William Yu Imagines a World With Asian-American Representation on Screen
By Alyssa Klein
You may have heard about Asian August, the term and hashtag referring to the unprecedented influx of popular films by, about and starring Asians last month. Led by Crazy Rich Asians (hailed as the first major Hollywood studio release with an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club), boosted by the Netflix adaptation of Jenny Han’s teen romance, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and anchored by the John Cho-starring technology thriller, Searching, Asian August is, fingers crossed, just the start.
Of course, Asian August didn’t come out of nowhere. Asians and Asian Americans across the country and globe have been working tirelessly for years to ensure greater representation on screen. One such individual is William Yu, the Korean-American digital strategist and mastermind behind the internet phenomena known as #StarringJohnCho and #SeeAsAmStar.
Armed with just a basic set of Photoshop skills and the hope of seeing more faces like his own on screen, Yu single-handedly ignited a social media movement in 2016 when he began to photoshop the Korean-American actor John Cho (previously best known for being Harold in the Harold & Kumar movies and Hikaru Sulu in the 2000s Star Trek reboot) into famous movie posters to show what it would look like if the biggest Hollywood blockbusters cast an Asian-American actor. The memes took off, and suddenly Cho’s face was all over the internet. The actor has since gone on to star in his own movies, South Korean writer/director Kogonada’s 2017 drama, Columbus, and more recently in Indian-American newcomer Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching, in which Cho stars as a father desperately trying to find his teenage daughter after she’s gone missing. The latter, in theaters now, is notable for taking place entirely on computer and phone screens as well as for being the first Hollywood thriller with an Asian-American lead.
Yu followed his viral campaign up this past May with #SeeAsAmStar, a collection of video clips that use controversial Deepfake technology to feature Asian-American actors John Cho, Constance Wu (star of Crazy Rich Asians), Arden Cho and Steven Yeun in popular Hollywood movies, from Captain America to Hunger Games, to deconstruct the definition of a Hollywood movie star and once again show that Asian Americans can play these roles.
We all know what happened next. Crazy Rich Asians. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Searching. All in the same month. Movie-goers no longer have to imagine what it would look like to see Asian-American stars on the silver screen. We can just go to our local cinema or queue up our Netflix.
Yu, who began his career as a digital marketer, has started to write his own stories, too. He’s currently in post-production for a short film he wrote and he’s working on two other feature scripts at the moment. Earlier this summer he won the Asian American International Film Festival Screenplay Competition for Love You, Charlie, about a high school senior on a desperate journey to prove her best friend's innocence after the friend is coerced into confessing a murder. I caught up with Yu one late August day by phone for this week’s Storyteller Spotlight.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for the sake of clarity and readability.
We Have Stories is all about storytelling. What is your story?
I’m Korean-American. I was born to two Korean parents who moved here from South Korea. I was born in Philadelphia and then at a young age I moved to Hong Kong. I lived there for seven years and then I moved to Boston for middle school, high school and college. I was an English major at Tufts University and then decided to pursue advertising. I was a strategist for a number of years before recently pursuing screenwriting as a career.
As the topic of Asian representation became more and more important to me, the idea of being represented in media [became] something I really wanted to be part of and participate in, and not just be someone who was going to critique it and intellectualize it, but to be someone that was in the weeds of it and creating and making and contributing to the movement in that way.
How did you come up with the idea for #StarringJohnCho?
#StarringJohnCho was born out of a lot of frustration and an idea that had been festering around in my mind for a while. Growing up as an Asian American, there were very few times in which I saw someone who looked like me represented fairly on screen, whether it was in TV or in film. As I grew up, it only grew more infuriating that I would continue to see stereotypes or unfair portrayals of people that look like me or look like my people.
Things really came to a head in 2016 during the Oscars that year when Chris Rock trotted out three little Asian kids and made a joke about them being PricewaterhouseCoopers’ “most diligent and hardworking employees.” Seeing how the reaction from the audience was one of laughter and as if this joke wasn’t insulting to the Asian community was something that kind of really set me off. And so that was kind of the first real moment where I kind of had an out of body experience where I saw how Asian Americans were being portrayed by our society.
Later on when I saw a report that came out of the Bunche Center, which stated that films that were more diverse actually do better at the box office and do better as returns on investment, the idea really started to kick in as to then why don’t we see that reflected when it comes to our leads. And in particular, when we see that the Asian-American community in the United States is quickly growing in terms of population, in terms of buying power, in terms of political influence, why are we not seeing that reflected on screen?
