Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Jimmy O. Yang’s Crab Club feasts on Asian American stories

One of the most popular “clubs” in Hollywood is “Crazy Rich Asians” run by actor Jimmy O. Yang and his producing partners. There is no DJ or bottle service. If you gain admission, you know better how to eat Dungeness crab.

Yang, whose Netflix holiday rom-com “Love Hard” drops Friday, is turning Crab Club, the production company he operates with Jessica Gao and Ken Cheung, into a real Hollywood force.

Why Crab Club? The moniker comes from his regular crab eating with other Asian American friends who work in entertainment. The purpose was not only to eat, but also to support each other. The food revolves around their Los Angeles-area homes. For Yang, it was a “cool dinner club”.

“I felt pretty normal, like I was shooting ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ where we didn’t have to explain ourselves,” Yang told the Associated Press.

Being in Hollywood, the gatherings eventually grew beyond a support group and are now an incubator for TV and film projects told on their terms. In 2019, Yang, Gao and Cheng founded Crab Club, Inc. formed, and it didn’t take long for the company to prove it had legs.

Comedian Joe Coe showed up at one of the dinners and there was a spark of “synergy,” Yang said. The talk of them all working together led to the Crab Club’s first project: “Easter Sunday,” a comedy about a Filipino American family starring Coy. The film, which premiered in April, found a partner at Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment.

“We all broke the story together. But Kane is the lead writer,” Yang said. “He wrote such an amazing screenplay that it was mythically flagged off by Steven Spielberg on the first draft.”

He is now co-writing “The Great Chinese Art Heist” with Yang’s former “Crazy Rich Asians” director, John M. Chu. The Crab Club is also producing an Amazon Studios comedy series, which will be produced and executive produced by Chang, about a boycott in Los Angeles.

“If someone sends us a project, we have two rules,” Cheng said. “The first thing is to make the project spotlight a marginalized voice or a marginalized community. We are three Chinese Americans. Obviously, we are going to lean towards Asian American projects or Asian diaspora projects… the second mandate we All three have to like it and want to do it.”

The Crab Club dinner – which was temporarily halted during the pandemic – was not intended to be some exclusive Asian Algonquin round table. It really started about eating crab. Gao, a showrunner for the highly anticipated Marvel/Disney+ “She-Hulk” series, said he and two other friends created a text thread in 2017 to alert each other if they saw Dungeness Crab at a bargain price.

“When prices dropped to single digits per pound, we would all – like the Avengers – gather to eat a crab,” Gao said. “We will all host in each other’s houses in turn. And we are all very good cooks.”

It is only invited because of the difficulty of accommodating more than 10-15 people and because the host has to buy the crabs. Their little supper club has started generating buzz, with producers and actors asking how they can get involved.

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Cheng said the people in the group have spent so many years “keeping quiet”, always being the only Asian on set. Here, they can create views or complaints about people in the industry closing doors because of their race or ethnicity.

They also have each other’s backs outside of Crab Club productions. When the plot of “Love Hard” and Yang’s casting were revealed, there was immediate criticism that the story would rest on the trope of a fearless Asian boy not being a believable romantic choice.

In the sweet but sad Christmas flick, a New York man (Yang) uses a photo of his hunky childhood friend as an online dating profile picture. He forms a bond with a Los Angeles writer (Nina Dobrev) over text and phone chat. Cyrano-esque hijinks ensues when she busts him catfishing after surprising him at their home.

“I knew watching the trailer would lead to tweets like this because of course you boil that story down… it’s like, ‘Oh, what are you trying to say? Oh, this kind of Asian guy with glasses is hot’ And this other guy is hot?'” Yang said.

He assured that the film is more nuanced. Originally, his character was not written as Asian American. Yang took the role when he asked producers to agree that “Hot Man” would be played by someone of Asian descent (the role of Darren Barnett in “Never Have I Ever”). Yang also knew that taking on the role would mean viewers seeing an Asian family on screen.

This level of thought is one reason why Cheng and Gao are protective of Yang when it comes to critics.

“It’s a situation that I think really reflects the kind of unfair situation in which actors of color are put in,” Gao said. “Jimmy really cares about his community and wants to protect his community.”

Like Yang, Gao and Cheng are extremely busy with projects outside the Crab Club. Gao’s hands are full of “She-Hulk,” where people of color comprise more than half the writing staff. Cheng has several commitments, including an HBO comedy pilot about siblings who run a Chinese restaurant.

It would be easy for all three of them to focus only on their careers in such a tight business. But, they want to help budding writers and actors connect to the “golden age of Asian American art,” Cheng said.

A golden age seems long overdue. In May, the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative report found that only 5.9% of the 51,159 speaking roles in the 1,300 highest-grossing films between 2007 and 2019 were portrayed by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Of those films, only 3.4%, or 44, had Asian or Pacific Islanders as the main or co-principal.

Due to lack of representation all three would send projects to other authors if they are not the right fit. Gao says she needs to recover from Hollywood’s history of letting people of color compete for scraps of opportunities.

“The circle gets bigger,” Gao said. “A rising tide lifts all boats. That’s the philosophy we believe in.”

___ Terry Tang is a member of the Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity team. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/tangAP

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