Asian American television history changed on February 4, 2015 when ABC’s comedy FRESH OFF THE BOAT premiered. It was the first American prime-time network television series in two decades that focused on an Asian American family and it faced enormous pressure to be both a hit and satisfy an often fickle Asian American community. But the show quickly became a success (currently renewed for a third season) and in the year since, we’ve also seen more Asian American TV success stories with DR. KEN, QUANTICO, CRAZY EX-GIRLFRIEND, INTO THE BADLANDS and MASTER OF NONE, among others.
But even though the television landscape may not have been as welcoming to Asians pre-FOTB, it wasn’t completely devoid of any representation either. So to show that Asian and Asian American characters have made an impact on the small screen going way back to the birth of the medium in the 1950s, I take a look back at the 50 most influential Asian TV characters that graced our American boob tubes before February 4, 2015.
To help narrow my list, I set a few guidelines. My list, my rules: choices were limited to prime-time, scripted American television series. Characters had to be regulars on the show and not recurring. Except for a couple of important exceptions, I didn’t include Asian actors playing distinctly non-Asian characters (sorry Dean Cain, star of my first Hollywood gig on LOIS & CLARK: THE NEW ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN), non-Asians playing Asians (sorry David Carradine of KUNG FU fame and Apu on THE SIMPSONS) or characters that I felt had no redeeming qualities (sorry Han from 2 BROKE GIRLS and Hop Sing from BONANZA). An individual actor can’t make more than one appearance on this list so with someone like Pat Morita who starred in three TV series that could’ve easily taken up three spots here, I picked the one role I thought had the most impact. If a TV series had more than one Asian series regular, I also limited my choices to one character per show (so sorry to the other Asian American cast members from GLEE who didn’t make it). Oh, and no “kiddie” shows (sorry, Brenda Song from THE SUITE LIFE OF ZACK AND CODY).
Even with my careful deliberation, there are many other deserving characters and actors that I did not include so as to keep the list at a somewhat manageable 50 so feel free to let me know who I thoughtlessly excluded in the comments below. Like all lists, this is purely subjective. Without any further ado, here are my picks:
50. Gedde Watanabe as Kaz Kazuhiro (1986-1987)
Based on the hit 1986 Ron Howard film of the same name starring Michael Keaton, the series followed the further adventures inside a Japanese automotive plant relocated to Hadleyville, Pennsylvania and the culture clashes that ensue. Reprising his role as the new plant manager is Gedde Watanabe who brings a quiet dignity to the role of a man trying to fit in that showed another side to Watanabe’s talent that audiences mostly familiar with him from SIXTEEN CANDLES were unaware of.
49. Jonathan Ke Quan as Sam (1986-1987)
TOGETHER WE STAND
Starring Jonathan Ke Quan–aka the cute Asian kid from INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM and GOONIES–as an Asian American orphan named Sam who’s adopted by a white family (Elliot Gould and Dee Wallace were the parents), the series was based on a BRADY BUNCH episode titled “Kelly’s Kids” about the Brady’s neighbors adopting three boys of different ethnicities (POLICE ACADEMY’S Brian Tochi played the Asian boy there). The series was short-lived and signaled the end of Quan’s hot streak as a child actor, but seeing a young Asian American male anchor a network sitcom was unprecedented.
48. Joel De La Fuente as 1st Lt. Paul Wang (USMC) (1996-1996)
SPACE: ABOVE AND BEYOND
Another short-lived series—a mash-up of the war and sci-fi genres, the show was set in a future where humans are losing a battle against a more powerful alien enemy. Enter the “Wildcards”—a regiment of young Marines who may be earth’s last hope. De La Fuente took what could’ve been the one-dimensional role of a “cowardly soldier” and instead found psychological complexity as a young, frightened man seeking strength and redemption after suffering the devastating consequences of the horrors of war.
47. Kam Fong as Chin Ho Kelly (1968-1978)
How many other Asian American actors do you know who have appeared in 241 episodes of a TV series? Born and raised in Hawaii and a 16-year veteran of the Honolulu police department to boot, Fong brought a dose of both law enforcement and “island” authenticity to the long-running procedural about a special state task force based on the real 5-0 unit that existed under martial law in the 1940s. And while CBS’ most recent reboot of HAWAII 5-0 brought us a more psychologically complex Kelly (which you’ll see later on this list), Fong’s presence reminded viewers that the rich and diverse Hawaiian culture wasn’t just there to serve as an exotic backdrop for its white leads.
46. Ravi Kapoor as Dr. Mahesh “Bug” Vijay (2001-2007)
The British Indian actor played a British Indian forensic entomologist and colleague of star Jill Hennessey’s forensic pathologist in the Boston Medical Examiner’s office. Initially, Bug was your typical supporting character in service to the leads’ arcs, but in later seasons, the producers developed interesting storylines for Bug–including a star-crossed romance with colleague Lily (Kathyrn Hahn) and, in the show’s final season, a confrontation with the Dept. of Homeland Security over accusations of terrorism, which allowed the classically-trained Kapoor to bring an added depth to his performance.
