Month: October 2015

‘Less Dragons, More Indian People’: Aziz Ansari Teases New Netflix Series

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America, October 29, 2015

Meet Dev, “the modern man without a plan,” played by actor and comedian Aziz Ansari in the upcoming Netflix original comedy series “Master of None,” premiering Nov. 6.

Ansari, author of the New York Times best seller “Modern Romance,” created the series along with screenwriter Alan Yang, who wrote for NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” which Ansari starred in. The first season will be released at once, with 10 episodes total.

Ansari announced the project in April on Tumblr after he “got rejected to play a ‘Bobby Jindal’ type on House of Cards.”

In “Master of None,” Ansari takes on the role of 30-year-old Dev, an actor in New York who has “trouble deciding what he wants to eat, much less the pathway for the rest of his life.”

The trailer for the show begins with Dev purchasing Plan B emergency contraception for his date after his condom breaks. Dev is later seen at an audition where he is asked to do an accent, but is quick to decline the offer.

The casting director proceeds to say, “You know Ben Kingsley did an accent in ‘Gandhi’ and won an Oscar for it, so…”

Dev’s response: “But he didn’t win the Oscar just for doing the accent. I mean, it wasn’t an Oscar for ‘Best Indian accent.'”

Dev’s scenes are not far from Ansari’s own experiences: last weekend in New York, while promoting the show, Ansari talked about declining a role in the film “Transformers” because it called for an accent.

“It was a role for, like, a call-center guy who has an accent,” Ansari said, according to Vulture. “And I was like, ‘No, I’m not doing it.’ And then [friend and co-star] Ravi [Patel] was like, ‘I’ll do it.’ And Ravi did it and made some decent money. And I don’t have anything against someone who does the accent. I understand. You got to work, and some people don’t think it’s a problem.”

Ravi Patel, whose recent documentary project “Meet the Patels” was picked up by Fox Searchlight for a remake, also appears in “Master of None.”

When it came to casting for “Master of None,” Ansari went straight to the source of the inspiration for Dev’s parents: his own parents. “There’s not a ton of older Indian people that are out there in the acting game, so I wrote these characters kind of based on my parents, and I couldn’t find anyone who really felt like my parents, so I just got my parents to do it. They did a fantastic job,” Ansari toldPeople.

In a Twitter Q&A last week, Ansari revealed more details about the series, including what it was like working with his parents and how “Master of None” compares to popular shows like “Game of Thrones.”

“Less dragons, more Indian people,” he joked.

Ansari also said the show is not based on his own life. “Show is not autobiographical, but I do play an Indian guy who is an actor,” he tweeted. “I know that’s confusing.”



‘Finding My Way’: Sumire Matsubara on Acting, Diversity, and Connecting with Her Roots

Sumire Matsubara will receive the Rising Star Award from the Asian World Film Festival in Los Angeles, 2015. Leslie Kee
Sumire Matsubara will receive the Rising Star Award from the Asian World Film Festival in Los Angeles, 2015. Leslie Kee

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America – October 22, 2015

From a very young age, Sumire Matsubara was born to be on stage. The 25-year-old actress, model, and singer, who was born in Japan and raised in Hawaii, spent her childhood watching her parents–actors Junichi Ishida and Chiaki Matsubara–navigate and flourish in the Japanese entertainment industry for decades.

Watching her parents’ careers helped inspire Matsubara to put as much passion and dedication into her own craft, but while she followed in their footsteps into entertainment, her journey has been much different.

“I have always had a bit of an identity crisis,” Matsubara told NBC News. “By blood I am Japanese, my heart is American. I am always in between.”

When she was seven years old, after her parents’ divorce, Matsubara moved from Japan to Hawaii with her mother, who wanted to shield her daughter from the press and embark on a new journey–away from the spotlight and the paparazzi.

“Although she was not able to speak English very well and she was going to be a single mother, she was able to start her life over again,” Matsubara said. “My father…continued to work a lot as an actor in Japan while the industry and the media were very cold to my mother.”

Matsubara recalled many times when she was bullied at school because she couldn’t speak fluent English. In response, she would ignore the remarks and focus her attention, instead, to the arts, where she was cast in several lead roles for musicals at her high school and other community theater events in Hawaii.

