"If their hand needs to be forced right now, so be it."
Lauren Tom to many, including myself, will always be ‘Julie’ from Friends. However, although Tom’s appearance in Friends as the first Asian character certainly made strides for the Asian community, perhaps her most important role in terms of representation was her role as Lena in 1993’s The Joy Luck Club.
When looking at the formation and evolution of Asian representation in Hollywood, The Joy Luck Club is regarded as the Big Bang. The Joy Luck Club was the dynamite that detonated the Hollywood landscape, allowing for the emergence of other Asian American projects and actors. For the first time, America was treated to a story featuring Asian characters who actually had depth, personality and shockingly did not know kung-fu.
Sadly in the 21st century, issues surrounding whitewashing, racism and representation still continue to plague the film industry and stir up controversy. Nonetheless, the significance of The Joy Luck Club and its success in bringing Asians to the forefront of cinema has arguably allowed us to even have such discussions at all.
For Tom, The Joy Luck Club’s success on screen stems from its popularity as a book. “It was a huge success as a book first so millions of people had read it,” she said. “They were intrigued by the story it was the first time an Asian American writer spoke of their experiences.”
Tom described The Joy Luck Club‘s author Amy Tan as “a beautiful person and writer who told me
at one time that the more personal something, is the more universal it becomes.”
Despite its significance, the Asian community did not wholly back Tan at the time. “[Tan] actually took a lot of flack for being the first one out there,” Tom revealed. Recalling a panel interview the cast did during its promotion, Tom said, “they were attacking her for making the Asian men in it seem like jerks.”
When asked about it, Tom said Tan replied, “well that’s my experience – the men in my life were jerks so don’t criticize me for my truth.”
When looking at the current landscape of cinema, Tom believes “it’s still slowly coming along” in terms of Asian representation.
Whilst Tom certainly believes in Asian writers creating more stories to amplify representation, she also believes that Asian culture needs to welcome film as a viable career choice.
“I think that Asian culture has to embrace the arts more,” she said. “I think that education has always been the highest regard at least in my family. You become a doctor or scientist and being an actor is like kind of next to being a bum.”
One of the best ways of increasing the growth of Asian representation is through the community supporting Asian projects as audiences, according to Tom.
“Asians need to to speak with their pocketbook,” Tom said. They need to go see the movies because it’s all about money. It’s such a machine and if we don’t go out and support Asian films then it’s gonna be way harder to change.”
Reflecting on her own career, Tom emphasised the importance of The Joy Luck Club to her.
“The Joy Luck Club really was a pivotal point in my career,” she said. “I can’t believe it was already 25 years ago. It was such a beloved book and such a high-quality project to be involved in with an all-Asian cast.”
Recalling working with the team, Tom said, “the director (Wayne Wang) was Asian. It just gave me a
level of confidence that helped me move on in my career from that point.”
Tom considers herself fortunate for being chosen by Wang to play the daughter of France Nuyen’s character because she looked the part.
“What Wayne was doing was to match up visually who looks like they could be a mother and daughter. He thought that France Nuyen and I look like we could be mother and daughter so again it’s just a bit of luck sometimes.”
In her personal life, the mother and wife reminds her family that luck always plays a part in hard work.
“I’ll tell my own children that I want them to work really hard and retain the work ethic that they got from from me and my my parents study their craft,” she said as well as telling them “to realise there’s a little bit of luck involved as well.”
Nowadays diversity in film is something every filmmaker worth their salt should strive for. For Tom, the importance of diversity lies in its more realistic and accurate representation of society.
“I think it’s important to have more diversity in entertainment because it’s more reflective of the real world,” she said. “If the goal is to move people as artists and have them feel like they can connect
to the characters and to the show, then you have to make it as authentic as possible.”
“If they don’t change with the times they’re gonna have no viewership anymore. If their hand needs to be forced right now, so be it.”
In 2016 #OscarsSoWhite began trending after the Oscar nominations failed to embrace diversity. Tom recalled how she personally saw the development and impact of the movement.
“Two of my friends are the ones who were responsible for #OscarsSoWhite,” Tom revealed. “Look at all the people of colour that won for their performances and for their movies [the year after]. That was night and day in one year.”
“We had to be very vocal and speak up about that because it was it was pretty insulting.”
Looking forward, Tom wishes to see Asian representation to become the norm. “My hope for the future of television and film regarding Asians is just that it will become so mainstream that we won’t really even be having to have this conversation,” Tom said.
This vision of this future is far from unrealistic in Tom’s view, who believes in the drive behind Asian Americans to push it into reality.
“Asian Americans are so much more vocal because they were raised with both cultures,” Tom said. “I was raised with the culture that told me to be quiet so we were sort of the silent minority, but Americans are pretty brash and aggressive.”
Tom added that the Asian community can draw inspiration from other minorities who have made giant leaps in representation. “I think that we can learn from the black community because they’ve always been brash and aggressive and they’ve gotten a lot further than the Asian community,” she said. “Let’s be inspired by them and as a community get together and put our voices together.”
“We can really move mountains if every person starts standing up and using their voice more.”
In terms of whitewashing, Tom said the issue has improved but was pretty awful to begin with.
“[White washing] was really bad before for me growing up,” she recalled. “It was so bad and I had no preparation for it either because I came from New York theatre to Hollywood without realising that I was not going to be able to audition for all those parts that had some substance.”
“All of my white girlfriends who were blond were going up for [the parts]. It just wasn’t going to happen [for me]. It was kind of a big splash of water in my face and then I came to realise that ‘oh this is going to take some work’.”
However, this did not deter Tom from the industry and only made her continue fight harder for equality, which she believes has helped the current generation. “My generation in The Joy Luck Club and Friends paved the way for Constance Wu and the people who are series regulars now on TV.”
Tom sees the power our generation has with the internet in driving the movement for change.
“I think just with social media you can really use those hashtags because people pay attention on Twitter. The President of the United States is using Twitter to get some movement going.”
For those who don’t use Twitter, Tom encourages them to “write letters to the network” and to work with organisations who promote Asian inclusion.
“CAPE is one that I work with – the coalition of Asian Pacific Entertainment,” Tom said. “There are a lot
of advocacy groups for Asians that you can get involved and and make your voice known.”
“We just have to not be willing to take it anymore.”