BY Simon Wu in Opinion | 05 DEC 23
Featured in
Issue 239

The Year of Asian American Media

A personal essay on the importance of friendship and the ascendancy of Asian American stories in the mainstream

BY Simon Wu in Opinion | 05 DEC 23

‘Have you seen Joy Ride?’ my friend Julie texts me.

When I moved away from Brooklyn last year to go to graduate school in New Haven, I’d wake up feeling listless and randomly anxious as I checked my text messages. I missed both my friends and the city, realizing in their absence that they had come to constitute my self-conception. Without them, I had to assert that energy myself, and it made me tired and self-conscious.

‘It’s not just you,’ Julie had said earlier in the summer. ‘After you left, more people moved in with their partners. It’s not the same as living together: you have to be a lot more intentional about spending time together.’

We were surfing at the Rockaways, bobbing up and down in the salt water, our legs straddling our boards in the late summer sun. Waves came. We tried to catch them and failed. We rested on the sand.

‘I guess I’m just getting used to it,’ I said.

Joy Ride (2023) – a film directed by Adele Lim, the writer of Crazy Rich Asians (2018) – had popped up on our radar as something to watch because we understood it as self-consciously Asian American. I’d heard of it as the ‘raunchy Asian lady’ version of Malcolm D. Lee’s Girls Trip (2017). After the success of last year’s Everything Everywhere All at Once, it seemed that Asian American media was having an efflorescence in 2023. There was Past Lives by Celine Song; BEEF, the Ali Wong and Steven Yeun Netflix drama; American Born Chinese, Kelvin Yu’s Disney+ comedy series; and the Netflix live-action remake of Eiichiro Oda’s anime series One Piece (1997–ongoing). To an extent, there have always been Asian American creators, if you knew where to look, but for once it felt like we had options: mediocre, highbrow, low brow and mainstream.

Meanwhile, in recent years, violence against Asian Americans has soared – or, at least, been covered more prominently in the US media. The contradiction between increased media representation and increased violence might seem jarring, but it is a pattern familiar to LGBTQ+ and other marginalized communities. More representation does not necessarily alleviate racial disparity or threats against queer bodies and people of colour.

Illustration by María Jesús Contreras
Illustration by María Jesús Contreras

I put off seeing Joy Ride for no particular reason. I luxuriated in having options: for once, there were so many other Asian American films and shows to see. Also, I’d heard it was about friendship. I figured it might make me miss my friends more.

Amidst this efflorescence, I was tempted to synthesize: new Asian American media is about this or that. There were certainly some common themes – going home, belonging, casual racism, immigration, family – but why taxonomize? Even if one believed in an Asian American essence at the root of all of it, why would you want to subscribe to it?

What happened, instead, was that this media served as a reason to see friends, to catch up with them. I surfed with Julie, and movies like Joy Ride hummed in the greater background as something that vaguely piqued our interest because they were Asian American. When I went to see Everything Everywhere All at Once last year, it felt like I was drawn into a temporary community through the discourse surrounding it: now, the possibility of seeing Joy Ride likewise produced the mirage of a discrete Asian American community.

On Julie’s recommendation, I watched The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006). She mentioned it was directed by Justin Lin, a Taiwanese-born American director, and jokingly referred to it as ‘proto-Asian American media’. Tokyo Drift is very much a product of its time. Julie had said it was a fun watch because of the fashion (very Y2K), the techno-orientalism (Japan in blues and greens, robots and cartoons) and the music (drum and bass and some techno).

To humour myself, I tried to see if I could identify something specifically Asian American about the film. The main character, Sean Boswell (Lucas Black), is the most run-of-the-mill, working-class white dude you can imagine: an army brat/mechanic who thinks the rich white suburban kids in his high school are bougie and frivolous. He is exiled to Japan after repeated police altercations for racing his car through housing developments. When he arrives in Tokyo, Japan is the most alien thing he can imagine: all weird slippers and too-small doorways, unusual fish for lunch in the cafeteria and Harajuku fashion. As a viewer, you are meant to see the world through Boswell’s eyes because, presumably, you are also him: a corn-fed white American.

Was there something of an alienated return to home here? Of a whitewashed Asian American subjectivity returning to Asia? Lin directed it, so perhaps it could be read that way, but that’s probably giving him too much credit: I’m sure the script was ‘focus-grouped’ to death. Watching Tokyo Drift alerted me to an earlier generation of Asian American creators who might have had to subsume their experiences and identity into more relatable, white avatars.

