SPOILERT ALERT: This post contains spoilers about the Netflix show, Wu Assassins. If you haven’t seen it and don’t want spoilers, bookmark this and come back to it later.
Last chance before spoilers…
This show took me back twenty-five years to Vanishing Son. Asian immigrants, family, Chinatown, and gangs. What Wu Assassins brings new to the table is a more comprehensive tale that includes Chinese fantasy elements and fully developed characters that don’t rely on stereotypes but rather their history. In the beginning, it may seem that the show relies on stereotypes, but as it develops, you see that it is this incredible ensemble (the best out there, imo) of multi-dimensional characters with agency driving the plot. To connect the past and the present is the inimitable Tzi Ma, who is in both shows. I remember first seeing him in The Equalizer (the TV Show, not the Denzel movie), followed a few years later in MacGuyver (the original). But where I truly began to appreciate his enormous talent was as Kinman Tau in Rapid Fire and, yes, I almost stopped watching Wu Assassins to watch Rapid Fire, because the fight scenes, particularly with Lewis Tan, reminded me of Brandon Lee. I think bringing Tzi Ma onboard, an actor with a large body of work, as an elder was one of the best things the show did. The next best thing was bringing on other actors who also have numerous credits like Mark Dacascos and Byron Mann. It’s an amazing blending of the seasoned stars with the newer stars. In short, it hits in all the ways no other show has for me before.
“Tourists. Want to experience China. Coming in here expecting something old-y world-y, but surprise they don’t get it because what they’re getting is not the usual. They’re getting something that people who actually live in San Francisco want.” ~Tommy Wah, episode 4 “A Twisting Snake”
The second time watching Wu Assassins this quote hit me hard. I had already read criticism of the show on Twitter after finishing it the first time around. Some of it was people jumping in on Asian Twitter’s celebration of this show and shitting all over it because they’re bitter about another show being canceled—comments that had nothing to do about Wu Assassins and everything to do about how their feelings were more important than ours. At any given time in the last few years, there have only been a handful of Asian-led TV shows on network and cable at a time. With the end of Dr. Ken, I Feel Bad, Into The Badlands, and Elementary we are left with Fresh Off The Boat as the lone returning show with Terror: Infamy focusing on the Japanese in American concentration camps in its second season. If I branch out into pay movie channels, Cinemax has Warrior. That’s what we’ve got, folks. But go ahead and tell me how the cancelation of one show dominated by white actors in a field of shows dominated by white actors is a travesty and more important that what Wu Assassins is giving us at a time when representation is shrinking on TV.
The shrinking representation isn’t affecting just Asians either, FOX canceled most of its shows with diverse leads. If you take a look at the fall lineup photos, it is, as we see year after year, mostly white. Try what I do and focus on minority led shows to add to your list of new shows to watch and see how difficult it is.
Then there were non-Asians shaking their fists how there weren’t enough Asians in front of and behind the camera. There are only two non-Asians in the primary ensemble. TWO. The rest of ensemble is populated by Asians. And not only that, it’s led by a Southeast Asian—an important distinction because it breaks down the stereotypes that we are a monolith. How many of you have seen my threads on Twitter ranting about how we are portrayed in the books I’m reading? Sometimes the only description given a character is that they are Asian, and I’m not talking a side character. I’m talking a main character with significant contributions to the plot. We don’t all look Japanese or Chinese or Korean. Some of us are Filipinx (that’s me), Indonesian (that’s Iko Uwais, the lead in Wu Assassins), Burmese, Thai, Laotian, Malay, Cambodian, etc. It also misses the fact that Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Nepalese, etc. (South Asia) are also Asians. Sometimes authors don’t do their homework and I’ll read a fight scene that gets disrupted with “he looked to be making a martial arts kick.” Well, that doesn’t give me much considering my martial arts training and knowledge. There are dozens of martial arts styles and not all of them are Asian.
While I love that we had Crazy Rich Asians, the first fully Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club, last year and I wouldn’t be sad to see more of the same, these non-Asians who are complaining are missing the forest for the trees. Would it be great to have full Asian representation? Yes. Is it required 100% of the time? No. Just like we aren’t monoliths, we also have more than one story to tell and that comes with both full Asian casts and with mixed casts. We can and should celebrate both. There were Asians in the Wu Assassins writers’ room. There were Asians behind the camera directing. There were a plethora in front of the camera. What the complaints should be focusing on is what I pointed out above, the dwindling representation in network and cable TV. Go after that. That’s where energy should be spent, not picking apart a show that, to paraphrase Tommy, what Asian-Americans who actually live here want.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been treated as a perpetual foreigner despite being born in this country.