It was also her mom, Matsubara said, who inspired her to pursue singing as another outlet where she could express herself. “[My mom] would often take me to see musicals, Disney movies, and we would go karaoke together and perform for each other,” she said.

Matsubara eventually enrolled in her school’s choir and went on to star in Punahou School’s “West Side Story.”

“That’s when I cultivated my passion for acting and the stage,” Matsubara, who is also a dedicated dancer and has trained in ballet, hulu, holoku, jazz, and hip-hop, said. “I knew then for sure that I wanted to work professionally,” she said.

Matsubara said one of the biggest milestones of her life was when she got accepted to Carnegie Mellon University, where she pursued her BFA in musical theater and acting. But she said she found herself to be one of the few Asian-American actresses in the conservatory program, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania–a stark contrast to Hawaii where she felt it was much more diverse.

“It was a great program, the students and professors were very gracious and supportive, but I did feel some racial discrimination from the people of the town,” Matsubara said. “After being in the school, it was amazing, but something in me was telling me that this place was not the place for me.”

After studying at the university, Matsubara decided to go back home to Hawaii to be with her mother following news of her grandmother’s passing in 2010, and the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku, Japan, which took the lives of tens of thousands of victims in 2011.

“It was a hard time for my family. Personally I was having a hard time being so far away from home,” Matsubara said.

Actress, model, and singer Sumire Matsubara will make her Hollywood film debut in “The Shack,” a faith-based Christian drama film. Yoshihito Sasaguchi

While at home, she said she was able to gain perspective and realize she didn’t want to stay in the U.S. at the time. Matsubara moved back to Tokyo, where she could reconnect with her roots. “I wanted to know who I was and where I came from,” she said. Moving back to Japan not only gave her the chance to explore her background, but she was able to reconcile with her father and reconnect with family members there.

But Matsubara struggled with being well-received by audiences in Japan after having spent much of her life in the U.S. and performing for a different audience that was, she said, less conservative in some respects. In some ways, she had to re-train and familiarize herself with new customs.

“Trying to learn how to be a proper Japanese entertainer was very difficult. At times it felt like people expected to be more Japanese than I was. On the outside I look Japanese, but inside I am very American,” Matsubara said. “I felt I had to please people or I became too concerned about being liked or accepted in Japan. It was difficult to come to terms with my American-ness and find my own way of being in Japan.”

One of the biggest challenges for Matsubara was the language barrier and the moments of self-doubt where she constantly questioned whether Japan was truly the place for her to thrive. But in hindsight, Matsubara said moving to Japan was a very necessary phase in her life. “I am still finding my way, but I am much more comfortable with who I am now,” she said.

While most of Matsubara’s fan base is in Japan, she hasn’t been a stranger to American screens–from a guest role on the CBS drama “Hawaii Five-0” to her upcoming Hollywood film debut in “The Shack,” a drama based on the 2007 novel of the same name. Matsubara, who joined the cast this past summer, will play the “Holy Spirit” alongside Academy Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer, who will play God.

Sumire Matsubara, Lani Netter, and Jaeson Ma behind the scenes on the set of upcoming Hollywood film, “The Shack.” Lani Netter

“Being in both countries and being able to work in both countries is very challenging because I need to adapt to each country’s language, culture, and ways of the industry,” Matsubara said. “But ultimately, it is hugely rewarding and a great honor.”

On Oct. 26, Matsubara will travel to Los Angeles to receive the Rising Star Award from the Asian World Film Festival for her ongoing contributions and cross-cultural work in East-West entertainment industries. The festival, which will take place over the course of one week, features dozens of foreign language films from around Asia and panels on topics from film financing to editing for a global audience.

“I would like to thank the Asian World Film Festival for recognizing who I am and encouraging me to be a part of enhancing the East-West filmmaking industries,” Matsubara said. “I would like to continue to spread the word and the awareness. [Asian and Pacific Islanders] are here, and we need to break out in the industry.”

Blog Aims to Empower Asian Women with Breast Cancer

Photo of Elizabeth OuYang and her mom, who passed away from breast cancer at age 62 Photo Credit Elizabeth OuYang

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America – October 26, 2015

In April 2009, Elizabeth OuYang discovered a lump on her breast in the shower and was instantly reminded of her mother, who battled breast cancer silently. Anxiety flooded her mind as she tried to piece things together.

