Kelly Hu: Do Your Own Thing

by guest contributor Jennifer Fang, originally published at Reappropriate

While in Las Vegas, this weekend, I had the opportunity to interview actress Kelly Hu. This is that interview. Many thanks to Cate Park, of Asian Pacific Americans for Progress, for setting up this interview, and of course to Hu herself for agreeing to do it.

Whether portraying a deadly mutant assassin or a sensual Egyptian queen, Kelly Hu appears to be a larger-than-life character: the quintessential warrior woman. For those of us who aren’t part of the film industry, it’s easy to blur the line between reality and this entertaining fiction. I admit – when I first heard that I might have the opportunity to meet Hu during my trip to Las Vegas this weekend, part of me wondered whether she would be anything like the intimidating characters we are familiar with on-screen. Would she attempt to canvass in the chilly Nevada weather wearing the scant costume of The Scorpion King fame? Would an inappropriate remark cause her to metamorphose into the terrifying martial artist that had X2’s Wolverine shivering in his overly-tight X-Men britches? Should I be checking for mutant claws?

It only took a few minutes of chatting with Hu for me to put those silly fantasies to rest. In direct contrast to the emotionally severe women she has played in her most well-known roles, Hu is warm, open, and clearly impassioned.

According to her IMDB entry, Hu is a fourth-generation Asian American of Chinese-Filipino-Hawaiian and English identity. Originally from Hawaii, Hu made a name for herself in Hollywood in the late 80’s and early 90’s as one of a limited number of female Asian American actors consistently finding roles. “There weren’t many [Asian American actresses] to choose from,” Hu notes, listing Tamilyn Tomita, Rosalind Chao and Tia Carrere among her competitors at the time. With so few actors competing for the same roles, “it was easier to get noticed.” Hu also cites her “cross-over look” as one of the reasons for her success: “I could [also] go for roles not specifically written for Asian Americans”.

With that success, Hu has ventured into political activism. In 2004, Hu recorded a PSA, still available for download at LeastLikely.com, about Asian American voter participation. And in a recent YouTube clip, Hu (along with several other notable Asian American faces) vocally supports Senator Barack Obama’s candidacy for the presidency.

I asked Hu: why Obama?

“Obama [is] really sincere… it actually sounds like he writes his own speeches.” Hu is energized by Obama’s insistence on a fresh take to politics, and is encouraged by his lack of ties to the existing Washington establishment. Unlike his opposition, Obama “doesn’t owe anyone any favours. He’s more pure and real.”

After spending a great deal of energy trying to get out the Asian American vote in 2004, (and perhaps being disappointed since it’s unclear that 2004 represented a huge change in APIA voter participation) Hu seems to be reinvigorated by Obama’s influence amongst voters, particularly youth voters. “Obama is bringing a new generation” of young people into the political process; indeed, Obama’s early victory in Iowa included a sizable chunk of new and youth voters. And while his influence amongst Asian American voters has yet to be determined (neither Iowa nor New Hampshire have a significant Asian American population), Obama could be the watershed candidate to shatter the myth of the apathetic Asian American (non-)voter. He certainly was for Hu; she was so inspired by Obama’s candidacy that she “felt the need to get the word out” in support of his candidacy, despite her history of shying away from politics during her early career.

Hu also cites her cultural upbringing — both as an Asian American and as a Hawaiian — for her early reluctance to involve herself in politics. “Being born in Hawaii, I was always in the majority so I didn’t see myself as a minority… Like other Asians, my mother told me ‘don’t rock the boat’ and ‘don’t stick out’. I always worried that I would suffer backlash if I became too political.” Like many Asian Americans, Hu chose to avoid politics out of fear of these consequences, until the sociopolitical realities of Asian Americans overwhelmed these concerns. “Studio executives and publicists all told me not to become too political, but why can’t a person really care? I feel like it’s a responsibility.”

Hu’s story should be a familiar one to Asian Americans. We have a long history of political activism in America, dating back to the nineteenth century. And yet, we still struggle to overcome the traditional adages that encourage assimilation over activism. But, in this landmark moment in American political history, will we continue to hide in apathy or will we begin to take control of our destiny? Hu suggests “for some Asians, it’s easier to keep quiet than to do the right thing.” But here in Las Vegas, more than thirty Asian Americans have chosen action.

Propelled by her own sense of responsibility, Hu joined the rest of the Asian Pacific Americans for Progress congregation here in Las Vegas this weekend, where she spent the day canvassing for Senator Obama. In addition to her support of Obama, Hu is strongly involved in environmentalism because of her childhood in Hawaii. Last year, she ran a marathon in Honolulu to benefit Reef Check, an organization dedicated to the conservation of reefs worldwide.

Hu is also working with organizations focused on poverty and lack of education in Africa. Hu recounts a story about a boy she met in Africa, whom she escorted to school. After walking for twenty minutes, she was shocked to find that the boy had walked the whole time with one shoe. When she asked the boy about his other shoe, he smiled broadly rather than answer that he only had the one. Hu remembers other people she met during her trip to Africa: young mothers who were unable to attend school because of newborn babies, and little boys who lived in huts and owned little more than the clothes on their backs. “We have poor people in the United States,” Hu says, “but you don’t know what poverty is like until you go to Africa”. She is hoping to work with organizations in Botswana, Mali and Ghana to help build schools for poverty-stricken children. Concerned Asian Americans who want to get more involved can go to Think Tank Thuto — one of the organizations Hu is involved with – for more information.

I asked Hu whether she felt her status as a celebrity helped or hindered her ability to work for these varied causes. While Hu felt that she was able to draw more attention to the causes she felt most passionate about, she noted that mostly her status as a celebrity caused her to “be more nervous [and] more careful. I get criticized a bit more.”

“Not everybody gets quoted,” Hu continued. “People write all kinds of stuff, particularly on the internet, and there’s no accountability.” It’s not clear if Hu is alluding to anything in particular, but her point is well-made: our community sometimes seem more eager to criticize rather than celebrate the accomplishments of many of our activists. After all, when Helen Zia led the movement to prosecute the murder of Vincent Chin as a hate crime, she received countless criticisms from the established Asian American community, ranging from derision of Zia’s inability to speak in an Asian language to the same fears of “sticking out” that Hu alluded to earlier.

Despite the pressures of intense media (and Netroots) scrutiny, Hu seems to embrace her political and activist endeavours. She doesn’t seem concerned about the fears over become politicized that initially gave her pause, and she recounts how her traditionally Republican family has accepted her outspoken support of Senator Obama with great enthusiasm. In a piece of advice offered to strong young Asian American actors, she says something that, in retrospect, seems equally applicable to all of us young political activists and to Hu herself: “Do your own thing. Don’t worry about what people will say.”

The Asian American community could learn a lot from that mantra.