‘From Asian Excellence to Creative Excellence’ with Daniel Dae Kim, Padma Lakshmi, Eric Nam and Janet Yang
“From Asian Excellence to Creative Excellence,” a panel that featured actor-producer-activist Daniel Dae Kim; host-producer-author Padma Lakshmi; Eric Nam, singer, actor, co-founder and creative director of Mindset, artist-driven mental wellness audio platform; and Janet Yang, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, was one of the highlights of the 2023 Global Conference.
Curtis S. Chin, the inaugural Milken Institute Asia Fellow and former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, organized and moderated the talk at The Beverly Hilton, home of the Golden Globe Awards.
Chin said of the panel, presented as part of the Milken Institute’s annual conference, “Working with Bing Chen, co-founder of Gold House – which brings together creators, funders, entertainers, thinkers and other leaders across Asian and Pacific Islander (API) communities – our Milken Institute team sought to shape a panel that would not just celebrate Asian creative excellence but also gets people thinking about what more needs to be done to ensure recent successes by Asians and Asian Americans from movies to television to music are not simply a moment but also part of an enduring movement toward greater representation.
“The theme of this year’s Milken Institute Global Conference was “Advancing a Thriving World.” My point of view is that there can be no sustainably advancing a thriving world without representation for all.”
Chin opened the panel by saying that “We are going to talk a little bit about this moment in time. What do we celebrate? This beginning of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. But let’s make sure it’s not just one day or one month that we celebrate. So, we’re going to talk really about the content, the creativity that’s out there, and what we need to do to make sure it’s not just a moment in time.”
Yang started by pointing out that Everything Everywhere All at Once, which got more Academy nominations this year than any other film, “was not an obvious result of the moment. None of it was obvious. We were all watching with amazement and awe as it was happening. So again, the early stages, the work that people do, none of us do this for fame or fortune, I can promise you.
“We are so used to rejection. We are so used to battling forces. We’re all Jedis in our work. But then every now and then we get this kind of award. It’s never easy. I would sum up by saying we need support from the financial community desperately because we work in the darkness alone with no evidence of success in sight, often. And we just plow through, really relying on our instincts, our passions. Sometimes we come out at the other end and there’s a little glory but that’s not why we’re doing it. So hopefully with this community, the message I would say to you is, please support us. Please support the artist.”
Actor Kim agreed with Yang. He chimed in, “Janet put it so well that we’re in a situation now where we’ve never been before. When you look back at history, you see these seminal events and you think, ‘Oh wow. Well, that’s kind of when that happened.’ But what you don’t think about is how much work went into that single event.
“When we have films like Everything Everywhere All at Once, and TV shows like Beef, and even Crazy Rich Asians and The Joy Luck Club, which Janet produced, these are really important steps along the way, with people who are willing to do the work without assurance of success.
Kim, addressing the audience of company founders, investors and financiers, added, “It’s very much a startup mentality. You have people who are very capable, who need to be capitalized. Some of you will make it and some of you will not but you have to believe in the cause, you have to be completely passionate. So, what happens from here though, now that we have people like Janet, Padma and Eric in such high-profile positions, is to create more of a situation where we can talk to others and encourage them to contribute in similar ways, to take the ball that we’ve moved down the field and bring it to the goal line.
“Not to use a sports metaphor. But that’s really what it is. If this is the beginning of a movement and not a moment, then there needs to be people to take up the mantle. You may not be in the entertainment industry but we all have spheres of influence, we all have wallets, we all have bank accounts where we can support content that you feel strongly about. It’s important that we speak up for the things that are important to us, especially as Asian Americans because for so long in this country, we’ve been considered invisible.”
“But we’ve always had an outsized spending power compared to our population. We just haven’t used it to support Asian American projects. So that’s one thing to do, but I would also say don’t do it out of charity. Encourage people to create good content. If there are ways that you can be involved with that in some fashion, there are great stories out there right now. I’m working on a project right now about Bill Hwang from Archegos Capital Management, which many of you in this room will know. But there are great stories to be found in every sector and mining those stories and creating those stories for yourself is really important.”
As for the issue of content creation, Kim added, “I know my company alone has developed at least 50 over the last three or four years, and they all center on marginalized communities or communities of color. But we’re still subject to someone to approve them, whether it’s a studio head or a financier for an independent project. We are not the end of the production line. We create but we’re still subject to approval.
“So that’s one thing that is really important for us to remember as Asian Americans, is that it’s important to have representation in the C-suites at the upper levels as much as possible. It’s statistically borne out that Asian Americans tend to be overrepresented in the entry-level positions of Fortune 500 companies, but they suffer the highest attrition rate as they climb the corporate ladder.