45. Arden Cho as Kira Yukimura (2014-present)
For those of us who grew up in the ‘80s, there will only be one true TEEN WOLF, but what our TEEN WOLF lacked was a kickass Asian American character, which MTV’s series has in the form of Cho’s Kira Yukimura. Sure, the show occasionally falls back on its “Orientalist” elements (Kira is a katana-wielding Fox trickster), but Cho seems to be having a blast–getting to be both a badass and occasionally wickedly bad as when she’s completely possessed by the Fox spirit. If that weren’t enough, any reason to cast our friend Tamlyn Tomita who plays Kira’s mother (along with Tom T. Choi as her father) is alright with me.
44. John Cho as Henry Higgs (2014)
The fact that an Asian American male was the romantic lead in a role not written as Asian for a broadcast network prime-time series should’ve been enough to send SELFIE to the top of this list. If only it hadn’t been cancelled after barely a season. While the PYGMALION-esque comedy about a narcissistic millennial and her straight-laced co-worker tasked with giving her a “make-over” got off to a rocky start, the charismatic Cho and his co-star Karen Gillan developed a genuine romantic chemistry over the course of the season, but alas, ABC gave it the ax just as it was hitting its stride. Following on the heels of his other short-lived series like FLASHFORWARD, GO ON and OFF CENTRE, someone needs to cast Cho in a show with longevity pronto.
43. Jadyn Wong as Happy Quinn (2014-present)
Wong was the relative newbie in the ensemble of this CBS drama about a team of misfit geniuses who join up with the Dept. of Homeland Security to solve “impossible” crimes. But watching her performance makes it clear why she was one of the first to be unanimously cast (YOMYOMF founder Justin Lin is an executive producer of the show). Playing the part of a mechanical engineer, Wong takes what could’ve been another typical Asian science sidekick and infuses her with both a quirky personality and an anger rooted in childhood trauma—oftentimes making Happy the stand-out member of team Scorpion.
42. Russell Wong as Jian-Wa Chang (1995)
This syndicated series from DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY director Rob Cohen was marketed as part of the “Action Pack”—along with other shows in the action genre. But what set this apart was Wong’s Jian-Wa—a sexy Asian male lead who got to take down the bad guys and get the girl. True, he was a martial artist, but the premise of the series elevated it from the usual chop-socky fare: Jian-Wa and his younger brother Wago (Chi Muoi Lo) are Chinese refugees who come to America to escape persecution. When Wago falls in with a Vietnamese gang–leading to his death and that of two federal agents, Jian-Wa is falsely accused of the crimes and becomes a fugitive—helping others along the way while he tries to clear his name.
41. Michaela Conlin as Angela Montenegro (2005-2015)
In a series where most of the main cast are scientists (in this case, forensic scientists tasked with solving crimes), it’s refreshing to see the one scientist that’s characterized as “free-spirited” and, well, not geeky is the Asian one. Or in this case, the half-Asian Montenegro whose father is played by ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons. That’s probably a quirky enough fact in itself to secure her place on this list, but Montenegro represents another rarity on TV—an Asian woman who’s sexy and fully owns her sexuality without being “exotic” or a “slut.” Props to Conlin for creating a long-running character (ten years and going) who continues to grow and surprise.
40. Kal Penn as Dr. Lawrence Kutner (2007-2009)
The HAROLD AND KUMAR star made his regular TV series debut on the FOX drama about a cankerous but brilliant doctor in its fourth season–playing a new member of House’s diagnostic team. Like House himself, Kutner’s methods and personality are unorthodox and the character could have come across as one-dimensional and gruff. But Penn’s inherent “likeability” adds humanity to even the character’s most heartless moments like when Kutner is shown eating cereal and watching TV while the other doctors are grieving over the death of one of their colleagues. Which is why when the producers made the controversial decision that Kutner should commit suicide after Penn left the show to work for the Obama administration, the fans reacted with stunned outrage.
39. Linda Park as Ensign Hoshi Sato (2001-2005)
STAR TREK: ENTERPRISE
Here’s the first of three characters we’ll encounter on this list from the STAR TREK universe. This prequel to the original 1966 STAR TREK got off to a rocky start, but found its footing in the final two seasons. Which perfectly mirrors the journey of Park’s Sato—a genius translator/linguist (eat your heart out, Uhura!) who’s insecure and reluctant at first, but eventually finds her footing as the mission progresses. All this climaxes in Park’s crowning performance in the final season two-parter where we visit the “evil” Mirror Universe and realize that what we are in fact witnessing is the story of the rise to power of that world’s not-so-nice Sato as she manipulates her way to become the de facto ruler of the galaxy. All hail, Empress Hoshi!
