After all, it’s been more than two decades since we’ve seen an Asian-majority cast on the U.S. big screen in a movie that wasn’t a period piece. The last such film was “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993. As sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen points out, this wait means that Hollywood has failed an entire generation of Asian-Americans who have never seen themselves reflected in a mainstream Hollywood cast.
But finally, we are getting a movie.
A movie with people who look like us, based on a book that is punchy, in-your-face, unapologetically Asian, and free from stereotypes unwillingly imposed on us by outsiders. (Bye, Long Duk Dong).
HuffPost recently sat down with one of the upcoming film’s stars, Nora Lum, A.K.A. Awkwafina, who’s being honored on Dec. 9 at the Unforgettable Gala in Beverly Hills, Calif., alongside other big names like Daniel Dae Kim, Justin Chon, and Chloe Kim. The annual event spotlights Asian-American trailblazers in the entertainment industry.
In many ways, Lum, who plays Goh Peik Lin in the film, embodies the spirit behind “Crazy Rich Asians.” Rising to fame first through the music industry with unforgettable songs like “My Vag,” Awkwafina’s maintained an outspoken, fierce attitude with comedic flair. She’s a far cry from that stereotypical quiet, subservient, exoticized Asian woman we’ve seen time and time again on screen.
Simply put, she’s definitely not your “China doll.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Lum chatted with HuffPost about her award, the significance of “Crazy Rich Asians,” and the true story behind that one line in her song “NYC Bitche$” about bringing live chickens onto the subway.
You are being honored at the Unforgettable Gala with the Female Breakout Award. We’ve seen you make waves in a few different industries ― both music and film ― for some time. How does it feel to be recognized for your accomplishments?
I’ve never been honored so it truly is an honor! I’ve read the past recipients of the award and that in itself is a huge compliment.
You’ve been a nontraditional role model to many Asian-Americans. Were there any Asian-Americans who you saw on TV that pushed you to set fire to that bamboo ceiling in the entertainment industry?
I think the first time I saw Margaret Cho, I might’ve still been in elementary school, was mind-blowing for me. To see an Asian woman who was not only funny but completely unashamed ― that’s what really struck me about her. She’s someone who really changed my life for sure. My grandma didn’t like her though because she’s, uh, pretty dirty. [Laughs]
So the movie is about “Crazy Rich Asians,” with an emphasis on the crazy. But you come from a Chinese restaurant family, (as do I!), and I believe you’ve mentioned that your great-grandfather put down roots in New York City through the restaurant business.
Oh did you grow up in the restaurant, too? Taking naps in the party room? One time I went into the kitchen and there was a barrel of MSG and I just stuck my hand in there and took a handful of MSG and just ate it. It was horrifying. Never. Again.
Hey, MSG for life. I’m such a fan.
Yeah, it’s great. It’s good to dilute with chicken. But you probably don’t wanna eat it on its own.
Hah, definitely. So you have roots in a Chinese restaurant family and that experience is drastically different from your “Crazy Rich Asians” character’s. Your character, Peik Lin, deals with issues that are quite different from the immigrant experience in America. So how did you prepare for this role and did you feel there were any lessons from your upbringing you could apply to this character?
The thing about Peik Lin is that she’s rich but she’s new money. She’s not the traditional Singapore super old money. Her family is very ratchet. Ken Jeong plays my dad. There’s a quality I related to with Peik Lin and her family in that you don’t really know where your place is. Are you fancy? Are you boujee?
How has your family reacted to all of this?
I don’t think my family believes that I act yet because they haven’t seen anything with me in it. I don’t even know if I can act yet! You know, my grandma raised me and she’s not the typical Chinese woman, let alone mother. And she’s supported me since day one when I was working in a vegan bodega, making music. My dad ― it took him a little while to come around. But that’s something you have to prove to them. Asian parents just want you to support yourself in the event that something happens to them.
So prior to Crazy Rich Asians, you worked on movie sets that weren’t exactly filled with Asian actors. Like “Neighbors 2,” for example. Was there a special sense of ease or comfort, working with an all-Asian cast that’s revolutionary in a way?
The cast, we all hung out all the time. It was like summer camp. We all went out for dinner one time, I think it was for Jing Lusi’s birthday, and I was looking around at Sonoya, Gemma, and realized we, at one point in our lives, were the one Asian in the movie. And that was profound.
We’re not all “Asia Asians.” So there was something beautiful about all these actors being in Singapore, doing a movie that is going to be so big for our people.