— Debi V. Smith (@DebiVSmith) August 11, 2019
— Nancy Wang Yuen (@nancywyuen) August 11, 2019
This scene in episode 7, “Legacy,” resonates with Asians in the U.S. because it is COMMON; from the stares at the beginning of the scene (any minority being the only one or one of a few in the room will understand this), to the seemingly “polite” jackassery from the server, to the overt racism from the men. These microaggressions and aggressions add up. They hurt. They insinuate we don’t belong whether we were born here or immigrated. They insinuate that our palates will never assimilate. They assume that we couldn’t possibly be born here even though Asians started coming over centuries ago (Filipinos recorded first arrival was in 1587 and settling in Louisiana in 1763). They imply that we are monoliths. They imply that we are less than and will never belong.
The myth of the perpetual foreigner is an insidious racist belief that often cloaks itself in politeness. In the clip, the server admits that she means that Kai and Six look like they don’t belong in America. My experiences, too numerous to count, are that people dance around it, they don’t want to say it outright because by using euphemisms and inference they can still couch their excuse, when called out, as “I’m just trying to be polite/make conversation/be neighborly.” There is plausible deniability in it. “I didn’t call you a racial slur. I can’t be racist. I was being nice.” Polite racism is still racism. “No, I mean, where are you really from?” If you don’t ask white people that, don’t ask anyone that. Period.
The men coming to the server’s “rescue” after she did a version of I-want-to-talk-the-manager; because how dare you correct a white woman. It wasn’t as “polite” as the server was initially in assuming Asians couldn’t possibly be happy with eggs and sausage. Also, Asian chicken? Take into account all the different countries I named above that are part of Asia and tell me what the fuck Asian chicken is supposed to be. The men went right into emasculating jokes about small Asian penises and then saying “chop sake,” another racist thing, common with non-Asians saying whatever they think is “Asian” to bully us through making fun of our languages even though it’s nonsense. It may not seem like much but it’s significant. Hollywood has a long history of desexualizing Asian men, portraying them as unattractive nerds who have no romantic entanglements and always the butt of the joke; and until recently, keeping them out of significant lead roles in blockbuster movies as well as romantic leads. It has carried over into real world consequences for Asian men who end up with low self-esteem because they never see themselves reflected on screen as a fully developed person who deserves love and is seen as desirable. This is also why the kiss between Lu Xin and Christine at the end of the season is important. While we are now seeing a small lift in Asian men being cast as leads in RomComs, the Asian male/white female (AM/WF) pairing is extremely rare and it shouldn’t be. Asian men deserve better than they’ve gotten for decades. While it’s just a kiss, it’s still a step in the direction that we need to be going.
Predictably, complaints about this scene that amounted to “not all white people” popped up. This scene was to make US, Asians in America, feel seen and heard. It was for US. To acknowledge the long history of racism, systemic and interpersonal alike, that we’ve lived through. The humiliation and dehumanization that racists use to tear us down in front of other people. We know this. We’ve felt this. We lived it. If you had feelings about this scene because you believe “not all white people” or “not all Oregonians” are like that, we are at the center here, not you. The show isn’t about you. Don’t make our plight and celebration of how succinctly the writers represented it about your fragility.
As the end of the scene goes:
Server: I’ve never seen such rude people in my life.
Six: Us either.
I may be Asian, but “I’m as American as you are.”
Now, let’s get to the good stuff.
Wu Assassins has given us something special. A predominantly Asian cast that hits us from a human perspective and a cultural one. Everyone has layers of history, desires, and connections. Everyone has depth and dimensions. Everyone is HUMAN. And not only is the show populated with Asians, it’s led by a Southeast Asian, like me. The character is hapa (mixed), like me. The Asians are an array of immigrants, American-born, fully assimilated, as well as those embracing American and Asian cultures. That last part is important especially in the case of Mr. Young’s character when the older generations are typically portrayed as mired in their originating culture and eschewing the trappings of the New World. Mr. Young loves his Tony Robbins and Steve Jobs quotes but he’ll just as easily quote Confucius and offer you a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) remedy. Immigrants don’t have to assimilate by throwing off every bit of their culture in order to be accepted, at least that’s not how it should be. They shouldn’t have to throw anything off, but as we see time and again through the decades they are shunned for not doing so. It doesn’t have to be that way and shows like this can help move that needle of acceptance in showing people our humanity.
It’s given us women who have agency that has nothing to do with pursuing romantic relationships. The women lead, fight, and take an active role in the plot. They aren’t mere plot devices. They are not portrayed through the typical male gaze. There are no gratuitous T&A shots. Of particular importance is the fact that Zan, Jenny, and Ying Ying are portrayed without the stereotyped submissive hypersexuality that has led to Asian women being fetishized and objectified in real life and often leads to our deaths. This is no joke. I was told I was “exotic” by an adult white woman when I was 5-years-old. No child or person should ever be objectified in that manner. It has led to still having to push back at men, particularly Asian men who think being fetishized is preferable to being desexualized while also holding the belief that we (Asian women) owe them sex—it has happened more than I’ve been able to keep track of in the last few years alone. Wu Assassins demonstrates that it isn’t hard to portray women as strong, independent people who don’t need to be part of a couple to have an identity, and that we are human rather than sexual objects.
