Why Hallmark’s ‘A Big Fat Family Christmas’ sparked controversy among Asian American communities

Shannon Chan-Kent (left) and Shannon Kook star in “A Big Fat Family Christmas.” Photo: Allister Foster/Hallmark

When Kristie Hang caught a glimpse of a new Hallmark Christmas movie with a nearly all-Asian cast playing at her boyfriend’s mother’s house earlier this month, she found herself unexpectedly game for a sappy holiday treat.

It’s a journalism movie and they happened to be two Asian leads. This should be my life as a bad Hallmark movie,” Hang, a Los Angeles journalist who writes about Asian American culture, recalled thinking of “A Big Fat Family Christmas.”

She also thought the film, a rom-com that follows a Chinese American photojournalist who works at The San Francisco Chronicle, could be a surprisingly welcome sign of Asian American onscreen representation, and in some ways, a marker of true progress when it comes to Hollywood’s years-long, culture-war-inducing struggle to properly “diversify” its offerings. After all, the stamp of a Hallmark film is to be blandly cheesy and tackily predictable — in other words, a story that traffics in the mainstream and universal. Having a Hallmark Christmas movie featuring an all-Asian cast could be seen as a step forward.

How SF and The Chronicle get trashed on Hallmark’s ‘A Big Fat Family Christmas’ movie

Shannon Kook (left) and Jack Wagner in “A Big Fat Family Christmas.” Photo: Allister Foster/Hallmark

But Hang, who is Chinese American, quickly found herself sorely disappointed — and upset. The movie’s protagonist, Liv, is ashamed of her family’s reputation in the community to go overboard with their annual Christmas bash, and as high jinks ensue, the film features cultural elements — fortune cookies, red lanterns, red envelopes — that struck her as haphazardly employed and stereotypical. Worst of all, the butchered Cantonese spoken by characters in some stung scenes, seeming practically like mockery.

“You’re constantly an ‘other,” Hang says of the film’s point of view. “When we do wanna give you the opportunity to be the main family, then we need to make sure you’re our token Asian family.”

She aired her grievances on Twitter shortly after the made-for-TV movie’s premiere earlier this month, where some followers shared her sentiments and others didn’t.

“They threw everything Chinese / Asian-ish stereotype in a blender and then toss them out in front of an industrial fan,” one user @KeystoChina tweeted. another, Mary L. Change @theprintedwordwrote, “Big props to @hallmarkchannel for such a culturally sensitive look at my culture at Christmas.”

Nancy Wang Yuen, a Los Angeles sociologist and author of “Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism,” was also among those who replied directly to Hang’s initial tweet.

“I don’t think we should dismiss Asian American movies for actors not being fluent, especially since my own family has a range of fluency,” Yuen’s tweet said in part.

Shannon Kook (left), Shannon Chan-Kent and Lillian Lim in “A Big Fat Family Christmas.” Photo: Allister Foster/Hallmark

Instead, Yuen was buoyed by the fact that Hallmark had created a film, directed by Jennifer Liao, a Chinese-Canadian woman, that she saw as tackling serious issues of internalized racism.

“This film surprised me ’cause I think it actually dealt with Asian American issues and tried to represent Asian American culture, especially in San Francisco Chinatown, in ways I had never seen in a Christmas movie,” Yuen told The Chronicle.

These opposing takes can be seen as a microcosm of navigating the tricky nuances of capital-r representation as Hollywood attempts to produce more culturally specific stories.

There has to be a little bit more thought put into the way a culturally specific or culturally nuanced story is told. That happens with varying success,” author Phil Yu said about the Asian-American films that have become more abundant in the last few years.

But the Bay Area native, whose popular blog Angry Asian Man and podcasts “They Call Us Bruce” and “All the Asians on Star Trek” explore AAPI representation in pop culture, noted that delivering nuance can be complicated when you’re working within a genre — such as the made-for-TV holiday movie — whose charm is partly predicated upon its lack of subtle sensibilities. “When you insert, say, an Asian American nest into this formula,” he said, “there’s going to be some clunk getting it off the ground.”