38. Ming-Na Wen as Dr. Jing-Mei “Deb” Chen (1994-1995, 1999-2004)
I’ve always had a problem with TV shows set in American urban hospitals with little to no Asian American representation. ER might be the most popular hospital drama ever and while it too suffered from this problem, we at least got to see some Asian faces as part of the regular or recurring cast including Lily Mariye, Gedde Watanabe, Parminder Nagra and Wen. Wen’s Dr. Chen first appeared halfway through the first season as a medical student, but was soon off the show without making much impact. It wasn’t until she returned in season 6 that Chen blossomed into a fully-realized character—dealing with issues such as a baby she gives up for adoption and caring for her ill father after her mother’s death. And Wen gave us one of the series’ most beautiful moments–Chen’s final scene when she sees her locker name tag alongside those of all the other past doctors and employees—a sublime example of how you can do so much by doing so little.
37. Garrett Wang as Harry Kim (1995-2001)
STAR TREK: VOYAGER
While pursuing an enemy Maquis ship, the Federation starship Voyager is accidentally stranded on the far side of the galaxy—75 years away from home. Among the “lost in space” crew is a young and inexperienced Ensign Kim on his first mission. Wang once told me that his backstory for Kim included the tidbit that he was my great-great-great-great-great-great grandson. And while he was joking (probably), the character did have personal resonance with me—it was the first time I was seeing a fellow Korean American male character as a regular part of something as iconic as the STAR TREK universe. And despite the fact that Kim didn’t get a significant promotion despite all those years of faithfully serving above and beyond, he did save the ship and the galaxy itself on several occasions with his own brand of untainted, All-American heroism.
36. Keiko Agena as Lane Kim (2000-2007)
Series creator Amy Sherman-Palladino said she modeled the character of Lane Kim on her childhood best friend who was Korean American. And in the series, Lane is indeed the best friend of lead Rory Gilmore (Alexis Biedel)—a rock-and-roll loving teen living under the thumb of ultra-Christian Korean parents (though we never see her father). While some in the community criticized GILMORE GIRLS’ portrayal of the strict Asian parent stereotype, having grown up in the Korean American community, I can attest to the existence of many Lane Kims—Korean American kids growing up with strict, religious parents who are caught between rebellion and filial responsibility. Agena astutely captures that conflict in all its complexity.
35. Tim Kang as Kimball Cho (2008-2015)
Kang’s Cho, an FBI special agent, may seem cold and deadpan on the surface, but what makes him interesting is what’s below the surface. Before a career in law enforcement, Cho was an aspiring baseball player, a gangbanger and a member of the US Army Special Forces. And it’s this eccentric background that allows Kang to mold Cho into a character who’s not quite what he seems. Whether he’s trying to help a young thief who reminds him of who he used to be or grappling with an addiction to painkillers following an accident, Kang made sure Cho always confounded audience expectations.
34. B.D. Wong as Dr. George Huang (2001-2015)
LAW & ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT
Wong won a Tony Award for his role in Offender DHH’s hit Broadway play M. BUTTERFLY and can currently be seen whooping it up as the evil psychiatrist, Professor Hugo Strange, on FOX’s GOTHAM, but in LAW & ORDER: SVU, he played a psychiatrist firmly on the right side of the law. While Dr. Huang’s role is mainly to consult with the detectives in the Special Victims Unit, Huang’s not just an expositional mouthpiece. He’s not afraid to challenge and disagree with the detectives if he believes they are wrong and in one of the show’s best episodes, we learn that Huang is gay when he gets involved in a case with a pedophile rights group who compare their struggle to that of homosexuals. This was the first openly gay Asian American regular on a prime-time TV drama.
33. Steve Byrne as Steve Sullivan (2012-2014)
SULLIVAN & SON
Much hoopla has been justifiable made about the fact that FRESH OFF THE BOAT is the first network sitcom featuring an Asian American family since ALL-AMERICAN GIRL and how groundbreaking that is. But what’s been lost in that hoopla is the importance of stand-up comic Byrne’s series about a hapa (half Korean/half Irish) lawyer who leaves his job to take over his father’s bar, which pre-dated FOTB by several years. Sure, it was on TBS and not one of the broadcast networks, but the significance of a show starring a hapa male lead and centered around his mixed-race family can’t be downplayed. Byrne’s “everyman” quality helped ground the series and allowed the other actors to shine, including ALL-AMERICAN GIRL alumni Jodi Long as Steve’s mother and Vivian Bang as his sister.
32. Chloe Bennet as Daisy “Skye” Johnson aka Quake (2013-present)
MARVEL’S AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D
When S.H.I.E.L.D. first premiered, I, like many others, found Bennet’s Skye to be more annoying than relatable. Here was another super-attractive hacker who could type a few keys on her laptop and do the impossible—a Hollywood cliché if ever there was one. But something miraculous happened: Skye quietly developed into the show’s most interesting character as she uncovered her “Inhuman” roots. Ming-Na Wen’s Melinda May may rightfully be S.H.I.E.L.D’s resident badass, but Skye has become the show’s heart and moral compass—as well as the FIRST series regular Asian American female superhero on network TV, yo! (For the first series regular Asian American male superhero see #6) And it doesn’t hurt that Bennet is hot, but what makes her truly sexy is both her self-deprecating sense of humor (most notably displayed on her social media) and the fact that she has no qualms about publicly telling it like it is.
