Month: November 2015

Anna Akana is ‘Chasing Laughs’ and Telling Stories

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America, November 13, 2015

anna akana

Shortly after her teen sister’s suicide, Anna Akana turned to drugs to numb the pain and mute out a phase in her life she was not able to internalize.

In the months following her sister Kristina’s passing, Akana tuned in to a Comedy Central special featuring actress and comedian Margaret Cho, whose fierce attitude and comedy always spoke volumes to Anna.

It was the first time since her sister’s death that laughter seemed to have found its way back into Akana’s life. She couldn’t remember the last time she laughed so hard.

“It was amazing, and I was like, ‘I forgot how great this feels. I want to devote my life to this,'” Akana told NBC News. “I have been just chasing laughs since then.”

Anna Akana plays the role of Alex Wong in the short film “Loose Ends” Courtesy of The Coronel Group

Akana credits Cho for playing a significant role in helping her realize that she was meant to tell stories and to make people laugh. In the years that followed, Akana turned to YouTube and documentary filmmaking, reaching and impacting the lives of millions through her raw storytelling.

“I finally got my life together and put it into a creative outlet. The easiest thing for people to do is not go through the mourning process and just try to put the feelings off, and it’s not healthy,” she said.

Akana began performing stand-up comedy at bars and clubs at the age of 19, often inviting her parents to come and watch. But during that two year period, she dealt with a lot of anxiety from being on stage in front of a live audience.

In 2011, Akana launched her YouTube channel in the comfort of her own home. It was a space where she could be herself without worrying about the nausea that came along with stage fright. Four years later, she has more than one million subscribers, and more than 122 million views on her videos, which cover a variety of relatable content—everything from middle school bullies, to “How to Apply Your Face” (a look at some of the characteristics that work toward creating the perfect you), and “Why Guys Like Asian Girls.”

But tackling these topics and using the right dose of comedy is a perpetual balancing act. There’s a fine line that exists, Akana acknowledged, and she does her best to make sure there is no ambiguity left for the audience.

“If I’m going to tackle something that is serious, then I need to be sure that the comedy is on point and that the takeaway message is crystal clear,” she said.

But Akana also makes sure to stay true to her humor and originality too. “I’ve been able to do it by being very jokey and using cats and clones and prop guns and using the last 30 seconds from me being serious and what the overall message is,” she said.

When Akana first launched her channel, it was meant as a platform to help cope with her insecurities and anxieties, but over the past few years, it has evolved into a collection and journal of the experiences she’s had.

“My YouTube channel is kind of a library of all my issues I’ve lived with,” she said. “To process it emotionally, it’s been good and bad.”

Akana said she’s noticed her channel has also become a library of resources for those who feel isolated and unheard. These days, she’ll often receive comments from long-time YouTube fans who will line up at some of her stand-up shows in Southern California to ask her for advice and to thank her for her videos.

“I still get very emotional when a girl—13 or 14—comes up to me and says, ‘Your videos really helped me,'” she said, adding that she wished her late sister had something similar to help her.

Throughout her childhood, Akana moved every two years. Her father served as a Marine Corps officer and was born in Japan, and moved to the U.S. when he was five. Her mother, originally from the Philippines, met Akana’s father when he was stationed overseas. The two eventually married, settled down, and had three kids.

But a career in entertainment was never exactly on the table in the her family, and while Akana’s siblings had showed an interest in film, it was always viewed as a hobby and not a career option.

“[My parents] never considered me actually going into entertainment until Kristina died. They never thought of it. It wasn’t until they saw me doing stand-up and they were like, ‘Oh, we get it,'” she said.

Akana’s father had always wanted her to be in the military, and for much of her early life, that had always been the game plan. “I’ve always wanted to be in comedy…growing up with Asian parents and not seeing yourself represented in media—it was always just a daydream,” she said.

But Kristina’s death put things into perspective for her. She began to reassess her career ambitions, and she eventually turned her attention to comedy and acting instead of pursuing the military, which had been the plan for 18 years of her life.

Akana dropped out of community college in 2009 and moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dreams of becoming an actress and filmmaker, but it wasn’t an easy transition. She found herself having to navigate a road that wasn’t always clear—one that consisted of an industry that Akana soon came to find wasn’t always fair and balanced.

