Written by Emme Lee
Before the days of Crazy Rich Asians and Fresh Off The Boat, Asian representation in film and TV was almost non-existent. Asian Americans did not have the luxury of watching shows like Kim’s Convenience or an entire film series like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, where they could see actors and actresses that looked like themselves and represented their cultures in a non-stereotypical way. For this, we must thank the legendary Lucy Liu for paving the way.
Lucy Liu is a Chinese-American actress known for portraying O-Ren Ishii in the Quentin Tarantino film Kill Bill (2003) and Alex Munday in the film series Charlie’s Angels (2000). She was born on December 2nd, 1968 in Jackson Heights, Queens, New York, as the youngest of three children.
Liu didn’t always dream of becoming an actress. In fact, she studied Asian Languages and Culture in college. However, when Liu was 19 years old, she was discovered by a casting agent while she was on the subway. Her first gigs were small appearances in films and TV shows, and it would be many years until she got her big break. While she was waiting in line to audition for the musical Miss Saigon, she told the New York Times, “There aren't many Asian roles, and it's very difficult to get your foot in the door.”
In 1997, Liu’s career skyrocketed when she was cast as Ling Woo in the TV show Ally Mcbeal (1997-2002). Although the role was a catalyst in Liu's career, it was also a topic of controversy in the Asian American community. Many Asian Americans didn’t know whether to applaud the representation of an outspoken Asian woman or to condemn the character for perpetuating the harmful stereotype of Asian women as exotic “dragon ladies”. Whether the character was a necessary representation of an assertive Asian woman or a stereotypical “dragon lady” is still a topic debated today.
After Ally Mcbeal, Liu went on to have many starring roles in movies and even became the first Asian American woman to host the late-night comedy showcase Saturday Night Live (1975-present). “I was a kid and I didn’t have a ticket, so I knew I wasn’t getting in,” comedian Awkwafina recalled about that night. “But I just wanted to be near the building. And I remember how important that episode was for me and how it totally changed what I thought was possible for an Asian American woman.” In 2019, Liu became the second Asian American woman— following Anna Mae Wong, the first Asian American actress— to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Because of her, Americans are witnessing an uprising in Asian American actors and comedians. Liu opened the doors for them in film and TV, which therefore allowed Asian American audiences to feel more represented in everyday life. Lucy Liu is truly an Asian American trailblazer and icon.
For the 2020-21 season, REACH will be releasing a new blog post written by our officers during the first and third Wednesdays of each month about different aspects of Asian culture, such as pop culture, conflicts faced, representation in media, history, celebration and holidays, and stereotypes. We hope you enjoy reading them!