Ken Jeong is Good For Us
KoreAm
Author: KoreAm
Posted: December 2nd, 2009
Filed Under: Back Issues , December 2009 , FEATURED ARTICLE
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jeongKen Jeong in The Hangover

by Emil Guillermo

If to be typically Asian is to be quiet, docile and conventional, then every now and then it may be worth it to surprise us all and go amok.

Sure, it may seem like committing social or political suicide, but won’t it feel good to break down a few stereotypes while you’re at it?

That’s why I’m encouraged by the emergence of a totally amok force that is single-handedly changing the Asian male image in Hollywood.

Without one karate chop in sight.

He’s not the lead, but he’s a scene-stealer, arguably the most memorable guy in any production he’s in. It’s mostly because you don’t expect anything out of him. He’s a normal looking Asian American. And then he does his thing, usually something like a loud crowing “ai-yi-yi-yi” at the top of his lungs, accented with a “muthafu*ka!” thrown in for good measure.
Who he? That’s what most people ask when they see “that Asian guy”—Ken Jeong. A Korean American doctor (so we know he’s smarter than the average bear), Jeong broke the chains of convention and started doing a standup routine that turned the Asian American male stereotype on its head.

Asian doctors, yeah. But why no Asian veterinarians? Jeong’s answer: “They’ll eat all their patients.”

Small-fry stuff. But then he hit the big screen. In Knocked Up, the doctor plays an ob-gyn and delivers a gut-busting soliloquy on the differences in the labor time of white women vs. Asians. And then there’s his “guy in the car trunk” antics in The Hangover, where he is a combination anti-Jackie Chan and a modern day send-up of a Fu-Manchu-less villain. Oh, and did I mention? He’s NAKED. On television, Jeong has a continuing role on NBC’s Community, where he plays a weird fish out of water: The Asian Spanish teacher (hey, shouldn’t that be a Filipino?) But for me, his most memorable TV appearance was on a recent Conan O’Brien spot. Jeong hijacked the show by messing mercilessly with the previous guest, tennis phenom Serena Williams, who didn’t know what hit her. I saw it as sweet revenge for Williams’ tongue lashing of that poor Asian American tennis judge at this year’s U.S. Open. After Jeong’s public teasing, I’m sure Williams had a different sense of Asian Americans.

They’re not so quiet after all.

CREATING NEW STEREOTYPES

The importance of an amok Asian male image on movies and television is significant considering this is where our stereotypes are created and reinforced. Since World War II, the Asian male image in pop culture has suffered mostly due to a residual backlash against foreign Asian male enemies like Emperor Hirohito. The modern day version would be Kim Jong-il. The result has been an inability to embrace the Asian American male in Hollywood’s image machine, which for generations has given us the likes of Warner Oland as Charlie Chan and Mickey Rooney’s bucktooth Asian. What’s more mocking than a white guy in yellow face? It was the comic standard. Asian males were perfect for vilification, emasculation, and overall, denigration. When Shaquille O’Neal starts “ching chonging” like it’s no big deal (remember how he mocked Yao?), we’re in trouble. Of course, we’ve had Bruce Lee and all the martial arts guys to retaliate. But they were imported stars. That makes it positively refreshing to see Jeong infiltrate Hollywood with a modern version of an Asian American male that is loud, obscene, and takes no crap from anybody.

HAROLD AND HUNG
Let us not forget another Korean American, John Cho, who in the Harold and Kumar franchise, has updated the “opium smoking Asian” with the modern “pot smoking Asian” stereotype. Cho’s a good actor, but his acting presence is a more traditional and earnest one. Jeong’s amokness is so surprising, it’s over-the-top funny.

One might ask, “Is that the image we Asian Americans want?” Well, at least they’re laughing with us, and not at us. That’s progress.

The same cannot be said for one William Hung, whose awful singing on American Idol made him an Asian American Stepin Fetchit.

Hung was real, which made him pathetic. Jeong is a real talent, a comic genius.

Certainly, there have been Asian male comic actors before.

But in his films, Jeong is an Asian guy who breaks out of his yellow skin. We aren’t used to seeing that kind of out-of-the-box Asian, the one capable of breaking every tired stereotype, creating a few new ones, and leaving everyone in his wake laughing uncontrollably.

It’s a dangerous new Asian male image. Lethally funny.

Emil Guillermo is an award-winning journalist, one-time host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and author of Amok: Essays From An Asian American Perspective. After 14 years at AsianWeek, he was considered the most widely read columnist on Asian American issues in the United States. He blogs at www.amok.com.

  • Daniel

    @Dan, right moves? Its simple, give the laughing racist jackasses exactly what they want. For money he will help further perpetuate every stereotype imaginable, he doesn’t tell jokes, he just sells out and dances like a clown. The man is an embarrassment and I hope he gets hit by a car. He has no talent, nothing, he’s a walking stereotype and nothing more. Nobody is laughing with you Ken, they are very literally laughing right at you. He is such an obvious sell out that even my white friends are shocked at how low he’ll go for a buck. Can you even imagine a black or hispanic actor sinking that low? This pathetic clown makes me sick and if I ever get the chance I will beat the piss out of him, that is not a threat. We cross paths and Im beating him so severely that humor will be the last thing on his mind, I’ll gladly sacrifice my own freedom to do so.

