‘We’re very proud of the world that we’re presenting’: Asian actors are increasingly visible on TV

(Photo courtesy John Fleenor/ABC) Hudson Yang stars as Eddie in “Fresh Off the Boat.”

Beverly Hills, Calif. • As the star of “Fresh Off the Boat,” Hudson Yang portrays the the rap-loving, somewhat rebellious oldest son of Chinese immigrant parents who settle in Florida and open a restaurant.

“When I was a kid,” Yang recently recalled, “I really noticed that there wasn’t anybody Asian I could look up to on TV.”

Yang is just 15 — and he’s right.

Ten years ago, in fall 2009, only 16 of the 63 scripted series on network TV shows had an actor of Asian descent in the regular cast. And lead roles were rare; when it launched in 2015, “Fresh Off the Boat” was the first show focused on an Asian American family in 20 years.

Looking back, there was not a single American TV series with an Asian actor in the lead role in the 1960s. You can count the number of shows with Asian leads in the ′70s, ′80s and ′90s combined on your fingers — and have fingers left over.

Nicole Kang, 28, who co-stars as the title character’s stepsister in The CW’s new “Batwoman,” said she didn’t even realize acting was a career open to her because she didn’t see many Asians on TV.

“I turned to figure skating when I was young because I was watching Michelle Kwan on my screen,” she said. “The fact that I saw her and, for the next 10 years of my life, took on that sport is exactly the power that we have.”

There’s definitely been progress. This fall, 36 of the 71 scripted series on five networks have an actor of Asian descent in the regular cast — and that’s not counting dozens on cable and streaming services.

“When I consider my friends in the Asian American acting community, it’s so encouraging to be able to say that most of them are working,” said Daniel Dae Kim (“Lost,” “Hawaii Five-0”). “And that wasn’t the case as little as 10 years ago.

“Now the next step is — what is the quality of that employment? What are the roles that we are being asked to play?” he said. “Are they moving the action forward, or are they supporting those moving the action forward?”

‘There weren’t many of us’

George Takei was a rarity as he co-starred as helmsman Lt. Sulu in the original “Star Trek.” “There certainly weren’t many of us,” Takei said. “And my role was even more unusual because my ethnicity had nothing to do with it.”

That was generally not the case for actors of Asian descent in the 1960s. When they could get work on TV, they were often cast in small roles and called upon to affect accents and stereotypical behavior. While Takei played Sulu, elsewhere on NBC, Hop Sing (Victor Sen Yung) was one big Asian stereotype on “Bonanza” — he spoke broken English, was easily excitable and played for laughs.

That happens less often these days, although it’s only been 2½ years since the cancellation of “2 Broke Girls,” a sitcom that included a stereotypical Asian character that the New Yorker described as “so racist it is less offensive than baffling.”

The parents in “Fresh Off the Boat” have accents, but they’re immigrants from China and their children are first-generation, American-born children.

Yang — whose mother and paternal grandparents immigrated from Taiwan — said that before “Fresh Off the Boat” premiered, he “didn’t realize how big a deal it was to have more Asian American representation. And now I realize, oh my gosh, this is such a big deal. People message me saying, ‘I look up to you. How can I become an actor, too?’”

Ian Chen, who plays Yang’s TV brother, said “Fresh Off the Boat” has been “a big stepping stone” for Asian Americans. “It’s led to more Asians being represented on television and on the big screen,” he said. “And that’s great.”

But Asians are still rarely cast in lead roles on American TV. There were only two network TV series headlined by Asian actors this fall, “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Sunnyside” — and NBC has canceled “Sunnyside” (although it will stream remaining episodes).

All of the lead roles in AMC’s “The Terror: Infamy,” about Japanese Americans interned during World War II, are filled by Asian actors — a true anomaly. And there have been a handful of other shows with Asian leads of late — including “Elementary,” “Dr. Ken,” “Into the Badlands,” “Killing Eve,” “Quantico,” “The Mindy Project,” “Master of None,” and made-in-Utah “Andi Mack.” But they remain the exceptions.

‘I’m just a regular guy’

Reflecting diversity is more than counting characters or leads. Manish Dayal, who plays a doctor on Fox’s “The Resident,” said, “It’s not just about peppering people of color in an environment, it’s about how they play their behavior in that world.”

He’s been offered more roles as cab drivers and terrorists than he can remember.

“It’s been a struggle my entire career, to some degree,” he said. “There are certain things I just won’t do. So few roles are written for people of South Asian descent that you really have to be careful what you choose, because that’s the perspective you’re putting out into the world.”

