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Isn’t He Lovely: The Curious Case of Community’s Ken Jeong

closeup of ken jeong as Mr. Chow wearing a plaid shirt and smiling on the poster for The Hangover Part 2.(This is part two of a two-post series.)

In 2007, The Daily Show's Aasif Mandvi, Asian American pop culture commentator Jeff Yang, and Yul Kwon (winner of Survivor: Cook Islands) hosted a roundtable discussion of the portrayal of Asian American men in mainstream culture. During their conversation, the trio discussed their perspectives on and personal experiences with the desexualization of Asian American men and/or their positioning as foreigners, regardless of where they were born. As quoted on Racialicious, Kwon told the audience:

When I was growing up, I was very much influenced by what I saw, and more importantly what I didn't see, on television. Whenever I saw an Asian American man on television, he was inevitably a kung-fu master who could kick ass but he couldn't speak English, or a computer geek who could figure out algorithms but couldn't figure out how to get a date. And for myself, I really think I internalized a lot of these images.

Later, Kwon also laments that the two primary Asian male characters on primetime television at the time were Daniel Dae Kim on Lost and Masi Oka on Heroes—two prominent characters who struggle with language barriers. Consequently, Kwon saw the roles as only a half-victory of sorts, pleased for the visibility but disheartened at the stock Asian-as-Other attributes.

Amy Sueyoshi at San Francisco State University senses a shift toward more masculine—or at the very least, humanizing—depictions of Asian American males in mainstream American culture. She cites Kim, now on Hawaii Five-0, as partial proof of that.

I do think now, it's changing. America's Best Dance Crew, the first season, the JabbaWockeez won. And Asian American critics said that they were seen as technical, not sexual, but I actually think that they were seen as quite sexual.

There's also an increased number of Asian American men in mainstream media, and sometimes they're doctors and whatnot, but you are having more topless scenes, like with Daniel Dae Kim in Lost. He's portrayed as the oppressive Asian husband, but he evolves as a character and he becomes kind of sexy. So I do think that times are changing.

And almost four years after that roundtable, with Lost and Heroes off the air, we now have the curious case of Ken Jeong, best known as Mr. Chow in The Hangover and Spanish teacher and disgruntled roustabout Chang in Community. These days, Jeong is one of the best-known Asian American stars, and while he's clearly out to attract laughs rather than swoons (as opposed to the Jon Cho and Kal Penn duo that handily juggles both) I wonder whether he's really changing the script for Asian Americans in Hollywood.

I wish that The Hangover had hit theaters in 2007 to get that roundtable's perspective on Mr. Chow, because my immediate reaction to the role in the context of Asian American stereotyping was that it represented more of the same. Don't get me wrong: Ken Jeong is a hilarious scene-stealer. And I get the fact that the comedy intentionally flaunted stereotypes to elevate the oh-no-they-didn't factor, but I still give Mr. Chow a meh.

The bloggers at Disgrasian came away with a similar distaste: "I hated the generic Engrish accent. And the character's queeny affectation left me cold, coming across more prissy than funny."

(Oddly, Disagrasian was back on board with the comedian after hearing him talk at length about his apparently small penis, which left me scratching my head since if there's one totally unfounded stereotype that needs to go away yesterday, it's the myth of the racially correlated penis length, but that's for a pending post…)

But what about Chang on Community? Is his surly party-crasher any better? Well, Jeong seemed to appreciate his character's job as a Spanish teacher, as opposed to "something a little more race-appropriate like mathematics, some sort of camera-making business."

I've only seen a handful of Community episodes, so I'm not well-versed in Chang, but over at Slate, Jessica Grose isn't a fan. Granted, it largely has more to do with the grating personality assigned to him than how his role conforms to stereotypes. Nevertheless:

The show tries to pump laughs out of how sexually repellent Chang is, and also what a horrible and unfit father he would make because he's so nutbar. On the first count, it's a bummer that Community—which usually handles race issues so deftly—falls back on the stereotype of Asian men as unattractive.

And that's definitely something Mr. Chow and Chang have in common: sexual undesirability. Any feigning of sex appeal gets a laugh because he's a kooky Asian guy with anger-management issues.

