Catherine Haena Kim is part of a changing TV landscape with ABC’s The Company You Keep – Orange County Register
By Terry Tang
In fourth grade, Catherine Haena didn’t have the courage to audition for Kim to play the female lead in her school’s production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. But her teachers saw something in the way she behaved in the classroom.
“My teachers actually gave me the role because whenever I’ve spoken up, I’ve been very lively and expressive,” Kim said. “When I did this piece, I honestly think it was one of the first times that I really saw myself and felt special in a way that I really didn’t have before.”
Kim’s teachers subverted a problem that has frustrated the career paths of many Asian Americans, whether on screen, in political office, or on a boardroom: receiving praise for being dependable and hard-working but never quite perceived as leadership material.
In all industries, Asian Americans have long been held back by unchallenged prejudices based on racial stereotypes. Employers often portray Asians as passive, who lack gravitas or who don’t “culturally fit,” said Justin Zhu, co-founder of the advocacy group Stand with Asian Americans.
A grown Kim (“Ballers,” “Good Trouble”) now revels in the thrill and pressures of starring on a much bigger stage: she stars opposite Milo Ventimiglia in new ABC drama The Company You Keep. , which premieres on Sunday. The remake of the Korean drama My Fellow Citizens centers on the torrid and intense romance between Kim’s CIA agent and Ventimiglia’s con man.
Given Network TV’s sorry record of not casting Asian actors as lead characters — and increasing competition from cable and streaming services — there’s an extraordinary number of new shows that are changing. Other recently aired series with Asian or Asian-American leads include Quantum Leap (Raymond Lee), Kung Fu (Olivia Liang), The Cleaning Lady (Élodie Yung), NCIS: Hawai’i (Vanessa Lachey ). and “Ghosts” (Utkarsh Ambudkar).
Proponents are divided over whether this increase in visibility is a sign that Asian Americans are actually gaining broader and more meaningful representation. The last decade has had its ups and downs: ABC even had two sitcoms with all-Asian casts for two years – Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken” – but the latter, starring Ken Jeong, was canceled after just two seasons.
In 2019, after Crazy Rich Asians became a box office hit, things were looking promising, said Milton Liu, interim executive director of the Asian American Media Alliance, which issues a diversity “certificate” that rates broadcasters . That same year, six TV pilots were ordered with at least one Asian lead, but only one — the sitcom Sunnyside, starring Kal Penn — went on the series and was canceled after 11 episodes.
Liu acknowledges that the current streak of shows suggests things are “slowly improving.” As a member of the Writers Guild of America, he tempered that sentiment by recalling how difficult it is to get a TV pilot.
Also, most of these shows do not feature an Asian main couple or all-Asian ensemble. The common wisdom, still held by many industry executives, is that casting a white actor as the lead makes a series accessible to more viewers, making it more profitable. Liu said the demographics for network viewers are biased towards an older audience that is predominantly white.
“We understand that,” he said. “But we also understand how important it is to have shows like ‘Fresh Off the Boat,’ so we’re not just marginalized.”
A study by the Nielsen Company found that two-thirds of Asian Americans feel there is not enough Asian representation on television. More than half say the existing depictions are inaccurate.
It was The Company You Keep executive producer Jon M. Chu, the director of Crazy Rich Asians, who suggested Agent Emma Hill be Asian-American — and come from a screen family with a Korean-American father and a Chinese-American mother should have . The Hill family is also a political dynasty.
The character of Kim’s on-camera father (James Saito) is loosely inspired by Gary Locke, former governor of Washington, the first mainland Asian-American governor. The former US ambassador to China has no direct involvement but called the connection “great” in an interview with the AP.
In previous political roles, including Secretary of Commerce under former President Barack Obama, Locke has never lacked confidence in his leadership abilities. The problem is anti-Asian racism, which has influenced his perceptions of others, he says.
In 2003, the FBI learned that he was the target of an assassination plot by a white supremacist and anti-government extremist who “specifically said that there was no way an Asian American could be a legitimate governor of Washington state,” Locke recalled.
Stand with Asian Americans’ Zhu said the underestimation of Asian Americans dates back to the 19th century, when Chinese workers were building the US railroads.
“Asian Americans, since we came to this place from working on the railroad, we get a fraction of what we earn and are seen as a kind of worker, but not a leader,” Zhu said.
Locke believes there are real life implications when Asians and Asian Americans take charge on screen.
“Just seeing more Asian Americans in all walks of life — even if it’s fictional — is important because this may be their (viewer’s) only exposure to Asian Americans in roles they’re not used to,” Locke said.
Kim feels like a “lucky one” to have a seat at the proverbial table with her new, leading character status. Seeing your name at the top of the call log is a brand new experience. Despite the confidence she now has, the insecurities that once eluded this shy fourth grader sometimes linger.
“Most of the time I’m just like, ‘How does everyone do this?’ I can feel my imposter syndrome pounding louder than ever,” Kim said. “But I keep going because it’s all mixed up with that feeling that a little kid dreams of” — being seen as something special and recognized.
Terry Tang is a member of The Associated Press’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at @ttangAP.
https://www.ocregister.com/2023/02/16/rise-of-asian-leads-in-network-tv-shows-now-abcs-company-2/ Catherine Haena Kim is part of a changing TV landscape with ABC’s The Company You Keep – Orange County Register