31. Kumail Nanjiani as Dinesh Chugtai (2014-present)
Is SILICON VALLEY the funniest show currently on TV? Let’s say if someone were to make that proclamation, I wouldn’t disagree. HBO’s comedy about a shy programmer (Thomas Middleditch) who develops a revolutionary app is a biting satire of the tech world and much of that bite comes from the supporting characters including Nanjiani’s hilariously acerbic Dinesh. Here’s a partial list of Dinesh’s hijinks: sabotaging the Kickstarter campaign for his cousin’s “bro” app, plotting the death of the guy who’s dating the woman he likes and co-presenting what is inarguably the greatest dick joke in the history of television. Damn, if compiling that list doesn’t make me want to re-watch the show. Season 3 kicks off later this month so it’s not too late to catch up on season 1 and 2 if you haven’t already.
30. C.S. Lee as Vince Masuka (2006-2013)
In both the Showtime TV series and the books on which the show is based, forensic scientist Vince Masuka is described as socially awkward. And while an Asian male character who’s both a science geek and socially inept could be problematic, there’s one thing that sets Masuka apart: he’s completely and utterly obsessed with sex. And while this does at times make him unlikeable and even creepy (and this on a show where his friend and colleague, Dexter, is secretly a serial killer), it also makes Masuka one of the most original Asian male creations on TV. And Lee plays the part to the hilt—his interactions with the ladies are always entertaining. But fortunately, that’s not all there is to the man. He also excels at his job, has a unique sense of humor and even has a good heart—most evident in the storyline when Masuka finds out he has a grown daughter and finds a very un-Masuka way of helping her.
29. Bobby Lee as various roles (2001-2009)
Is comedian Bobby Lee batshit crazy? I don’t know, but from his work on Fox’s sketch comedy series MADtv, it sure seemed that way—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing when you need to stand out as part of a talented ensemble that includes future KEY AND PEELE-ers, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. So while I can write about how funny Lee was, it’s probably best to show instead of tell in this case. Here’s Lee as a North Korean scientist:
And spoofing Korean dramas along with my fellow Offender Sung Kang:
28. Daniel Dae Kim as Chin Ho Kelly (2010-present)
Coming off the red-hot success of the hit series LOST which was shot in Hawaii, Kim didn’t have to search far for his next role. And while he played a Korean national in the former show with limited English ability, the FIVE-0 reboot allowed Kim to play a 100% Asian American character with more complexity than expected. Not only is Chin Ho Kelly a disgraced police officer (wrongly) accused of corruption—allowing Kim to display more of his range than in his previous roles—but he’s also the rare Asian American male on network TV who gets to tackle a full range of emotions and experiences. Whether he’s kicking ass, romancing the ladies, sacrificing himself for his loved ones, grieving over the death of his wife or adding his own brand of levity/humor to grim situations, Kim is always up to the task. Special note: this is the only character that appears twice on this list (see # 47).
27. Sonja Sohn as Det. Shakima “Kima” Greggs (2002-2008)
THE WIRE is still one of TV’s all-time grittiest crime dramas. Set on the mean streets of Baltimore, the Korean/African American Sohn brought a street-level authenticity to her role as narcotics detective Shakima Greggs. In fact, Sohn and her co-stars were so good that it was hard to tell sometimes if we were watching a scripted show or a documentary. What made Greggs so fascinating was the fact that she was an excellent cop, but a hot mess off-duty–her issues included a troubled relationship and problems with alcohol. And the show’s treatment of Gregg’s same-sex relationship with her partner Cheryl was a refreshing approach from what we often get on TV: it was just as fucked-up and complicated as the heterosexual relationships we usually see on dramas. What a concept!
26. Lauren Tom as Minh and Connie Souphanousinphone (1997-2010)
KING OF THE HILL
An animated series set in a small town in Texas is not where one might expect to find an Asian presence, but Mike Judge and Greg Daniel’s comedy about the “hillbilly” Hill family often defied expectations. Tom voiced the dual roles of Laotian immigrant/general’s daughter/expert markswoman Minh and her Americanized daughter Connie. As the Hill’s neighbors, exploring the “foreign-ness” of the Souphanousinphones could’ve easily been the reason for their existence on the show, but instead they often provided a fresh, outside perspective to satirize American “hillbilly” culture. And though Tom is also known for her live-action roles in movies like THE JOY LUCK CLUB and The CW’s SUPERNATURAL, she is one of the most versatile voice actors working today. In addition to KING OF THE HILL, her voice credits are numerous including FUTURAMA, JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED, BATMAN BEYOND, AVATAR THE LAST AIRBENDER and many others.