Conversely, Emil Guerillermo, blogging at IamKorean, says Jeong is the best thing to happen to Asian American men on screen in a long time. He sees Jeong's "running amok" as a definitive trope dissolvent. For instance, on The Hangover:

… he is a combination anti-Jackie Chan and a modern day send-up of a Fu-Manchu-less villain. Oh, and did I mention? He's NAKED.

So does hilarious, yet repugnant, add up to progress? Does the mainstream visibility that Kwon emphasized in the roundtable outweigh some of the persistent sexual stereotyping against Asian American men?

I'm curious to know what others think, and in the meantime, Yul Kwon offered this astute prescription at the roundtable:

I think if we fundamentally want to change stereotypes of Asian Americans and redefine Asian American men as being men, you have to… show there are Asian American men that meet that Westernized definition and also change that definition (of masculinity) itself.

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Comments

8 comments have been made. Post a comment.

I'm going to fall on the

I'm going to fall on the pro-Jeong side of this argument - I don't think you can fit him neatly into the 'socially inept, sexually repellent Asian guy' stereotype without leaving a couple aspects of his character hanging. First of all, there's this kiss:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGN_LAt86A8

- which is admittedly played for laughs, but still - Chang and the ex clearly didn't split up because he's sexually repellent to her.

His character became much more 1-dimensional in S2, but I think that was a byproduct of Dan Harmon not really having a direction in mind for Chang. Hopefully the security guard storyline will be a good launching point for a better Chang-arc.

Agreed. I think that Chang as

Agreed. I think that Chang as an authority figure that the rest of the group is thrown against like in season 1 works much better than whiny Chang who wants to be part of the group, like season 2. I thought the salsa dance with his hot ex wife was fantastic in season 1, then they just dropped it. I think they ended up going for more of a Sue Sylvester type of character. So yes, hoping for more of a character arc for Chang in season 3.

Asian Mystique

I recommend the book _Asian Mystique_, which addresses the issue of Asian stereotypes in a casual, conversational tone. It focuses more on women (as sex objects or dragon ladies) but also mentions stereotypes about Asian men.

representativeness itself is a problem

I like this essay a lot, it's made me think carefully about what I find so hilarious about the Chang character on *Community* (I have not seen *the Hangover*). And I agree with some of the previous comments, Chang's character does seem to productively mess with some of our culture's stereotypes about Asian men (i.e. there is nothing about Chang that could be described as passive). The overall problem, of course, is that there are so few representations of Asian men on American television that we have to look at this one actor in one part and say - -what does this say about representations of Asians & As-Americans in the media?

Lack of Asian American Actor role models

I'm not sure being "hilarious yet repugnant" is helpful in changing masculine stereotypes or Asian stereotypes. Why can't we have Asians on television like Grant Imahara on Mythbusters? He makes people proud to be Asian, he's attractive and people can relate to him.

As a special plug to Good Girls Marry Doctors, the more Asians we have on television that we can be proud of the more acceptable it would be for Asian students to pick media as a profession. Currently, Asians run away from media because it's seen as a bad investment for a career.

Mr. Chow follows a great tradtion

I've only seen Jeong in both Hangover movies as Mr. Chow. I thought he was by far the best character in either movie. A scene stealer for sure. I don't think that his character was progressive in any particular way beyond the fact that actors of other ethnicites have also played the 'all out insane drug dealer' supporting role. Drug dealer/party animals have a reoccurring place in a lot of comedies as catalysts for disaster or excuses for unlikely plot developments Think Dante's character in Grandma's Boy, Dr. Gonzo in Fear and Loathing, and Frank Booth in Blue velvet. These are all far-out characters that add a whole other level of crazy to each of these films. They're idiosyncratic, sexually charged (Dante...not so much probably due to his drug of choice, but he does get naked), and they all seem to inhabit a world of their own.

Mr. Chow is a great addition to this roster of far-our roles. He just happens to be Asian American, but I really didn't think that was the dominant trait of his character.

strangly enough

Ken Jeong was also cast in Vampires Suck (ugh, don't ask) as the evil vampire lord, Daro. The interesting part being the original high vampire lords in the Twilight film's this is satirizing, are deathly pale, ancient European nobility but Jeong's performance had no jokes or acknowledgement of race or skin color. He seemed to be cast purely because he did a great job parodying the vampire lord's incredibly hammy performance.

Daniel Dae Kim is INCREDIBLY

Daniel Dae Kim is INCREDIBLY sexy. That is all.