Back in April 2016, I helped launch the #whitewashedOUT hashtag alongside YA author Ellen Oh and a whole team of Asian American activists and authors. If you recall, the spring of 2016 was a rough time to be an Asian American consumer of pop culture.
At the same time, a digital artist based in New York City named William Yu also took to Twitter with his own hashtag. Armed with photoshop skills and a muse in a veteran actor of franchises like Star Trek and Harold and Kumar, Yu launched the viral sensation known as #StarringJohnCho.
Three years later, not only is John Cho actually starring in big Hollywood films — last year’s Searching and Netflix’s upcoming Cowboy Beebop come to mind — Yu is being celebrated this weekend for his online achievement with the opening of a real world art show at the historic Pearl River Mart in New York City’s Chinatown. See below for an official press release and details about the show.
NEW YORK, NY – MAY 13, 2019 – In celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, William Yu, the digital strategist behind the viral campaign #StarringJohnCho has created an immersive multimedia exhibition in Pearl River Mart’s art gallery that invites the viewer into a world in which an Asian American lead is not only imagined but a reality. #StarringJohnCho: The Call for an Asian American Lead opens May 18 and is on view through July 7.
Out of frustration, Yu created #StarringJohnCho in 2016. This was partly in response to a succession of films that featured whitewashed Asian characters (Ghost in the Shell, Aloha, Doctor Strange) and Academy Award host Chris Rock’s “joke” of using three Asian children to pose as PricewaterhouseCooper accountants. Using technology such as “deepfake” artificial intelligence, Yu created first images, then videos (as seen in his sequel project #SeeAsAamStar) superimposed with the faces of Asian American actors such as John Cho and Constance Wu.
“This was a conversation I had had so many times,” said Yu regarding the lack of Asian Americans in Hollywood films. “And that’s where it always ended — in conversation. In the theoretical and abstract. What I wanted to do was physically show this idea to people. For this idea to become more of a reality and to live in the world physically.”
However, Yu understood that arguing for representation for representation’s sake could only go so far. He needed to demonstrate the bankability of an Asian American star. UCLA’s Hollywood Diversity Report showed that “films with casts that were from 31 percent to 40 percent minority enjoyed the highest medial global box office receipts.” However, whites continued to remain overrepresented among all top film roles (77%) with Asians and Asian Americans representing only 3.4%.
Fast forward to 2018: the campaign had garnered over 1 billion impressions worldwide and won multiple awards; the all-Asian-casted Crazy Rich Asians became the top-grossing romantic comedy in 10 years; and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before with its Asian American protagonist became one of the most viewed original Netflix films “with strong repeat viewing.” Both films have sequels in the works.
“We’re excited and honored to be the first gallery to show William’s work in a way that translates his vision into an immersive experience,” said Joanne Kwong, President of Pearl River Mart and gallery curator. “His tweet was the spark that ultimately led to the wild success of last summer’s Crazy Rich Asians, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Searching, which starred the actual John Cho. As the adage goes, you can’t be what you can’t see, and we, like William, are committed to expanding people’s expectations and assumptions about Asian Americans, including our own.”
“I hope that people who visit the exhibition will feel inspired and open their minds about what a lead role can look like,” Yu said. “The whole point of #StarringJohnCho is that Asian Americans can portray and have a breadth of experiences, whether as a superhero in Captain America or a hopeless romantic in You Before Me or someone flawed and insecure in (500) Days of Summer. There are all those realities and types of existences — why aren’t we seeing that in the media we consume?”
Pearl River’s artist-in-residence series is a bimonthly curated exhibition featuring local artists from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds. Previous artists have included photographers Louis Chan, Hiroyuki Ito, and Corky Lee; painters Arlan Huang and Kam Mak; illustrators Yumi Sakugawa and Felicia Liang; and multimedia artists Wiena Lin, Ben Sloat, and Xin Song.
#StarringJohnCho is available to view during Pearl River Mart store hours: every day from 10:00 a.m. to 7:20 p.m. Admission is free.
About Pearl River Mart
Founded as a “friendship store” in 1971, Pearl River Mart is an iconic Asian emporium located in New York City’s TriBeCa district, the popular Chelsea Market, and the esteemed Museum of Chinese in America. From home furnishings to fashion and everything in between, the store features one-of-a-kind items imported from Asia, as well as innovative merchandise designed and created by Asian Americans. A beloved destination for people from all over the globe, Pearl River has become symbolic of the uniqueness, authenticity, and multiculturalism of New York City. Visit PearlRiver.com or follow on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.