The AIM³ Summit Series took place on 4 and 5 November, as part of Vancouver Asian Film Festival’s (VAFF) 20th season.
In Vancouver’s historic Chinatown, VAFF hosted a panel series this weekend that explored issues surrounding the Asian identity in the graphic novel, music, and film industries.
The three-panel summit, dubbed Asians in Media + Movies + Music (AIM³), brought industry professionals to discuss their experiences and observations regarding culture identities and their effects on their career paths. Each session featured presentations by the panelists, followed by a Q&A with the audience. The summit came as a response towards Hollywood ongoing diversity issues, from Scarlett Johansson’s being as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell to Tilda Swinton’s casting as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange.
“The way this whole panel and summit came about was because of all the things that were happening in the year, where there was a lot of casting Asian characters with non-Asian actors” explained festival founder Barbara Lee during her introduction of the Asians in Movies session. “We talked about this, and there was a lot of activity going online, and we thought we wanted to do something about it.”
Asians in Comics
Following the trend of Hollywood film adaptations of comic book franchises, VAFF invited writers and illustrators currently working in the graphic novel industry. The panel comprised of writers Jennifer De Guzman, Sarah Kuhn, Jonathan Tsuei, and illustrators Christine Norrie and Bernard Chang.
As far as racial diversity in graphic novels, panelists expressed that it is an industry that allows for it both in the workplace and the medium.
“They don’t even care that I’m Chinese or Asian,” said Chang in his presentation, recalling debates he’d had with his mother early in his career. He recalled telling his mother that his worth as an artist was in how well and how timely he could do his job, and if he had great ideas to contribute.
“Comics is a field that I feel perhaps is probably the most diverse out of all North American or Western media platforms.”
“I’ve worked in the comic book industry since 2001,” stated De Guzman in her presentation. “In those 15 years, I’ve seen the representation of people of colour increase quite a bit, particularly on the creative side, people of mixed Asian heritage like myself.”
As familiar themes of identity struggles and generational gaps were prominent in the presentations, it became evident that each presenter’s journey was influenced by cultural identity. Tsuei recalled his parents’ friendship with Chinese gangsters during their residency in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Kuhn confidently championed the “Asian girls having fun” comic book genre. And as a mixed-race person who constantly moved around growing up, Norrie’s very much found the X-Files to be symbolic of her life.
Asians in Music
In search for visibility of Asians in the different forms of media, VAFF also put together a panel of professionals to discuss the complexities of the fast-changing music industry. The panel comprised of producing team Steve Smith and Anthony Anderson, songwriter-producer Troy Samson, opera singer Dr. Gina Oh, singer-songwriter Alfa Garcia, music publisher David Quan, former Soundcloud Senior Artist Relations Manager Jane Shin, and Music BC’s Lindsay Macpherson and Becky Wosk.
With the largest panel of speakers out of all three presentations, the discussions spanned from personal stories to the talking about the elements that make a pop star. Notably, Smith and Anderson, who were visibly non-Asian and have produced several songs for Asian artists, emphasized “cultural relevance”: the phenomenon of an artist’s voice resonating and connecting to an audience’s cultural experiences.
In their presentation, Anderson and Smith pointed to half-Filipino musician Bruno Mars.
“… As most of you know, [he’s] half-Asian. So why did it work in America? It worked because he’s authentically American. And when he sings, it sounds like an American singing. The soulfulness is there, the attitude is there, he grew up in the culture.”
In addition to discussing the growing cultural diversity within the North American music industry, the presentations provided a view of the business side of music for aspiring musicians. Quan discussed the purpose of music publishing and distribution, while Shin talked about technology and community-building as a way to develop a following in the current musical ecosystem.
Asians in Movies
As the most anticipated part of the AIM³ series, there was no shying away from the heated topic of lack of appropriate Asian representation in Hollywood films. The panel comprised of William Yu, who launched #StarringJohnCho, producers Kevin Li and Raymond Massey, casting director Judy Lee, actresses Agam Darshi and Diana Bang, as well as journalist Jeff Yang.
Beginning the session as the keynote speaker, Yu was the first in a series of presenters that emphasized the need to be unapologetic about creating and sharing stories. “As much as we want to hope that other people will tell our stories for us, if you’re not advocating for yourselves, no one else is going to.”
Li discussed the importance of having a variety of representation in the media, to break away from the Asian stereotypes perpetuated by the mainstream media. He points to his web series, Ultra Rich Asian Girls, which despite getting publicly criticized as a “bad” form of representation for Asian women, provides an alternative towards the demure and dependent Asian female stereotype.
“I got four girls on my show. Three of them are [University of British Columbia] graduates: two of them Sauder School of Business, one of them graduated Math with honours. They play music. They have their own money. They do art […] they’re 21, 22 years old, trying to carve a name out for themselves. Sure, they’ve got a little bit more money, but they’re trying to do this.”
“They don’t have a glass ceiling or a bamboo ceiling, because they’re starting their own businesses.”
Throughout the panel, recurring ideas included honing and investing in talent, both from the creative side and performing side. Actors Darshi and Bang encouraged performers to write and create their own roles, while Lee and Massey encouraged performers to win roles through merit. Yang, on the other hand, pointed out the importance of systems such as Affirmative Action, as racial biases still inhibit indiscriminate some cases of casting.
“If you’re not in the door, no one will ever know what your talent is.”
Although the panels would have benefitted from longer Q&A sessions, each session was fairly balanced in variety of opinion and backgrounds. The AIM³ sessions overall were very informative and valuable additions to VAFF’s 20th year celebration, and provided a positive insight into the growth of diversity in the North American entertainment industry.