Tia Carrere (left) and Yee Jee Tso in “A Big Fat Family Christmas.” Photo: Allister Foster/Hallmark

In one scene Hang took issue with, Liv’s mom, played by Tia Carrere (who, like her character, is half-Filipino and half-Chinese and also starred in the Filipino-American-centric film “Easter Sunday”), argues with a grocer in Cantonese. While Carrere’s character is joked about in the scene for her explicitly poor Cantonese-speaking abilities — a fairly normal reality for multigenerational Chinese American families — her attempts at speaking the language sounded like gibberish to Hang.

“I sent the video over to (friends in) Hong Kong and I was like, ‘Hey guys, let’s play a game — can we figure out what they said?’ Hang recalled. Half of them said, ‘I can get about three words.’ And the other half said, ‘I completely cannot get more than one word.’ ”

Even as a comedic bit, the Cantonese was so mangled that Hang felt it was off-putting. Yuen, on the other hand, didn’t have as visceral of a reaction.

This kind of idea that if you don’t speak well and if it’s really bad it becomes mockery, I don’t know. I’m not sure if I totally agree with that — but I get (the sentiment),” said Yuen, who does not speak Cantonese. “It’s because of the history of the horrible racist portrayals of people speaking Chinese, especially by white actors, so I absolutely affirmed that it’ll trigger that. We have the trauma of yellowface and (actors) speaking Chinese in mocking ways.”

Shannon Chan-Kent (center left) and Shannon Kook in “A Big Fat Family Christmas.” Photo: Allister Foster/Hallmark

That reality is still present and now occurs within the context of the rise of anti-Asian hate. Earlier this year, a mini-controversy bubbled up about the Marvel series “Moon Knight,” after many lambasted the practically nonsensical Mandarin that Ethan Hawke spoke in the big-budget production. Hang and Yuen spoke to The Chronicle in the same week that Purdue University Northwest Chancellor Thomas L. Keon was criticized for his racist mocking of Asian languages ​​during his commencement ceremony.

The more nuanced situations in “A Big Fat Family Christmas,” though, raise the question of just how careful one must be in reacting to this context and history.

“I think my (issue) in general is, where do we draw the line?” Yuen said about the issue of language fluency for actors.

Her question, though, can apply more broadly to cultural storytelling. To hang and others, the use of red envelopes and lanterns read as confused, stereotyping displays in a Christmas film. Yet Yuen found them to be perfectly normal given her own experiences.

So when is something a marker of a lived experience and when does it read as arbitrary exotification?

“Do we reclaim things that are actually historical or do we not use them because they’ve been stereotyped?” Yuen said. This kind of scrutiny is inevitable when there’s only one Asian American holiday movie out there, she added. How do we get more? By actually supporting them, ironically, right?

Hang, though, questions that approach. “Should we just be grateful or should we be more critical?”

For Yu’s part: “I’m not going to slam anything I don’t like — I still have a little bit of a community mentality when it comes to that stuff.”

Yu said he didn’t watch “A Big Fat Family Christmas” and probably won’t bother. He doesn’t feel obligated to support every Asian American-centric work because, he said, each one no longer “has to hold up the entire community on its own.”

That statement in itself is progress, and Hang acknowledges that. She noted that it is remarkable that “you can turn on a very mainstream cable channel and see people who remind you of yourself.” But, she added, “I just hope that the word ‘diversity’ isn’t just a moneymaking tactic just to throw something on TV and get credit for… a ‘watershed moment,’ because there’s just so much more work to be done.” ”

On this point, there is agreement all around.

We just need to tell (Hollywood), if you don’t like one movie, ‘Can we have more, please?’ Yuen said. “Can we have more Asian-American-directed, Asian-American-written movies? We want to see ourselves represented in our full diversity and complexity.”

“A Big Fat Family Christmas” (TV-G) is available to stream on select services that carry the Hallmark Channel.

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