Take Gregg Araki, whose work was recently the subject of a retrospective at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. A pioneer of 1990s new queer cinema, with provocative films like The Doom Generation (1995) and Nowhere (1997), Araki didn’t necessarily make Asian American content. There’s also Australian-Chinese director James Wan’s Saw (2004), Insidious (2010) and The Conjuring (2013); and Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Life of Pi (2012). Lee and Wan are not Asian American, technically, but we might still ask if there is something about their Asian diasporic identity hidden within these films.

​​Illustration by María Jesús Contreras
Illustration by María Jesús Contreras

More recently, Lin has been working on Warrior (2019–ongoing), a Disney+ project nearly ten years in the making, allegedly based on original notes from kung-fu legend Bruce Lee. It follows martial-arts prodigy Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), who emigrates from China to San Francisco in the 1870s, only to become enmeshed in local gang wars while trying to find his sister.  This seems like a shift for Lin: the show is a very direct engagement with Asian American history.

When Tokyo Drift was released, there were fewer, if any, mainstream Asian American films. I doubt Tokyo Drift was interpreted as an Asian American film just because it had an Asian American director. It might have been today, though, and that seems significant.

I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about this shift. A movement can be a source of community;

it’s great that more Asian American creators feel empowered to make work explicitly about their identity. But it can also become an interpretive prison, a box that pigeonholes your work into identity politics even when you might want to address other issues or anything else.

‘Did you know One Piece was about pirates?’ I ask my brother, Duke. I point to the live-action remake on Netflix. He shakes his head.

‘Also, have you seen Joy Ride?’ I ask.

Again, he shakes his head. We plan to watch both at the weekend.

One of the longest-running Japanese manga, One Piece has generated more than 100 books and multiple film and television spinoffs. In January 2020, it was announced that Netflix had commissioned ten episodes of the show for a live-action remake, adapted by writer Matt Owens and showrunner Steven Maeda, which premiered on 31 August 2023.

The show is named after a mythical treasure left hidden by the former pirate king, Gold Roger. When Roger is executed by the authorities, it sets off a massive treasure hunt: whoever finds it ‘in one piece’ will become the next pirate king.

More representation does not alleviate racial disparity or threats against queer bodies and people of colour.

Monkey D. Luffy – a lanky orphan – is an unlikely candidate for this massive honour, but his optimism and delusional self-confidence make him an infectious main character.

‘I’m setting out to follow my dream,’ Luffy (Iñaki Godoy) declares at the start of the Netflix remake, standing in the middle of a sinking boat, throwing buckets of water overboard. ‘To find the one piece and become king of the pirates!’ He doesn’t have a crew or a ship, nor can he swim. But none of this fazes him. They all stand as things to be accomplished in due course.

The race-blind casting makes for a colourful pirate crew. Luffy is a cheerful Mexican; Roronoa Zoro – the laconic, hunky pirate hunter – is played by Japanese heartthrob Mackenyu; while romantic, aspirational chef Sanji (Taz Skylar) is half Lebanese and half British. The casting is perhaps unsurprising given that the series was directed by two people of colour – Owens is Black; Maeda is Japanese – but in my head everyone in anime is Asian, even though that’s just not true.

Illustration by​​​​ María Jesús Contreras
Illustration by María Jesús Contreras

Duke and I cringe as we watch the remake. Anime affectations don’t translate well to live-action; the show comes off as awkward, sometimes camp, although generally I wish it were even more camp. Declarations of ambition (‘To be the greatest swordsman in the world!’) require a theatrical aplomb that not even the talented, multicultural cast is always able to muster.

Nonetheless, I found the story extraordinarily compelling, its relentless optimism admirable and charming. At multiple points in the series, Luffy asks rough, grizzled characters about their deepest dreams. ‘What do you really want in life?’ he enquires, in moments that almost break the fourth wall, as if speaking to the audience. Zoro wants to honour the death of a dear friend by becoming the greatest swordsman in the world. Sanji wants to find the ‘all blue’, an uncharted region of the ocean. Koby, Luffy’s whimpering friend, wants to become a great marine ‘to protect those who cannot protect themselves’. The characters are united by their commitment to helping each other achieve and realize those dreams.