“On the one hand, there’s so little of us [Asian American and Pacific Islanders] that it’s a much smaller competitive pool, but on the other hand, most of the roles that we are afforded are very stereotypical: you’re either a computer hacker, a doctor, or the best friend that’s smart or highly sexualized,” she said.

Anna Akana dives into documentary filmmaking. Courtesy of The Coronel Group

With YouTube, Akana found the flexibility to turn away from stereotypical roles within the traditional entertainment space and create new, empowering content through her own channel. “It’s given me a lot more power and a lot more of a voice,” she said.

Aside from YouTube, Akana is focused on creating short films like “Loose Ends,” which puts a darker spin on life post-college. She’s also delved into issues of bullying and mental health in her 2013 series, “Riley Rewind,” which references her sister’s suicide and focuses on the story of Riley, a high school student who has the ability to travel back in time.

In the series, Akana uses her superpowers to try and save a student at her school from committing suicide.

Those themes, Akana explained, are important for her because she feels mental illness and suicide aren’t often discussed publicly, particularly within Asian-American families.

“I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but for me…you can never talk to your parents about anything. I have a lot of friends who share that sentiment. Mental illness wasn’t regarded as a real thing to my parents,” she said. “I think we need to accept that mental illness is real and that there’s nothing necessarily wrong about it.”

The ambulance scene in Anna Akana’s short film, “Loose Ends.” Courtesy of The Coronel Group

Akana said that, these days, she has a more open relationship with her parents. “We’ve realized that after [Kristina] died, if we had just known to talk to each other…it’s taken a lot of pain and suicides for people to know we have to talk about this stuff,” she said.

Recently, Akana had the chance to perform stand-up with Margaret Cho. “After the show, I said, ‘you’re the [one] of the first people who made me laugh after my sister died,” she said.

With her YouTube channel and her stand-up, Akana said she believes comedy has give her purpose.

“I do believe I was put here to tell stories and be creative in that way,” she said. “It’s given my life so much purpose and meaning and it’s ultimately what I live for.”

Along with exploring tough topics through her work, Akana added that talking about race in comedy is essential and is something that shouldn’t be overlooked.

“I have a tour—one of the comedians told me, ‘I don’t make race jokes because I don’t want to be that Asian comedian who talks about being Asian,'” she said. “But that’s not fair. That’s part of your journey—being a woman, being a minority, that heavily influences your life.”


‘Wonderfully Unconventional’: Indian-American Family Stars in Web Series

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America, November 13, 2015

“The Keswanis: A Most Modern Family” is a web series that puts the spotlight on an Indian-American family from San Diego, Calif.

The web series, which was produced by, stars “Vine superstar” BigNik, “momager” Vaishali, “Dr. Dad” Anil, “pageant rookie” Sarina, and six-year-old “transgender princess” Devina.

Anil Keswani told NBC News that he hopes the three-part series will not be sensationalized or seen solely as reality television. “The reality is that’s not how we’re trying to portray or position ourselves,” he told NBC News. “We celebrate our children and their uniqueness.”

Anil said he hopes the series will spread a new sense of awareness and, instead, encourage parents to reflect about their own children.

“If you support your children and their ways, and give them structure and support them, they will excel in many ways. I think that’s the biggest challenge,” he added.

The first of three episodes focuses on 17-year-old Nik, known as BigNik on his Vine channel, which has nearly 3 million followers. He was born with a rare form of dwarfism and has gone through dozens of surgeries.

“One day I decided to get in front of the camera, and I felt different, I felt like I had a voice,” Nik told

Nik turned to making six second-long Vine videos, which instantly became a hit.

“One day I just got really bored, I was sitting in my wheelchair and started making a video,” Nik told “Two months later, it blew up and that’s how I kinda started Vine.”

The second episode follows the story of Sarina, an introverted teenager and also the middle child of the family who has chosen to enter the world of pageantry.

“I’m more of an introvert. My mom and my brother and Devina are more like confident, they are more out there, they have really big personalities,” Sarina told

In the third episode of the series, the spotlight is on Devina, a six-year-old transgender female and also the youngest of two siblings. In an interview with, parents Vaishali and Anil said it was a journey to understanding their child.

