQ people as a marginalized group strive for visibility, understanding, and acceptance, I understand the significance of positive representations in arts/media. When I was a teenager, the only gay characters allowed on screens were almost always demonized, exaggerated, cartoonish, and heavily stereotypical. I found that distressing. The lack of representation—and the level of misrepresentation—make it even more difficult for people struggling with their sexuality, and will lead to unavoidable feelings of alienation and self-denial. I can only imagine when the situation is complicated by races, cultures, and politics.

So far, I think audiences have responded well and warmly to what I have to share. Being a bilingual writer, and brought up in the southwest of China, I find it specifically challenging but just as equally fun and rewarding when writing. I feel this urge, this responsibility, and this deep desire to write the stories I am telling, about queer people caught in between worlds, not only because it’s a way of empowerment, or that it’s even more needed in light of the recent political climate, but also because the stories are so beautiful and so heartbreaking that they deserve to be told. I feel audiences really respond to the perspective I bring in and the journey I am going through. They make me feel that my voice, although different and still raw, is appreciated and needed, and for that I am very grateful.

Join us for a reading of June is the First Fall this Thursday, March 23, at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free.

Okaeri: A Space for LGBTQ Visibility and Acceptance

okaeri_logo-03This weekend, JANM will once again host Okaeri, a volunteer-organized conference that focuses on creating visibility and acceptance for the Nikkei LGBTQ community. The inaugural conference was held here in 2014; you can read our introductory blog post here.

“The biggest thing that came out of the last conference was that it inspired other cities such as Sacramento, San Jose, and Seattle to have events for the LGBTQ Asian Pacific Islander community,” says Marsha Aizumi, Okaeri’s co-chair. Marsha’s son is transgender, and she is not only an ally of the community but an activist, having gone from being the only APIA mother attending a local PFLAG (formerly known as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) meeting to now being the President and Co-Founder of PFLAG-San Gabriel Valley Asian Pacific Islander.

Aizumi sees the Asian American community as having a unique cultural challenge around accepting their LGBTQ children, due of lack of communication and the shame associated with coming out. Arriving on the heels of National Coming Out Day, Okaeri provides a safe space for building community and fostering growth and understanding. Workshops and panel discussions will focus on making intergenerational connections, being an ally, dealing with issues around religion, building a movement, gaining access to mental health services, and much more.

The Okaeri planning committee welcomes you to Okaeri 2016.
The Okaeri planning committee welcomes you to Okaeri 2016.


Congressman Mike Honda, an ally to the transgender community who has been outspoken about having a transgender granddaughter, will be the keynote speaker. Also new this year is an after party and networking event on Saturday night for attendees who are 21 and over.

Although the event is almost completely at capacity, Aizumi is still encouraging people to register and attend; no one will be turned away. For more details and to register, please visit

This post was researched and written by JANM Executive Assistant Nicole Miyahara. In addition to her duties at JANM, Nicole is an ethnographic documentary filmmaker who is currently working on The Making of a King, a documentary that explores the world of drag kings, the lesser-known counterpart to drag queens.

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.

Okaeri LGBTQ Gathering Welcomes All


The word okaeri in Japanese means “welcome home,” and the first-ever Okaeri gathering, happening at JANM this weekend, seeks to welcome and provide a safe, productive space for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) members of the Nikkei community, along with their non-LGBTQ friends, family, and allies.

Co-chaired by Marsha Aizumi, an author and activist whose son is transgender, and riKu Matsuda of the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission, Okaeri was developed by a diverse coalition of individuals with strong ties to the local Japanese American community.

The initial impetus for the event came from Aizumi, whose son Aiden was born biologically female and came out as a lesbian before transitioning to his male identity. Initially believing that she had been a bad parent, Aizumi dug deeper and realized that the issue was one of choice. While her son did not have a choice about his identity, she did have a choice in terms of her own response; she could reject her son, or she could embrace and support him.

Choosing the latter led to a richly rewarding journey of discovery that produced the well-received book, Two Spirits, One Heart: A Mother, Her Transgender Son, and Their Journey to Love and Acceptance, co-written with Aiden and discussed in an event at JANM last year.

It is this spirit of love and acceptance that drives Okaeri, which seeks to bring visibility to Nikkei LBGTQ people and issues and break the cloak of silence that often surrounds them—a goal that gibes well with JANM’s mission to promote understanding and appreciation of ethnic and cultural diversity. Aizumi, Matsuda, and the other organizers envisioned this as a small event that would serve as a kickoff for more coalition-building in the future. But excitement has been spreading, and Okaeri is drawing more attendees than expected.

“We thought we’d be happy if 75 or 100 people came,” Aizumi said. “But now it’s looking more like 150 or 200 people, and they’re coming not just from L.A., but from San Diego, San Jose, Seattle, Vancouver, and Washington, D.C.”

Okaeri will kick off on Friday night with a reception and special screening of To Be Takei, the biographical documentary on actor and gay rights activist George Takei. On Saturday, attendees can join workshops, themed discussions, and performances as well as relax and network in a designated social lounge. For more information and to register, visit