  • JJ

    @brian lopez

    The negative stereotypes on asians are unfair when that’s all you pretty much see in American cinema. By now, American audiences should be seeing positive as well as negative portrayals, but if you look at the majority of American films, whenever you see an asian character, the usual degrading stereotypes are there. I’m not the one to judge comedians, because I guess Ken is funny with his fast talking, over the top cheesy characters, but that’s all they are nothing more than cheap, generic characters all just for laughs (which he seems to market himself that way all just for his own benefit). At least Bobby Lee, Margaret Cho and even martial arts superstar Jackie Chan have spoke out about American entertainment being discriminating towards asians and that asian actors are heavily marginalized and stereotyped. I’m getting really sick and tired of people like yourself who just don’t care (no offense).

  • I am small in the phallic area

    I’m sure all the ladies are fighting over “Brian Lopez” especially when he has time to write his piece…stop spewing your platitudinous drivel.

  • brian lopez

    The problem with stereotypes is that people make them, and the people that they are made against don’t do anything about it. What is this about “Asian Stereotypes”? Who gives an F about those stereotypes? Kevin is really just being himself in these movies? The penis thing is thrown way out of proportion. People are made differently and that’s life. You guys need to stop thinking about your penis, and start thinking about life. You’re actually making a bigger deal out of the stereotype by complaining about it. You guys prob haven’t had sex…

  • Truth_Seeker

    Why is everyone mad at Ken?

    Be mad at all those Jewish Producers & Screenwriters that love to reinforce these Asian stereotypes.

    Asian’s will always be the scapegoat of North America. Anything to keep people’s attention from the really a-holes that manipulate the Country.

    Have you noticed there are no negative stereotypes of Jews in Hollywood? Every other race yeah, but not the Jews.. oops.. I guess we can’t say that. They suffered enough.

  • AAmember

    Are you kidding me? Ken Jeong is joke. Anyway…I don’t care. These movies are for white people, so I won’t be watching them.

  • http://iamkoream.com/ken-jeong-is-good-for-us/ Sam

    I feel Ken is a disgrace to all Asians. If one has seen the new movie out, Hangover II, they can agree with me. Ken keeps on aggravating and increasing the Asian “stereotype” especially when they portray him naked with a tiny penis. Now, all of America has seen him in terms of us and it absolutley angers me. He rather give up his pride and respect just to be mocked and attain millions of dollar while the rest of the asian population in America has to watch and suffer his wrongdoings. He isn’t shining the Asian stereotypes with a positive light, he is further aggravating it and destroying what others have done to abolish this hate on Asians.

  • Daniel Oh

    Watching Ken Jeong makes me want to wash white people’s clothes and say “ah, so sowee”…this turd set’s Asians back 100 years. By the way…the Asians guy that everyone clown’s on is not a new stereotype…

  • Metrosexualism is de facto GAY

    Yep, Asian males got the stereotype of being gay these days; back in the 90s and prior it was the nerd/geek label. Details magazine unabashedly had the “Asian guy is gay” on cover a few years back. Both Asian and Asian-American guys have this feminine streak to them. It’s all the homoesque K-pop culture (K drama and music) that causes all this. Korean guys like to grow their hair out all big; they speak femininely; their physically gestures are feminine, etc. I’m not saying Asian guys should be the opposite caveman extreme, “me steroid freak, can bench press 8 gazillion pounds, me got voice deeper than Barry White…” Extremity and doing things over the top are foolish. But the happy medium would be nice.

  • Derek

    Ken Jeong is an embarassment. I’ve seen him in NBC’s “Community”, and I cringe everytime. There is no hiding the fact that when you claim to fame is being the most annoying character possible, then really, that is not acting. That is self-degradation. John Cho has class, Ken Jeong has no self-respect.

  • Babble

    Who ever thinks Ken Jeong is ‘progress’ is challenged. He reinforces the negative stereotypes about Asians. John Cho is the one you should look up to. He doesn’t emasculate himself on screen.

  • Richard

    Even though he’s married, it’s possible he’s gay or efeminine but won’t let anyone know. If you look at his films, he’s usually playing an efeminine character. It’s said that some hollywood stars don’t like to reveal their sexual orientation because of the fear of blacklisting. Same with Matthew Broderick, even though he’s married, it’s possible he’s just living a lie for publicity.

  • Kim

    he does nothing to help koreans except reinforce stereotypes. look at him in hangover, gayish, feminine, having a small penis. the only roles he will ever have. why? thats the only roles that will ever be given to him. thats what the west thinks about asians in general. this man is no friend. it’s embarrassing he would do this for a quick buck.

  • mike hur

    he’s great in interviews but he was embarrassing in The Hangover. Another asian guy being gay. Yawn. Same old sterotype. in the 80s, the asian dude is the nerd. now, he’s gay. same old, same old.

  • Katherine Kang

    I disagree completely. I am not judging Jeong as a standup act but as an actor, he has only taken roles that reinforce the asian male as gay, effeminate and foreign. They are laughing AT him, not with him. I am disappointed that KoreAm would honor Jeong as being an innovator when all he’s doing is acting as the Long Duck Dong for the new generation.

  • http://www.afterschoolspecialmusic.com Dan aka Dan

    Great article. He’s definitely someone to be watching right now. He’s amazing on Community- i’d be curious as to just what “right” moves he made that has him surpassing many actors/comedians (Korean American/non Korean American). Must be his connection with the Judd Apatow gang.

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