“I went to the doctor’s and they confirmed I had breast cancer,” OuYang, a civil rights attorney, told NBC News. “I constantly was thinking about my mom and whether I was going to have my mom’s fate…I really thought I was going to die like my mom.”

OuYang said she didn’t want to battle the disease behind closed doors, but finding Asian-American women she could talk to was a herculean task.

Her family had referred her to Caucasian women who shed insight on what it was like to get chemotherapy for the first time, or what it was like to enroll in a laughing class to relieve some of the stress in between treatments. As much as OuYang appreciated their honest advice, she yearned to speak and connect with other Asian-American women.

“I really wanted to speak to other Asian-American women who also had breast cancer in part because there are certain cultural similarities and would understand some of my fears and thoughts in decisions I would have to make,” OuYang, who has been cancer-free since October 2009, said.

She perused the aisles of many bookstores in Boston and New York, but was frustrated when she couldn’t find many books on how to deal with breast cancer as an Asian-American woman.

Now, six years after her diagnosis, OuYang has launched Plum Blossoms, a blog for Asian-American women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer to tell their stories. “Plum Blossoms was started because there needs to be an avenue for Asian women with breast cancer who want to express their fears, ambitions, and experiences in a safe manner that respects family harmony and empowers Asian-American women living with breast cancer,” she said.

OuYang initially began the project with the hopes of launching a book, but decided that a blog would give people the opportunity to feel more comfortable about sending anonymous submissions.

OuYang traveled to California and Boston, recording oral histories and connecting with Asian-American women who shared their triumphs, their weaknesses, and their fears during their journey. She also reached out to the Asian Pacific Islander American Health Forum in California and the APA Institute at New York University to find Asian-American women with breast cancer who were willing to share their stories on her blog. Two of the women she has interviewed include Linda I, a Japanese American astrologer and Mai Tran, a refugee from Vietnam.

The title of the blog represents the number of Asian-American women affected by breast cancer, juxtaposed with the symbol of the plum blossom, “an Asian flower that can grow in the winter and survive four seasons.” For OuYang, the plum blossom represents the strength and determination of Asian-American women and is dedicated to her mother, who battled cancer silently, and to one of her friends, “whose public battle with breast cancer challenged cultural norms.”

A Growing Trend

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breast cancer is the second leading cause of death from cancer among white, black, Asian/Pacific Islander (API), and American Indian/Alaska Native women. Chien-Chi Huang, executive director at Asian Women for Health and founder of the Asian Breast Cancer Project, told NBC News she is concerned about the lack of resources and cancer education dedicated to the API community.

The graph shows that in 2012, white women had the highest rate of getting breast cancer, followed by black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native women. Courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“A lot of the women are still suffering in silence because the prevention concept is not very prevalent in our community,” Huang said, adding that there is a lot more work that needs to be done in terms of community education and pushing the medical community “to provide culturally and linguistically appropriate and relevant information for our community.”

According to the Asian Breast Cancer Project, API women have low rates of breast cancer screening, “which increases their chances of later stage disease prevention.” The report also points out that immigrant API women living in the U.S. for 10 years have an “80% higher risk of developing breast cancer than their newly-arrived API immigrant counterparts.”

Huang added, “As a consequence, I think there are still many Asian women who don’t realize that they can be at risk for breast cancer and we’ve found that there’s a trend that more and more younger Asian women are diagnosed with breast cancer.”

She said she is also concerned about the American Cancer Society’s new guidelines which recommends women should plan on getting mammograms at age 45 as opposed to 40.

Huang believes the screenings should occur as early as possible. “When I was diagnosed, I was just 40 years old. I did a lot of research and to my surprise, I learned that the rate for breast cancer for Asian Americans is increasing while it’s decreasing for all other populations,” she said.

But some Asian-American women often keep the diagnosis to themselves, Huang said, because they don’t want to be viewed as a “burden” to their families.

“Some people still have this idea that cancer is a curse, it’s something that you did bad in your past life. People don’t want to talk about it or let others know they had cancer,” she said.

Huang explained that the concept of prevention is not prevalent in the API community because many often delay treatment until they get sick, or the hospital is viewed as a place to get treated only when you have a sickness present.

