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Thursday October 30, 2003

Asian American and Female in American Television and Films: Lynn Chen from All My Children

Althea D. Chang

As a 5-year-old child in a family of musicians, Lynn Chen was performing with the Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus and was at home on the stage.

At a young age, encouraged to pursue her interest in the arts, Chen, who was told she could sing before she even learned to speak, sang, played instruments, and practiced ballet. By word of mouth through contacts at the Metropolitan Opera, Chen heard about castings, and got acting roles in New York City opera houses and even a role in a Broadway musical. Chen came of age on the stage, and who could imagine a more supportive environment to grow up in than a theater full of people applauding?

There were times when Chen was ready to give up the instability of day-to-day and week-to-week lifestyle of an actress, though. It was unpredictable work, with a tough business side. Her parents, who are still her biggest supporters, were a source of encouragement when Chen felt like quitting the struggling artist life.

As a young student in Cresskill, NJ, she was defined by her acting, so she eventually wanted to try something new. She studied music and Women's Studies at Wesleyan University in a move for self-discovery.

She is currently in a band called YPOK2, a cross-genre trio comprising Chen, her husband Abe, and drummer, Nate. YPOK2 performs original music, and they are looking to start recording and performing soon. Music, Chen believes, is more a means of self-expression than acting is.

"I am more careful of what I choose to do because I think it is more of a direct representation of who I am," Chen says. "So while I would probably act in something I didn't necessarily like or respect, I don't think I could do the same with music." But, Chen doesn't see musical performance as a career path as much as just a fun thing that she loves to do.

For work, Chen thought of being a teacher, and she currently teaches sex education and HIV prevention to kids in New York City, now her home. "I used to want to be a teacher," Chen says, "but I realize that I just don't have the stamina for it." So she has stuck with the work that she has grown up doing and has earned a name for herself on television.

With so few Asian actors on TV and in movies, it's a struggle to think of names beyond Lucy Liu, and BD Wong, Michelle Yeoh and other Kung Fu movie personalities. But Chen, with a fan club and various message boards devoted to her former character Regina and others on "All My Children," continues to find joy in acting. Since May, she has been auditioning for new parts, as her Regina has been written out of All My Children. Chen is now being considered for a lead role in Saving Face, a film by Alice Wu about a Chinese-American culture clash.

Unfortunately, being one of so few Asian actors is not without its negative points. There is still demand for Asian actresses to speak with a thick accent, or play the seductress or cold-hearted dragon lady character. But the closest Chen has ever gotten to playing that type of role was when she did a voice-over as a character with a thick accent.

"I felt ridiculous doing it," Chen admitted. Since then, she has chosen specifically not to audition for those types of roles, "because I don't feel like I can do it convincingly," she said.

Being an Asian American in the public eye, of course, has more challenges than finding respectable roles. Chen was disturbed to hear one artist say, "I love putting makeup on Asian eyes." Comments like these have made her self-conscious about being Asian, Chen says, which is the hardest part about being an Asian actress. "It shows that they are not accustomed to working with somebody [who is] Asian, and I immediately feel like 'the other' or that I'm ultimately doomed to become the representative of all Asian actresses in their minds," Chen says.

Regina, the recurring role Chen played in "All My Children," is one of several Asians on the show and happened to be a pre-med student. But before you jump the gun, Chen assures us that Regina is not characterized by the "math/science stereotype." It just happens that Regina is a smart, hard-working student who is Asian.

There are, of course, some roles where people just happen to be Asian, such as the Chen's favorite character, Jenny Wu, who she played in an episode of Law & Order. "She was just a sweet, scared teenager," and the episode was based on a real-life incident involving Asian people, but not so much focusing on their being Asian.

And, Caucasian-dominated television programs and films often have no place for Asians, unless they are specifically requested. Chen says she has been denied roles because of her race, but with a greater number of shows approaching the subject of diversity, she has also benefited from being Asian. Lately, she says that there has been more opportunity for her because of her age, not her ethnicity.

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