#StarringJohnCho was born out of a lot of these different cultural moments that were happening. Amongst my friends we had had this conversation so often, you know “What would it like? Or why hasn’t it happened yet?” And so I think I got a little fed up and wanted to not just have the conversation about it anymore, but to give people a real tangible, physical thing that they could show to others and say “Hey look, this doesn’t look so crazy, right? This looks actually pretty normal.”
What happened next?
It took off faster and bigger than I ever really thought possible. When I first launched it, I thought the idea had legs and I thought it was something that mattered to a good amount of people, but I didn’t think it was something that would get picked up by The New York Times, or that I’d be doing interviews with CNN, or that it would be in papers in Hong Kong or Korea. It kind of blew away all my expectations of what the conversation was, and I think really validated this idea that I had that this kind of conversation matters to other people. Not just people like me, not just Asian Americans, but people of any color, of any country. This idea of having an Asian-American lead in Hollywood was something that everyone wanted to participate in and discuss and question.
What's the story behind #SeeAsAmStar?
#SeeAsAmStar is a project I put out this May. It’s kind of like a spiritual sequel to #StarringJohnCho and taking it from just one movie poster to actually showing you what it would look like to see a living, breathing Asian-American star would look like. For me, it was even more impactful than #StarringJohnCho because it’s not just one frame, it’s a whole moment. You can see an Asian-American face giving an entire speech or doing an action sequence. It’s a project I’m really proud of and taps into where we can take this movement and showing what representation looks like and really trying to put an example out there for people who don’t quite understand this conversation or might need some more evidence, even though they shouldn’t, about why Asian Americans can hold down these roles.
What does it mean to you to see John Cho star in Searching?
It’s incredibly thrilling. I think it’s not only something that is great for John, as someone that I’m a fan of, and someone that I feel like has often been overlooked, but also just to kind of see what it means for where we are and where we still have to go when we talk about Asian-American representation in cinema. I think Searching is a pretty amazing moment right now in the culture. It’s a beautiful movie, not just because it features an Asian-American family, but because it’s an entertaining, thrilling, scary movie that takes on a lot of universal themes of attitudes towards technology, towards social media and how we really treat those mediums when it comes to treating our family and treating each other as people.
What do you think when you hear people refer to this current moment as Asian August?
It’s unprecedented. I’ve never in my life [seen] a moment where there have been three mainstream blockbuster movies that feature Asian-American stories all happening at the same time. I’ve never seen this kind of plentitude of stories that feature different types of Asian-American families. The fact that we’re trying to encapsulate all this into one month is something that I hope is not an indicator of how we treat future projects and that there continue to be more and more Asian-American stories out there because there are so many more different types of stories to be told.
Tell us more about your own work as a screenwriter...
What I’m most interested in is telling stories that aren’t necessarily about being Asian American, but are told through the lens of being Asian American. The way that I try to put my best foot forward is to try and find themes that matter to myself and matter to people that I love and are in my life, whether that means talking about relationships or family or fatherhood or one’s relationship with one’s mother or friends or the struggles of trying to get through life all through the lens of being an Asian-American. For me the best thing that I can do is try to find those moments that are either funny, or happy, or heartbreaking and tell them through a world that is built from being an Asian-American person and what are the complications, the contradictions, the diversity of experience that goes into that because one is an Asian-American.
Why does representation matter to you?
Representation matters most to me because it’s how someone can determine what is possible for them. Representation is important to a lot of people because they are able to see themselves and that brings validation. It gives them a sense of belonging. It gives them a sense of worth. For me, what’s most important is that representation can lay out what’s possible. When you see a person who looks like you on screen who is being a leader, who is being a romantic, who is being a flawed human being, who’s being someone that’s struggling with their own lives, it gives you a sense that “okay, I can go through those things, and I can still triumph, and I can still make my way through and handle what life throws at me because I see other people also doing that on screen. It’s possible for me to achieve that.” It informs so many other aspects of self-worth and one’s own security as a person. With representation comes a better understanding of one’s self. As we see more kinds of Asian American representation, I hope this increase offers more chances for people to see who they can strive to be.
What's something that's been on your mind lately?
Especially as the topic of Asian-Americanness becomes more prevalent, it’s necessary to remind people that being Asian American covers such a wide range of experiences and is not just being a Korean-American, a Chinese-American, or a Japanese-American, but it really spans the conversation of different countries, whether you’re Hmong or you’re Cambodian or your Laotian, or if you’re mixed or if your skin color is lighter or darker, or your sexuality. I don’t think that three movies released in August 2018 will be known as the only movies within Asian-American cinema. It’s my hope that these are just the starting point of which we can see more stories that reflect the Asian-American experience because we just have a long way to go and so much ground to catch up in terms of how we are seen in this medium.