These 2013 statistics, compiled by the Susan G. Komen Foundation and adapted from American Cancer Society materials, shows the percentage of women 40 and older who have had a mammogram in the past two years.

“People don’t feel the need to utilize preventive care,” she said.

Roxanna Bautista, senior director of engagement strategy at the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum, says it is crucial for API women to get screened as early as possible.

“We need to continue to educate women to get screening early and we need to educate around what may be the causes of cancer and how there can be behavioral things to do to try to reduce chances of it,” Bautista told NBC News.

Bautista also cites cultural, language, and educational challenges as barriers that might prevent API women from getting screened. There is also a level of shame that might exist when showing a “body part to a physician” or conducting a self-breast exam.

OuYang added that, especially in the Asian-American community, women often deal with issues in a private manner, as opposed to disclosing health issues with family and friends.

“They’re battling it silently because our cultures have taught us to look to our families for strength and not outsiders. Our cultures teach us to share joys, but not sorrows. I think for a long time, people viewed cancer as an embarrassment or a form of embarrassment,” OuYang said.

Elizabeth OuYang and volunteers help promote Plum Blossoms during the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer March in Central Park, October 18, 2015. Henry Jiang

Particularly for Asian-American women, she said, the family unit is highly regarded and one’s own health is often put off in order to tend to children and elders. “For those of us whose mothers have had breast cancers, uniformly many will say that their mothers dealt with it quietly. They were stoic, they were courageous, but they didn’t reach out to family for help,” she said.

‘Breast Cancer Doesn’t Define Me’

Born in Rochester, New York, OuYang is the daughter of immigrant parents from Foshan and Shanghai, China. Her father was a doctor and her mother was a housewife who raised six children.

OuYang began her decades-long career as a civil rights attorney after attending a “Women in Law” conference during her undergraduate years at the University of Michigan. It was there that she was introduced to a community lawyer from Boston who agreed to let her shadow her. She later worked for the Disability Law Center in Boston for three years, where she represented persons with disabilities and worked on public housing discrimination cases.

After her mom passed away from breast cancer in 1991, OuYang moved to New York City, where she worked at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund for eight years and represented Asian Americans who were victims of hate crimes and police brutality. She also conducted pro-bono legal advice clinics for communities that may have been affected by post-9/11 government policies.

For a long time, OuYang didn’t want breast cancer to define her life or take precedence over her career, so she kept her stage 1 diagnosis a secret until she felt comfortable disclosing it to her employers and close family and friends.

“You really feel isolated and you feel like you don’t want to be branded or people to feel sorry for you and you want to be known for who you are,” OuYang said. “It took me the longest time to realize that talking about breast cancer doesn’t define me. What I’ve done is what defines me.”

During her journey, OuYang went through periods of denial, grief, and acceptance. She underwent chemotherapy, had a mastectomy, and lost her hair. But one of the things that really helped her find peace was a book her friend had given her that inspired her to make a list of things she wanted to accomplish.

“I wrote down eight things and that gave me so much hope because I looked forward to it. I did all eight things, one of which was a trip to Greece,” she recalled, a trip she eventually crossed off her bucket list.

In between her chemotherapy treatments, Elizabeth OuYang traveled to Greece with her friends. Courtesy of Elizabeth OuYang

‘There is Support Out There’

OuYang said she hopes her blog will be a place where people can feel welcomed, and a place that will bring comfort to questions that might keep women up at night — questions like, “Am I going to die?” or “Can I fight this?” and “How much longer do I have?”

“I want them to feel like they can laugh and let it out. If they can cry, they can cry. I really hope my blog will be there for all women, but particularly women who were recently diagnosed,” she said.

OuYang wants to see Plum Blossoms expand and reach out to potential donors and funders in the near future so she can translate the interviews in different languages. She cites a conversation with a woman struggling to find stories of Asian women like her as her inspiration to grow the blog.

“She went to a Chinese site after she was diagnosed and got discouraged because it wasn’t a blog,” OuYang said. “It was stories of famous Chinese women who got breast cancer.”

But when OuYang showed her own blog to the woman, the woman was pleased to find that the stories on the blog featured the photos of everyday Asian-American women, not just celebrities. It helped her find comfort in her own journey as a woman navigating through a recent breast cancer diagnosis.

