“Fresh Off the Boat,” the first Asian American-centric network television show in 20 years, has yet to air, but is already stirring up discussions on race and identity.
Based off the memoir of celebrity chef and television personality Eddie Huang, the upcoming show centers around a Taiwanese family that moves from Washington, DC to the predominantly Caucasian suburb of Orlando.
At the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, Calif. on Wednesday, Jan. 14, the cast and producers of the show addressed questions from a room of over 200 reporters.
Starting off the panel, one reporter asked, “I wanted to ask the question: I love Asian culture. And I was just talking about chopsticks, and I just love all that. Will I get to see that, or will it be more Americanized?”
“Yeah, we got a lot of chopsticks,” Huang answered, while writer and executive producer Nahnatchka Khan added, “Wait till Episode 5. It’s all about chopsticks.”
The reporter asked a follow-up question: “Will there be more about the culture or is it more about the becoming more American?”
“The original title was ‘Chopsticks,’” Randall Park, who plays patriarch Louis Huang, joked, while Constance Wu, who plays Jessica Huang, chimed in, “But ‘Chopsticks’ was too controversial, so we changed it.”
The reporter’s questions, met with awkward cringes by the audience and well-played quips from the panel, pointed to the need for more Asians portrayed on screen, in a more authentic, non-stereotyped way.
“This show to me is historic,” Huang said. “I don’t think you’ve seen a TCA with this many Asian faces in a long time.”
Set in the mid-90s through the perspective of 11-year old Eddie (played by Hudson Yang), the half-hour sitcom shows the family trying to settle into their new home and achieve their own version of the American Dream, showing that the themes of immigrant and outsider experiences still continue to resonate with audiences.
“That the last period of time before the Internet exploded. You sort of had to be where you were, so you couldn’t go online and find likeminded kids like you if you felt sort of isolated as you can now,” Khan said about why the show is set in the 90s. “You had to make it work with kids around you, at school and in the neighborhood.”
Earlier in the panel, Huang noted, “It’s important to me to have a qualified support for the show— to make sure the show stays authentic, stays responsible to the book, to the Asian community, and to people of color in general. I believe the show is doing that and I believe the show is very strategic and smart how it’s opening things up.” Park and Wu mentioned that in preparation for their roles as the Huang parents, they flew to Orlando and spent time with the real Louis and Jessica to make sure they are portrayed authentically.
The day before the panel, Huang’s essay entitled “Bamboo Ceiling TV” was published in New York magazine, in which he wrote about the way his memoir was changed to fit network television.
In one part, Huang wrote: “The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian-Americans resembling moo goo gai pan written by a Persian-American (Khan) who cut her teeth on race relations writing for Seth MacFarlane….And why isn’t there a Taiwanese or Chinese person who can write this? I’m sure there’s some angry Korean dude in Hollywood who grew up eating Spam, watching his dad punch his mom in the face, who knows how to use Final Draft!”
Another reporter quoted the article, asking for Khan’s reaction about whether she is qualified to write the show because she isn’t Asian, to which Huang interrupted “that’s actually not the point of the article.”
“[W]hat I related to was the immigrant experience of the show, being first generation and having parents who weren’t born here. And that, to me, was my access point. When you take something from the source material that’s such a strong voice and make it into an 8 p.m. family sitcom on broadcast TV, you need a lot of access points,” Khan said. “And feeling like you don’t belong, and trying to figure out the rules, and trying to help your parents figure out the rules… to me that’s what a lot of people will relate to. If you’ve ever felt like an outsider, this show is one you’ll be able to relate to.”
Towards the end of his essay, however, Huang remarked “It takes a lot of chutzpah to launch a network comedy with a pilot addressing the word chink, yet it works because it’s the safest bet the studio could have made.” In the series’ pilot, young Eddie is called a racial slur by a classmate at his new school, a daring move for network television, to which Huang said on Wednesday “is borderline genius — and insanity at the same time.”
When asked whether the essay has created any tension within the creative team, Huang said, “I don’t debate [Khan’s] ability at all to do the show, because if you watch the pilot episode, that’s one of the most proud things that we have in Asian culture today in America.” Huang’s main point, according to him, was that Asians and Asian Americans writers still need to be represented in Hollywood.
Khan also commented that the show is setting out to change the roles of Asian Americans on screen by being the stars of the show, not just secondary characters.
“That really speaks to what we’re doing. For so long, the Asian kid, the nerdy kid or crime lab technician sending out for results…,” she said, adding that the cast is “just playing flawed characters. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re starting the conversation.”
Earlier in the day, ABC Entertainment president Paul Lee said that the network’s programming has changed to “reflect America,” given shows with more diverse characters, like in “How To Get Away With Murder,” “Black-ish,” and “Cristela.”
“Fresh Off the Boat” will be sampled on ABC on Feb. 4 at 8:30 and 9:30 pm, before moving to its regular night and time on Tuesday, Feb. 10 at 8 pm.
(LA Midweek January 21, 2015 MDWK pg. 2)