Harry Shum Jr. – The modern Asian American male role model

by doorhalfopen

Two things prompted me to write about Harry Shum Jr. and Glee again. First of all, if you haven’t heard, he had the first major Glee episode focusing on his character, Mike Chang, a couple of weeks ago titled Asian F. In the episode Mike Chang’s father wants him to quit glee club because he got an A- in one of his classes, also known as an Asian F. The episode was well-received, and both “Mike Chang’ and “Asian F” were actually trending on Twitter for the entire day that it aired. This was the first time I’ve seen a TV show confront a very real Asian American issue (and associated stereotypes) and give it more than one or two lines. Or a joke. I had to write about it.

The other reason I want to talk about Harry Shum Jr. is because I came across this article from AMWW, claiming that he may be the first Asian male role model in the United States since Bruce Lee. The article approached it from the perspective of the site’s theme, interracial relationships between Asian males and white women. While I disagree with the theme of the site (focusing so much on AMWF relationships), the article brings up a number of good points, and I would like to comment on some of the ideas presented.

Fact: images of Harry Shum Jr. get me page views

Let’s take a look at Asian F.

(Spoiler warning)

As I mentioned above, this episode of Glee tackled a very common Asian American issue: the strict, restrictive parents. In the beginning of the episode, Mike Chang is with his father (played by Keong Sim) in the principal’s office. His father thinks his son is juggling too much in his life, and naturally the activity that is least safe for his future should be the one cut. Mike is visibly upset, and promises to hire a tutor with his own money to make sure he can continue to be in glee club.

We see evidence that his father didn’t buy this. In a later scene, Mike tells his girlfriend Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) that he won’t be auditioning for the part in West Side Story. Again, noticeably disappointed and frustrated about his situation, he finds an empty dance room to vent. His mother (Tamlyn Tomita) catches him dancing alone in the room. It turns out that his mother once also aspired to be an artist, but was held back due to the same parental pressures. She assured him that she won’t let the same mistake repeat.

With a huge weight off his shoulders, Mike Chang auditions for the play. For someone who couldn’t sing a year before, he put on a pretty good performance, including his signature dancing.  And guess what? He got the part. In a single episode, he

  1. followed Asian tradition by remaining respectful and loving to his parents.
  2. was not shy to let his parents know what his goals are.
  3. stepped up to demonstrate that he converted his past weakness into a strength.
  4. beat the competition.

This almost sounds like the summary of a full-length, dance-inspired movie. This also means it was something that we pretty much never see on American television.

(End spoilers)

Mike Chang feels pressure from his father to quit glee club

The article was written before this episode. It takes the alpha Asian male archetype, then compares it to Harry Shum Jr. (I’ll refer to him as HSJ). According to the writer JT Tran (aka “Asian Playboy“), Mike Chang is an alpha Asian male because he is athletic, creative, sexual, charismatic, and multicultural. I don’t disagree that the character embodies all these characteristics, and I think JT Tran makes some good points. Mike Chang, after all, is one of the more positive, well-rounded kids on Glee. It’s hard to imagine anyone of any race disliking the character.

JT Tran writes about how Mike Chang from Glee is an alpha Asian male. I’m not going to discuss this point in particular; it really depends on what you call an alpha male. I’m more interested in the fact that his article about HSJ is almost exclusively focused on the Mike Chang character. I think HSJ is important not just because Mike Chang is a multidimensional Asian male character on one of the most popular TV shows. After all, what made the Mike Chang character so different that it is allowed to break out of the mold? In my opinion, it is the actor behind it.

Mike Chang was not written into the show from the beginning. When HSJ first came on the show, he wasn’t sure how involved the role would be. As time went on and Mike Chang started to have a following, he received a little more attention. In the credits, however, he was still listed as an extra. It wasn’t until season 3 that HSJ became a regular cast member of Glee. That’s when the writers wrote in a true story line for his character.

The character isn’t the accomplishment; having an Asian actor whom writers and producers have faith in is. The fact that HSJ was able to transform his role from season 1 to season 3 leads me to believe that there is something about HSJ that is more than compensating for the notorious racism in TV casting. There are reasons why HSJ in particular is excelling and working on projects that most other Asian American male actors can only dream about right now.

1. “Triple Threat”

This is something we can observe just from watching the show. HSJ is one of the best dancers on the show and has demonstrated that he can carry a tune. HSJ also does a good enough job acting to make the character believable. The result? He can pretty much be a part of any story line and not look out of place. This kind of versatility is a necessity if an actor of any race and country wants to be considered for a wide variety of roles. In other words, you sort of need a large range of talents to not be typecasted.

