Is “Fresh Off The Boat” historical or the taming of Eddie Huang?
Eddie Huang, producer, chef, memoirist, former lawyer, all-around bad dude, and
self-proclaimed “human panda,” was born in Washington, D.C. on March 1, 1982.
He was in diapers when I was well into my television news career, the first
Filipino American on one of the big three network affiliates in San Francisco. I
know the struggle of being an Asian American in the white mainstream media. And
I know what it’s like when you don’t fit the mold for mass consumption.
That’s why I admire the hell out of what Huang has done. He’s a real Asian
American male living larger than life, or larger than life usually allows us,
especially in the media.
If you saw the debut of his “Fresh Off the Boat” on ABC, then you know it’s
smart and funny, way more than your average network sitcom.
Plus, it’s full of Asian Americans. Real enough? We’ll get to that in a bit.
Let’s say it’s a bit better than the Asians you’d find at Madame Tussauds.
The ensemble cast includes Randall Park (Kim Jong-Un in “The Interview”) as
Louis, Eddie’s dad, who plays the striving restaurant owner. It’s not just some
take-out place in D.C.’s Chinatown; it’s a franchise steak joint in suburban
Orlando. Louis is married to Jessica, Eddie’s mom, played to comic perfection by
Constance Wu. And then there’s 11-year-old Eddie, played by Hudson Yang, who
could become multicultural America’s post-hip-hop “Beaver Cleaver.”
Just from an invisibility standpoint, the arrival of “FOTB” deserves a massive
Through the years, we haven’t had much representation.
The first Asian I ever saw on TV was a Filipino guy in 1959 named Poncie Ponce
(real name Ponciano Hernandez, a Filipino American born in Maui). He played
Kazuo Kim, the cab driver in ABC’s “Hawaiian Eye.” (Any Connie Stevens fans out
I was just four, but it made an impression on me. I learned it wasn’t really
that cool to be Filipino or Asian on TV. Not in Hollywood. And certainly not on
There was another Filipino on that show named Leon Lontoc, who usually played a
storekeeper, but ended up as Gene Barry’s driver on the network show, “Burke’s
Law.” Lontoc was typical of the Asian American actor. His character list
includes “Chief Watu Watu” in the sitcom, “McHale’s Navy.” He’s been a Chinese
grocer in “Ironside,” a houseboy on “Mission Impossible,” and on “Bonanza,” he
was Ah Yee. Maybe he was Hop Sing’s buddy?
It doesn’t really get any better. A short list of Asian Americans in sitcoms
includes the late Filipino American actress Sumi Sevilla Haru, who appeared in
“M*A*S*H” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.” She was also the SAG-AFTRA leader who
in her later years fought for better roles for Asian Americans. And let’s not
forget the legendary Japanese American comic actors, Jack Soo in “Barney
Miller,” and Pat Morita, who before the “Karate Kid” was on “Happy Days.”
Forgive me if I left out anyone. But can you see why it was a big deal when
comedian Margaret Cho burst on the scene in 1994’s “All American Girl”?
Asian Americans went from bits in your white fried rice to the whole damn main
Unfortunately, the show was a product of the times and indicative of a society
still struggling to deal with the notion of a multicultural America. “All
American Girl” was off the air by 1995. Thirty years after the Civil Rights Act,
Asian Americans were still relatively invisible. And most of society had no
problem with our lack of inclusion.
Now 20 years after Cho’s cancellation, 50 years after the civil rights law,
“Fresh Off the Boat” gives us a whole new Asian American family on TV.
It’s not better than getting more family reunification provisions in immigration
reform, but it’s close.
“FOTB” passes the invisibility and representation tests. We’re back in prime
time. And there’s still an ethnic flavor. We’re not coincidentally Asian, like
Mindy Kaling’s “The Mindy Project,” or Lucy Liu’s Watson in “Elementary,” or
Aziz Ansari in “Parks and Recreation.”
At its core, “FOTB” is still the story of the modern Asian American family.
That’s not to say there aren’t some problems in translation from Huang’s book.