This is not without its conflicts and, at times, their ambitions strain their friendship. In the fifth episode, Zoro challenges a swordsman who will clearly kill him to a duel. His friend Nami begs Luffy to stop him but Luffy refuses; Nami blames Luffy for the near-death of their friend. Luffy, however, is a purist. He would rather let a friend die than get in the way of them achieving their dreams. This kind of unbridled optimism is perhaps reckless in the real world, but I found it refreshing. Luffy is the type of person you would want to spend time with: an unannoying hype-man.

When I ask Julie if she’s seen One Piece, she says she hasn’t but that her friend watched the entire series and it changed his life, inspiring him to seek out friendships as supportive and unconditional as the ones presented in the show.

Duke and I finally watch Joy Ride.

The protagonist, Audrey Sullivan (Ashley Park) – a Chinese orphan raised by white Americans – has to go to China to cinch an important business deal for her law firm. She brings along her best friend Lolo (Sherry Cola), who can speak Mandarin, to translate for her. When she arrives in Beijing, they reunite with Kat (Stephanie Hsu), her old college friend who is now a famous actor, and Deadeye (Sabrina Wu), Lolo’s non-binary cousin who decides to tag along. Audrey cannot speak Mandarin and is teasingly accused by her friends of being whitewashed. Nonetheless, she quickly finds solace in discovering more about her Chinese heritage.

Trying hard to fit in, Audrey goes to a club with businessman Chao (Ronny Chieng) and knocks back a 1,000-year-egg shot. Things go awry quickly, however, when she vomits up the shot and Chao decides he needs to meet her birth mother before he can make a decision on the deal. Later, on a train, the crew is mistaken for drug dealers; they are rescued by professional basketball players and have a raunchy sex night. There’s a creeping checkbox that I have as I watch these films: representations of Asians that are nuanced, that show them as sexual beings, that show them as irresponsible and raunchy, that show them as well-rounded. The framing felt very intentional.

All is well and good until Audrey arrives at her adoption agency and (spoiler alert) learns that she is actually Korean, further unmooring her sense of identity. The goodwill that Lolo’s Chinese family showed her is comically retracted when they learn the news. (‘You should take off the qipao and put on a hanbok,’ Lolo’s grandmother says flatly.)

The title, Joy Ride, seems to refer not only to the group’s trip across China, but to the experience of searching for identity. In the context of One Piece, the movie felt even more about how friendship is a kind of coping mechanism for the shifting, sometimes mistaken experience of identity. I loved that the film – directed and written by Asian women – had this kind of deconstruction: your identity is not necessarily about your heritage, but about the kind of people you surround yourself with, the friends that hold you up.

llustration by María Jesús Contreras
Illustration by María Jesús Contreras

There is a certain amount of guilt that accompanies watching the live-action remake of One Piece. ‘We should probably watch the original,’ Duke and I both say. But my American brain is too rotted for an attention span of that kind: there’s a lot of what Americans might call ‘filler’ in the anime – very slow exposition that is not necessarily related to the plot.

We did a bit of a comparative viewing. The graphics and affectations are, indeed, much more germane to the anime version; the original is not as zany because it doesn’t feature normal people trying to adopt outsized cartoon affectations.

When asked what he’s doing floating around in a barrel in the middle of the ocean, Luffy replies matter-of-factly, same as in the live action: ‘I’m going to be the king of the pirates!’ His friend Koby is incredulous. In the anime version, he launches into hysterics – being king of the pirates means beating all the other pirates that have been looking for the hidden treasure for years, obtaining all the wealth, fame and power of the world.

In Joy Ride, friendship is a coping mechanism for the shifting, sometimes mistaken experience of identity

‘There’s no way you could stand at the apex of this great pirate era!’ Koby yells. ‘No way! No way! No, no, no!’

‘It’s not about whether I can or not,’ Luffy says, pulling down his signature straw hat to hood his gaze. ‘I’m going to do it because I want to.’

The episode – titled ‘Romance Dawn’ – ends with a shot of seagulls circling the water. ‘The sky is so blue!’ a bewildered sailor shouts, after losing a battle. Friends and affinities held up over salt water. Bobbing up and down in the water with Julie, trying to surf.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 239 with the headline ‘Romance Dawn’

Commissioned illustrations by María Jesús Contrera

Simon Wu is an artist based in New York. He is the Program Coordinator for The Racial Imaginary Institute and a graduate of the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program.