“Even though she couldn’t read English, she saw the pictures [on my blog] and she was so happy,” OuYang said.

Elizabeth OuYang at the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk in Central Park with her niece Emily, October 18, 2015. Henry Jiang

Earlier this month, OuYang, along with some of the women who have volunteered and submitted stories to Plum Blossoms, marched in the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk in New York’s Central Park.

OuYang hasn’t missed a single march since her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She will continue to march for the years to come, she said — for Asian-American women who are both silently battling cancer and for those who have publicly shared their stories.

“I want to make it easier for other Asian-American women,” OuYang said. “You can choose to deal with it silently, but I want them to know the benefits of sharing and that there is support out there.”

Korean-American Coalition Created to Address Domestic Violence on National Level

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America – October 20, 2015

Several regional domestic violence community-based organizations and family resource centers have joined forces to create a nationwide coalition working to end domestic violence in the Korean-American community.

The official inauguration of the National Korean American Coalition to End Domestic Violence was hosted Tuesday by the Korean American Family Services and the Center for the Pacific Asian Family, two of seven regional centers that have joined the coalition since its founding in 2014.


The creation of the coalition comes in the middle of National Domestic Violence Awareness Month and consists of regional centers located on the East and West Coasts and in the Midwest: the Center for the Pacific Asian Family (CPAF), the Korean American Coalition to End Domestic Abuse (KACEDA), the Korean American Family Services (KFAM), Asian Services in Action, Inc. (ASIA), KAN-WIN, Asian Family Support Services of Austin, and the Korean American Family Service Center.

Connie Chung-Joe, executive director of Korean American Family Services, explained that domestic violence is rampant and often under-reported in the Korean-American community.


For many Asian-American domestic violence victims, navigating mainstream social services can sometimes be a challenge, as there are language barriers and a certain level of stigma that often prevent victims from coming forward, Chung-Joe explained.

“A lot are undocumented, and they don’t know they are protected under the law. If they come forward, they could get deported or get separated from children,” Chung-Joe told NBC News. “All of these issues–they are always hard for any survivor, but particularly for immigrant women who tend to be isolated.”

She added, “That’s why we have organizations that specifically serve Koreans or Asians because we know that these challenges require a very culturally specific approach.”

According to a study published by California State University, Los Angeles, immigrant Korean families experience the highest rate of domestic violence among Asian-American groups in Los Angeles, and are most unlikely to report domestic violence. Additionally, 41 to 61 percent of Asian and Pacific Islander women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by a partner during their lifetime, according to the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence.

Courtesy of

In 2012, the Center for the Pacific Asian Family launched a PSA in Vietnamese,explaining that 1 in 3 women experience domestic violence.

Korean American Family Services, among other partner organizations, offers a 24-hour crisis hotline for Korean American immigrant families affected by domestic violence. Other services include counseling, mental health workshops, and child wellness programs.

Chung-Joe and many other advocates in the Korean-American community are confident the formation of a nationwide coalition will strengthen and provide a robust system of shared resources while continuing the mission to protect and support domestic violence survivors.

“For so long services have been fragmented so [we’re] trying to find a way to create more of a national voice, national presence. When you’re a small agency, your voice can only go so far,” she said. “By being able to work together, we can share resources.”

The logo for the National Korean American Coalition to End Domestic Violence is inspired by Ohbangsaek, five traditional colors used in Korean culture to represent the wholeness of the universe.Courtesy of the National Korean American Coalition to End Domestic Violence

The coalition plans to also reach out to isolated populations where there are very few centers and resources catered to providing services to Korean Americans.

“When you get into smaller cities where Koreans are isolated, it’s hard for them to find services, so sometimes we get calls from Virginia and Montana, where there are few Koreans. They call because they hear about us and are desperate for help,” she said.

Chung-Joe hopes to see the national coalition grow in the next few years and attract more partner organizations.

“I think this will give us more power or leverage to do things like address policy matters, or go to our elected officials and make changes on behalf of Korean survivors by talking about it as seven agencies across the country, as opposed to any one of us going to our elected official,” she said.