“He would pick up dolls and we would take them and hide them, and just snatch them out of his hand. I didn’t understand what was happening to my boy,” Vaishali said. “It just hit me that my child is a girl. […] When you are the parent of a transgender child, you lose that child you thought you had. It’s like a death, and a birth of another and it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a huge adjustment.”

In the series, Devina opens up about bullies and being targeted by a classmate who she says spat at her and pushed her for being transgender. Devina, a proud Girl Scout, isn’t letting that incident get under her skin. She’s speaking out against bullying at her school:

“There’s a lot of people who are transgender. And I’m deciding to do a speech about it and tell my whole school about it,” Devina told


‘Mural Muses’ Honors History, Achievements of Female Asian-American Artists

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America, November 10, 2015

mural 2

In celebration of its 25th anniversary, the Asian American Women Artists Association has launched a campaign to create a collective mural honoring the contributions of women artists in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.

The community mural will be located in the Richmond District of San Francisco and is expected to be completed by the summer. “Mural Muses” would be one of the first large-scale murals in the Bay Area honoring Asian-American women artists, according to AAWAA.

The organization will collaborate with Erin Yoshi and Cece Carpio, two prominent Bay Area Asian-American artists who are part of the Trust Your Struggle artist collective.


Melanie Elvena, programs manager at AAWAA, explained to NBC News that the collaborative mural is another way to raise visibility for Asian-American women artists in a space that has traditionally been dominated by males.

“The street art scene is mostly male—very male-dominated—so for us to commission these works of Asian-American women, I feel like it’s [making] a statement,” Elvena said.

RELATED: Breaking Into One of Los Angeles’ Toughest Boys’ Clubs

Elvena says the project is also a response to the lack of a physical space dedicated to Asian-American art.

“We don’t have an actual physical space dedicated to Asian-American art, so we thought this is the perfect time to do this project and to put it out into the world, where people could go to a wall and see a mural dedicated to our community,” she said.

Asian Americans make up 33.3 percent of the population in San Francisco, according to 2010 Census estimates.

AAWAA’s mural comes at a time of increased sightings of vandalism, hate crimes, and racial slurs directed at the Asian-American community. Elvena cites the recent arrest of a man in connection with the spray painted words “No More Chinese” throughout a neighborhood in San Francisco.

Elvena hopes the mural will enhance dialogue and encourage Asian Americans to reclaim public space. “There’s been a lot of push-back against Asian Americans and so for me, it’s like we really need to raise our visibility. There’s been so much negativity,” she said. “I think it’s important to be able to honor the communities that have been in San Francisco. This mural to me is honoring our community and [showing] that we’re here.”

Elvena adds that San Francisco’s creative arts community is currently going through some major changes. According to a recent survey by the San Francisco Arts Commission, 70 percent of artists acknowledged that they were being displaced or in the process of being displaced.

“There’s a lot of change going on. A lot of the more minority communities are having to move out, and are being pushed out,” Elvena said. “Many artists have experienced displacement, so for us that’s a hard thing to hear because we want to make sure that in 5-10 years, we have artists and that we are serving the community.”

AAWAA’s “Mural Muses” project, Elvena says, comes at a crucial time when the organization is trying to hold its space down and continue its mission to empower artists.

“What I really want the piece is to have a public physical presence that can represent our community,” she said. “I really wanted to provide something visual that would hopefully inspire future Asian-American artists. Personally, for me, if I had more role models that spoke to my narrative or looked like me growing up in terms of my creativity, it would have been more empowering to see that.”

‘April’s Way’ Captures Stories of Korean-American Merchants During L.A. Riots

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America, November 9, 2015

april's way

A new crowdfunding campaign hopes to help tell the story of the impact the 1992 Los Angeles riots had on the Korean-American community.

Launched by director Robert Nyerges, the Kickstarter campaign for “April’s Way,” a short film, began Oct. 20 and will end Nov. 20. The title “April’s Way” is a reference to the month of April, when the riots began following the acquittal of four LAPD officers in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King.

The short film follows the story of Sung-Min (played by Tom Choi from MTV’s “Teen Wolf”), a Korean-American merchant who struggles to protect his family and defend his market during the six days of looting, arson, and violence that spread from South Los Angeles (formerly South-Central Los Angeles) to Koreatown.

