When it comes to life in the U.S., “Daily Show” correspondent Ronny Chieng only knows chaos, he jokes.
“Two weeks ago, I played with a flamethrower,” Chieng said at HuffPost’s New York office, laughing. He’s got his hair slicked to the side and sports a sharp gray suit to match his sharp-ass wit.
“America is crazy,” he definitively concludes.
The comedian has recently wrapped up a packed summer. During what many are calling “Asian August,” Chieng promoted both the history-making rom-com “Crazy Rich Asians,” in which he plays the status-infatuated, ultra-douchebag Eddie Cheng, as well as “International Student,” a sitcom based on his own experiences as an international student pursuing a law degree in Australia.
Clearly, he’s managed to thrive in the madness. He’s had to, given the timing of his move to America.
Chieng spent much of his life between Singapore and Australia, finally planting himself stateside in the thick of the tumultuous U.S. presidential election cycle in 2015 to pursue his current position on the political satire program.
It was in the midst of one of the most racially offensive TV moments that Chieng emerged, perhaps unintentionally, as a voice for the Asian-American immigrant community ― responding to Fox News darling Jesse Watters’ now-infamous Chinatown segment in which the media personality claimed to seek out residents’ take on the presidential election.
Watters’ had astoundingly packed more than 20 instances of overt racism into just five minutes of television. The area’s residents weren’t interviewed in their native languages ― in an effort to make limited English skills and accents the butt of the joke ― but Watters had also sprinkled in irrelevant martial arts clips and made sure to ask passersby dumb, insensitive questions like “Is it the year of the dragon? Rabbit?” and “Do they call Chinese food in China just ‘food?’”
Chieng shot back with a segment of his own, pitching and filming his take within hours of seeing the Watters segment. Chieng headed down to Chinatown and quickly found that ― contrary to what Watters’ had tried to portray ― community members had quite a bit to say.
“I’m lucky to be in a position to comment on the news and have all the resources we have to do it properly,” he said.
“You don’t have to speak English to have sophisticated political opinions,” Chieng, who interviewed several people in Chinese for his clip, told HuffPost. “As soon as I got out of the car, people lined up around the block [to talk to us]. People in Chinatown are politically active and they were angry about what happened. I basically gave people a platform to talk about it.”
The comedian picked apart each offensive portion of Watters’ clip and included informed takes from Chinese residents with translations. The result was a bitingly powerful takedown that went viral around the web.
“Hey asshole, they don’t speak English, that’s why they’re silent. It’s easy to make fun of someone when they can’t respond,” Chieng said in his own segment before yelling at photos of Watters on the screen. “Here, I’ll show you. Hey douchebag, why do you look like a guy who keeps a pack of roofies on him ‘just in case?’”
“You don’t have to speak English to have sophisticated political opinions.”
Asian-Americans across social media chucked up fire emojis and praise hands while they howled with laughter.
“I got a lot of thank-you’s from people who told me that [the way Watters treated Chinatown residents] was how others would talk to them growing up,” he told HuffPost.
But perhaps Chieng’s comedy particularly spoke to Asians because the comedian himself represents a bit of poetic justice.
Historically, Asian men have been emasculated in American culture, media and entertainment ― a practice that goes back to the 1800s, when anti-miscegenation laws and the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act helped limit “their access to heterosexual norms and ideals such as nuclear family formations,” notes Michael Park in a 2013 article in The Modern American.
“Fearful that Asians would establish strong communities, voting rights and gain political power, the Euro-American power structure deliberately denied Asians the ability to establish nuclear family formations,” Park writes. “However, the antimiscegenation and exclusion laws that resulted from such economic and social fears have helped contribute to the construction of the emasculated Asian-American male subject.”
Furthermore, Asian accents have long been used as punchlines in American entertainment. In fact, a 2017 Vice piece notes that the mocking of our accents has been an “acceptable form of racial violence, whether it’s in the world at large, or in comedy clubs in particular.”
“Our accents are comparable to having a lisp or some kind of speech impediment, they aren’t used for authoritative voices,” YouTuber Andrew Fung told the outlet.
“I myself never wanted to make my accent the butt of the joke. I never want it to be, ‘I’m laughing at your accent.’”
Then there’s Chieng ― an Asian immigrant dude who’s confidently owned his strong accent without being the butt of the joke. He’s the one dishing it out. And when it comes to his evisceration of the Watters’ segment, Chieng’s punchline? An ignorant white guy who’d tried to undermine a tight-knit Asian-American immigrant community.
Chieng flipped the script.
But within minutes of kicking it with Chieng, it’s apparent he’s just like that. No part of the comedian’s persona feels calculated, nor is any of it an intentional reclamation of stereotypes ― though some have accused Chieng of faking his accent. He’s even defended it on “The Daily Show.” The comedian explained he’s just comfortable with how he sounds, though he’s aware of how Asian accents have been portrayed.
“Early on, people told me I was making Chinese people look bad,” he explained to HuffPost. “I’ve been living with this accent. I had already been doing standup for a while. I knew my voice already. I myself never wanted to make my accent the butt of the joke. I never want it to be, ‘I’m laughing at your accent.’”
With his many projects and very conspicuous place on “The Daily Show,” Chieng hasn’t slowed down. However, being one of the few visible Asians in American media does come with its own set of stresses. Chieng says that, foremost, he wants to create quality comedy, but he’s also tried to advocate for the community.
“I am the only Chinese person and definitely only person from Asia in the office. I do take it upon myself to pitch stories about Asia and Asian-Americans,” he explained. “I feel pressure to bring this stuff up. If I don’t do it, no one else is gonna do it.”
“Every time I do something, I think, ‘Am I portraying Asian people in the way I want to be portrayed?’”
There’s a unique weight that comes with covering Asian America as well. Because the media landscape has been starved of stories featuring Asian-Americans front and center, Chieng feels the stakes are higher.
“Every time I do something, I think, ‘Am I portraying Asian people in the way I want to be portrayed?’” he said. “I guess because no one has been able to set the tone in pop culture and mainstream [media], so every step you take, you are setting the tone a bit.”
Another issue, Chieng feels, is that Asian America hasn’t quite established a cohesive identity. The term “Asian-American” was coined back in the 1960s by Yuji Ichioka, a civil rights advocate who wanted to form a coalition between Asian ethnicities. With a myriad of subgroups under the label, Asian America is far from monolithic and its culture is still forming, Chieng notes.
“There’s definitely a battle here in America. The Asian-American message is not super clear. Are we trying to tell Asian stories and promote Asian culture in America? Or are we saying, 'We’re not Asian, we’re American'?”
“There’s definitely a battle here in America. The Asian-American message is not super clear. Are we trying to tell Asian stories and promote Asian culture in America? Or are we saying, ‘We’re not Asian, we’re American’?” he asked.
Chieng feels there’s a way to meld the two philosophies together.
“Previously, I thought you kinda have to pick a side, but now I’m thinking ... it’s an art, not a science. You just have to tell your authentic stories and hopefully, it resonates. Whatever your story is, you just have to tell it authentically.”
With his sitcom “International Student,” Chieng is giving viewers a glimpse into his authentic experience ― of course, with a comedic twist.
“It’s so much a part of the Australian story and it’s so much part of the American story ― these students who come and study and leave. In 2018, it’s one of the biggest ways that the East and West actually interact, by these students from Asia coming to America and they interact in these colleges,” he said.
“It’s this meeting point and place in history of the countries that is never told, so let’s go tell that story. And let’s not portray them as the submissive villain or sidekick. Let’s have them tell it from their point of view.”