Asian Canadian female stars tackle identity and invisibility on Canadian TV

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      An auspicious event has occurred in Canadian TV: a virtual Asian Canadian Joy Luck Club has formed.

      At the metaphorical mahjong table, in the seat of the South Wind is Blood and Water’s Steph Song, who plays gutsy Vancouver detective Jo Bradley. The ambitious cop headed up a case involving a powerful real-estate billionaire and his family in the first eight episodes of the multilingual OMNI Television crime drama. She delves even further into the investigation—as well as her own family history and her cancer treatment—in the next eight episodes, which start on November 13.

      The North Wind’s seat is held by Kim’s Convenience’s Andrea Bang, from Vancouver. As the strong-willed Janet on the CBC sitcom (which premiered on October 11) based on Ins Choi’s stage play, she’s the nexus of her Korean-Canadian family amid a rift between her brother (played by Simu Liu) and her parents (portrayed by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Jean Yoon).

      The West and East winds are occupied by Metro Vancouver’s Chinese-Canadian Samantha Wan and Toronto’s Filipino-Canadian Amanda Joy. On the City television comedy series Second Jen (premiering on Thursday [October 27]), which they created and cowrote, the dynamic duo portray 20-something friends who move out on their own for the first time—much to the chagrin of their traditional, overprotective immigrant families.

      After Margaret Cho’s short-lived 1994 TV series, All-American Girl, home-screen shows with Asian–North American lead characters were few and far between until the Taiwanese-American sitcom Fresh Off the Boat premiered in 2015.

      Samantha Wan co-created Second Jen to reflect the people she knows.

      Wan says she finds the state of Asian representation in North American media “disheartening”.

      On the line from Toronto, the actor and writer says, for instance, that she was aghast when she read columns arguing that stories like the live-action film version of Mulan don’t need to be kept Asian.

      “I’m shocked that’s even a discussion,” she says of the controversy, when white actors were being considered for lead roles in Mulan instead of Asians. “We have #MakeMulanRight and #StarringJohnCho because there’s still so much battle for equality—or not even equality, even stories that were originally Asian, Chinese to be kept that way.”

      Wan says she didn’t become as aware of her identity as Chinese as much as she did when she moved to Toronto (after attending Montreal’s National Theatre School of Canada). When she was growing up in Port Moody, she says, the majority of her peers were Asian-Canadian and she was unaware of being an “other”.

      Bang echoes that sentiment.

      “I find it really interesting, because people say Asians are a minority, but then growing up in Vancouver we’re, like, a majority of people,” she says over tea at a Broadway coffee shop. “So it’s interesting, the fact that even the word minority, it’s like you are an outsider, whereas I don’t feel that way living in Vancouver, but TV and media tells me that I am a minority and I don’t see my face on TV.”

      Breaking through that invisibility was part of Bang’s motivation to pursue acting as a career.

      “I didn’t see people like me on-screen, so I wanted to be a part of that conversation,” she says. “The fact that a show like Kim’s Convenience is coming out and it has real characters, fully fleshed-out people, not people who just come on and say, like, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and then leave—they actually have a back story and a future story.”

      Andrea Bang of Kim's Convenience wanted to help counter the invisibility of Asian faces on TV.
      Craig Takeuchi

      Wan sees increasing diversity on television as a means for creating fresh perspectives.

      “We’re honestly looking for new stories to hear and see, and right now one of the easiest ways to find a new light or colour or detail in a story is to put people we haven’t seen on television before,” she says. “It’s so simple.”

      In fact, she says, she and Joy, who became friends after meeting on film sets and auditions in Toronto, created their show to represent people they know.

      For instance, Wan says Second Jen reflects her experience of feeling caught in between things on multiple levels, including being second-generation Canadian (“I’m not Chinese enough for the Chinese. I’m not white enough for the Caucasian people. I’m stuck in the middle”) and being in her 20s (“You’re not in high school or college or university anymore but you haven’t figured out your career and you haven’t settled yet”).

      Being in-between is something the Canadian-raised Song can relate to.

      “I’m this Chinese girl who doesn’t speak Mandarin, who doesn’t speak Cantonese, but follows some of the traditions but not many,” the former Vancouverite (now based in Australia) says over coffee on Main Street during a visit here. “On the inside, I’m really quite white, I’m really quite immigrant. I don’t associate myself with China. I associate myself with Canada.”

      That’s why the Blood and Water role, written specifically for her, appealed to her. Not only was it a female lead role but she also identified with Bradley’s identity questions.

      “It [this role] feels a lot more personal, I think, because there is the whole addressing of who she is and where does she belong,” she says. “I think that’s probably something that I share with a lot of Asian Americans, Asian Canadians. We’re not fully accepted in the East and we’re not fully accepted in the West, so where are we supposed to be?”

      Like Wan and Bang, Song hopes her character can offer a sense of reflection and validation for viewers who may not have felt represented before.

      “Hopefully, if there are any other Asian Canadians, Asian Americans struggling with personal-identity issues,” she says, “I’d hope that they would watch it and not feel like what they’re going through is so singular.”

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook