The short history of Asian-American television

Posted by Eric Brightwell, May 27, 2012 05:30pm | Post a Comment
Since its earliest days, American television screens have never looked much like American reality. Network executives have apparently never been comfortable with too many Asians being on the small screen at one time. Asian sidekicks are cool, Asian guest stars too, maybe an Asian love interest (provided the character is female) There have been only a handful of television shows starring Asians and even fewer with primarily Asian casts. 

Hawaiian Eye

Meanwhile, the internet has become the great democratizer, allowing Asian-Americans (and Canadians) like 
Christine GambitoMichelle Phan, Freddie W, Fung BrosJessica LizamaKev JumbaKevin WuNikki LimoPeter Chao, Ryan Higa, Timothy Traphik DeLaGhettoWong Fu Productions and others to garner millions of followers each and in the process become internet celebrities, if not terrestrial television ones. Nowadays there are far more Asian-American (and Anglo-Asian diaspora) web series than network shows and while television slowly adapts, at this rate it may cease to exist before it even begins to resemble its audience. 

In one corner, consider the web series, which include Alfie the Office DogAway We HappenedAwesome Asian Bad GuysBaby MentalistBFFs, Boystown, Car Discussion with Sung KangChop Socky Boom, Flat3, The FoodThe Ho’s on 7th AvenueHome Is Where The Hans AreI Am Asian, How Are You?, Katana, K-TownKtown CowboysLumina, Manivore, Millions, Mixed Blooms, Model Minority, Mother Lover, Mythomania, Nice Girls Crew, Normal Gays, One Warm Night, On the Clock, Prison Dancer, Riley RewindSilent Terror, Slanted Show, SuperTwins!, The Switch, Trembling Void, That's What She SaidUrban Wolf, Video Game High SchoolWhen it Counts, and others. 

In the other corner, television, which though having existed for many more decades than web series, is rather more anemic. Consider this short timeline of Asian-American television, drawn from network, cable, and syndicated series:


Anna May Wong

The first American show with an Asian lead was obscure The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, which ran only ten episodes from 27 August to 21 November in 1951 on the DuMont Television Network (which itself only existed between 1946 and 1956). It starred Chinese-American, former silent film superstar Anna May Wong as a detective. It was cancelled after one season and no episodes are known to exist today.



In 1972, CBS aired The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan. It may've been a cartoon but many of the voice actors were Asian, including Keye Luke, who provided the voice for Chan (and was the only actor of Chinese descent to play Charlie Chan in any screen adaptation). In fact, when it debuted all of the voices were provided by Asian-American (and Asian-Canadian) actors except for the talking dog (this was a Hanna-Barbera cartoon so it had mystery, a band made up of kids, a magic vehicle and a talking dog). However, most of the voices were subsequently re-dubbed by non-Asian actors (including Jodie Foster). Sixteen episodes aired in all.

MR. T & TINA (1976)

The third American TV show starring an Asian-American had a very short run. Mr. T and Tina, a spin-off of Welcome Back, Kotter starring Pat Morita, ran for only five episodes in the fall of 1976. Morita starred as Taro Takahashi, a Japanese inventor married to a ditzy, white American, Tina Kelly. According to the recollections of the few that remember it, hilarity didn't really ensue.

GUNG HO (1986-1987)

The fourth TV series with mostly Asian-American stars was the short-lived Gung Ho, adapted from the Ron Howard film of the same name that opened earlier in the year (1986). In addition to Heidi Lawson, Scott Bakula, and Stephen Lee; the nine-episode series co-starred Gedde Watanabe, Patti Yasutake, Rodney Kageyama, Sab Shimono, and Scott Atari.

SIDEKICKS (1986-1987)

Sidekicks was the first Asian-American show made for and aired on cable television. It co-starred Ernie Reyes, Jr. as Ernie Lee, the Last Electric Knight, and Gil Gerard as Sergeant Jake Rizzo. It aired between 26 September, 1986 till 13 June, 1987. Disney would revisit the formula of Asian kid who masters martial arts with the training of an elder with their Brenda Song film, Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior (2008).

OHARA (1987-1988)

, was the second Asian-American television show to star Pat Morita, this time as Lt. Ohara. It ran for 30 episodes from 17 January, 1987 till 7 May, 1988. Of course Ohara used martial arts and spoke in fortune cookie/Charlie Chan-esque epigrams.


Vanishing Son was the first Asian-American show made for syndication. It ran from 16 January, following the airing of four Vanishing Son TV movies  in 1994. Hunky star Russell Wong played a foreigner – in this case a fugitive Chinese musician named Jian-Wa Chang. It was cancelled after thirteen episodes.


All-American Girl

All-American Girl starred actress/comedian Margaret Cho and depicted her as and her family in TV’s second Asian-American sitcom. It's notable for being the first American TV show with an entirely Asian starring-cast (rounded out by Amy Hill, B.D. Wong, Clyde Kusatsu, J.B. Quon, and Jodi Long). It was also the first TV series to star an American-born Asian actually playing an American-born Asian rather than an Asian-born foreigner -- a fact underlined by the series's title. Nonetheless, an "Asian Consultant" was hired to teach the Korean-American star of the semi-autobiographical show how to “act more Asian.”  It ran for nineteen episodes between 14 September, 1994 and 15 March, 1995. 

RELIC HUNTER (1999-2002)

Relic Hunter wasn’t an American series – it was Canadian. However, it did star an Asian-American tough, in this case, Hawaiian-born Pinay, Tia Carrere. It ran much longer than its American predecessors, lasting three seasons and 66 episodes total between 1999 and 2002. One possibility is that Canadian network officials gave it a fairer shake. Of course, another possibility was Carrere's sex appeal. As Wayne Campbell expressed of Carrere's "Cassandra" character in Wayne's World, "She's a fox. In French, she would be called 'la renarde' and she would be hunted with only her cunning to protect her." I never watched the show but do remember it being promoted with billboards promising "dangerous curves ahead" so I reckon sex was a big factor.

THE CHANG FAMILY SAVES THE WORLD (2002 - unaired pilot)

The Chang Family Saves The World didn't make it past the pilot stage. That audition program was filmed for ABC in 2002 and never aired. The pilot, written and produced by John Ridley, starred the mixed race Nia Peeples (her maternal grandparents with Filipino mestizos) as "Pearl Empress." The rest of the cast was rounded out by Asian-Americans including Lauren Tom, Dante Basco, Byron Mann, and Melanie Jayne.

I GOT YOU (2002 - unaired pilot)

Another John Ridley effort for ABC that didn't make it past the pilot stage. I Got You was to have been a comedy starring Ming-Na Wen. Her co-stars in the pilot included fellow Asian actors Burt Bulos, Eric Kan, and Suzy Nakamura.


A Shot at Love With Tila Tequila

Tila Tequila (née Tila Nguyen) was a popular import model who starred in the “reality” show, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, in which she “played” a bisexual in search of love. She courted 32 contestants -- male and female. It debuted at No. 1 in its time slot and was MTV’s second highest-rated debut series that year (2007), seemingly disproving conventional TV wisdom about Asian-American leads (at least female) and simultaneously re-affirming the ancient adage, "sex sells."


The Cho Show - VH! - Margaret Cho

Perhaps the producers of The Cho Show were encouraged by Tila Tequila’s success when they decided to give Margaret Cho another shot at TV with a reality series/sitcom. The Cho Show debuted 21 August, 2008 on VH1 and concluded seven episodes later, on 25 September.

NIKITA (2010-2013)

Nikita promo - Maggie Q

Half-Vietnamese actress Maggie Q stars in Nikita, a CW series that has, to date, aired for 45 episodes, beginning with its debut on 9 September, 2010. In it, Q plays a vengeful former assassin and spy in a role adapted from the French film of the same name.

HAWAII FIVE-0 (2010- )

Hawaii Five-0

Two of four stars of Hawaii Five-0 are Asian-American, Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park (who, though born in the US, is a Canadian citizen). Reflecting the fact that Hawaii’s largest racial group is Asian-American, many of the recurring charaters and guest stars are also played by Asian-Americans. It debuted 20 September, 2010 and was an immediate critical and commercial success. In 2011, it entered the Guinness World Records for “Highest-Rated New Show in the U.S.” when the episode “Kai e’e” garnered 19.34 million viewers. And whereas there's a long tradition of fetishization of Asian women in American culture, the fact that a Google search of "Daniel Dae Kim" brings up related searches of "Daniel Dae Kim shirtless" and "Daniel Dae Kim muscles" probably reflects changing mainstream attitudes about Asian-American men as well... at least as far as objectification goes.

OUTSOURCED (2010-2011)


Another show that debuted in September, 2010 was NBC's Outsourced. Many of its stars were Indians from Canada, England, Germany, South Africa, and the United States (and in only a couple of cases, India). The plot concerned a white American being transferred to India, and thus Asians from several continents played Asian Asians (i.e. foreigners). I haven't seen it but it seems to have garnered a strong but small following. Nevertheless, it wasn't renewed for the 2012 season.

SULLIVAN & SON (2012-2014)

Sullivan & Son

Popular half-Irish/half-Korean stand-up comic Steven Byrne co-wrote and co-created the pilot for Sullivan & Son with with Rob Long. In it he stares as the son of an Irish-American father (played by Dan Lauria of The Wonder Years) and a Korean-American mother (played by Jodi Long of All American Girl). His sister is played by Vivian Bang (best known as Soo-Mi in Yes Man). TBS ordered ten episodes in February, 2012 with a premiere date set for this coming summer.




Angry Little Asian Girl

Actress/cartoonist Leela Lee's comic Angry Little Asian Girl is set to air on MNET America as an animated series debuting Fall 2012.


The Mindy Project

The Mindy Project stars Tamil-Bengali-American actress Mindy Kaling as a physician named Mindi Lahiri. The plot was greenlighted by FOX in May, 2012. The series is due to debut on 25, September, 2012.


Fresh of the Boat

Fresh Off the Boat follows a Taiwanese-American family in the 1990s and is based on the memoir of Eddie Huang. The first episode was co-written by Sanjay Shah and Nahnatchka Khan. The Taiwanese family is played by Korean-American actor Randall Park and Chinese-American actors Constance Wu, Hudson Yang, Forrest Wheeler, Ian Chen, and Lucille Soong. The series debuted in 2015.


So there you have it, a handful of mostly-obscure American shows (and one Canadian) in roughly 65 years of TV. The frequency with which Asian-Americans star in television series has increased in the recent past but neither kept pace with the internet nor demographic trends. In Los Angeles, where most American television series are filmed (and many are set), Asian-Americans make up roughly 14% of the population -- the city's largest racial minority and it's fastest growing. Color may've been introduced as a technology to television more than 60 years ago but today, for the most part, it remains frustratingly black and white.


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