The nostalgic racism of Fox and “American Idol,” still hung up on William Hung

I was just getting back to normal. Not from the overwhelming sentimentality of watching the original “American Idol” judges–Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, and Simon Cowell–take their star turn on last week’s series ending finale.

No, that wasn’t the striking finale moment for me.

I was still recovering from watching that tour de force twerking of America by current “Idol” judge, Jennifer Lopez.

J. Lo of pop’s high court twerked supremely as if she were Justice Ginsburg possessed.

To see her disrobe to the sequins was a real marker of our cultural progress. When I first saw her on the pop scene nearly 20 years ago, Lopez was practically a waifish 28 and starring in the eponymous “Selena.”

She has come so far. And I could have called it a night right there.

“I hope there are no more surprises,” said host Ryan Seacrest at one point in the show. “Although some surprises are worth waiting for…”

And then on cue, after a few pick-up notes from the rhythm section, Seacrest turns and out comes the scourge of all Asian America–WILLIAM HUNG!

Hung sang his infamous Ricky Martin cover: “She bangs, she bangs!”

Quickly, my fuzzy J. Lo-induced farewell to “Idol” feelings soured.

William Effing Hung?

I immediately tweeted my dismay.

Fox just couldn’t resist reprising the best worst, most offensive Idol contestant ever.

Is everything bad really worth remembering?

Or was it one more time, let’s remember the good racist laughs we had at the expense of Asian Americans because we can’t do that thing anymore? (Too politically correct, as Donald Trump might say. But rightfully so.)

Besides, here was the all-too-willing Hung glad to extend his 15 minutes of fame under the guise of good clean fun, reveling in his accented, unmusical oddness.

Only it isn’t all that fun. Because it’s not just Hung up there.

Given our relative invisibility, we’re still in a U.S. society that believes if you’ve seen one Hung, you’ve seen them all–Asian Americans, that is.

At five percent of our nation, around 20 million strong, with a population that is two-thirds immigrant, many with accented tongues, hearts, and minds, to trot Hung out there as a joke in prime time is still offensive.

Maybe even more so than when I first saw him on the show in 2004.

I saw last week’s finale on the West Coast and wasn’t on Twitter for the East Coast feed. So by time I saw it, I had a three-hour buffer.

But I resisted reacting.

Weren’t things different since 2004? I mean, we have “Fresh Off the Boat.” And my fave, Ken Jeong, of “Dr. Ken” fame.

We have Aziz Ansari. There are other Asian Americans out there. Vincent Rodriguez III of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.”

We’re out there now.

Sadly, it’s still a low percentage of the overall depictions in pop culture.

So to trot out the stereotype of the ineffectual, infantilized, incompetent Asian American to a prime time audience is an homage—to American racism.

How nostalgic?

Would Fox do a show reprising America’s best watermelon and fried chicken jokes of the past? Hosted by Idol’s newly slim Randy Jackson?

Nope. The NAACP wouldn’t let that happen. .

But Asian Americans? We’re still fair game. The quiet minority. Our Kung Fu irony.

And now, just when you think we’ve got the pop thing covered with “Fresh Off…” and “Dr. Ken,” the pendulum swings the other way, and we’re back to William Hung just like that. And in all the other aspects of life in America, too.

Last year, we had Chinese American scientists again accused as foreign spies.

We have Asian Americans constantly stereotyped as being overachieving, hard-working, math nerds. Not bad. The good Tiger stereotype. But then somehow that positive leads to the extreme overgeneralization. And everyone gets hurt.

The Asian math nerds. The Asian English majors. Because it’s easier to take the stereotypical shortcut than to bother to find out what Asian Americans are really like as human beings.

But there’s William Hung, the engineering student from Berkeley once touted as the next Elvis, to help us laugh it all off?

And when we don’t laugh, people look to our successes as if we don’t face discrimination, or hate crimes, or injustices. And then they say we can’t take a joke.

As charming as Hung might be to some, his is the image that holds us back, that dares anyone to take us seriously. It’s the image that makes people laugh at Asian Americans in non-typical roles in every aspect of society.

They don’t think of former Washington Governor Gary Locke. They don’t think of maybe California’s next governor John Chiang.

But they remember the enduring stereotype, William Hung.

Fox reprising Hung is how race gets played in America.

The good guys try to move us forward. The bad guys send us back in time.

It was in 2004, when I wrote the following essay after first seeing William Hung.

We’re now a half generation older. Progress? J. Lo is a middle aged woman and twerking feverishly.

And Asian Americans are fighting this same battle for respect, 12 years later.

Emil Guillermo, Special to SFGate, William Hung: Racism, Or Magic? (Apr. 6, 2004)

He banged. I resisted. And still do.

When I first saw Hong Kong-born UC Berkeley engineering student William Hung sing that Ricky Martin song on Fox’s “American Idol” last January, I tried to ignore it.

But, after Hung’s humiliation, there came a nice outpouring of sympathy for the rejected puppy dog.

Here was an accented Asian American with bad hair, bad teeth, bad moves and a bad accent.

And even though he can’t sing, America still loved him.

OK. The glorification of bad is a nice twist. But I figured the joke would die off soon enough.

It hasn’t. And now I’m wondering why America is extending the joke.

Is there more than just the glorification of bad, something driven by racism?

Three months after being told on “Idol” he could not sing, Hung is part of some kind of perfect storm to stardom.

Hung returns this week with a new CD on Koch Records, a music video on the Fuse Music Channel and all the accompanying national media attention, including a “Today” show appearance Friday.