25. Kim Miyori as Dr. Wendy Armstrong (1982-1984)
This ‘80s medical drama included an ensemble of a who’s who of actors who would soon become more recognizable including Howie Mandel, David Morse, Ed Begley Jr., Bruce Greenwood and a young Denzel Washington. Which is all the more impressive that Miyori managed to create a character who stood out amidst such a powerhouse cast. At the time, it was rare to see any Asian face playing a “normal” person on TV, much less a doctor. Much less a doctor suffering from bulimia and severe depression. So when Dr. Armstrong committed suicide at the end of season two during an era of TV when killing off a series regular just didn’t happen, it was shocking—both for its unconventionally stark realism and for the realization that we had just lost a flawed, three-dimensional Asian American character unlike any who had come before.
24. Steve Park as various roles (1991-1992)
IN LIVING COLOR
The fact that Park was the first Asian American to be a series regular on a sketch comedy show would be enough to secure a position on this list. But the fact that he was a Korean American series regular on a primarily African American sketch during a period when Black-Korean relations were at their most contentious (culminating in the L.A. Riots) gives his pioneering efforts even more weight. Park has spoken publicly about the difficult times he had on the show and after his one season, he wasn’t brought back. But for many Asian Americans, seeing an Asian face as a part of a mostly Black ensemble while the media was constantly telling us how Blacks and Koreans were “enemies”, didn’t just remind us that laughter was color-blind, but gave us hope that real life could imitate reel life.
23. Sammo Hung as Sammo Law (1998-2000)
When MARTIAL LAW first premiered, American audiences probably didn’t know what to make of Hung: he definitely didn’t resemble any leading man they were accustomed to and an action hero at that. But Asian movie fans already knew that Hung was one of the most respected martial artists in the business, having worked with everyone from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan, and soon American viewers caught on; making the show an out-of-the-box hit. Playing a Chinese cop transferred to America, Hung brought the new wave of Hong Kong-style action that was becoming popular in America to the small screen and also headlined one of the most diverse casts on TV—then or now—with Kelly Hu and Arsenio Hall by his side.
22. Dustin Nguyen as Officer Harry Truman Ioki (1987-1990)
21 JUMP STREET
If you were an Asian American male growing up in the ‘80s, there was a very good chance that your defining screen icon was SIXTEEN CANDLES’ Long Duk Dong. Which is why when Nguyen’s Officer Ioki hit the airwaves–alongside future superstar Johnny Depp–in this action series about a group of youthful-looking officers who go undercover in high schools and colleges, we could breathe a sigh of relief. Here was a non-stereotypical Asian American cop who didn’t take shit and could take down the bad guys with the best of them. Originally introduced as a Japanese American character, the series later retconned his backstory—pulling from Nguyen’s own history—to make him a Vietnamese refugee forced to pass as Japanese. Though that could’ve been a hokey reveal, it actually added an interesting layer to a character who was already spending most of his life undercover; pretending to be someone he wasn’t.
21. Rex Lee as Lloyd Lee (2005-2011)
First appearing in the HBO comedy’s second season as the assistant to Jeremy Piven’s Hollywood agent, Ari Gold, it didn’t take long for Lee’s Lloyd to become America’s favorite Gaysian. While most everyone else would buckle under Gold’s relentless…uh…agenting, Lloyd was able to take whatever his boss had to dish out and, more importantly, give back as good as he got. Lloyd was also loyal, good-hearted and funny, but what probably helped endear him even more to audiences was his ability to see the Hollywood game for the bullshit it was. He was one of us and when he eventually became a full-fledged agent, his hard-earned victory was ours.
20. Danny Pudi as Abed Nadir (2009-2015)
I could have easily chosen Ken Jeong’s Spanish teaching/security guarding/Greendale study group hanger-oner Ben Chang for this position, but while Jeong brought his trademark comedic anarchy to his role, he had already had his breakthrough in THE HANGOVER. Pudi seemed to come out of nowhere and was a true revelation as the man-child who saw the world through a prism of film/tv influenced pop culture. And while that often meant Abed was the group’s resident oddball, it also often made him the group’s most human member as in the brilliant Claymation episode where Abed’s search for the meaning of Christmas provided the series with one of its most emotionally resonant episodes.
19. Maggie Q as Nikita Mears (2010-2013)
In the previous film and TV incarnations of NIKITA, the lead was always a Caucasian woman so when Maggie Q was announced as the star of The CW’s reboot, we definitely weren’t in Kansas anymore. As in prior versions, Q’s Nikita was a troubled youth who’s recruited by the Division, a secret government organization, that trains her to become an assassin. But when Nikita falls in love and the Division kills her fiancé, she turns against them and vows to bring them down. Yes, a main requirement of the role was that Q look hot and be able to kick ass, both of which she did very well. But Nikita’s past and conflicted emotions also allowed Q to play a damaged hero unsure of how to do the right thing—setting the template for other similar kick ass Asian women to come like AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D’s Melinda May (Ming-Na Wen).