Earlier this year, the Asian-American community mobilized and turned to social media using the hashtag #StandWithNanHui to spread awareness about undocumented single mom Nan-Hui Jo, who fled from her abusive husband to South Korea with her daughter and was later detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“The Nan-Hui Jo case highlights this issue that, for immigrant women, there’s so much additional barriers. When you look at the facts in the case, you see so many barriers she faced,” Chung-Joe said.

The case, she added, taught the AAPI community to continue to raise awareness and protect the rights of domestic violence victims.

“We are trying to say: this is a real situation that victims are being really criminalized and victim-blaming is happening at this systematic,” Chung-Joe said. “It’s not just a case of a Korean immigrant who fled the country; this situation [has] happened all over the world where woman are fleeing their abusers.”

‘The Martian’ Faces Accusations of ‘Whitewashing’

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America – October 12, 2015

Despite a strong opening earlier this month at the box office, not everyone is on board with “The Martian.”

The Media Action Network for Asian Americans on Thursday criticized director Ridley Scott for casting non-Asian actors in the role of two characters who, in Andy Weir’s novel, are Asian American.

“This is a feel-good movie. It would have been great to see Asian Americans being part of the solution. It would have been great for actors to get a career boost,” MANAA founding president Guy Aoki told NBC News. “It’s really a lost opportunity.”

“The Martian,” based on Weir’s 2014 best-selling book, follows the story of astronaut Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) who gets left behind while on a mission to Mars.

The characters in Weir’s novel includes Dr. Venkat Kapoor, NASA’s director of Mars Operations. His name was changed in the film version to Vincent Kapoor, played by actor Chiwetel Ejiofor. The character Mindy Park, who is of Korean lineage, is played by white actress Mackenzie Davis.

“The Martian” does include Asian actors and actresses, listed on IMDb in smaller roles such as “Chinese Flight Director” or “Chinese Translator,” as well as British-born actor Benedict Wong, who plays Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Bruce Ng.

In its Facebook post on “The Martian,” MANAA explained that Scott’s film adaptation follows a history of other films based on source material that “included Asian characters but who were white-washed by being played by white actors in their movie version.”

Aoki cites films that leave Asian Americans out of crucial leading roles, like the upcoming film “Doctor Strange,” where actress Tilda Swinton is slated to play the role of an old Tibetan sorcerer, and “Ghost in the Shell,” which is rumored to star Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese character based on an anime classic. In response to Johansson’s casting, more than 60,000 backerssigned a petition urging Dreamworks to consider casting another actor in the role.

Earlier this year, director Cameron Crowe came under fire for casting Emma Stone as Allison Ng, a multi-racial character, in the film “Aloha.” Crowe laterapologized “to all who felt this was an odd or misguided casting choice.”

In an interview on Friday with MTV News, Weir said he wrote his characters without physical descriptions on purpose. “It’s weird, when I write, I just see a sort of blob of protagonist,” Weir said. “At the end of the book, when I finish[ed] the book, I wouldn’t even be able to tell you [main character] Mark’s hair color. I also I know a lot of people, including myself sometimes, when reading a book you get a mental image for yourself of what you think the character looks like and it’s like, OK, this is how I envision the character.”

He added, “You can imagine them however you like. Like, for instance, the ethnicity of Mark, I never told you.”

The Rice Rockettes: ‘Sugar and Spice and Everything Rice’

Alex and Nick (l-r), members of the Rice Rockettes, an Asian American drag performance troupe apply makeup as they prepares to transform in to Estée Longah and Kristi Yummy Kochi (l-r) for a drag performance at the Lookout bar, Thursday, 10 Sep. 2015 in San Francisco, CA, USA. (Peter DaSilva for NBC News)
(Photo: Peter DaSilva/NBC News)

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America – October 9, 2015

Estée Longah wears a faux fur coat and a set of pearls to go with her Elizabeth Taylor-inspired white cocktail dress. She gently adjusts the flyaway curls from her wig and applies the finishing touches to her smoky eyes before a night out with the Rice Rockettes, an Asian-American drag performance troupe she founded in 2009.

When the makeup and wig are off, Estée travels as Alex (who asked to withhold his last name), a flight attendant for a U.S.-based airline company. Over the years, the journey to becoming Estée Longah has been a liberating and eye-opening experience for Alex. He’s always learning something new about the various nuances and quirks that come along with Estée–many of which crosses over to the identity he was given by birth.