In researching the riots, Nyerges turned to film as an honest medium to reveal the Korean perspective—a perspective that he found had been repeatedly forgotten or not told in its entirety.

“The story line of many of these Korean store owners was often overlooked and undertold….when in fact they were a huge victim of the entire event,” Nyerges told NBC News. “Close to 2,000 stores were burned to the ground and accounted for billions of dollars of damage, yet somehow their voice has been voiceless.”


Nyerges added that the violence that erupted in response to the recent shootings of unarmed black teens in Ferguson and Baltimore furthered his desire to direct a short film that would take a stand against racism and social injustice.

“With violence in Ferguson last summer, I was in a down period and knew this was something important. When it re-erupted, I was compelled to start a short film,” he said. “While we were making this project earlier this year, events in Baltimore unfolded and re-justified the means to make this project.”

During his research, Nyerges looked to filmmakers like David Kim for inspiration. Kim’s 2012 documentary “Clash of Colors” took a deep dive into how the L.A. riots affected the Korean-American community in the years during and long after the riots.

“April’s Way,” which is based on a true story, was shot on location at Advance Food Market on West Adams Boulevard—one of the stores that had burned down during the riots.


“We believe, unless something drastically changes in spirit in this country, this all will come again, maybe soon, maybe worse,” Buddy Lee, the late co-owner of Advance Food Market, told the Associated Press in 1992.

The Lee family had initially bought the store just a few years before the riots began. After their market burned down, Lee and his wife Betty spent two years battling insurance companies and collaborating with the local community to rebuild the market, Nyerges said.

With help from the Korean Churches for Community Development, Nyerges was able to connect with the Lee family, who revealed VHS footage of their market burning down, and provided insight into some of the discrimination and struggles they faced in the years during and after the riots.

“When we found this particular story line with the Advance Market, it reaffirmed that this is an important and topical event that is relevant to today’s events with social injustices that are happening,” Nyerges said.

Shelley Lee, associate professor of history and comparative American studies at Oberlin College, says the events of April 29, 1992, are often referred to as “Sa-i-gu” in the Korean language—a reference to the date that the riots first took place.

“The fact that Koreans have a special name for what most Americans call the ‘L.A. riots’ underscores what a trauma it was at the time, what a turning point it since has been, and how it stands out in the collective immigrant and diasporic consciousness of Koreans in America and elsewhere,” Lee told NBC News.

For many immigrants, “Sai-i-gu” symbolized the shattering of the American Dream, Lee explained, adding, “For some it was a wake-up call to be more civically and politically engaged and sensitive to the struggles of others in America. For other Koreans, the lesson was to leave the city and its troubles.”

Lee said that Korean-owned stores in Koreatown and South Los Angeles were targeted by rioters, as they were at the epicenter of the uprising. Some also suggest that the shooting death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, an African-American teenager who was fatally shot by Korean storekeeper Soon Ja Du, less than two weeks after the videotaped beating of King.

“Soon Ja Du thought she was shoplifting, but Harlins had money in her hand,” Lee said. A jury found Du guilty, but was given what many believe was a light sentence.

“The killing and trial confirmed what many had been charging: that there was no justice for black victims and only preferential treatment for their assailants,” Lee said, adding, “The media played a large role in playing up interracial conflict and perpetuating this idea that members of the black and Korean communities were uniformly intolerant of and racist toward each other.”

Lee explained that South Los Angeles and Koreatown received hardly any police assistance during the rioting. As a result, many Korean-American merchants were forced to take matters into their own hands by guarding their businesses with their own weapons.

“The faces of anguished storeowners watching their livelihoods burn to the ground, as well as gun-toting Koreans improvising their own security stand out as some of the most haunting and unforgettable images of the riots,” Lee recalled.

In the immediate wake of the uprising, there was a great deal of despair and hopelessness, as many Korean businesses were not insured. “These shops were all that these immigrants had,” Lee said.

Total property damage during the riots was estimated between $785 million and $1 billion, which included $350 to $400 million worth of damage to Korean-owned property. The riots left an estimated 2,000 injured and led to thousands of arrests. Approximately 55 people were killed during the riots.