18. Yunjin Kim as Sun Kwon (2004-2010)
As the two foreign, non-English speaking survivors of Oceanic flight 815, Sun and her husband Jin (HAWAII FIVE-0’s Daniel Dae Kim) at first seemed like little more than a stereotypical Asian couple—the stoic, domineering Korean husband and obedient, submissive Korean wife. Boy, was that wrong! Over the course of the series, both characters broke free from those early one-dimensional shackles and came into their own. Like her husband, we learned that Sun wasn’t who she seemed—she knew fluent English and she was definitely not the submissive Asian wife. And when Sun and Jin are separated by both space and time (Jin ends up in 1977), Sun begins an epic quest to find her true love and Kim brings even more previously unseen colors to her performance. The couple’s final reunion ends tragically at the bottom of the ocean, but not before their declaration that they would never be separated again sealed the couple’s status as the romantic heart of the show or perhaps of any show.
17. Jenna Ushkowitz as Tina Cohen-Chang (2009-2015)
Apologies to GLEE’s Darren Criss and Harry Shum Jr. who could have easily taken this spot. Ushkowitz’s Tina started as a bit of a wallflower—she auditions and joins New Directions, the glee club at the fictional McKinley High, but is self-conscious because of her stutter. But through the course of the series, Tina blossoms into a confident and outspoken young woman and does something even rarer on TV: has a fully-realized relationship with an Asian American male, in this case, Shum’s Mike. Hell, they even become “Asian camp” counselors together. And let’s not forget Ushkowitz’s immense musical talent and beautiful singing voice. Here she is with Shum performing a Nat King Cole classic:
16. Masi Oka as Hiro Nakamura (2006-2010)
Oka’s Hiro was the true hero of NBC’s series about a group of “normal” people who discover they have superpowers—the show’s immediate breakout character who, along with non-superpowered best friend Ando (James Kyson), often provided HEROES with its most memorable moments. What set Hiro apart was the unbridled joy he seemed to be experiencing with the discovery of his powers (and that joy extended to Oka’s own buoyant performance) while most of the others characters brooded in the darkness because of their gifts. Still, Oka wasn’t afraid to go to the other end of the spectrum when he needed to (future Hiro was a very different person, for example), but that infectious sense of wonder was always there. Hiro was the hero those of us watching at home would’ve wanted to be if we suddenly developed superhuman abilities.
15. Aziz Ansari as Tom Haverford (2009-2015)
PARKS AND RECREATION
Those of you who saw Netflix’s brilliant MASTER OF NONE and wondered: where did this Aziz Ansari fellow come from? obviously weren’t familiar with his stellar comedic work in this NBC comedy where he played the right-hand man to Amy Poehler’s mid-level bureaucrat in Pawnee’s Parks & Rec dept. What’s not to love about Tom Haverford? He’s an Indian American dude from South Carolina who changed his name to appear more “appealing in politics”, who refers to himself as either “the brown Superman with a beard” or “brown Gosling”, worships Vin Diesel and Paul Walker, has no problems distributing copies of his house keys to attractive ladies and shows a strong aptitude for entrepreneurship—having opened up businesses such as Rent-a-Swag, Entertainment 720 and Tom’s Bistro. That’s the kind of man we can all get behind.
14. Miyoshi Umeki as Mrs. Livingstone (1969-1972)
THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER
Not only is Umeki the only Asian woman to win an acting Oscar (for 1957’s SAYONARA), but she was also nominated for a Golden Globe and Tony Award and had a major singing career in Japan. But Umeki may still be best remembered and beloved as the housekeeper for a pre-INCREDIBLE HULK Bill Bixby (playing widower Tom Corbett) and his young son Eddie (Brandon Cruz) on this Emmy-winning series revolving around Eddie’s efforts to find the right woman for his father. Not only was it rare to see an Asian face on a series during that time who wasn’t a total stereotype (with one big exception later on this list), but to have one whose race wasn’t the main factor in her existence was downright progressive (Mrs. Livingstone was Japanese like Umeki, but as you can tell by her name, the character wasn’t intended as such). When I first started watching reruns of the show, I was fully expecting something reflecting the racist realities of that era, but was pleasantly surprised to instead find a fully-formed human being.
13. Lucy Liu as Ling Woo (1997-2002)
This may be a controversial choice—Liu’s stint as Chinese American lawyer Ling Woo on this legal dramedy pissed off some Asian Americans who found the character to be the embodiment of the “Dragon Lady” stereotype. Woo was cold, vicious and knowledgeable in the art of “sexual pleasure unknown to the Western world”. And while I understand how that could be problematic, here’s one thing Woo never was: the submissive victim. She was always in control of her own destiny and Liu played her full tilt, taking her all the way up to 11—with no vanity or apologies—creating not just one of TV’s most memorable characters, but launching a career that continues to this day as one of the leads on CBS’ ELEMENTARY. And really—how can you hate a character who’s response to a potential suitor is: “If I made love to you, you’d go blind.”