For a taste of the Hung hype, get a load of a press release by Alan Grunblatt, general manager and executive vice president of Koch Records, which states, in part, “William is the perfect artist for our culturally diverse society. He is the new Elvis!”

I don’t begrudge a marketer his right to make a buck. But Colonel Tom Parker knew Elvis could really sing and dance. With William Hung, is there any other reason to extend the joke on America except that it plays to a racist image of the ineffectual Asian-American male?

What is Hung but an infantilized, incompetent and impotent male image? Strong? No. Virile? No. Sexy? The guy’s a virgin.

You can sell that?

You certainly wouldn’t see them glorify a black man who couldn’t sing and dance on “American Idol.” Nor would they prop up a clumsy, tone-deaf white person.

Certainly, there’d be no shortage of worthy candidates for Hung-like stardom. Regular “American Idol” viewers know tons of good singers have been rejected and abused by the show’s Simon Cowell.

The difference here? Hung is Asian American. And the accented-foreigner gag is still considered acceptable shtick in modern comedy–at least when it comes to Asian Americans.

Can I get an “Ah so”?

Intentionally or not, Koch and Fuse are updating a classic anti-Asian image–that of the Mickey Rooney character in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” complete with buck teeth, bad hair and bad accent. Rent the movie and cringe.

If they wanted to do a remake, they could just hire William Hung.

It wouldn’t be so bad if we saw positive images of Asian-American males in the media. But, for the most part, we’ve been invisible, and the images have usually come with martial-arts enhancements.

Bruce Lee’s combative persona has been the most virile and most enduring icon for Asian-American males. But the stereotypes that predominate are the sinister and inscrutable or ineffectual and effeminate.

One thing can be said for those who seek to exploit William Hung: He has not been asked to demonstrate any karate moves or threaten the American way of life.

So, where’s the outrage? Even the Asian-American community seems to be taken by Hung.

“As Asian Americans, we look through this racial lens, and we see this guy who embodies all the stereotypes we’re trying to escape from,” said James Hou, a documentary filmmaker who explored Asian-American male sexuality in “Masters of the Pillow.”

Hou even saw the “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” link. But he doesn’t want to suppress Hung’s voice, nor his desire to be a singer.

“As an Asian-American male, I think he’s honest with himself,” said Hou, proud, in a strange way, that some dorky-looking Asian American with a Hong Kong accent and no singing talent is making it happen. “I respect what he’s doing.”

And what about Hung’s exploiters?

“I think the motivation is greed,” said Hou. “I think it would be racist if they didn’t make any money off of it, and they just wanted to make fun of him.”

Hou’s Faustian money-makes-it-all-right pragmatism surprises me, especially because he called Hung a “sideshow act” and admitted that the singer embarrasses Hou’s pals.

“But if he turns into a mega-star, if he’s really successful, I think it’s going to be positive,” said Hou. “With money comes power and fame. This guy has the potential to make hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars. Ask William Hung if he’s exploited.”

Spoken like a guy who wouldn’t mind trading places with Hung.

But one man who doesn’t have Hung envy and who sees the racism is Shaofan Li, Hung’s civil-engineering professor at UC Berkeley.

Li has all the answers, especially when you are looking to solve the differential equation for beam deflection.

Li, who said he is very concerned about his student, added that Hung scored an 80 (out of 100) in the first midterm in his class. That merits a grade of B, so Hung’s no dummy. But Li knows Hung is capable of an A–in engineering, not singing.

“I hope it comes to an end,” he said last week of the Hung hype.

More than Hung’s grades, Li is concerned for the young man’s well being. To him, the racism is clear.

Li said he sees how people ridicule Hung, single him out and extrapolate his virtues, or nonvirtues, to the entire racial class.

“I can see that some people are malicious,” said Li. “I’m not stupid.”

But understanding why the public likes Hung is more complex. “He doesn’t have singing talent,” said Li. “But he does have a unique personality.”

Li then described Hung as if he were some borderline messianic, cultlike figure. In watching Hung perform, Li notices how his student deals with the criticism and racism.

“Every time he faces the negative, he’s oblivious,” said Li. “Other people would become insane. He doesn’t. He takes it, absorbs it and turns it into a positive. He does it without thinking, naturally. Like Forrest Gump. Stupid is as stupid does.”

But the cluelessness is just his approach–he’s a lamb, not a lion. And it really is too bad he can’t sing or dance, because, as Li described it, Hung’s trying to turn this negative situation into a positive one.

From Li’s perspective, Hung is dealing, at the same time, with both the negative and positive forces that stem from his predicament.

“I learn from him,” said Li, who marvels at how Hung never gets upset in the face of adversity.

“You don’t want to criticize or make a big deal of your critics,” said Li. “You want to awaken their conscience. That’s what Hung did. If he gets upset, he only hurts himself.”

That would make Hung like some kind of Zen master who always turns the other cheek.

So, maybe there’s something for us to learn from this experience, even if the entertainment value of his talent is minimal.

But still, Hung’s professor hopes the civil-engineering student returns to his natural environment–his college studies–soon.

Does the student get it?

On the “Today” show last week, Hung played up his innocence and his extreme earnestness.

“I hope people will see me as a serious singer,” he said, “and take my singing seriously.”

Oh, boy. They have him believing the hype.

Hung doesn’t see himself reinforcing stereotypes with the lame dancing and the accented rhythmlessness of it all. He’s proud of his badness.

“They’re laughing at him–I know that,” said Li, touching on the racist nature of the exploitation. “And, if it stretches out, the negativity will dominate. Someone has to draw the line. Prolonging the process will make it a big debacle.”

I’m with the professor. The jok e has gone on too long. And it’s worse when the participant is so willing.

Image by AALDEF

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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