In “April’s Way,” Nyerges says some of his characters react based on survival instincts and the need to protect one’s family from violence.

“What’s important to me was to humanize each of these demographics and show that no one is directly to blame, but nobody is also innocent as well,” he said.

As an example, Nyerges points to a scene where a young mother steals food in order to feed her young child while cradling her baby. “Not all Korean store owners were violent offenders. Not all African-American and Hispanic looters were malicious people, but rather acting out of need and survival,” he added.

Nyerges hopes his film will spark a larger discussion and raise questions about race relations. He has since been in close contact with Operation HOPE, the Korean American Chamber of Commerce in Koreatown, the Korean Cultural Center in Orange County, and various other organizations during the making of “April’s Way.”

“We hope that we can be one small part of the conversation that needs to continue happening to further develop race relations in our country and our world,” Nyerges said.

The feedback for the film so far, Nyerges said, has been hopeful. While promoting the Kickstarter across social media, Nyerges said he’s received feedback and comments from people who want to share their own experiences.

According to 2010 Census data, more than 200,000 Korean Americans reside in Los Angeles County.

Today, Koreatown has bounced back, but the painful history still remains, Lee explained.

“You wouldn’t know from visiting Koreatown today that it was the scene for the most destructive riot in American history,” Lee said.


New Series Hopes to Bring Diversity to Web Streaming Platforms

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America, November 5, 2015

Lynn Chen stars as Peggy Lee in the teaser for The Lees of Los Angeles Photo Credit Phong Le

A six-minute teaser has been released for “The Lees of Los Angeles,” a potential TV series that co-creator Phong Le hopes will gain enough of a following to grab the attention of Hollywood executives.

“There are two great shows featuring Asian-American families that are doing extremely well on network TV right now: ‘Fresh off the Boat’ and ‘Dr. Ken,'” Le told NBC News. “We’re hoping to have an opportunity to tell our story on a different platform in a different way.”

If the series gets picked up, Le hopes to turn it into a half-hour comedy/drama for a cable network or subscription service. The first season would include a 10-episode arc, Le said.

The teaser, which was released Oct. 27 on YouTube, follows the story of Peggy Lee (played by Lynn Chen, co-founder of the blog Thick Dumpling Skin) as she anxiously prepares to introduce her Caucasian musician boyfriend to her “highly judgmental family.”

The teaser also introduces Peggy’s brothers (played by “Supernatural” actor Orsic Chau and also by Le himself), her parents (played by veteran actors Elizabeth Sung, whose credits include “The Joy Luck Club” and “The Sopranos,” and Jim Lau, seen in “Everybody Hates Chris” and “Fear the Walking Dead”) and sets up the conflict the show plans to tackle. The show also includes a cameo from American Authors lead vocalist Zac Barnett.

Le, who co-created the series with writer and producer Nick Morris, describes the Lees as a family that has achieved the American dream while navigating the struggles that come along with cultural and generational divides.

“Like most families with parents who emigrated over from another country and had children that were born and raised in America, a huge cultural divide exists between them,” Le said. “Having the family live in such a diverse and eccentric city like Los Angeles exacerbates this cultural divide, which adds to the drama and also the comedy.”

Le hopes to use the series as a chance to shatter stereotypes and call on Hollywood executives to create and feature more diverse content.

“We wanted to create more content for Asian-American actors where the roles aren’t caricatures of what many perceive us to be. Yet, we still want to have fun and not take ourselves too seriously while doing it,” he said.

According to GLAAD’s 2015-2016 annual “Where We Are On TV” report, 53 regular characters are Asian-Pacific Islander—a 2 percent increase from the previous year.

Le is hopeful there is a shift occurring in Hollywood toward telling more diverse stories. Along with shows like “Fresh Off the Boat” and Aziz Ansari’s upcoming Netflix series, “Master of None” leading the way, new shows in development such as “Eat Pray Thug” and “I Love Lakshmi” have the potential to continue the upward trend.
“We still have a long way to go, but I think Hollywood has made significant progress in the last few years as far as diverse content goes…We need more people like Eddie Huang, Margaret Cho and Aziz Ansari, for example, to create and bring their unique stories to life. If we have more diverse content creators telling interesting stories, I believe Hollywood executives will not be able to ignore them for long,” Le said.