12. Archie Panjabi as Kalinda Sharma (2009-2015)
THE GOOD WIFE
If acclaim and awards are evidence that you’ve created something truly memorable, Panjabi should rest assured that her Kalinda Sharma won’t soon be forgotten. Panjabi was nominated for three Emmy Awards (winning once), won an NAACP Image Award, was nominated for a Golden Globe as well as the Screen Actors Guild Awards and…you get the point. And we have to give credit to THE GOOD WIFE’s writers and producers for not only creating the type of complicated, flawed character you’d normally only see white guys playing on AMC or HBO, but for casting a British Indian actress in that role. Which isn’t to suggest that Panjabi doesn’t deserve any of the credit—her fierce and grounded performance is deserving of every single one of her numerous accolades, which is why it’s a shame she left the show last year; allegedly because of differences with her THE GOOD WIFE co-star Julianna Margulies.
11. Grace Park as Lt. Sharon “Boomer” Valerii (2004-2009)
Looking at Grace Park, you definitely wouldn’t mistake her for a dude, but she’s taken two iconic male roles and made them her own—currently playing Kono Kalakaua in CBS’ rebooted HAWAII FIVE-0 (Kono was a man in the original series) and before that, playing the new Boomer in SyFy’s rebooted BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. While Park is definitely feminine and a woman, she has no problem playing with the boys. And this new Boomer had an additional twist—she was really an enemy Cylon sleeper agent programmed to believe she is human allowing Park to have a blast playing the dual roles of “Boomer” and “Athena”; creating one of the most iconic sci-fi characters on TV.
10. Pat Morita as Matsuo “Arnold” Takahashi (1975-1976, 1982-1983)
Most people were first introduced to Morita from his role here as Arnold, the owner of Arnold’s—the diner where Fonz and the gang would congregate. Morita was such a fan favorite that ABC gave him his own show, MR. T AND TINA–the first network sitcom with an Asian American lead (and one where Morita was paired with a Caucasian love interest played by Susan Blanchard). That show was cancelled after only five episodes and Morita would shortly return to Arnold and HAPPY DAYS (Morita would headline another short-lived series OHARA in 1987), but this was just a brief calm before the storm: which soon came when Morita was cast as Mr. Miyagi in the original THE KARATE KID. That film become a worldwide hit, earning an Oscar nomination for Morita and turning him into an international star.
9. Robert Ito as Sam Fujiyama (1976-1983)
Starring THE ODD COUPLE’S Jack Klugman as a forensic pathologist in the LA County Coroner’s Office, the medical crime drama was the precursor for all the forensic-based crime procedurals that would come later including the CSI and NCIS franchises. Ito’s Fujiyama was the often cankerous Quincy’s faithful lab assistant and friend. And while most of the opportunities for Asian American actors in the late 70s/early 80s were playing very Asian-centric parts on TV shows like M*A*S*H and KUNG FU, Fujiyama could’ve been played by an actor of any ethnicity, but Ito made it his own. He’s the spiritual father to later Asian American characters in crime dramas like Tim Kang’s Kimball Cho in THE MENTALIST and Micheala Conlin’s Angela Montenegro in BONES—Ito set the template and showed the world how it could be done.
8. Jack Soo as Sgt. Nick Yemana (1975-1979)
BARNEY MILLER was a sitcom ahead of its time—set in a New York police precinct and featuring a colorful cast of law enforcement personnel—the show doesn’t feel dated at all seen from a 2016 perspective. And one of the things that still makes it feel relevant is its talented and lived-in cast (they felt like real NYPD cops, not actors playing them). Jack Soo’s Sgt. Yemana is the wise-cracking, hard gambling, bad coffee-making member of this motley crew and if anyone ever makes the argument that Asians just aren’t funny (which wasn’t an uncommon opinion at the time), all you need to refute that view is show them Soo’s performance here—what he does best is react and when he reacts with his perfectly deadpan comedic timing, you understand why we lost a talent way too early when cancer took his life in 1979. BARNEY MILLER’s producers reacted by doing something I’ve never seen before or since: creating a special retrospective episode featuring Soo’s best work and concluding with a final toast where the remaining cast lifted their coffee cups to remember one of their finest.
7. Sandra Oh as Dr. Cristina Yang (2005-2016)
The Huffington Post called Oh’s Cristina Yang “the best damn character” on GREY’S ANATOMY. I would go even further and say Oh’s Cristina Yang made GREY’S ANATOMY. Her character’s friendship with Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompei) was not only the series’ emotional core, but Oh did more than anyone in the cast to ground the show to make it both more believable (come on, how many of the other GREY’S actors did you really believe could be doctors?) and to make us care enough about the world of Seattle Grace Hospital whenever it teetered dangerously close to become a full-fledged soap opera. More than all the awards and praise that Oh garnered in her decade long stint as Yang, the true importance of her contribution to making GREY’S ANATOMY into a TV juggernaut was evident after she left—the show is a former shell of what it once was without her.