The following video is satire on fetishizing Asian women as it would look like if white people were fetishized from comedian Joy Regullano.
Family is an important theme for the season. From an immigrant adopted by a man who happened to be in a gang and wound up its leader and how the father’s line of work became a wedge in their relationship. To a father who would do anything for the adopted son he loves as he would’ve his own. A group of friends who were thick as thieves in their teen years but a trauma brought animosity that drove a small wedge between them. A brother seeking family in all the wrong places because his biological family he has known doesn’t feel like family to him anymore. A sister doing everything she can to save her brother while trying to be the perfect daughter that her parents will never praise no matter what. A subordinate who sees her boss as a father figure and is loyal beyond measure until she feels betrayed because he is entrenched in patriarchal thinking and his love is solely for his prodigal son, not the woman who would lay down her life for him. A man doing everything he can to be reunited with his family even if the world has to burn.
It explores traditional Asian family roles and the pushback when the kids attempt to the break out of those roles or “unConfuciusing” their brains, as Lu Xin would say. By all appearances, Jenny is the perfect daughter, taking over the family restaurant and always helping her big brother when he needs it. However, nothing she does is good enough for her parents. There is no praise for sales being up or improving the business or taking care of Tommy and this in turn gives her a feeling as if she has no control. I know that feeling of doing all the right things and it still not being good enough for praise leading to feeling like I had no control over anything around me. In Jenny’s case, the one thing she turned to for solace was underground fighting, a place to take out her frustrations and regain some sense of control because it was something she chose to do. Maybe I’m reading too much into it after watching it eight times, but that’s the sense that I always get from her.
It also explores the ideas people without family have about those with families and vice versa when in reality, neither is perfect or ideal. Some have too much responsibility thrust on them. While all some want is a family to belong to and feel loved and supported. The grass is always greener. This was distilled perfectly into a short conversation between Zan and Jenny. Zan is envious of Jenny having a family to rely on and receive support from while Jenny envies Zan’s lack of responsibility to a family and its hierarchy. But as with most things, what we see and envy is only the tip of the iceberg. Zan didn’t see Jenny’s family and personal struggles under the surface and Jenny didn’t see Zan’s struggle for Six to see her as his heir, to become Big Sister when his time as Big Brother came to an end, for him to treat her as family when he only saw her through a patriarchal lens despite her loyalty, strength, intelligence, and abilities.
Lastly, a point that is significant for me and every other hapa out there. Like Miles Morales and Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry, Kai Jin is mixed. He’s Indonesian and Chinese. I make the emphasis on “and” because this is a significant change in thinking from when I was growing up. Not only was I told that I wasn’t Filipino enough by other Filipinos, I was also told I wasn’t white enough by other whites—something most of us who are mixed go through no matter what our ethnic makeup is. There were no choices for being bi-/multiracial on forms when I became an adult. I could choose White, Asian/Pacific Islander, or the dreaded Other. Why other myself intentionally on records? I always checked Asian/Pacific Islander, even before I was comfortable in my own skin and had decided, unapologetically, how I saw myself and how I would identify. I always felt I was forced to choose one or the other, that I couldn’t be both. It wasn’t until the last couple of years that I became aware of this new thinking, embracing all of it. And, and, and, and, and. Kai reminds people when they call him Chinese that’s he’s both Chinese and Indonesian. With his friends, he makes jokes about the half you can’t see—something I relate to from my childhood with my Filipino relatives. Why is this important? Because when we see ourselves, meaning those of us who are mixed, reflected on screen going through the same identity struggles as well as how we fit in with others it validates our own hardships and interpersonal relationships knowing that we aren’t alone. I had a few mixed friends growing up, one of them has been a best friend since our hana buttah days. Having a few friends is different from that on screen reflection. What goes on in friendships typically stays within that friendship, but what happens on screen is seen by many, making us more visible and tearing down those old though patterns that we have to choose one of our ethnic cultures to identify with rather than all of them. This world has more people of mixed ethnicities than we acknowledge and it’s important to see more and celebrate every hapa character being centered in a show or movie.
I hope that Wu Assassins gets a second season. If any new show deserves it, it’s this one. It surpassed all my expectations, which I admit to keeping low because I wasn’t sure what to expect from what little I’d seen on social media from Tommy Flanagan whom I’ve followed since Sons of Anarchy. I was honestly worried about whitewashing and reliance on stereotypes. The fact that neither happened is a testament to the commitment of the creators, writers, and directors to giving us something Asians who actually live in America want.
What follows are a couple of the videos that helps put the Asian in America perspective in context, plus a Spotify playlist of the music used this season.
Tyrus Wong, American Masters. Of particular importance, his separation from his father upon arriving in the U.S. and subsequent separation and detainment at Angel Island as a child.
History of Asians in Cinema by Vox
The music used throughout the season is amazing.