Huang’s memoir is all-Huang, all the time. A sitcom is still a sitcom. It left
me with a lot less Huang than I was expecting.
If Huang served up real cheddar in his book, “Fresh Off the Boat,” the sitcom
version is pure Cheez Whiz. Processed cheese product.
Eddie is Orange Juice–with pulp–versus Sunny D smooth.
Street vendor taco versus Taco Bell.
Eddie is the former; ABC’s “FOTB” is a lot more of the latter.
Apparently, even Huang sensed that based on what he wrote in New
magazine last month.
“My story had become an entertaining but domesticated vehicle to sell dominant
culture with Kidz Bop, pot shots, and the emasculated Asian male,” Huang wrote.
“I got upset when they dressed Randall like a Fung Wah bus driver or Hudson like
an And-1 yard sale or Constance like the Crocodile Hunter with kitty-cat heels.
We couldn’t go out like this!”
But Huang eventually was able to–as Filipino American composer Robert Lopez
might say–let it go.
Especially after “the scene.” That would be when the show dealt with Eddie being
called a “chink” in school. It’s a topic fitting the tradition of sitcom
morality dilemmas. Jeremy Lin gets called a “chink” in real life, and the
situation starts a ruckus. The epithet moment in “FOTB” is worthy of the Sitcom
Hall of Fame. It makes the show not so much about our authentic Asian-ness, but
more about how our universal family stereotypes can help us find common ground
It got to Huang.
“After 18 months of back and forth, I had crossed a threshold and become the
audience,” wrote Huang. “I wasn’t the auteur, the writer, the actor, or the
source material. I was the viewer, and I finally understood it. This show isn’t
about me, nor is it about Asian America. The network won’t take that gamble
right now….The only way they could even mention some of the stories in the book
was by building a Trojan horse and feeding the pathogenic stereotypes that still
define us to a lot of American cyclope. Randall was neutered, Constance was
exoticized, and Young Eddie was urbanized so that the viewers got their
mise-en-place. People watching these channels have never seen us, and the
network’s approach to pacifying them is to say we’re all the same. Sell them
pasteurized network television with East Asian faces until they wake up
intolerant of their own lactose, and hit ’em with the soy. …It doesn’t sound
like much, but it is.”
Homogenized Asian American on TV is better than no Asian American at all.
And that’s how Eddie Huang g ot on board with his sitcom-self. “FOTB” is
sanitized for America’s protection. Plus, I’m sure he’s getting paid.
If he’s down with it, so am I. And I’m not getting paid. I’m just glad a real
void has been filled.
Recently, my TV viewing hasn’t had much in terms of Asian sightings.
In the most watched TV show ever–the Super Bowl Halftime show— there was an
Asian American up there with Katy Perry. But who knew the rogue #leftshark was
Asian American Bryan Gaw until he took off his
damn shark head.
On my staple shows, “House of Lies” does have a skateboarding Asian American
internet company owner.
On “Girls,” Lena Dunham outs a “gaysian” in her writer’s workshop. It’s the
Asian male stereotype Hollywood loves.
On “Shameless,” another gaysian performs oral sex on a Westboro Baptist-type
minister in order to shame him on social media. I guess that makes the Asian
American character heroic?
And just for good measure, this week on the NBC soap “Days of Our Lives,”
another gaysian sighting, a Japanese American comes out to his mother and
It’s no different from the old Three-Network days. We’re just flecks of updated
stereotypes (from emasculated male to gay male) sprinkled across a new landscape
of a thousand channels.
If you want unadulterated Eddie, on Vice’s food channel, Munchies, you can still
catch him in all his “Huangderful-ness.” “Huang’s
World” is foodie Eddie as the Asian
Kardashian. It’s his memoir in reality TV form for those who want the mainline
For the Velveeta “melting pot” sitcom experience, that would be “Fresh Off The
Boat.” But there’s a lot of upside. It takes some time for a show to find
itself. If “FOTB” grows and develops, it could become a multi-season hit, an
enduring milestone for Asian Americans, and an antidote to the Ah Yee and Hop
Sing images in TV’s past.
Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page. The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.