The Asian ‘Jersey Shore’
Has MTV's hit show become a gateway for ethnic reality TV? Joyce C. Tang talks exclusively to the producers and cast of K-Town about the likelihood of an Asian invasion.
When Jersey Shore ended its winter run on an unexpected high note, making a fantastic turnaround from derogatory exploitation to stroke of entertainment genius, the imitations came fast and furious. There were rumors of a Brighton Beach ripoff and a Persian version; a geriatric version has already made it to air. Second-rate copies of what had originally seemed to many like a second-rate idea—could Jersey Shore, continuing its runaway success in its second season on MTV, have created an entirely new category of identity-based reality television?
Click the Image to View Our Gallery of Jersey Shore vs. K-Town
At least one copycat is getting out of the gate. In April, a posting appeared on Craigslist calling for “interesting, attractive, colorful Asian Americans to cast in a reality show similar to Jersey Shore.” After the producers shot the pilot episode recently, a steady stream of cast photos trickled out, and TMZ leaked an outrageous casting reel that got the Internet buzzing. There’s already an Asian counterpart—dubbed “The Situasian”—to Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, what appears to be an equal devotion to gym time and boozing as the Jersey-ites, and hair-tugging cat fights.
Unsurprisingly, it’s not just Guidos and Guidettes that can party and ‘roid out with the best of them. The bottom line of all this seemed to say, Asians! They’re just like us! Except substitute gym, tan, laundry, for karaoke, designer brands, and taking pictures.
• Jaimie Etkin: The Real Jersey Shore DictionaryTentatively titled K-Town and set in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, the show has yet to be picked up by a network, and who knows whether it will be. Not since 1994 have television audiences been confronted with an all-Asian cast. Margaret Cho’s All American Girl aired for one short-lived, turbulent season. Plagued by low ratings, ABC wrangled with Cho about her weight, not being Asian enough, and then being too Asian. By the end of the season, the only Asians left were Cho and co-star Amy Hill.
While the cast of Jersey Shore played into Italian-American stereotypes with unself-conscious zeal, the racial twist of the Asian translation has a different agenda.
“A lot of stereotypes about Asians are good,” said Mike Le, one of the show’s producers. “We’re smart, we play the violin or piano, we’re hard workers, great at math. Our cast is like that, too, except they’re also sexy, stylish, and have swagger. Those are things people don’t think of when they think of Asians in media. They think Asian guys are asexual, girls are docile, repressed.”
To wit, the cast features Peter “The Situasian” Le, a gay porn actor who runs his own erotic website (NSFW!), and ex-stripper Scarlet Chan, who responded to the Craigslist ad by promising to bring in viewers “through my many mischievous and slutty episodes.” Chan, 24 and originally from Hong Kong, acknowledges that her lifestyle “doesn’t fit the traditional norm of what a nice Chinese daughter is supposed to do,” but says the point of the show will be to break down old stereotypes and create new ones. Even on the cast’s conservative end, Violet Kim, who is already being billed as the show’s Snooki because of her petite stature, doesn’t fit the “model minority” mold. Kim, an aspiring actress, doesn’t have a college degree. College was “never something I thought about accomplishing until I got divorced,” she says. She’s now a single mother at 27. It goes without saying that the show is already causing anxiety among certain Asian groups, a culture that prizes achievement and honor and shudders at anything that would bring shame or disgrace.
Produced by a team of three Asian men under actor/model/rapper Tyrese Gibson’s production company, the show, at least in its preview form, is intent on breaking down stereotypes, especially that of the desexualized Asian male. Its pack of four over-muscled gym rats seem more than ready to bare all for the cameras.
“Why can’t you see the Asian man get the girl?” Eugene Choi, one of the producers, recently asked rhetorically over the phone to The Daily Beast. He cites the ending of Romeo Must Die, in which Jet Li plays Romeo to Aaliyah’s Juliet. Despite the movie’s romantic buildup, it ends with a G-rated hug. The original ending with a kiss was re-written when it was ill-received by “urban audiences.”
Chan says the men on the show won’t face that problem. “The guys are super cocky, really good-looking. They have game and know how to pick up girls,” she says. “They’re going to get so much pussy, it’s ridiculous.”
But is the mission to replace one set of stereotypes with its literal opposite too, well, literal?
Asian Americans have been making their way onto the small and big screen for decades, and are now being cast alongside their white counterparts in roles that have nothing to do with being Asian. There’s B.D. Wong, Ming Na, and Lindsey Price, and among those who have been cast beyond ancillary, supporting roles, Sandra Oh, John Cho, Daniel Dae Kim, and Lucy Liu.
“The guys are super cocky, really good-looking. They have game and know how to pick up girls,” says cast member Scarlet Chan.
Despite such inroads, Asians still represent only 1 to 3 percent of the television population, with that 1 percent accounting for recurring characters. Simply casting Asians alongside white actors “isn’t really effective,” says Vincent Pham, co-author of Asian Americans and the Media. And it goes without saying that while the spectacle of over-the-top, in-your-face Asians could be good for ratings, it’s not necessarily good for the group as a whole, says Dana Mastro, an associate professor of communications at the University of Arizona, Tucson, who studies stereotyping of racial and ethnic minorities on television and in media.
But others disagree. “[I]t’s far more important to see the true variance of Asian Americans on TV, whether we like them or not, than to cherry-pick our chosen representatives in order to cast ourselves, however sparingly, in the best possible light,” Diana Nguyen, co-founder of Disgrasian, a blog devoted to pop culture from an Asian perspective, wrote to The Daily Beast. Besides, as Snooki and shows like Will & Grace have proven, stereotypes aren’t deadly. And it would be unfair to pin the burden of breaking down all stereotypes on to a singular show.
As to whether audiences are ready to embrace Asians on television, just look at the bevy of vote-in competition shows (with white voters, no doubt) in which Asians have dominated: Dat Phan of Last Comic Standing, Harlemm Lee of Fame, the predominantly Asian dance troupe JabbaWockeeZ, which won America’s Best Dance Crew, and Kristy Yamaguchi and Apolo Anton Ohno for Dancing With the Stars.
For the most part, and perhaps due to the unlikely success of Jersey Shore, K-Town is being met with a good deal of eagerness. “I think it will be a train wreck,” said Jen Wang, Nguyen’s co-blogger. “But I think it will be interesting. All reality TV is like this. Everyone’s drunk and tacky, dressed in a certain way. That’s who’s on reality TV…. It’s almost just parity.”
Nguyen agrees: “An all-Asian cast would be just like a cast of Jersey Guidos or randy housewives: idiosyncratic, attention-grubbing, a little hateful, a little wonderful, and funny.”
And if the producers can ride the media buzz, convincing networks that they’re amassing a built-in audience, then K-Town’s likelihood is even better still. “I think something’s there,” Le says. “People are, at the very least, curious.”
If anything, that Asians now qualify for equal-opportunity humiliation isn’t necessarily the worst that could happen.
Joyce Tang is a writer based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones, Double X, and The Miami Herald.