Pop quiz: name an Asian male, past or present, on the big or small screen who isn't known primarily for karate chopping, Confucius quoting, working in a restaurant or firing a weapon at a U.S. soldier. You can eliminate the Big Three: Jackie Chan, Charlie Chan and Arnold from Happy Days.Also Bruce Lee, Caine from Kung Fu(who was a white guy, anyway) and virtually every Asian actor in every American-made war movie ever made. Let's see . . . that leaves two groundbreaking racial pioneers: Mr. Sulu from Star Trekand Sergeant Nick Yemana from Barney Miller.
It's hard to name one truly dignified Asian male on film or television who seems like a real person with a real story to tell.
Ask Alex Luu. The 34-year-old Los Angeles-based writer and performer knows all about it. He's an Asian-American male who rarely sees his personal demographic reflected in pop culture. That ethnic gap is one of the reasons he wrote Three Lives,which he calls an intensely personal, visceral and comic one-man performance piece about fleeing war-torn Vietnam at the age of 8 and struggling to fit into American society at the risk of losing his own identity.
"The mainstream media never seems to recognize the stories of Asian-American males," said Luu, who performs the autobiographical Three Livesat the Empire Theater in Santa Ana the next two weekends. "Even on the nightly news, you see a lot of female Asian reporters but not a lot of males. And when you watch movies or TV, you don't see many Asian males with substantial, dignified parts. Over the years, they've been really misrepresented and to a great extent emasculated by their portrayals in the mainstream media."
Luu believes the "the Asian male experience . . . is still a mystery" to most Americans, especially the Americans who run the media. "They don't realize that Asian males have very interesting humanistic stories," he says. When their stories are told on film, the best Asian-Americans can hope for is an enlightened Anglo director—Oliver Stone, for example.
"When we see the [Vietnam] war portrayed through the mainstream media, it's always seen through an American soldier's perspective, never from the point of view of an 8-year-old Chinese-Vietnamese boy who left the day Saigon fell," said Luu. He's speaking autobiographically: he fled with his family on the last chopper out of Saigon in 1975. "I really want people to see that side, to see what it's like for families who had to leave their homeland and property behind, what it was like to lay in a ditch all night afraid that shrapnel was going to hit your head, and what it was really like coming to America to achieve that American Dream/Nightmare because there's so much of that dream that is so crazy and unattainable."
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Three Livesis more performance art than straight theater, Luu says. It's a nonlinear, physical piece that spans three decades. Luu plays himself and three very different characters: a young cousin caught up in gang violence; his traditional father, who sought assimilation at any cost; and his gentle, elderly grandfather.
The show debuted at Los Angeles' performance-art space LACE in 1997. Luu has spent the past four years touring the show, shaping a more fully developed piece. This is the first time it will be performed in Orange County, home to more Vietnamese than any place outside Vietnam.
"I'm really looking forward to it because I know the arts community [in Little Saigon] is still growing, and there isn't a lot of performance art happening, particularly from someone of color," Luu said. "Sometimes in LA, there seems to be too much, but in Orange County, you have very little . . . so it will be very interesting to see how people react."
Three Lives at Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through July 7. $15-$20.