“Now I can see that Estée sort of influences Alex. I’m a bit more confident as Alex. I have a better sense of who Estée is,” Alex told NBC News. “She has this whole backstory.”

Estée Longah and the Rice Rockettes

Ten years ago, Alex walked through a Nordstrom, debating an official drag name that would best encompass his identity. His eyes immediately gravitated toward a huge Estée Lauder sign. With a bit of witty word searching, it wasn’t long until Estée Longah, “an old-fashioned vintage drag queen,” made her debut in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Born in Guam, Alex always considered himself an introvert. Growing up, he dreamt of leaving the island where he felt anonymous and isolated for big cities where he could express himself in a creative, nonrestrictive way. He spent most of his time doodling and expressing his emotions in a journal. In one particular entry, he wrote about having feelings for a particular guy at his high school, much to the surprise of his mother.

“My mom was a typical Asian mother. She didn’t really want to deal with that sort of issue,” Alex said. “And of course, being my nosy Filipino mother, she ransacked my room and found it, instead of me having to come out.”

In 1999, Alex settled in downtown San Francisco and studied illustration and fine arts in college. Though he didn’t immediately fall in love with the city, he eventually found his niche, initially working as a health advocate and spreading awareness about HIV prevention and safe sex education in the LGBT AAPI community.


In the ’90s, there was a lot of backlash in the community because a lot of perceptions of gay Asian Americans were that they were submissive, passive, and feminine,” Alex explained, adding that the idea of Asian American drag queens in the Bay Are was virtually unheard of at the time.

Yet drag was something that Alex always felt drawn to throughout his life. As a child, he looked forward to Halloween and was enthralled by the idea of an annual holiday where he could dress up without the need to feel judged or criticized. “I’ve always wanted to entertain or be on stage. I never felt like I could do it. I always felt like I’m too shy or nobody wants to see me, or I’m not good enough,” he said.

Photo: Peter DaSilva/NBCNews
Photo: Peter DaSilva/NBCNews

By age 21, all that changed once the heels went on, and the costume changes and lights took center stage. Alex began making weekly visits to the now-closed N’Touch, one of the earliest gay Asian bars in San Francisco.

On Thursday nights, he’d watch a mesmerizing performance of a show called Club T that was put together by his “drag mother,” LGBT rights activist Tita Aida. Under a swarm of strobe lights and in the middle of a sweaty crowd, Alex said he couldn’t help but feel at home.

“I saw her show and was blown away. I thought to myself, ‘I’ve never seen Asian drag queens before,'” he recalled.

In 2005, Alex took the plunge and made his debut in drag during one of Tita Aida’s shows, “Drags for Cash.” Recalling the night, he said he was probably drunk while performing under the identity of “Scary Bradshaw,” a parody of “Sex and the City.” But there was something powerful about being dressed in a completely different character: all of the nervousness and insecurities went away when Alex became Estée.

“You put makeup and a wig on, and it’s not me anymore. It’s a persona. I could be whoever I want. This is a mask, and it’s the illusion. It was liberating in that sense,” he said.

Though there were very few Asian-American drag queens at the time, Alex said that high-profile “drag mothers” and transgender activists like Tita Aida were instrumental in bringing the AAPI LGBTQ community to the forefront in San Francisco. “She’s been in our community since the ’90s. She was the big momma personality in our city,” he said.

Alex began to volunteer at the Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center and eventually landed a position there up until 2011. Off the clock, Alex also helped recruit performers and advertise for Tita Aida’s show at N’Touch. But it wasn’t easy finding Asian-American drag performers.

“By the time I was already helping Tita out with ‘Club T,’ there was a desert of Asian drag queens. It was a struggle finding people to perform drag,” he said.

Alex tried to tap into the API community’s own networks, but it was as though the same people were performing every week. “If you were a young Asian queer and you wanted to be a drag queen, there were no resources, no role models,” he said. “You would go to the Castro and see all these white drag queens, Latina drag queens, and you wouldn’t see anyone like you.”

In response, Alex wanted to create an all Asian-American drag troupe that would have a more permanent presence in the community. “I was at that point where I was like, if there’s no spaces we can go, I’m going to create my own space,” he said.

