Remember how I said Crimson Kimono was ahead of it's time? So was 21 Jumpstreet.
That TV show about the fresh-faced, mullet-haired undercover cops who investigated hardcore crimes in high schools and colleges and the like? Remember? That show that tackled social issues and ended with morals about drugs, sex, and the like?
Look at the main characters - only two white people featured here. Only two. 3 people of color. Two of whom are black, one who is Asian.
One who is Asian and doesn't have any accent, dresses like a cool kid, rocks a mullet, is not overly sexualized or completely emasculated either, and he's... normal. He's a normal human being. Not an offspring of some Asian caricature.
He's normal! He's one of the cool kids! He's human! He's Officer H. T. Ioki! (Shouldn't it be Aoki? Whatever)
What a catchy, feel-good theme song. I wanna sing along. At about 0:44, you get to see Ioki do some serious ass-kicking. Whoooooooohoo!
Harry Truman Ioki is a "Japanese-American" cop who is cool. His "parents named him" Harry Truman - but not really. H. T. Ioki's real name is Vinh Van Tranh, and he is a Vietnamese refugee from Saigon. Ioki's (or is it Vinh Van Tranh?) parents and best friend were killed in an attack by the Vietcong as they were trying to escape Vietnam and head for the US. He escaped from Vietnam on a boat to Guam, and then relocated to Arkansas in a refugee camp when a Methodist church found him a home in St. Louis with a elderly white woman, learning English and being somewhat happy. He eventually decided that he wanted to be a cop, but when he applied, he didn't think a Vietnamese refugee would make it into the department, so he stole the Social Security number and name of a long-dead San Franciscan baby named Harry Truman Ioki. However, he never filled out the name change application thing so his stealing of the Social Security number and the name was illegal (this and all of the above the subject of the episode Christmas in Saigon), so he gets threatened with dismissal from the Undercover Fresh-Faced Cop Team. Everyone on the team expresses sympathy for his plight except for Captain Adam Fuller, a Vietnam war veteran who becomes immediately suspicious against Ioki (Tranh?) after hearing the truth. Only after Johnny Depp's character gives Capt. Fuller a talking to does he forgive Ioki and stick up for him during Ioki' trial.
This episode was absolutely earthshaking because the story of (really) Vinh Van Tranh actually reflects the story of the actor Dustin Nguyen. He did pretty much the exact same thing as his character on 21 Jumpstreet (minus the stealing of names and the Social Security number business). The episode not only gave Nguyen a chance to reveal his acting chops, it also gave a realistic representation of what really happened to lots of Vietnamese refugees as they were trying to escape from the Vietcong. Christmas in Saigon also showed the viewers how not all of the Vietnamese were the enemy, as shown in the snappy dialogue between Johnny Depp's character (Officer Hanson) and Capt. Fuller.
Now don't go thinking I only watched ONE episode of this super cool show. There's another episode (The Dragon and the Angel) where Ioki joins a Vietnamese (yay, specificity!) street gang (called Pai Gow) to stop them from extorting the Vietnamese community, but somebody offers Ioki the opportunity to find his grandmother that he left in Vietnam.
There's a bit of a love interest for Ioki as well (I guess he actually changed his name after the Christmas in Saigon episode). Hurray! Only her family is apparently Communist, so that makes Ioki a little bit angry... Now there's a battle of ideologies - Communist vs. American capitalist. The father (Van Luy, played by Danny Kamekona) of the girl Ioki seems to have a crush on tells him that "Today's slaves are the Central Americans and the Vietnamese." To which Ioki responds, "You're just like all the others who criticize this country. You're a parasite." Now the love interest girl (Kim, played by Kelly Hu) asks Ioki about his girlfriend, and Ioki says he doesn't have one. Then Kim says, "I see. You're the traditional Vietnamese boy who worships from afar, who has a crush but is too shy to say anything." Well, shoot. Too bad he can't have her, because she likes him too! Look at this! A normal love story between two normal kids who just happen to be Asian. They aren't in love because they're Asian! They're in love because they are! Because they were destined for each other! But let's not forget that Ioki is trying to break up an extortion gang, but it's proving to be tricky! Not only that, Ioki still can't forgive Communism (and therefore Van Luy) for breaking up his family and his country - but eventually he does, because he wants to help his grandmother (filial piety!!). But it turns out that Van Luy just keeps the money for himself. Finally, the Pai Gow plan to raid Van Luy's place for the money, but Ioki informs the police and breaks it up. And in the end, Van Luy has a letter from Ioki's grandmother.
BUT no developing love story between Ioki and Kim. Barely any of that. It's too bad. They would have been so cute together. I had such hopes.
H. T. Ioki kicks ass. He's a cop. He's a good cop. He rocks a mullet. He is infinitely cooler than Johnny Depp's character. He does martial arts (something that Dustin Nguyen is proficient in as well). Now, you may be thinking that this is feeding off the Bruce Lee stereotype - but nay! Bruce Lee is almost always a semi-mute character who is only good at kicking ass. Ioki kicks ass and speaks English and is a cop. Ioki is also not all about kicking ass. He uses it to get by - it's not his only saving grace. He is an evolved Bruce Lee. And that, my dears, is cause for celebration.
Like Crimson Kimono, these two episodes of 21 Jump Street were great in their specificity towards Vietnam and Vietnamese-Americans, even if they didn't involve the same amount of research that Crimson Kimono needed/had. On top of that, it's all in a positive light! Even the extortion gang has a cause for their extortion... kinda. The Asians in these two episodes are portrayed as people. Real people. It's great. It's ahead of it's time. If they make a movie out of this TV show (which apparently is happening), they better keep an H. T. Ioki-esque character in there. With a cameo by Dustin Nguyen.
Keep on Wondering...
What are the connections between social and historical forces and the representations we see?
Why is yellowface still acceptable? When and how did yellowface turn into whitewashing?
How do these representations create and/or perpetuate stereotypes that are present in our world? What is the impact?