“My name is Bowen, it’s an unusual name, but in Mandarin it means scholar and in Celtic it means farmer. So, those translations cancel out to mean administrative assistant,” comedian Bowen Yang quips on the HBO show “2 Dope Queens.”
However, Yang’s “unusual name” is now making headlines. The comedian made history when he debuted as the first Chinese American and only third openly gay male cast member on SNL’s 45th season. But the internet exploded once again after he delivered punchline after punchline as Chen Biao, a Chinese trade representative, on Weekend Update Oct 5.
“I’m basically the Lizzo of China right now,” said Yang as Biao, who was loving the attention and “100 percent that trade daddy,” which was arguably the most iconic line of the segment.
Twitter erupted with reactions to the segment. Dana Schwartzz, American journalist and author, tweeted, “The hardest I laughed at SNL in a long time!!!!!!!”
Musician Lizzo responded to her reference by tweeting her praise of Yang.
The sketch livened up what some thought was a “lackluster episode” and had Michael Che, the Weekend Update host, chuckling at Biao’s over-the-top remarks.
Before becoming a part of the cast, Yang was also a writer on SNL and co-wrote the sketches “GP Yass!” a car GPS with a drag queen voiceover and “Cheques” a dramatic homage to the antiquated use of checks. Both skits appeared when Sandra Oh hosted the episode in March. His other works outside of SNL include the podcast “Las Culturistas” and appearances in shows and movies such as “Broad City” and “Isn’t It Romantic.”
Events leading up to SNL’s new season reopened conversations on race and representation. Back in September, Shane Gillis’s firing over homophobic and anti-Asian remarks overshadowed the announcements of Yang’s and Chloe Fineman’s casting. The racist and homophobic comments were made earlier in 2018 during Gillis’s podcast but resurfaced when SNL announced Gillis as the third new series regular.
Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang also became embroiled in the controversy.
In response to Gillis, Andrew Yang tweeted, “It’s also the case that anti-Asian racism is particularly virulent because it’s somehow considered more acceptable. If Shane had used the n word the treatment would likely be immediate and clear.”
The tweet caused backlash, calling Yang’s remarks tone-deaf as it improperly drew a comparison between the experiences of black people and Asians.
One of the replies to Yang’s tweet came from Frederick Joseph, humanitarian and founder of the organization We Have Stories. He said, “This ain’t it. You don’t have to use Black people and our trauma to make a case for yours.”
SNL dropped Gillis from the cast after the comments resurfaced, but the situation reflects holes in the show’s hiring process.
“We were not aware of his prior remarks that have surfaced over the past few days. The language he used is offensive, hurtful and unacceptable. We are sorry that we did not see these clips earlier, and that our vetting process was not up to our standard,” said an SNL spokesperson in a statement.
In past sketches, the show has made self-aware jabs at its own lack of diversity. In 2013, Kerry Washington played a series of notable black women in a single sketch, comically going back and forth from the stage.
SNL then displayed the text: “The producers at “Saturday Night Live” would like to apologize to Kerry Washington for the number of black women she will be asked to play tonight. We made these requests both because Ms. Washington is an actress of considerable range and talent and also because ‘SNL’ does not currently have a black woman in the cast.”
The show hired their first black female cast member, Sasheer Zamata, in 2014.
Throughout the 45 seasons of SNL, there had only been three series regulars of Asian descent: Fred Armisen, Rob Schneider and Nasim Pedrad. The show, which first aired in 1975, has featured six hosts who were Asian or Asian American. Though, there is now one cast member who can play prominent Asian figures, some people are worried about Yang being pigeonholed or given throwaway characters.
Will Yu, an L.A.-based screenwriter, said he expects SNL to take two approaches for Yang’s roles. “Utilize Bowen in ‘colorblind’ sketches that will ultimately fall flat because of their lack of specificity, or pigeonhole him into bit roles that put his ethnicity on display — say, playing Andrew Yang 100 times," Yu said in RollingStone.
Albert Qian, a journalism graduate student who also works for Annenberg Media, is a long-time fan of Yang and has similar qualms. “I think Bowen Yang is a really talented, funny comedian and I’m excited for his future on SNL,” said Qian. “However, I hope he’s not pigeon holed into playing this one specific type of role...I hope he has an opportunity to use his platform to diversify representation of Asian guys on SNL.”
However, Yang’s casting is a win for both Asian American and LGBTQ+ communities who lack the proper representation in media. Looking at the numbers from Annenberg’s Inclusion Initiative, Asians and LGBTQ characters are among some of the least represented in film.
Asians made up 6.3% of characters in the top films of 2017. And, only 19 out of the top hundred films had one or more lesbian, gay or bisexual characters, over half of which were white.
Although, it seems that this may be changing. The past year broke many firsts for Asians in film and showed an increase in LGBTQ representation in media overall.
“Diversity in comedy is extremely important. Increased representation inspires others to pursue their passions and diverse viewpoints also allow for a greater comedic range," said Maya Zaleski, a member of USC’s comedy troupe Fourth Quarter All-Stars and a religious watcher of SNL.
Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE), an organization that advocates for more media representation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, was thrilled at Yang’s new addition. “Two episodes in and he’s already the standout. We can’t wait to see what else is in store for him on SNL,” said Michelle Sugihara, executive director of CAPE.