“When you look at the CEOs and CFOs of Fortune 500 companies, you see the exact opposite. You see an under-representation of Asian Americans. What is the reason for that? Why in these respective industries are we not climbing at the same rate that other demographics are? Every demographic has its own set of challenges – this is particular to Asian Americans. But one of the things that we can do is to support organizations like Gold House where Janet and I sit on the board and there’s a new organization called The Asian American Foundation (TAAF).
“We as content creators have a responsibility for the content that we create. So, what are we putting out into the world? And organizations like Gold House and TAAF and also CAPE (Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment), which supports professionals in the industry, really have a big part in shaping how we can do those things. To know that there are grassroots organizations that we can work with is super important because as Janet was saying, they support projects from the ground up, not after the bandwagon has already been built and is on the way. They are creating the bandwagon. That’s really important. So, if you guys can support organizations like CAPE, Gold House and TAAF, that’s one way you can make a contribution, regardless of what your sphere is.
“And the other thing is to keep advocating for yourselves, as people of color. This is one of the things about Asian Americans, even though it’s not historically borne out, one of the stereotypes is that we’re quiet, that we’re silent, and that we keep our heads down. That’s actually not true.”
Lakshmi said, “But also, we need people outside of executives to come forward and say, ‘We will collectively,’ in whatever field they’re in, ‘support this art.’ It is exciting to be the first person to do that, to break the stereotype. The stories that my company is producing, scripted as well as non-scripted, are centered around people of color as protagonists but they’re not stories that are unrelatable to anyone. You don’t have to be Cambodian to understand being separated from your father. You don’t have to be Black to understand certain struggles that the Black community goes through in Houston as Nigerian Americans, whatever it is.
“For me, it’s also been hard because I am a writer first and foremost, and I’ve optioned books. I’m a producer on a couple of projects. I’ve written scripted shows and it’s very hard to get somebody inside Hollywood to make that leap. If I can come in and say, ‘I already have people on my team, that I’ve put together, who are going to pay for it, you don’t have to spend that much money. We’ll own 50 percent of this project. You just have to show it on your streamer or you just have to distribute it and put it in your theaters.’ That is a different model that I would also like to see happen because the person who writes the check, regardless of what field you’re in, is always the one with the power. And there are a lot of people with that kind of power, especially, we’re talking about Asian Americans.
“Asian Americans are the most affluent community in this country. Now I’ve made up my mission to mentor two or three young women in their 20s and 30s and guide them. Everything from, ‘Here, take my entertainment lawyer.’ I never knew about it for ages, ‘Make sure when you’re on this show that every time you’re shown on screen, they say your whole name, not just your first name. I don’t care how long it is, your whole name. They’re doing it for him, they better do it for you.’ Because I didn’t have anybody who told me that stuff.
“Now in this new phase of my career, I want to tell them, ‘You don’t need to do anything to help me. I’m coming in with my gang of help to help you. And are you going to do this? Or is your competitor going to do this?’ That is a conversation I would love to have. If there are any investors, whether they’re in food or finance or tech or whatever and you want to see programming that your Brown and Black children can also see themselves in, please come see me. I’m very easy to find. I have some things scripted, and some things unscripted, in TV and film. I would be happy to tell you where to put your money.”
Nam, for his part, talked about the challenges in the music industry for Asian Americans. He said, “The challenges that we are hearing about in the film and TV world are the same in music. But I would almost argue that music, from an Asian American perspective, is a step even behind because it’s not as visual of a format. When you’re able to see on TV and screens, actors playing incredible roles, you can imagine yourself and dream yourself being in an occupation or whatever it is that you want to become.
“Music is something that we listen to passively. It is the second priority to TV and film. But having said that, that’s why it’s so important for musicians and people who want to create, even outside of film and TV, to have this advocacy, which Gold House is really working towards as well, which has been a great partnership with up-and-coming musicians. But I’m really excited to see these young musicians come up through the internet.
“How do we encourage them to tell their stories through song and through shorter, potentially, music videos or documentaries around their creative process, to share their stories? Because again, we are all human and that’s what’s connecting us. It’s a different form. It may be a podcast, maybe TV, film, music, spoken word, whatever it is, but we all have different strengths and abilities and how do we really bring those to the forefront?
Chin summed it up: “From opening panels with Milken Institute chair Mike Milken on the pursuit of faster cures and IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva on the global economy to a closing conference with Diana Ross, the energy of the Milken Institute Global Conference was non-stop for three days. This ‘Davos with palm trees’ underscored that diversity is more than what is seen on stage. It is what is said on stage that is so critical too.
“The panel also proved a winner with viewers around the world, already becoming the second most viewed online of some 200 sessions—second only to the opening session on the state of the world—with viewers continuing to watch the session celebrating Asian creative excellence.”