To continue Tita Aida’s efforts in the community, Alex officially formed the Rice Rockettes, an all Asian-American drag troupe mirrored off of Tita Aida’s Rice Girls, a smaller community-based initiative and AAPI performance group which had slowly simmered off by 2003. The Rice Rockettes made their debut in 2009 at Shangri-La in San Francisco, and in 2011, made a brief appearance on national television during the audition round for the sixth season of “America’s Got Talent.”

Doncha Vishyuwuzme

Chris Young remembers the night he accidentally overbooked his performance schedule. He was hoping to attend a company holiday party and still make it in time to guest DJ a show with the Rice Rockettes. In order to accomplish everything on his checklist, Young decided to transform his work desk into a makeshift vanity, filling in his eyebrows with an eyebrow pencil and putting on a camouflage beard cover–all while juggling last-minute IT problems.


“People were coming up to me asking if I could troubleshoot Java problems. They might have been taken aback by first, but they needed their issue fixed more than they were willing to walk away,” Young told NBC News.

These days, most people know Young better as Doncha, a “Pussycat Dolls reject” inspired by the pop group’s hit lyrics, “Don’t cha wish your girlfriend was hot like me?”

Young credits his parents with teaching him necessary life skills (“I learned wiring and electrical from dad, and mom taught me how to sew,” he said of his father, an electrician, and his mother, a waitress in San Francisco), but admits he has not yet come out to them. Young said his parents, who are in their late 70s, understand that he dresses up, but they don’t necessarily understand his life.

Young had originally volunteered for the organization as a timekeeper, holding up 30-second limit signs for performers, though he wanted more than anything to perform on stage. After some convincing, Young ended up performing a number to the “Pussycat Dolls,” which became one of the show favorites.

During an interview portion of the pageant, Young wore a plastic bag dress his mother had designed for him after she had endlessly bargained for plastic bags with a vendor at a flea market. “The plastic bags had a ‘thank you’ rose in the middle,” Young recalled. “She bought a thousand plastic bags for $10 dollars.”

Kristi Yummykochi

Nick Takeshi Large was reluctant about the name “Kristi Yummykochi” at first.

“I was like, ‘That’s cliché,'” Large, whose mother is Japanese-American, told NBC News. “Every Asian queen has to have an Asian name to show her Asian identity.”

Photo: Peter DaSilva/NBC News
Photo: Peter DaSilva/NBC News

The name first came up during a brainstorming session with the Rice Rockettes when someone had suggested names that would be based off of one’s racial identity. He eventually agreed on something along the lines of Kristi Yamaguchi, the famous American figure skater.

Large joined the group two years ago after meeting Rice Rockette member Lychee Minnelli at an AAPI event. With a dozen questions and some hesitation, Large went on to perform his first solo drag performance as Kristi at a magazine launch party with the troupe in Chinatown. He donned a short bob with blue highlights to match a formfitting blue dress that cut off just above the knees. He left his pink bra exposed and threw on a black leather jacket to complete the transformation.

“I was going for the bad bitch look, and I did Beyonce’s ‘Grown Woman’ for my first solo,” he said.

Large said most of the feedback from the community has been positive, though there have been times he’s been catcalled on the street or an occasional passerby would use homophobic slurs to refer to him. “[San Francisco is] a very queer-friendly city,” he said. “I don’t find myself too worried. I’ve done martial arts most of my life.”

Over the years, Large struggled to understand his different identities–from his biracial identity to his sexual orientation. “Doing drag is something I would have never considered. If you asked in high school or college, I would think it was ridiculous,” he said.

But drag, he acknowledged, has helped him come to terms with his true identity without feeling the constant pressure or need to feel judged. “Part of the reason I do drag was I used to have aspects of my life…I repressed so much. I tried not to appear a certain way,” he said. “I did drag as a way to explore that side of femininity something I was previously afraid of.”

“Many immigrant Chinese or Asian parents…don’t understand the concept of what gay is,” Young said. “So to get them to wrap their heads around that is very complicated.”

Despite the communication barriers, Young said his parents have helped him build some of the costumes he’s worn to shows with the Rice Rockettes and some pageants, including Runway, the pageant where he found his identity as Doncha Vishyuwuzme.