It’s a sign of progress when Asian actors are playing characters who just happen to be Asian — diversity without diversity being the point.

Kenneth Choi said his character on Fox’s “9-1-1” — firefighter Howie “Chimney” Han — was originally conceived as “a really big, kind of fat Latino guy.” And he’s none of those.

But other than changing the character’s last name, “They didn’t really adjust it,” Choi said. “They were, like, ‘What does it matter if he’s Latino or Asian? He’s still a firefighter.’”

And, the show — now in its third season — hasn’t made an issue of Chimney’s ethnicity.

“Never. And I like that,” Choi said. “... He’s like me. I’m born and raised in Chicago. I’m just a regular guy and I don’t really look at myself as Asian as I go out of the world. There are no stereotypes to this character, which is what I appreciate the most.”

When Jake Choi auditioned for the part of young father Miggy in the ABC sitcom “Single Parents,” the casting breakdown didn’t specify ethnicity. And his portrayal “is very against stereotype, if you think about it,” he said.

Miggy is not good at math. He doesn’t play the violin. He’s not successful.

“He’s not defined by his ethnicity, which is great,” Jake Choi said. “And I, personally, have never seen an Asian single dad on TV as a regular who also is very hip and is a sneaker head and has tattoos and he’s not part of a vague Asian gang.

“This character is very much me growing up in high school and college — just without the baby,” he said with a laugh.

Tony-winning actress Ruthie Ann Miles co-stars on the new CBS legal drama “All Rise” as the judge’s assistant — and producers weren’t looking for a specific ethnicity when they were casting that role, either.

“Which is really refreshing, because so often [character breakdowns call for] ‘Asian-American woman, early 40s, must speak with 10 years-in-America accent,’” Miles said. “So it’s great to say, ‘Oh my goodness! I just get to be an American!’”

Vincent Rodriguez III said he was “proud” of his four years on “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” as Josh Chan — a cool, hot (if not overly bright) dude whose Filipino identity was never an issue.

“One of my favorite things to see is a character like Josh who is Asian American and is an everyman character,” he said. “We’re just giving a context that totally exists in the world but we haven’t seen portrayed.”

Why now?

The issue isn’t just who we see on TV, it’s who’s working behind the scenes. And there’s been some movement there.

Larry Teng, co-executive producer/director of “Nancy Drew” on The CW, pointed out that in addition to Leah Lewis, who co-stars as Nancy’s frenemy George Fan, the showrunner (Melinda Hsu Taylor), line producer (Lily Hui), first assistant director (Patrice Leung) and Teng himself are all of Chinese descent.

“A lot of our crew are very diverse,” he said, “And we were pushing very hard for that.”

Kim has had success both as an actor and a producer — he’s an executive producer of ABC’s “The Good Doctor,” set in San Jose. Since it debuted, it has added Will Yun Lee to a cast that included Christina Chang alongside white, black and Hispanic actors.

“It’s incredibly important to all of us, and we’re very proud of the world that we’re presenting,” Kim said. “Would I love to see more Asians on this show? Absolutely, because it’s very reflective of Northern California.”

Other producers have begun actively looking for actors of Asian descent. Leo Sheng is in the cast of the upcoming Showtime revival “The L Word: Generation Q,” because showrunner Marja Lewis-Ryan “was specifically casting Asian trans men,” Sheng said. “She made an effort to find someone who haven’t we seen yet in mainstream television.”

So why the increased representation of Asian characters now? Is Hollywood, all of a sudden, woke?

Alex Woo, executive producer of “The Terror: Infamy” thinks it has more to do with the fact that there’s a lot more TV today — almost 500 scripted series on broadcast TV, cable TV and streaming services in 2018.

“There’s so much television it’s so hard to get noticed,” he said. “I think everyone is more willing to take some more chances. And we may not have been able to do this 10 years ago.

“In a business where there’s a lot of money at stake, no one wants to be the first one to dip their toe in the water. But now that ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and ‘The Farewell’ have been hugely successful — and a show like ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ has been successful — others are taking the chance.”

And the fact that network executives and showrunners are having their feet held to the fire when they ignore diversity has also helped bring change.

“I think a corner has been turned,” said Miles, “because we’re demanding representation, demanding the conversation continue, demanding writers and producers consider looking outside the box to who is, quote-unquote, hire-able. I think it’s a wonderful new wave for the next generation.”

Editor’s note: Most of the interviews for this story were conducted at the Television Critics Association press tour in August. Some were conducted earlier in the Los Angeles area.