Well, triple threat is more of a term to refer to his work on Glee. Outside of the show he has demonstrated even wider range. He can be in a wacky comedy video. Apparently he can perform with Clara C on stage as well. One video that got a decent amount of media coverage was this Star Wars-inspired video.

What can’t he do? This lays the foundation. Any good project can look for any kind of performer, and HSJ would be qualified in one way or another. It opens up his options. Are his options still very limited compared to someone non-Asian of similar skill? Probably. But he’s maximizing his potential here.

2. Choosing Carefully

HSJ has a unique background. He was born in Costa Rica and spoke Spanish for the early part of his life. He didn’t start learning English or Chinese until he moved to the US when he was six. Yet, he speaks perfect English. And he’s still an Asian American. It’s easy to see why he won’t accept it when casting directors ask him to act more “Asian” or other stereotypes. He is Asian. How can he act any more like it? From Audrey Magazine:

Q: Do you have any advice or thoughts you’d like to share with Asian Americans who are pursuing an artistic, more unorthodox career like yourself?

HSJ: There’s no right way to do it. I think that there are many ways. Learning the business side of it. You know making sure you are practicing your art as much as you are understanding that business. Once you get into it, you’ll have lawyers and stuff to take care of it, but you still have to understand what you’re signing. And don’t be limited by what the media tells you of stereotypes. Because you can go against the grain. They’ll be like, “You’re not nerdy enough,” and I’ll be like, “WTF does that mean?”  “You’re not Asian enough” — I’m like, “what?” I’ve been in rooms where they’re like, “No, you’re not Asian enough. You don’t fit that type. And I’ll be like, “Um, OK.”  Don’t be limited by that. If you really believe where you’re going, I believe you’ll find some success. And hopefully you’ll get going and going.

It’s hard to start off as an actor. Thankfully, the multi-talented HSJ could afford to be a little pickier and reject roles like Han Lee. How did he do? Let’s look at HSJ’s history outside of Glee.

  • He has acted or worked behind the scenes for a number of dance films and events, including Step Up, Stomp the Yard, and The LXD (which he led).
  • He was in a few of the highly-influential dancing silhouette iPod commercials.
  • He was a dancer for Beyonce, Mariah Carey, and Jennifer Lopez.
  • He’s worked with Wong Fu Productions on short movies on Youtube.
  • He is a choreographer for a number of shows and events.

There’s nothing on the list that isn’t respectable or anything he will look back on years from now with shame. He’s made good decisions so far, and I think it’s helping him. He stuck with his character on Glee: a football player, a great student, an amazing dancer, a choreographer, and a singer. It’s pretty much as positive of a role that an Asian actor can take right now that can be accepted, even admired, by the public.

He first got TV time in these iPod commercials

3. Charisma

Being an Asian American male actor, you really need all the exposure you can get. That means you can’t just be good at what you do, you need people to know that you’re good at what you do. By that I don’t mean to be self-absorbed. Rather there needs to be opportunities outside of your work where people can discover you as an actor, which can lead them to be interested in your other works.

HSJ is not bad at doing this. Earlier I mentioned that he was maximizing his opportunities by being multi-talented. This is the marketing side of it. To maximize exposure, or to make the best of the exposure given, it is important to make an impression on the viewer every time. This is true for interviews, where you are interesting and charming enough for casual viewers to Google you. It’s also true for say, a photoshoot, which will accompany your name on countless online articles.

It’s not really a problem for him on both fronts. I have yet to see an interview where he does not come across as a really fun guy to hang out with. He’s energetic, funny, and visibly loving what he does. It helps capture the viewer’s attention. Here’s an example from two years ago, when people still barely knew the name of his character. You can see he’s very entertaining even when not being interviewed, and can still steal the spotlight when discussing a serious topic (I’ll write an entry about this particular series at some point). His personality shows in his photoshoots too. I’ll let the picture do the talking.

Harry, keeping things interesting in his photoshoots

When that’s the image that pops into people’s minds when they think of HSJ, buzz around him begins to organically develop. He starts popping up in topics about Asian actors (here), abs, boys, Glee, whatever. Free, effective, modern marketing. I don’t think he does all this with marketing in mind, but it happens nonetheless. And it can lead to more work opportunities.

Not every Asian male actor in the US needs to be like HSJ, but every upcoming or struggling actor can probably learn from him. In fact, there’s a lot that even viewers can learn from him. Be really good at what you do–so good that you can’t be ignored. Avoid decisions you may regret in the future. Make every opportunity count in your work and in presenting yourself.

As JT Tran wrote in his article, Harry might just be the first true role model for Asian men on American TV since Bruce Lee. It’s hard to disagree, and I look forward to where his career takes him next.