There’s been some criticisms of the movie’s casting of people who are half-Asian. At one point, Henry Golding came out and asked, “well how Asian do I have to be?” How do you feel about the criticisms?
I don’t like those comments. It’s small-minded. All of my cousins are half-Asian and I’m the only Asian-looking one. What I realized growing up is that when you’re a halfie, you deal with identity struggle. You feel rejected from both worlds, and even I feel it as a half-Chinese, half-Korean.
When it comes to Henry, I mean if they had casted Emma Stone as Nick Young, that’s bad. But Henry has worked in Singapore, he’s from Malaysia and I think he’s so authentically Nick.
For this specific film, this shouldn’t even be an issue.
How do you think Asian-Americans should be moving Hollywood forward?
If Asian people did not voice their opinions and didn’t fight for what was right on the internet, then all those movies from 2015, 2016, that cast white actors as Asian people, that would’ve never been called out and that could’ve then turned into a pattern.
There was the actor [Ed Skrein] who dropped out of the Hellboy role. Everyone was like “he’s such a hero! He’s my hero!” The truth is, what he did was valiant but he’s not a hero. He was scared. He saw the backlash that white actors face when they play Asian roles and he didn’t want that stain on his career.
That change is amazing because if there was no backlash, then he probably would’ve been like “hell yeah! Let me be Asian.” It’s about changing people’s mentalities.
With all the things that are happening, this is a woke time and whether Hollywood likes it or not, they’re going to have to change things up.
There seems to be a tad more variety in the roles available to Asians now. But not so long ago, this was not the case. Ken Jeong, for example, has come under fire for taking more stereotypical roles, like in “The Hangover.” However on the other hand, some argue these were some of the only roles accessible to Asians. How do you navigate this tug between properly representative roles and just getting a role in the first place?
I think the decision’s yours and it’s also contextual. The Hangover wasn’t that long ago but in Hollywood time, and the way we’ve progressed, that was a completely different era.
But now, there’s a choice. I’ve walked out of two or three auditions for accents because I refuse to do it. … It’s OK for us to laugh about ourselves but it’s not OK for us to then represent that character as one-dimensional so that should change.
You’ve made a name for yourself in rap by smashing Asian female stereotypes while also being unapologetically Asian ― like that line in “NYC Bitche$” about bringing live chickens onto the subway.
When my great-grandma first came to this country and my dad went to pick her up, she had two live chickens in cages and my dad was so embarrassed. It was a real thing!
Hah that’s amazing. I mean, you’ve really embraced the Asian identity. And I know you’ve briefly touched on the struggles you’ve faced as an Asian-American face in the music industry in the documentary “Bad Rap.” Can you explain the challenges in that industry and how they might be different from what Asians face in Hollywood?
Rap is an ever-changing thing. In 2012, I don’t think the songs that went viral then, would go viral now if I put them out.
I also think that Asians in music is a completely different thing from movies because music is not controlled. We can find whatever we want on the internet. We can listen to all kinds of music. And Asian artists are absolutely crushing numbers right now ― Rich Chigga, Joji, everyone at 88 Rising. The Asian scene in music right now is very exciting. It bleeds into this revolution.
You’ve given a lot of people a fresh image of what an Asian female could be. Have you had any fans or others who’ve made you see how important representation really is?
When I first started, I didn’t like being labeled as the Asian female rapper. I didn’t like that title and I didn’t want to be the poster child to represent Asian-Americans.
My first show was really small at Sarah Lawrence. It was the first time I interacted with fans and this girl came up to me and she looked just like how I looked when I was in college. And she said that “seeing you was the most amazing thing because I never knew that it could exist.”
She’s not saying that I’m totally amazing. She’s saying that I represent her. That was really powerful and that experience changed the way that I felt Awkwafina could impact the Asian-American community. The presence of Awkwafina liberates a lot of girls. Girls like me. That inspires me to keep doing what I do.
Next year, 2018, is going to be an exciting year for you. You have “Crazy Rich Asians” coming out as well as “Ocean’s 8,” which has the most insane cast. What else can we expect from Awkwafina?
I have a couple new songs I’m going to put out so new music will definitely come soon and right now I have a project in development with Comedy Central.
Other than that, I just stay home and smoke a lot of pot. But it’s great, it’s great.
Clarification: Language has been amended to note that the only major U.S. films to feature majority-Asian casts since 1993 have been period pieces.