“It’s gonna be a shipwreck”: Can an Asian diaspora Facebook group be good TV? | Television
When the moderators of Subtle Asian Traits announced in June that the Facebook group would be turned into an American television series, the news was greeted with a wave of cynical comments from its members.
The private group, with nearly 2 million members, promotes itself as “a community that celebrates the similarities and differences within the subtle features of Asian culture and subcultures.”
Some people expressed hope that dramatization on the small screen would not “become a negative stereotype for Asians”, while others were more blunt. “It’s going to be a shipwreck,” one reads one response.
“All I see in this group are memes about boba tea, corporal punishment, abusive parents, Chinese-only memes, and Asians hating each other,” said another.
Subtle Asian Traits – modeled on a Facebook group of the same name, Subtle Private School Traits – was created in September 2018 by nine Chinese-Australians, then high school students in Melbourne. The impulse was to share memes and jokes common to the Asian-Australian and immigrant experience. It has become a place where young members of the Asian diaspora feel seen.
The group quickly expanded internationally, supported by media coverage from outlets such as the New York Times and the BBC. It spawned a slew of related Facebook groups, such as Subtle Korean Traits and Subtle Asian Eats, its own subreddit, and even face-to-face dating.
Today, the content shared is not specific to Australia: there are articles on cooking rice, consuming fondue, and, yes, consuming bubble tea. Among the jokes about disinformation on WeChat and a surprising number of photos of custom keyboards are heartfelt personal stories: tributes to parents and grandparents, and revelations of successes and failures.
Members of the group include American comedian Hasan Minhaj, who did a question-and-answer session in 2019, and Canadian actor Simu Liu, star of sitcom Kim’s Convenience and the upcoming Marvel superhero film Shang-Chi and the legend of the ten rings.
The co-founders of Subtle Asian Traits have now turned the group’s success into a scripted TV series. It’s hard to say what a band-based show might look like. Not much has been revealed about the project other than that it is a “college story” of the same name, according to the Hollywood Reporter.
Other online sensations have met with success in mainstream media. The popularity of Dr Sandra Lee’s disgusting and fascinating videos of Dr Pimple Popper, for example, led to a TLC reality show of the same name. Zola, a black comedy that hit US theaters last week, has been described by US Guardian art writer Adrian Horton as “a milestone for the virality pipeline to Hollywood” – the film’s script stems from a thread Twitter viral 2015.
But a lot of eyeballs in a medium don’t guarantee that something will translate well. For example, a 2010 television adaptation of the Twitter account @shitmydadsays was canceled after one season. “After the show’s failure, many Twitter feeds that were purchased this pilot season died,” said account creator Justin Halpern. “And over the next few years, Twitter’s pilot TV purchases disappeared.”
A series inspired by subtle Asian traits comes up against not only the challenge of adapting an internet phenomenon, but also difficult questions of cultural representation. How do you get a wider audience to discover what are essentially jokes between a group of people sharing experiences? How do you make fun of commonalities that, when removed from their cultural context, might reinforce narrow stereotypes (tiger moms, academically gifted, etc.)? Laughing at yourself and making fun of others are two very different things.
When done right, comedies about the Asian immigrant experience satire without being reductive – The aforementioned Family Law and Kim’s Convenience spring to mind. But finding a balance between being specifically accessible and globally attractive is tricky. Eddie Huang, whose Fresh Off the Boat memoir was turned into a sitcom starring Constance Wu and Randall Park, later said he “regretted[ted] never sell the book ”.
“Fresh Off the Boat was a very specific account of SPECIFIC moments in my life,” Huang wrote. “The network’s approach was to tell a universal, ambiguous, cornstarch story about Asian Americans.”
Huang’s comments are relevant when considering the collapse of context that can occur on social media. Subtle Asian Traits, a group that started out as a specific space for young people mainly from the East Asian diaspora, has grown into a juggernaut. In an era of growing diversity on screen, members of the Facebook group have rightly pointed out the potential for unequal representation.
“If you are all going to do this, please don’t call it Traits of Subtle Asia anymore, call it Traits of East Asia,” one person commented on the television announcement. “We’re not even going to see the diversity of Asian origins.” (A few years ago, a lack of South Asian representation in the group led to the creation of a spin-off, Subtle Curry Traits.)
“I hope the production will reflect the origins of SAT, which was a paradise for the South East [sic] Asians and the diaspora in Australasia, until North Americans come in and do anything for them, ”reads another, more ironic comment.
Justin Ching, one of the writers attached to the TV series, appeared to recognize the flashback in a tweet Last week. “I know the tribe has questions and concerns,” he wrote.
The criticisms of the lack of representation are valid, but it’s also hard to expect one show to be everything for all Asians around the world. Similar expectations were placed on Crazy Rich Asians, a film that had over 70 speaking roles for Asian actors, and was the first Hollywood film in 25 years with an all-Asian diaspora cast. (Didn’t people feel personally represented by a family of Singapore’s wealthiest real estate developers? What a surprise.)
Personally, I’m interested in seeing what a TV version of Subtle Asian Traits will look like. It will be a litmus test of the challenges inherent in converting culturally specific online virality into mainstream appeal. Even if it turns out to be a “shipwreck,” anything that in good faith contributes to on-screen diversity is surely something to salute.