The rise in racism and the lack of proper Asian American representation in the early ‘90s were just some of the reasons that pushed Guy Aoki to establish the nonprofit media watchdog organization Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) with co-founder George Johnston.
Aoki first thought about creating MANAA in June 1991, months before the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Billed as the “first organization solely dedicated to monitoring all facets of the media – television, motion pictures, print, advertising, radio, etc. – and advocating balanced, sensitive and positive portrayals of Asian Americans,” MANAA recently celebrated its 30th anniversary on April 9.
How it all started
Aoki, who was born in Hilo, Hawaii, on May 12, 1962, has played an active role in promoting Asian American identity for decades.
From 1984 to 1988, he was involved with the Asian Pacific Students Union (APSU), a network of API (Asian Pacific Islander) clubs in West Coast colleges that conducted workshops about Asian American identity and the media. From 1984 to 1993, he worked with the National Coalition for Redress and Reparations (NCRR), and in 1987, he was reportedly the youngest among the 15 leaders of a delegation that influenced Congress to grant redress and reparations to Japanese American citizens and resident aliens who were interned during World War II.
While speaking to NextShark, Aoki recalled how news outlets would rehash old stories and rumors about “whether or not the Japanese in this country could be trusted.”
“I was furious,” Aoki said. “Because of the revival of unfounded WWII-era rumors, I knew there were going to be a lot of hate crimes by the time we got to Dec. 7.”
What he dreaded eventually happened. People broke into Norwalk’s Japanese American Community Center in Los Angeles in November 1991 and spray-painted “Japs Go Home” and other racist messages on the walls. Another incident Aoki recalled was when someone defecated on the porch of a Japanese American in Claremont, California.
“I’d had it,” Aoki said. “People who’d been victims of the camps were being targeted again.”
“I was tired of feeling like a passive victim of a clueless news media,” he continued. “I believed we had to form a rapid response team to push back and to pressure these people to do better. Never again would I be unprepared to respond to an irresponsible media.”
Caption provided by Guy: The first MANAA board along with some other active members. 1992.
MANAA held its first meeting on April 9, 1992. At the time, the group only had nine members. This number grew after several Korean Americans joined the cause in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles uprising.
“A lot of young Korean Americans came to our meeting and eventually joined our board because they’d seen how the media’s portrayal of gun-happy Korean grocers who shoot Black customers directly affected their lives and safety,” Aoki said.
The early days
The MANAA co-founder recalled how it took some time for other people and organizations to take his nonprofit seriously in the beginning. MANAA eventually attracted media attention after organizing a protest against the 1993 crime thriller “Rising Sun.”
“That put us on the map internationally,” Aoki said. “In fact, we never got so much media coverage on any issue as we did for ‘Rising Sun.’”
The late radio legend Casey Kasem spoke at one of MANAA’s press conferences and even attended the organization’s “Rising Sun” protest outside Los Angeles’ Westwood in 1993. The host of the most popular syndicated radio show of all time, “American Top 40,” also marched with the group in 1996 against KKBT-FM’s “House Party,” a morning show that regularly mocked well-known Asian Americans with fake Asian accents on-air.
When Aoki started MANAA in 1992, Steve Park was the only Asian American regular on any of the top four TV networks: ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox. Park was also a cast member of the sketch comedy series “In Living Color” and appeared in its third season from 1991 to 1992.
The lack of Asian American representation on television continued. According to Aoki, the Los Angeles Times published a report in 1999 revealing that out of the 26 new prime-time shows set to debut on the top four networks for the 1999-2000 season, none of them starred a person of color.
This data led the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other ethnic groups to threaten boycotts. MANAA, which later became a founding member of the Asian Pacific American Media Coalition (APAMC), joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) along with Latino and Native American groups to hold an annual meeting with the top four networks to discuss the diversity problem in the media.
“We insisted they form diversity departments and create programs to develop minority writers, directors and actors and to move away from all-White TV shows,” Aoki shared. “Every year, the four networks provided us with data on how many APIs, Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans they were hiring as regulars, recurring actors, writers, producers, directors and in reality shows, etc., and we pushed them to do a better job of including us.”
MANAA pushed the four networks to release an Asian American family show; however, it took them around 20 years to release another series about an Asian American family – “Fresh Off The Boat.” The last Asian American family show aired on TV was ABC’s “All American Girl,” starring Margaret Cho, in 1994.
Aoki spoke to Nielsen, an American measurement and data company, about “Fresh Off The Boat” and discovered that the show had “indexed 100% with whites,” Aoki said. “Meaning that if whites made up 60% of the U.S. population, 60% of [the show’s] fans were white.”
“Asians over-indexed in the 200 range,” he added, “and Blacks over-indexed at 105%, meaning more than 12% of the audience was Black, even when there wasn’t a Black cast member! On paper, there was no reason they should care about the series, but they did!”
MANAA also protested alongside Rev. Jesse Jackson after just one Black actor received an Academy Award nomination in 1996.
“That protest led to a meeting with then-CBS President Leslie Moonves. Jesse and I pushed him to put more POC in his shows,” Aoki said, recalling how Moonves helped cast Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa as the captain of the San Francisco police in the 1996 police drama “Nash Bridges.”
Other actors MANAA has worked with include Tzi Ma, Jodi Long and the late Elizabeth Sung, who protested together against the whitewashing of M. Night Shyamalan’s 2010 film “The Last Airbender.”
Asian American representation then and now
Citing data MANAA has received from ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, Aoki said there were only 17 AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) regulars across all these networks for the 2001-2002 season, 10 years after MANAA was formed.
By the 2011-2012 season, the number of AAPI regulars grew to 39, and almost a decade later, in 2019 to 2020, Aoki said there were 55 AAPI regulars across the four networks.
“Things have obviously gotten better. We now see more Asian Americans on TV, in movies and on streaming services,” he says; however, Aoki also noted that the numbers for ABC plummeted during the 2020-2021 season. “Its worst numbers in nine years,” after the network “cut off meetings with POC groups… after November 2019.”
Moving the conversation from television to film, Aoki commented on the recent successes of “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” and “Parasite.”
“I can’t thank Jon M. Chu enough for taking a chance and turning down a huge Netflix offer to instead put ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ out in theaters. It was the only way to prove that non-Asians would support a film where every speaking line — except for the opening scene — was by Asian people,” Aoki said about the film, which he described as the “biggest rom-com in 10 years.”
“Until the current Spider-Man movie, Shang-Chi was the highest-grossing film of the post-pandemic era,” he added. “So there are so many success stories for Asian/Asian American TV shows and films, the industry has to notice. This can only lead to better opportunities for our writers, directors and actors.”
Featured Image via Guy Aoki