"With its many depictions of what it's like to be an Asian woman, I wondered if it would have changed things for me."

Kaila Yu
Apr 05, 2021 @ 5:08 pm
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Bling empire
Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

The world we live in shapes how we view ourselves—and how others view us. But what happens when there's a mismatch between cultural narratives and individual identities? In our monthly series The Blend, writers from multicultural backgrounds discuss the moment that made them think differently about these dominant narratives—and how that affects their lives.

Donning a gold crown, ringed with perfectly curled tendrils of silky hair, and clad in a form-fitting, emerald velvet, red and yellow rose-emblazoned dress with puffed sleeves, Cherie Chan from Bling Empire shares how her burgeoning singing career was curtailed by her parents: "I was signed to the Sony Music Label," she explains, "but my mom, like any typical Asian parent, wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer. She didn't want me to pursue music." So Cherie gave it up.

Many Asian Americans can relate to Cherie's struggle, which likely contributed to Bling Empire's quickly making the top 10 list of Netflix shows after its premiere in January. At first glance, the show is just another trashy bit of reality fluff—but I would argue that it has real depth. Over eight episodes, the series covers identity, adoption, and the Asian American experience. As I watched, I found myself thinking, "Finally, there is a show on television that shows real Asian American stories, albeit stories of the extravagantly rich."

Because Bling Empire is the first major reality TV project that showcases the Asian American experience in Los Angeles. Asian American women watching the show have a plethora of personalities that they can idolize, such as Kim Lee, a full-time DJ; Kelly Mi Li, a self-made girl boss; Christine Chiu, a pampered socialite wife; Anna Shay, the grand dame heiress; and more. Instead of just playing out stereotypical tropes, they can now imagine themselves as multifaceted human beings. 

For instance, Bling Empire touches on one of the most common issues that Asian Americans grapple with: familial duties versus their individuality. Christine is at an impasse with her plastic surgeon husband, Dr. Gabriel Chiu, who passionately wants a second child, where Christine does not. In the episode, she revealed that she took the blame for her husband Gabriel's infertility issues in their ten-year struggle to have their first child, Gabriel Chiu III, aka Baby G. However, later in the episode, she finally stands up for herself and insists that a surrogate must be used for the next baby, no matter what his family thinks. It's empowering for young girls to see the progression of an Asian American woman slowly finding her own voice. 

However, in the early 2000s when I was around 15-years-old, I didn't have any role models to look up to on film or television.

There were no Asian American Jennifer Anistons, Sarah Michelle Gellars, or Britney Spears. At that time, the two dominant Asian American women stereotypes were the "bookish nerd" or the "highly sexualized dragon lady." 

Bling empire
Credit: Courtesy of Netflix

Because of this, my chosen role model was Korean American Playboy model Sung Hi Lee. And since my role model was an online sex symbol, I did what she did and become a pin-up model. After all, Sung Hi did it. As a result, I leaned into the sensual and exotic Asian woman stereotype throughout my 20s. Yes, I became one of the most recognized pin-up models in the Asian American import scene subculture, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this kind of work, but for me, I always felt I was playing a caricature of myself. 

A few years into touring as an import model, I spiraled into drug addiction. I didn't understand it at the time, but studies have shown that a lack of representation on screen can lead to depression and other mental health issues, which I personally experienced myself.

Almost twenty years later, as I watched Bling Empire, with its many depictions of what it's like to be an Asian woman, I wondered if it would have changed things for me.

Perhaps if I were growing up today with the representation we see on screen, my path would have been gentler. 

Fifteen-year-old me would've loved to look up to the powerful Kelly Mi Li, a career-driven businesswoman, who is also one the executive producers of Bling Empire. She achieved all of this without leaning into the American "dragon lady" stereotype. And that's major progress. 

Although much progress has been made by Asian Americans in entertainment since the 2000s, there's still a ways to go. While Bling Empire and Crazy Rich Asians are huge steps forward in media representation, they only showcase the wealthy, East Asian "model minority" experience. 

Reports have shown that Asians living in poverty have increased by 44 percent, and their experience is rarely captured in film and television. With the anti-Asian attacks that are currently taking place in our country today, it's so important for diverse Asian lives to be represented in the media in all forms, both for our own mental health and to humanize our experience to the general population. 

I'm excited to finally see the powerful Asian voices taking space on the big and small screens, and I'm confident that this generation of Asian Americans will continue to fight passionately for their stories to be told.