6. Bruce Lee as Kato (1966-1967)
THE GREEN HORNET
Like many people, I was first introduced to Lee’s Kato when he guest-starred with Van Williams’ Green Hornet on an episode of the old, campy BATMAN series. And though I was just a child with no knowledge of who Lee was, two things were clear: 1) He had a screen charisma the other actors couldn’t match and 2) no way was I buying that Robin the Boy Wonder could kick his ass. My young world was forever rocked. Kato may have been the servant/sidekick to the main white dude, but there was no doubt who was the real star of the show (In Hong Kong, the series was retitled THE KATO SHOW). Which is even more of a shame that another TV series Lee originated, KUNG-FU, was snatched away and cast with a white lead who had zero martial arts experience (something YOMYOMF founder Justin Lin is planning to rectify). Despite these setbacks, Lee status as a true legend is just as secure today as it was 40 years ago.
5. Steven Yeun as Glenn Rhee (2010-present)
THE WALKING DEAD
Back in 2013, I argued that Steven Yeun’s Glenn was the most interesting Asian male character on American television. And while the TV landscape has shifted in the intervening three years (you can make the case that Aziz Ansari’s Dev Shah could also claim that mantle now), Glenn’s status as one of TV’s most beloved and important Asian American characters is still as true as ever. Which made what Glenn experienced this past season on THE WALKING DEAD somewhat frustrating—from the multi-episode “is he dead or not” trolling to the bat-wielding Negan cliffhanger that will have us once again asking “is he dead or not” until October. The massive collective fan outrage at these moments just goes to show how great a job Yeun has done in creating WD’s sympathetic “everyman”—one who possesses both the heart of a saint and the spirit of a warrior.
4. Mindy Kaling as Mindy Lahiri (2012-present)
THE MINDY PROJECT
Who would’ve thought an “unconventional” Indian American actress who launched her career playing Ben Affleck in a self-produced Off Off Broadway play about the fictional friendship between Matt Damon and the future Batman would go on to be the star/creator/writer/producer of her own network comedy (the show has since moved from Fox to Hulu)? But that’s exactly what happened to Kaling who went from her acclaimed play to NBC’s THE OFFICE to her own series playing a doctor trying to balance her personal and professional life. And while THE MINDY PROJECT has been accused by some in the community for being “too white”, let’s not forget how progressive it really is—not only for giving us a South Asian female lead, but for giving us a lead character who can be non-white, but still fit comfortably into the pantheon of TV’s smart and funny female icons including Mary Tyler Moore in THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and Tina Fey in 30 ROCK.
3. Anna May Wong as Madame Liu-Tsong (1951)
THE GALLERY OF MADAME LIU-TSONG
If it’s hard to imagine an Asian lead on a TV series now, think of how impossible it must have seemed back in 1951. But Chinese American movie star Wong did just that—becoming the first Asian American lead of an American television series playing an art dealer/detective in a part that was specifically written for her. That alone should’ve made this the #1 pick for this list, if not for one major detail: no known episodes of the show exist today, so technically, unless you saw the show in 1951, there’s no way to know what the content of the actual episodes were. All the surviving kinescopes of the series were dumped into Upper New York Bay in the early 1970s by its distributor (a not uncommon practice during a time when it was felt certain shows had no historical value) so unless someone unearths their own copies that have been hidden away in their attics for the past 40 years (and if you do, please let me know), the world will be denied the opportunity to see an Asian American icon make television history.
2. Margaret Cho as Margaret Kim (1994-1995)
When the show premiered, it carried all the weight of the Great Yellow Hope on its shoulders—it was the first network sitcom featuring an Asian American family (and “based on” the stand-up of Cho) and the expectations were high. Unfortunately, the show collapsed from that weight—done in by a network that imposed its own idea of what an “Asian American sitcom” should be, a mainstream audience who didn’t take to the “novelty” of a “normal” Asian American family and an Asian American community that attacked it for its “inauthenticity”. So for a show that was a failure, why is its lead character so high up on this list? Because without Margaret Cho, there probably wouldn’t be a FRESH OFF THE BOAT or a DR. KEN or a MINDY PROJECT. ALL-AMERICAN GIRL and Cho were true pioneers and like many pioneers, Cho had to struggle alone without a road map, without any support or precedent to help her. She’s the TV equivalent of our immigrant parents who sacrificed their dreams for their children. But, twenty years later, Cho’s legacy is secure in all the successful comedic “children” born and raised in ALL-AMERICAN GIRL’s wake.
1. George Takei as Sulu (1966-1969)
True, there are other characters on this list who are more complex and, frankly, more interesting than Sulu was on the original 1960s STAR TREK series. But Takei’s Sulu is #1 for one very good reason: there’s no other Asian American TV character who has achieved the iconic status that Sulu has. Don’t believe me—ask anyone who Sulu is and even if they’ve never seen an episode of the show, there’s a good chance they’ll know the character or at least the actor who played him, George Takei. Plus, during an era when our Black brethren were fighting for civil rights and America was embroiled in a war against the “evil” yellow Communists overseas, Asian Americans were rarely included in any aspect of the American experience. Which made the presence of Sulu onboard the Federation’s flagship week after week—heroically seeking out new life and new civilizations–a true revelation if not a downright revolutionary act.