On an early morning in May, my fellow Chinatown residents and I were trudging through our day when a horse cart full of food broke through a gated barrier on the edge of the neighborhood. The sky was grey. All of us, hungry and abandoned, rushed toward the cart from every angle. I watched as faster people leaped on top of the cart and threw food to those of us on the ground. We fought each other in the crowd to grasp at the produce.
The mad ambush of the cart stopped, reset and repeated. I was part of a group of background actors hired to play pedestrians and shopkeepers for an episode of Cinemax’s “The Knick,” the gritty and graphic drama about the Knickerbocker hospital. This scene was set in a quarantined area of San Francisco’s Chinatown at the turn of the century, during a bubonic plague outbreak. The set was located over several blocks in Yonkers, New York, 2,900 miles from San Francisco’s actual Chinatown. Designers covered several streets in gravel and dirt. Tenement buildings were dressed with painted 1901-era facades. Faded storefronts had cheongsams draped on mannequins; medicinal herbs were displayed inside.
The scene that day called for a crusading Lady Cornelia Showalter on a mission to save starving residents of Chinatown. Our crowd of extras was directed to look sickly and desperate. When Cornelia managed to get a horse cart through the gates, we would stampede towards the cart because it represented the first bit of food we had seen in weeks.
After a few hours, the hungry, frantic energy and dirt flying in the air began to feel real. It was at this moment that I thought of my great-grandfather. He immigrated to the San Francisco area around this period and worked in the apparel industry. I wondered if he lived through the real epidemic depicted that day. It was safe to assume he suffered through prejudice and hunger, but without a Hollywood Samaritan to save the community. He sacrificed and worked to raise my grandmother, who would raise my mother, who raised me.
As an Asian-American actor in New York City, 95% of my gigs place me in Chinatown. I’m the “set dressing” that helps create an exotic backdrop for lead performers. In the past five years, the majority of my trips to Chinatown have been specific to a scene, even as my real life rarely put me there. These gigs have allowed me to explore my heritage with opportunities that I never had before. I grew up in Toronto where I had Chinese Canadian friends and family, but when I moved to Manhattan for college, then my career, the majority of my social circle was not Chinese. My Caucasian husband and friends were only familiar with Americanized take-out places that were far from the authentic foods I knew. They didn’t understand why I had no interest in them. Celebrating Chinese New Year in the City meant that some friends and I might have an “Asian” meal at a restaurant. The deeper traditions of paying respects to different members of your family, lion dances, and other symbols were never a part of it. Thanks to another gig, I was able to explore New York’s oldest dim sum restaurant, Nom Wah Tea Parlor. I was happy to experience both New York and Chinese-American history in its décor and food. The people I met on set offered me a chance to talk to folks with shared experiences.
I submitted myself for a gig to do tai chi in the background of the television show “Limitless.” I have watched my grandparents and other senior citizens practice this slow routine throughout my life, and I arrogantly assumed it couldn’t be that hard. I followed a crash course online and stalked senior groups at parks around the city; I quickly gained respect for the graceful elders I observed. Chinese grandparents of the world must have muscles of steel from decades of practice.
When it came time to film the scene, I found myself at a playground near Baxter Street at 6:30 a.m. The first person I met was a lithe martial artist who executed a perfect kick spin in mid-air. Intimidated, I almost turned around and went home. It turns out he was a member of a Shaolin temple, and his “warm-up” had nothing to do with tai chi.
Through sheer determination not to embarrass myself, I memorized enough moves from online videos to keep up with the group. The older Chinese woman who led our practice reminded me of numerous aunts in my life. It was invigorating to be stretching and holding long, strengthening poses as the morning got lighter over the park. There is a bonding feeling when strangers get together to breathe and move in unison. Our leader was generous enough not to point out my inexperience. It was a workout of a morning that gave me a connection to my grandparents. The timeline of “Limitless” and “The Knick” were over a century apart. We may have only been a part of the background for someone else’s story, but I saw our characters as the group that found peace after years of struggle.
I was excited for my gig on “The Knick.” I had always wanted to see a period set in person. As a costume design fan, I wanted to drool over the corsets and lace of historical fashion. Compared to the elegant outfits of the leads, my fellow actors and I were outfitted in weathered looks in every shade of gray. My costume included a wrinkled wool top in a bruised purple hue with faded drawstring pants large enough to encircle my entire family. Ladies were under strict orders not to pluck eyebrows or wear makeup. My final on-camera look could be stylishly described as a hirsute sack.
Many of us chuckled at the hats. We wondered where the rice paddies could be found in Downtown San Francisco, even in 1901. The women were styled with elaborate braids. Our clothing may have looked like we haven’t changed in months, but our hair would look great at any music festival.
There is a wary acceptance that onscreen, studios cast for safe, recognizable tropes. It is understood that Hollywood is not reflective of real life. Meeting full-time professional actors, I saw the challenge of being a performer who is not considered mainstream. Asian actors are rarely in lead roles. Awareness of the #WhiteWashedOut movement gained the most visibility this year with the casting of Tilda Swinton in “Doctor Strange” and Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell,” both playing Asian characters. It was difficult enough to find roles for Asians, and then, we weren’t even cast to play ourselves.
Every set I’ve been on has had an ethnically diverse crew. I see how directors might not clue into the lack of diversity of their work because they look out onto an inclusive set. The principle actors onscreen are only a small percentage of the entire body of employees. What they forget is that the rest of the world only sees who is put in front of the camera, and they are hoping to look into a mirror.
In my many roles billed as “Asian Pedestrian,” I have run from shooters, played a murdered engineer, and watched Spiderman ride past while strapped to a truck. I was shoved aside when the future Catwoman stole milk next to me and danced at a party attended by Daredevil and Elektra. I have enjoyed myself on many productions playing part of the scenery. But I also worry that I enable the bigger casting issue in Hollywood that held my friends and colleagues back. I wonder if the background was where people like myself were kept because I wasn’t doing enough to make our stories heard. I made a plan internally to write more, create more as myself and work to support the work of others who do.
Marvel is planning a movie starring an Asian superhero, but it is waiting for the “right time.” According to a fan at Gamespot’s Comic Vine boards, they have at least 42 existing heroes from which to choose. Producers can also look beyond old characters and take inspiration from writers who create original characters that reflect themselves. When that plan is greenlit, there is a large pool of talented directors, screenwriters, and performers available for hire.
When these productions finally start, I will be here, eagerly ready to support from my spot on the sidewalk.